“This is Lillian Bowan with Channel Six news bringing you live coverage of one of the worst accidents to shake this city in recent memory.” Lilly felt the familiar thrill of adrenaline, a rush from the carnage all around her. Fires burned not a hundred yards away and rescue vehicles were still arriving at the scene as she reported into the camera.
She received the call to fill in and immediately accepted. Such a spot would do wonders for her career. Some situations required diligence and planning to get ahead and others just plain dumb luck. This was certainly the latter because there were plenty of other journalists available on short notice.
“As you can see behind me, massive damage has been caused to the main road. Details are forthcoming but it appears a large section of one of the buildings fell more than thirty stories to the street below, colliding with a truck and causing a ten car pileup. We’re not sure of casualties at this time but response vehicles have arrived and are assessing the scene.”
Heat from the flames tickled the backs of her bare legs. Sweat slicked her feet in the three inch black pumps. She wished she had left the wool blazer off but was concerned her white blouse might show perspiration. Nerves and thrill made focus difficult and her voice was just on the verge of shaking.
Let it. A voice from one of her mentors in college advised her. It’ll keep the audience engaged. When the unflappable reporter is moved, then the emotion is raw.
An explosion interrupted her thoughts, her short black hair tousled from the concussive force. She maintained her footing even as the camera was tossed from her associate’s hands, scattering on the ground in three large pieces. There was no time to lament its loss. Lilly glanced over her shoulder and gasped.
Something exploded near the debris that trapped the first car, a massive pillar of flames erupted upward. The searing heat was enough to take her breath away, and she winced, shading her eyes from the blinding glare of the inferno.
The ground began to shake and she stumbled away, moving without even knowing where she was heading. An alley loomed ahead and though its safety might have been an illusion, the darkness was too tempting to pass up. With the blaze behind her, she rounded a corner and was instantly chilled as if the temperature dropped thirty degrees in a second.
“Look out!” Someone shouted at her and she instinctively looked up. A scream froze in her dry throat as massive chunks of concrete came spilling down toward her. There was no avoiding it, no chance of moving out of the way in time. The fact that her mind was swift enough to think about it amazed her.
So this is imminent death.
A bright flash exploded above her and she swore it was the concussive force of two tons pounding her into another casualty. There was no pain, no snapping of bones or sudden loss of breath. Sweet silence took over from the cackling fire, shouts of emergency crew and cries of civilians clamoring for safety.
Lilly opened her eyes and looked up, flinching when she realized the stones were, hovering some five feet over her head. A shimmering white haze surrounded her like a soap bubble filled with smoke. It strained against the weight but held fast.
“Don’t move!” The one who shouted...a man...sounded entirely too calm for the situation. Lilly looked over her shoulder and saw him there, handsome and dashing with both hands aiming in her direction. His palms were held out and the tips of his fingers were glowing white. “I’m going to drop those rocks just to your left so watch your fingers and toes.”
“Are you serious?”
“Not really just...” he bent his knees and pantomimed shoving something heavy. The rocks lifted higher in the air and were tossed nearly thirty yards away, landing safely beside a dumpster. “Trying to be friendly. Whoa! Keep your head down!”
Lilly ducked as several bright flashes flew past her like roman candles on the Fourth of July. Something singed her clothes, her hair stood on end. She buried her head in her arms and curled into a ball.
A massive roar shook the ground and for a moment Lilly was convinced the entire building was going to come down this time. She risked a peek and saw something resembling a nine foot tall ape at the mouth of the alley. Horns jutted from its forehead and tusks split its lower lip, nearly rising to the glowing red eyes forming dark pits in the thing’s face.
Muscles bulged, veins strained against skin and claws dripped some dark fluid that might have been blood. Lilly looked back at the odd man who saved her moments ago and was shocked to see he was still there, looking...bored? Lidded brown eyes, slouching posture, his shirt partially untucked and his hair wild about his head. He let out a deep sigh and punched the air three times.
More of the flashing bolts erupted from him, flying through the air in random patterns before splashing into the beast. It roared again, stumbling backward, flailing its arms to maintain balance. Her savior gathered himself, tucking his hands close to his frame before thrusting both hands out with a quiet grunt.
