It surprised me no one stopped to give me a ride. The aroma of gasoline and burned rubber singed my throat like batter acid in the back of my throat. I found myself in coughing fits. A few cars came close to hitting me, going out of their way to straddle the shoulder. I was on the correct side of the road, facing oncoming traffic, which I was glad for.
My sports watch told me it was only nine in the morning when a motorcyclist slowed next to me. They stopped and turned off their engine. I kept my head low and kept a steady clip. A woman’s voice called out behind me, “Hey, chey, you keep walkin’ and the next person who stops is gonna be the one you want to ignore.”
I stopped and turned to face her. My eyes widened at the thick-built woman with fauxhawk, pastel-pink hair pulled back in a long ponytail. The sides of her head were shaved. She had dark, smokey eyeliner around her eyes and piercings on her eyebrows, lower lip, and ears. Her skin was a bronze color. She wore a t-shirt under her leather jacket, black cargo pants, and old, worn combat boots. Her smile and blue eyes were warm and inviting, despite her edgy outfit.
I approached her and said, “What do you mean?”
“I’m sayin’ I’m offerin’ you a ride and a free breakfast.” She pet her motorcycle with a label emblazoned Suzuki across the side. The saddle bags were packed full and the dufflebag strapped to the back looked ragged. I raised my eyebrows and asked, “How am I supposed to fit?”
The girl chuckled and added, “Chey, you ain’t that thick. You’re the size of a toothpick!” She gestured to my frame. I was smaller than her. She scooted forward a bit on her bike and added, “The name’s Tesha, by the way. You?”
“Lyric,” I replied as she handed me an extra helmet from her dufflebag, which she had to empty of toiletry supplies first. Once on, I made my effort to mount. I had to hoist myself up before swinging a leg over the seat. Tesha grabbed my arm to help steady me.
“Don’t worry, chey, I don’t bite,” she teased as she pulled my arms around her waist. “You gotta hold on.” I was surprised to find all that thickness in her frame was pure muscle. Tesha was built like a tank. She strapped on her helmet and brought the engine to life before joining into traffic.
We came close the Franklinville line, about five or six miles out, and stopped at a diner. As Tesha locked up her motorcycle, I fought my helmet off and checked my gauze. One piece of tape had started to peel on one side from the sweat on my face. Tesha motioned me to follow her in as she tightened her leather jacket around her shoulders to zip it up.
The smell of cooked onions, grilled meats, pancakes, and grease filled my nose. My stomach began to complain. It was a welcome change from the choking smells of the road. Tesha strode to a booth without a window and I sat across from her. She picked up the menu, flipped through it idly, and sighed, “So, Lyric. You come far?”
I started to answer, but the waitress approached us and asked with a smile, “May I take your order?”
“Yeah,” Tesha began. “My good friend and I would like to have the breakfast special.” I opened the menu in front of me and saw the breakfast special at the top – eggs, bacon, pancakes, hash browns, and biscuits with gravy.
The waitress studied me for a second and asked, “You think you can eat all that, hon?”
“I can try,” I replied and added, “I’ll have the breakfast special.”
She took our orders and how we liked the bacon and eggs, along with our requested drinks. When she left, Tesha took a small half-n-half from the bowl provided, peeled back the lid, and downed it like it was a shot. She grinned to herself as she put the trash in the bowl with the full containers.
“Lyric,” she began, “why don’cha take off your hat and relax? I’m a friend. I don’t wanna to hurt you.” Her blue eyes were like inviting pools of water. I felt my muscles relax and realized I had been uptight. I took off my hat at fiddled with the bill. She took off her jacket, her arms rippling with muscles. She didn’t look manly, she was too beautiful for that. If anything, her muscled appearance made her seem all the more safe, like a mother bear.
“Where’re you from, chey?” she asked as she leaned her elbows on the table.
“I’m … from …” I hesitated, staring at my hat. The barrel racing girl had a steely look about her face, even though there was no face embroidered there to see. I turned the hat around and only found a date and the name of the rodeo I had attended. “I’m not sure,” I whispered, a defeated feeling cascading over me.
Tesha’s eyes softened and she asked, “How can you not be sure?”
I placed the cap on the table next to me and thought for a moment. There was every reason not to tell Tesha. She could hate Riders. Yet her helpfulness so far gave me hope she might listen.
So I whispered to her my predicament, first starting with my stay at the institute and my becoming a Dragon Master. I realized, as I said it, I may have killed an elf. My choices killed another man. I couldn’t look Tesha in the eye as I told her everything.
