The wind streamed through the window, cool, crisp, and twirled around the car's interior before passing back outside. It was warm, a welcome reprieve from the chill that still hung at sunrise; sunny without the slightest hint of haze as the azure sky reigned overhead; barely a car on the road since it was still early Sunday and most folks were either still at home or at church. Nobody was on the highway, nobody but James. It was the perfect April day in South Carolina.
He rounded a corner and hit the gas again. This was his world, his element, the open highway, free to do and be whatever he wanted. He wore blue jeans and a white tee with a blue, short-sleeved, opened button-up shirt over it that flapped annoyingly in the wind. He still had his work boots and gloves on, since he had just finished doing some lawn work for a family friend. His short, unkempt hair blew about aimlessly; he tried, futilely, repeatedly, to set it straight, to no avail. Rock blared from the stereo while the base shook anything not already disturbed by the wind.
James drove over a small hill, slowing down, getting ready to turn onto the road leading to his house when a girl, in Daisy-Dukes and a revealing pink tank-top, ratty white tennis shoes, and brown hair that seemed to curl right at her shoulders, caught his eye. Behind her was a clunker, a decades old car, crashed into the ditch. She moved her arm about, stretching it, rubbing it, apparently sore from the accident. He blew the horn, she turned around, and he recognized her almost immediately. The three king P's of high school: pretty, popular, and promiscuous. Her name was Jennifer. She waved at him with her uninjured arm and he slowed down, pulling over behind her as she walked back towards his car.
"Fantastic job parking there. I don't suppose you could give me the number of your driving instructor, could you?" James smirked as she frowned and crossed her arms.
"If you're going to make fun of me you can just leave." She turned tail, her hair bouncing as she did, and began to walk away. James swallowed and hesitated a moment, his face warming uneasily as he watched her begin to walk away, before he pulled forward slowly after her.
"Hey now, I'm just kidding around. Do you need a ride?" She continued walking as he followed her slowly along the side of the road. She didn't look back. "Come on, I know you don't live nearby, so I'd wager it's a long walk to wherever home is." She finally stopped again, thought a moment, and began walking back towards the passenger side of the car, getting in.
"Thanks." Jennifer stared out the window as James pulled off, accelerating down the road and past his own house.
"Where exactly do you live?"
"Not too far. Just take a left at the end of this road and keep going for a few miles. I'll tell you when we're close." She glanced around the car uneasily, trying not to let silence settle in. "So you live around here?"
"Just passed by my house a second ago." James thought for a moment, realizing that she probably didn't even know him. "My name's James, by the way. James Walls."
"Jennifer Collins." She was curt; she'd already been in a bad mood when she wrecked the car in the first place and James' sarcastic introduction to her hadn't helped. James took off his sunglasses as the sun disappeared behind some clouds. As he did so, he couldn't help but notice her shuffling about in the passenger seat, constantly shifting position, alternating between rubbing her shoulder and her leg.
"You okay?" James glanced at her repeatedly, going back and forth between her and the road. She stared a moment before she shifted again and reached down into her pocket.
"Yeah, I'm just a little sore. That and I don't have anywhere to put this…" Out of her pocket came a small device, about the size of an iPod, with an inch-sized screen, and a couple of buttons. It was mostly white, with some pink grips on the sides and a stubby grey antenna on top. "I found it in that ditch after I wrecked." She held it in front of James so he could look at it. "It's kind of odd. The screen glows a little whenever I touch it, see?" The screen was glowing softly, with the faint, pink outline of a heart barely projecting itself from the back of the screen. "Do you kn…"
James tensed up, back pressed against the seat, his eyes wide with surprise as he swerved the car left. A loud crack, a boom, and the snapping of power lines burst out as a tree fell from the thin woods straddling the road. The car narrowly avoided running into the chaos as he pulled the car back right, slammed the breaks, and brought the vehicle to an abrupt halt. Jennifer was gripping the bar over the passenger window with all her might, her own eyes wide, holding her breath. A chill ran down her spine as the car began to rock. The wind was blowing furiously and the sky had grown far darker than it had been only moments before. Debris began to fly through the air across the road as James threw himself against the car door and stumbled out.
"Come on, we gotta go!" Jennifer grabbed his hand as he pulled her across the cabin and out the driver's side door. The two began running for a ditch as the trees around them began to snap and pull away, opening like the Red Sea to reveal a funnel cloud behind them. It was a full blown tornado, touched down and headed directly for them. Pine trees slung through the air like twigs, but with the fury of battering rams, crashing into one another and bursting into thousands of tiny wood bits. James and Jennifer threw themselves into the ditch and held each other tightly, trying to cover one another, as the twister drove closer. The black wall of wind, dust, and debris crossed the street as the two were yanked out of the ditch and into the air, screaming in terror, each gripping the other's hand tightly, but to no avail. The wind yanked the two apart, slinging them away from each other. As James lost sight of Jennifer, all he could see through the thick storm was the device, the heart, shining brightly, piercing the wall as if it weren't even there. The light disappeared, the wind whipped about again, slinging the two further away, beyond the grasp of the world, and both blacked out.
"Gilamon! Gilamon, where are you!?"