Something different lashed out this time, a white field much like what saved her moments ago. It crackled with energy like a live wire from a massive generator. The beast turned to flee but it wasn’t fast enough. The white field grabbed hold and became larger as the monster struggled, wrapping around its limbs, neck and head.
Finally, the beast succumbed, falling to the ground with an earth shattering boom. Lilly flinched again and when she opened her eyes, the monster was gone and the man who protected her was crouched a couple feet away.
“Scary stuff, huh?”
“That’s an understatement!” Lilly cried. “What the hell was that thing? What did you do? Who are you? What are you? How’d you fight it off? How’d you save me?”
“Lord, you ask a lot of questions,” he replied, looking around. “The rescue guys will be here any minute and there’s something you and I need to do before they arrive.”
“Yeah? What’s that? You need to talk! What I just saw...it can’t be real! It can’t!”
He nodded. “You’re right. It can’t.” She watched his hand draw nearer, his finger pointing directly at her head.
“What’re you doing?” Lilly tried to shy away but her muscles wouldn’t respond.
“Keeping you safe.”
“I want some answers!”
“Not for long...”
His warm skin touched hers and she jumped from the contact, eyes going wide. She heard his voice, listened to the calm whisper of his words but couldn’t understand, couldn’t visualize what it all meant. Moments passed…she felt feverish...her clothes felt restrictive coated in sweat and smoke. Shadows loomed around her; a darkness mirroring her thoughts.
“Are you okay, Miss?” A paramedic stood in front of her. She was seated in the back of his ambulance as he tried to fit an oxygen mask over her head. “Can you hear me?”
Dennis, her cameraman, sat beside her, trembling against the wall of the vehicle. She took his hand while fending off the mask, nodding in response to the question.
“The firefighter pulled you out of the alley. You must’ve just slipped in when the carnage started. You’re lucky to be alive. A bunch of debris fell down in there.”
“That’s crazy…” Lilly touched her head. “I must’ve fallen.”
“You don’t appear to be hurt,” he said. “Nevertheless, you should probably take a trip to the hospital. Definitely don’t stand up.”
“No problem but I don’t need the ER.” Lilly looked around. “What happened anyway? Does anyone know?”
“They said a gas main exploded and took out a good chunk of the block. They sealed it off so we’re safe.”
“That’s nuts, I can’t believe it...” Her head felt odd, like she slept too long and woke up too suddenly. The cobwebs refused to be dislodged and the cotton resting over her senses only seemed to thicken the more she tried to focus. “I...seem to have lost my stuff.”
“Is this bag yours?” A paper sack full of flyers sat beside her.
“I’m more concerned about my purse…” Lilly peeked inside. Chabrier Art: restoration, innovation, creativity. “I don’t think this was mine...”
“When things have settled down, the firefighters can take a quick look for your stuff. You won’t be allowed to wander the site.”
“Of course.” Lilly nodded. “Thank you very much.”
“No problem. Just relax now.”
Lilly returned her attention to the flyer. This is ridiculous. I have to file my story! Shit! The camera!
“Dennis, what happened to the camera?”
Dennis took a deep breath before he responded. “It’s busted but I got the memory.”
“Thank God,” Lilly replied, squeezing his hand again. “I don’t mean to sound like a total bitch. Are you okay? You look really shaken up.”
“I’ve never seen anything so crazy before. God damn, that was intense.”
“You’ll be fine. Just breathe through it. We’re good.”
The explosion wasn’t any worse than the things she experienced during her time reporting the war in the Middle East. When the action started there, all sorts of strange things happened. She started to believe she was impervious to traumatic stress but obviously, she was wrong. The fog in her head was proof.
That didn’t mean she’d let this scoop get away from her. Gas main in downtown explodes. It might not be her ticket out of bad interviews and boring re-writes but it was definitely a start. Time to work some magic and get those ratings up. I really hope channel six appreciates this. It’s already been a long day.