I teared up as I finished, “I might never find my parents. I’m not even sure I’m still in the right state. I don’t know what prison they’re in or if they’re even in the state we came from.” I pulled out the photo of my parents and pushed the photo forward to her. “This is all I have of them.”
She put a hand on mine and I looked up to meet her eye. Her face was full of grief and something else I couldn’t place. “Chey, its alright. Don’t blame yourself. Please.” Anger came across her face and her free hand clenched into a fist. She seemed to stare through me, as if envisioning the people responsible for my suffering. “Those bigots at that institute are to blame. That Dr. Graham fella had every right to stand up for what he believed. They punished you for somethin’ your parents chose and somethin’ you chose.” She focused on me and gave me a small smile. “Everybody has a right to choose who they are and all that deep stuff. Worst, they stole your memories. That’s a low blow.”
She relaxed and grabbed another half-n-half to down. She picked up the photo I left on the table and raised her eyebrows. “So, this is a dragon, huh?” She paused to think. “They look big and strong, but they remind me of somethin’. Not sure what.”
The waitress brought our drinks and left promptly, reassuring us our food was on the way. We nodded our thanks and Tesha flipped the photo over. “Huh, well! I know where this lake is!”
“Aw, yeah, chey. Tiber is a lake in Montana – real popular tourist destination. I’m sure I can help you get there. Maybe its a place to start. Jog your memory?”
I shook my head. “No, that’s alright – I’ll have a way there soon. My dragon should be coming any day now. I just have to get to somewhere safe for us to bond. Once he comes, I’ll fly there.” I’d need a map. There was no sense in her going out of her way for me.
“Right,” she said slowly, her brow wrinkling a little. She perked up and asked, “Hey, you want me to read your fortune?”
I knitted my brow and asked, “I’m sorry?”
“You know, read your fortune?” she grabbed her jacket next to her and pulled out a wooden cigarette box that slid open on the front. She pulled out a deck of cards with royal purple backs with embossed gold designs. However, the paint was faded, the gold chipped off, and the edges yellowed and feathered from use. “I read all friend’s fortunes I meet along the way. My bunica taught me how to use them.”
I considered this a moment. Wasn’t there something about … in … ? I rubbed my forehead with my fingers, trying not to show my pain as the headache came on to remind me of the gaps in my memories.
Of course, I needed to be polite. I smiled and nodded. “Sure, read away.” In my mind, I prayed to the Light there would be a message or some way he could point me in the right direction.
“I have a small spread for a quick reading.” She wiped the table with her arm and asked, “Do you have a specific question in mind?”
I frowned. What should I ask the cards? Would I find my parents? Find a home? Die before I’ve done something great? Would I even make a difference in someone’s life? At least, a positive influence. Or would my actions cause more people to die?
I gave Tesha a helpless look and asked, “What do you think I should ask?”
She shrugged and said, “Let’s ask if you find your parents? That’s a place to start.”
She shuffled the cards, whispering under her breath to herself, and then placed three cards side by side, one after the other.
The images were faded and spotty, but it was a little easier to see with the talisman lamps above us. There was a man in the clouds with a wheel around him, a card with a skeleton riding a horse, and a horned man dancing on a graveyard. Tesha wrinkled her brow. “Well, the Wheel of Fortune here and Death here,” she pointed to the man with the wheel and the skeleton on the horse respectively. “They represent major changes, especially together. But the Devil in the middle. That’s tricky.” She rubbed her chin.
“What does that mean?”
She shuffled her cards idly. “I get the feeling the cards say you’ll find ’em by luck, but it won’t be what you’d expect. There’ll be hurt that follows the reunion. And a lot of change for all of you.” Her mouth became a line. “I suppose that makes sense, right? You haven’t seen ’em in two years, feelin’s are bound to come up. Plus, no tellin’ what they’ve undergone in prison.” She paused and returned the cards to the pile.
“What about me?”
“You’ll have to be a bit more specific, chey,” she informed with a small smile.
“Uh, what about my future as a Dragon Master? Will I make a difference?”
“I’m sure you will,” she chuckled, “but its worth a look, yeah?” She shuffled the cards and laid them out again. This time, it was a medieval tower, a painting of earth, and a star. Tesha hesitated, her face hard to read. “Uh. Well.” She paused, her hand over the medieval tower. “That’s a tough one. But the World and the Star are good signs, the World meaning you’ll accomplish great things. The Star signifies healing.”
“And the tough one?”
Tesha’s face saddened as she explained, “I believe what this says is you are going to be split. You will sacrifice as much as you gain on your journey. Your world will be turned upside down and you will face hardships most won’t. Events will happen that will break any other person.” She paused. “Find joy in the small things and hold fast to what you believe, chey. There are people out there who won’t like to see you happy.”