The TV blared the cries of the animated child, hunting fervently for his strange new friend who had mysteriously run off. It was uncanny how the tiny box could manage to pump out the shrill voice and flood the cramped den of the apartment. It wasn't necessary, as young child watching the show was sitting on the very edge of the decrepit couch, leaning forward, hypnotized to the dancing colors and lights. They reflected off of his sapphire eyes like mirrors. The boy, wearing a faded sweatshirt and tattered blue jeans that should have been disposed of long ago, was completely oblivious to the calls from his mother around the corner in a neighboring room.
"Joey Gladwell, turn down that TV right now!" Her exasperated voice struggled to pierce the blasts coming from the hypnotic box, but finally managed to reach its target. The boy blinked a couple of times as his senses returned, focusing again on the mangy apartment around him.
"But Mom, it's my favorite show!"
"Turn it down or turn it off!" The nine year old gripped the remote tightly as he pressed down on the volume as hard as he could, watching the green bar fly across the screen with resentment. He threw it back to the table and threw himself across the couch, burying his face into the pillow, letting out a sigh of boredom. From the other room he could now easily hear his parents murmuring, arguing quietly, the kind of arguments they tried to have when he was around. It seemed like they were always arguing. He rolled over and looked at the ceiling, scratching his overgrown, dirty blonde hair. He really didn't want to be at home, in that miniscule two bedroom apartment anymore. He didn't really want to go outside either, though—a late cold snap had gripped New York City and plunged the temperature well below freezing. After mulling it over for a few moments, tuning in and out of his parent's argument, he finally decided the weather would be better than the tension.
"Mom, I'm going outside."
"Okay honey, don't forget your jacket."
Joey picked up his coat from the corner near the door, slid it on, and stepped out into the interior stairwell, skipping down the three flights to the ground level as quickly as he could. He opened the door outside and stopped as the icy wind bit as his face, hesitating a moment before pressing on and pulling the door shut behind him. The clouds above looked heavy, low, and dark, like they could just fall on the city at any moment and bury it. Again, Joey considered just going back inside, but the lingering feeling of tension generated by his parents pushed him down the sidewalk. He wasn't entirely sure where he was going, he just knew he didn't want to be there.
Other adults were always taken aback by Joey's independence, his lack of fear or concern about walking alone. Sometimes he'd just start walking and realize some time later that he had traveled a dozen blocks or more from home. Sometimes he'd start paying attention again and realize he had no idea where he was. He never got scared when this happened, at least not too much—he'd just stop in at a restraint, ask where the nearest subway station was, and use the maps there. Once while taking a shortcut down a back ally a stranger had tried to nab him, but was so off-put by his total lack of concern that he abandoned the idea and ran away.
A snowflake landed on Joey's nose and he stopped spacing out, looking up to see a light snow starting to fall. The wind blew and Joey shivered; it had gotten colder since he left home. Only a handful of other people were on the sidewalk, which struck him as unusual. He looked around for a moment to get his bearings, realized he was just a few blocks from home, and kept walking, escaping back into daydreams.
Rainbows, bullets, heroes, demons, open fields and towering mountains, songs playing on an infinite loop to fill the endless imagination of a young child. Day in, day out, Joey spent his spare hours with his eyes glazed over, imagining himself in worlds more entertaining than his own, not entirely unlike the cartoons he was so often engrossed in. The real world was simply unpleasant and monotonous: wake up, go to school, play with friends, go home, eat dinner, do homework while parents argued, go to bed. The spaces in between each action, though, were far more gripping.
The wind was blowing hard enough now that continued fantasies weren't possible. The cold cut through his layers of clothing like they weren't even there as shards of ice beat his face red. The light snow had grown far heavier and more violent. Joey searched the now abandoned street around him for recognizable landmarks, but couldn't find any, nor could he see any storefronts. The buildings were all identical now, slate grey, stone, and ruinous. The streets weren't even visible anymore as Joey began to trudge on, searching for something, anything to help him find his direction. His ears burned from frost and he began to move more slowly; it was so unbearably cold, like the air itself was freezing around him. His breath began to grow heavy as he shook his head to shake off the sudden weariness that seemed to be seeping through him.
Nothing was even remotely familiar anymore. The buildings looked as though no human had stepped near them for decades. Cracks ran up and down their walls, the windows broken, cracked, and shattered. Doors hung weakly on their hinges, battered and rotten, many no longer closed off to the bitter elements outside. Inside, only darkness, if that—some doors simply opened up to wide open space, the buildings they once led into having long since crumbled away. Joey beat rubbed his arms furiously and hunched over, trying his best to find warmth in the blizzard.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, the wind ceased, the snow eased, and light began to seep back around him. The world was pitch white, snow stretching on as far as he could see through the remaining flurries. A single leafless tree stood ahead of him, just past where the broken buildings ended, behind it a high snow dune. Behind him stood the ruins he had just passed, fading into the white fog. Joey felt a rush of warmth run through his body and he shook. Glancing about, Joey, for the first time in a long time, felt the slightest hint of fear, and with it, an anxious anticipation… excitement. He turned around and began running, looking for any sign of civilization other than the destroyed remains that struggled to remain standing around him. After a couple minutes of working back in the direction he had come from, Joey saw that here too the buildings ended and returned to the earth, only fields of snow stretching behind them.
"I'm not home anymore."