Lilly was on a mission. She flashed her ID card to the front desk security without sparing them a glance and slapped the button to summon the elevator. Frustrated rage made her twitchy but she refused to pace, instead remaining perfectly still with her eyes fixed on the elevator’s progress.
“Good morning, Miss Bowan.” One of the new interns came up alongside her. “You’re looking particularly sharp today.”
“Thanks.” Lilly kept her tone even and neutral. She specifically picked her black pinstripe suit to make a statement, a corporate power look to remind her boss she was ambitious. Opportunities were hard to come by and she was not one to squander them.
“I loved the piece you wrote on...on the no kill animal shelters. You had a lot of great points, good research.”
Lilly looked at the younger man who couldn’t have been out of college more than a few months. His blond hair was cropped so close to his head at first glance he appeared to be bald. Pale skin was still plagued by the lingering effects of youthful acne and he was soft spoken, shy. She found her mood lightened by his eagerness.
“What was your name again?” Lilly asked.
“Mark...Mark Sanders. We only met once when I first started last month...I’ve been working with Tammy?”
“Oh, she’s a good choice,” Lilly replied. She had to nurse her indignity. Mark reminded her of herself when she first got started which was a good memory. Still, she couldn’t be soft on the editor. “She covered those riots a couple years back. Ask her how she survived. It might come in handy.”
The elevator arrived and they both piled on, tapping the eighth floor. Mark spoke quickly.
“I understand you did some war correspondence in the Middle East.”
“Yeah, I was there for nine months.”
“Your articles focused on the action. Were you embedded?”
“With a supply unit traveling around the region. The routes were supposed to be safe but we were ambushed twice.”
“So you actually saw combat?”
“From the ground outside of a jeep watching as the soldiers fended off the insurgents.” Lilly glanced at her watch, mostly to express her impatience. “And before you ask, yeah it was scary as hell.”
“I can’t imagine it...”
“I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy,” Lilly said just as the doors opened. “But then, most people don’t take advice. It was an enlightening experience, that’s about all I can say.”
“I’ll bet.” Mark stepped off the elevator after her. “It was very nice to meet you, Miss Bowan.”
“Likewise, Mark. Have a good day.”
Lilly made straight for the editors office, picking back up the rage she lost while talking on the elevator. The man was alone and not on the phone which made her feel a little better. At least she wouldn’t look like a rude bitch when she burst in to say her piece.
Gary Hearsh was good at his job and he had probably taken his fair share of rants from reporters. When she threw open his door without a knock and slammed it shut, he didn’t even have the courtesy to act startled. He looked up with a languid expression, his eyes challenging her to bring him something new.
“I can’t believe you let channel six drop my segment!”
“Good morning to you too.”
“This isn’t funny, Gary!” Lilly leaned over and tapped his desk. “I was counting on that break! It was big news and I risked my life. How could they give it to some other reporter? That jerk wasn’t even on the scene?”
“They weren’t interested in an on the ground perspective. A gas main exploded. What more do you want? It’s not rocket science.”
“I was in the thick of it with rocks falling out of the sky and fire burning everywhere...I could’ve been blown up!”
“But you weren’t.” He paused. “Though I suppose if you had been, it would’ve been bigger news.”
Lilly scowled. “I suppose you think you’re funny.”
“A little bit, yes.”
“It’s not!” Lilly turned away with an exasperated grunt. “I thought you’d stand up for us here and help out! I’m sick of doing menial work. You know, I was taken more seriously five years ago when I was hip deep in wartime stories.”
“People were interested in that back then and what have you done since?”
“Exactly! You’ve got me covering boring local kitsch. I’m not a color commentator, I’m a journalist and I expect to report on real issues!”
“I’ve given you important assignments,” Gary said, shrugging his shoulders. “You didn’t think the financial conference was a good step?”
“No, it was crap! I want in on something with some action. I want to talk to politicians or investigate medical policies...I want to work on a conspiracy. I want something with meat to it.”
“I can appreciate you’re hungry-”
Lilly rolled her eyes. “Cute.”
“-But...I expect you to behave like a professional. I know how you were taught in school because I helped come up with the curriculum. You don’t always cover the stories you want to. Sometimes, you have to write drivel for the masses. I throw you bones, just like this gas main thing. It’s not our fault if Channel six changed their minds.”