She raked her fingers through her fauxhawk and sighed as she put the cards back into the deck. “Any other questions?”
I paused and dug around in my head. The waitress brought our hot plates and placed them on the table, careful not to bump the cards. She told us to let her know if we needed anything and left. My stomach growled in protest at the smell of the meat and onions. Tesha started to eat.
I remembered one question. “There is one person I remember clearly from my childhood.” I paused and pulled out the sonogram picture. “I don’t think they thought those memories were important enough to take away, because everyone thinks she’s dead.”
Tesha’s brow really wrinkled this time as I handed the image to her. She raised her eyebrows and glanced at the back. “Finn and Lyric,” she read. “Twins.” She gave me a skeptical look.
“I know it sounds crazy, but when I was little, I had this imaginary friend. Her name was Finn. I didn’t know about my twin when I was little and eventually, my parents told me about her. She was killed by a nurse who thought she was possessed or something crazy like that. But I feel like she’s not dead. Could, maybe, the cards say something about her?”
Tesha put her plate off to the side and said, “Its a mystery worth looking at.” She shuffled the cards and laid them out in threes. A jester, a cup, and a woman in a shroud. “Well, that’s about what I expected,” she said as she took a bite from a strip of bacon.
“The Fool is unexpected and a surprise. The Ace of Cups with the Fool means you’re going to have an unexpected relationship. And the High Priestest means you might end up going in circles if you try to get any clear information.” She paused and rubbed her forehead. “What I think its saying is, yes, you will find your sister. But don’t expect her to be what you think. She’ll be a wild card, a game changer, and will probably force you to face things you might not have expected, either. Your twin will challenge the norm.” She frowned. “She’ll be a handful, at the least.”
“But she’s alive?”
Tesha nodded her confirmation. Relief washed over me – at least I had a chance to find her. Then again, Tesha could have been lying to make me feel better. It was easier to believe her.
“Usually people ask me to read their romantic lives. This is some heavy stuff you got me going through. Oi.” She shuffled the deck once more and put it away. “You don’t want me to read your romantic life?” she asked, not closing the wooden box.
“Uh, no. I’m alright. I think this is plenty to go on for now.”
Tesha cocked her head back and laughed aloud. I gave a sheepish grin in return and we resumed our eating in silence. The biker looked a little more exhausted than when we had come in, but emptying her plate seemed to make her feel better.
Tesha called the waitress over for the bill and produced from her baggy cargo pants a wad of bills curled inside a rubber band. My jaw dropped as she counted out the cost and tip, which was $100. She then left another tip in the jar on the bar with a nod to the waitress behind it.
We strode out to the motorcycle. Tesha set to unlocking it while I waited on the sidewalk. I noticed a patrol car on the other side of the parking lot and glanced at the diner window. There sat a sorcerer-officer with another policeman in the diner booth. They faced one another, the non-magical officer carrying the conversation, while his counterpart simply nodded and said single words with an emotionless face cut from steel.
I turned around and lowered my hat over my eyes while I kicked a loose wrapper someone had dropped, trying to look normal. Just an angsty teenager waiting on her sister to unlock her bike. Nothing unusual.
I felt the gauze one more time to make sure it was secure before replacing my hat with the helmet as Tesha put hers on. We mounted the bike and continued our way to Franklinville.
Traffic was minimal, as it was not quite lunchtime. We weaved between cars as fluidly as water between rocks. The skyscrapers on the horizon grew larger and larger until they finally towered over us.
The smell of sea salt was dominated by the smell of the engines. Buildings of all sizes and shapes clustered close tall, short, fat, and narrow with shapes of spires, rectangles, squares, and monoliths. They were built from glass, metal, and concrete. Each one clean. Each of them foreign to me.
I found myself reading signs to places and not fully comprehending what I read. I might have mistaken restaurants for gas stations or retail stores if not for the billboards advertising their specials and latest menus. Other signs I was simply at a loss for.
How did I know things and yet not know others? How was it I knew facts, but had no memory or evidence to back up the fact or know where I obtained the fact? Dr. Thustra’s face came back to me and I remembered that look that frightened me. Had he been alarmed by the state of my mind and frightened for me? If I had remained there, would they have helped me?
No, I decided. They would have done something else to me or messed up my mind further.
We pulled up to an intersection, waiting for the stoplight to change. The truck next to us had loud, thrumming music interchanged with high pitched sounds. I glanced up at the driver inside, a whole world away from me as he bobbed his head to the music and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.
Tesha moved forward on the green light. I turned my head in time to see a big, black grill headed straight for us at a high speed.