“But they own both papers! How could they decide to screw me when I work for them?”
“First off, it would be a hard sell to say they screwed you. You were out there, yes but nearly getting killed doesn’t mean you had a profoundly unique perspective to provide. Secondly, they do whatever they want and they want whatever is cheapest. The lady they got is younger than you are and half as talented. Do you feel better?”
“I’m supposed to be happy they’re patronizing me?”
“You can’t be sensitive and survive in our field, Lilly. You just can’t.” Gary leaned back in his chair. “You have to take the shit jobs and the great ones...and if one falls through, always have a backup plan. Channel six will come around again and since you were so keen to get in there fast, you’ll be at the top of the list. Until then, you know what to do.
“Your assignments are on your desk.”
“That’s fantastic. I can’t even believe this! It’s unfair!”
“Perfect. I can see the headline now.” Gary held up his hands as if framing the title. “Life is unfair, especially for journalists.”
“And now you’re mocking me.”
“Did you expect sympathy?”
“I suppose not...”
“And you’re done venting?”
“Good, then can we get back to work. Maybe we can try me being the boss and you the reporter. What do you think?”
Lilly rolled her eyes. “Is it in the editor job description to be a sarcastic ass?”
“Right up there with six years of college but they omitted having to put up with whiney writers. Go on now, get back to work.”
Gary hired Lilly after she got back from the Middle East. Her time there earned her the credibility to land a job at Modern Affairs, a magazine with a decent circulation and respected enough to be read in several states. Her work spanned from the marginally important to the outright silly but she needed the experience.
Part of her felt entitled to better. She had been through a lot to prove she was serious so having to interview a local novelty store owner or cover a farmer’s market attraction was insulting. The gas main situation wasn’t a big break but it sure as hell would’ve gotten her face and name out to a larger audience.
Maybe I should get back to freelancing...there’s bound to be some trouble somewhere.
The dossiers on her desk were the traditional drivel of Modern Affairs. The name was a red flag when she accepted the position but after reading through several back issues, she realized Gary tried to balance the frivolous with the meaningful. She was hoping her track record would speak to which side she cared about.
When she started the job, it became clear everyone tried their hand at all the stories. Diversity was fun for a while but her passion for the news made it hard. She wanted big breaks and insider scoops, to expose things corporations tried to keep secret and bust shady deals.
One of her professors spent an ungodly amount of time urging his students to be crusaders with a pen. Never let up until you find the truth, no matter how raw it might be. That was his credo. Lilly believed there were limits to everything, including the truth. She defined integrity as knowing when to expose something, not just blindly running around with a spotlight to cast on people’s dirty laundry.
A wave of nausea hit her hard and she reeled, closing her eyes tightly and leaning forward. By the time it passed a couple people were staring at her and she offered a wan smile. “I’m okay,” she assured, mostly herself rather than them. “I think I might be a little shaken still by what happened yesterday.”
The explanation placated her neighbors and they began to commiserate with her, commenting about how awful it must have been. They flouted her bravery and a couple of them agreed they never would’ve gone into such a crazy situation. She’d heard it all before only the war stuff had some kind of meaning. A gas main blowing up was totally random.
The shock of it probably knocked her body into a premature period. That would explain the dizziness.
Lilly forced herself to stand up, ignoring the pain in her gut and the vertigo making her head swim. Her heels made the trip all the more treacherous. Fortunately, every step made her feel a little better, a little more herself. By the time she stepped into the lady’s room, she felt almost normal.
The woman looking back at her in the mirror appeared no different than she had when she left home. Maybe I need something to eat. She skipped breakfast because she was irritated with Gary. I guess I can look at those stupid assignments over a bagel.
Taking a deep breath and turning on her heel, she tried to cast off her morning and focus on the rest of the day. Whether the world was unfair, indifferent or outright antagonistic didn’t matter. She wasn’t dead, just irritated. Discouragement only drove her on and she knew before the hour was up, she’d be back to thinking of the future rather than lamenting the past.