Nine of Pentacles: Finding Home

Photo by Martin Brechtl on Unsplash

Chance stepped out of the truck, bringing the still sobbing girl with him. He set her on the ground near the truck and crouched down to talk to her, his voice softening as he spoke. “Don’t worry little one. We’ll get you all fixed up, too. Go with Dr. Lydia here, she’ll look at your arm, and you can tell her where you’re from.” Miranda heard the sound of approaching footsteps, presumably Dr. Lydia’s. “You’ll be safe here until you feel better.” Chance continued, “My son can show you around when he gets back from visiting his Aunt. He’s just a little older than you.”

“Hi there,” a woman’s voice interjected, addressing the little girl. “I’m Dr. Lydia, who are you?”

“Katie.” The child couldn’t be more than four or five years old. Miranda hoped her parents were safe in the barn back in Salvation.

Xipilli gave a screech from his cage in the back of the truck. He didn’t appreciate being confined, but he was going to have to deal with it for a little bit. The child needed attending to.

“Well, Katie,” Dr. Lydia said, “you’ve been very brave. Let’s go get your arm sorted out, then you can have a treat. Do you like applesauce?”

The child answered with a small mm-hmm, and the two of them walked away, Katie still whimpering a little. Xipilli let out another screech of frustration.

“I need to attend to my bird,” Miranda said, stepping out of the car and donning her glove.

“Of course,” Chance fumbled with his keys. “My wife would never forgive me if anything happened to him. Will he try and get away if I let him out? I don’t want him injuring his wing any further.”

“No,” Miranda replied. “He might try to go through you to get to me, but he won’t try and get away. He’s not at all happy, though. He’s likely to bite anyone but me.”

“That’s okay. She’d forgive him anything,” he said, keys rattling in the lock. Xipilli screeched again, followed by the sound of his beak hitting the bars. “Hey now, buddy. I’m just opening this up. Your person is right here.”

Miranda put her glove on and stepped forward, presenting her arm to her feathered prince. He stepped up on her arm and started tugging hard at the glove’s leather tassel, breaking it off and throwing it to the ground. “ ’Pilli, knock that off! What’s gotten into you?” Miranda used her free hand to shield the agitated bird’s head feathers as she got back in the cab of the pickup truck.

Xipilli was gripping her arm harder than he normally did—so tightly that her arm was burning. There would probably be bruising in the morning. Miranda couldn’t focus on the turns they were making because she was too busy trying to keep a giant eagle from tearing a hole in the bottom of the glove, but it couldn’t have been more than five minutes before the vehicle stopped.

“We’re at the wildlife lab now.” Chance said, “I’ll come around so I can guide you in.”

As soon as the truck door opened, Miranda was overwhelmed by the hum of live electrical lines and the smell of city seawater. Xipilli was intensely still; he was trembling so forcefully that his feet vibrated.

“Has Xipilli ever encountered another harpy eagle?” Chance asked.

Miranda shook her head, trying to discretely shake away the cobwebs. “Not since he was a chick.” The cobwebs were still there. How long had she been on that truck? Had they given her any food? Water?

“We should go in the front way then. I doubt he’ll react well to his long-lost kin.

Miranda was incredulous. “You have a harpy eagle in the back?” 

“A mated pair with eggs, actually,” he said. “Jilly can tell you all about it. Here, take my arm.” Chance suddenly took on a worried and uncertain tone. “We should get you inside. Be careful of your step. The pavement’s cracked closer to the building.”

It felt strange to be walking on pavement again. As amazed as she was to know that there were still living harpy eagles besides Xipilli, the knowledge that her niece and nephew were still in grave danger eclipsed her joy.

By the time they reached the door, the burning in her arm had gone from the intensity of a hot water bottle to that of an inferno. As glad as she was to have Xipilli with her again, all she wanted was to get him off her arm. The rich scent of rosemary stew surrounded her as Chance opened the door, but she couldn’t take a deep breath. Miranda’s heart pounded as if she were marching to meet her doom rather than Chance’s wife.

A chirpy voice that wouldn’t have been out of place for a teenager welcomed them. “Hi, hon. You’re a bit of a celebrity around these parts. I’m Jilly. The …” The woman’s voice trailed off for a moment the resumed with a more serious tone. “Let me grab you a chair. Y’aren’t looking so steady.” Xipilli jumped off Miranda’s arm in a flutter of wings. Miranda lurched after him, but Chance caught her before she crumpled to the ground.

“It’s alright.” Chance reassured her. “He’s just on a perch over there, just right for harpy eagles. He’s safe here.” The sounds of Jilly dragging the heavy chair across the room rang in Miranda’s ears. First over a rattling metal grating, then a rough wooden floor. Miranda covered her ears with her hands and Chance guided her to the chair just in time. She collapsed into the cushions, dropping the leather gauntlet to the floor. Jilly gave out a horrified gasp and gently took Miranda’s hand. Jilly’s fingers felt like hot coals blistering her hand. Miranda cried out in pain and Xipilli responded, flapping his wings violently on the other side of the room.

 “Stand down, ‘Pilli,” Miranda muttered. “It’s okay. Stand down.”

Jilly spoke to her husband with quiet authority, all trace of teenager gone from her voice. “I can’t test this substance without a testing kit, but it smells like hemlock sap.”

“Where’s the blood coming from?” Chance asked.

Blood? thought Miranda. She was bleeding?

“Punctures on her arm. Check the gloves for needles. This wasn’t an accident.” Miranda sensed a bright light waving in front of her eyes. “Her pupils are dilated, it’s in her bloodstream. Call Dr. Lydia. We need her here. Now.” Jilly turned Miranda’s arm over. “And give that bird a white rabbit.” 

Searing white light pierced Miranda’s consciousness, unfiltered and raw, only to be overtaken a few excruciating moments later by a feathery darkness, a soft smothering as if she’d been stuffed under Xipilli’s giant wings. Something cold touched inside her elbow and every cell in her body sparked at the same time.

Dr. Lydia was all business when she arrived, “Heart rate?”


“Tough old bird.” Got that right.

Miranda drifted. She couldn’t feel her body anymore. It felt more like becoming part of the cloud than floating on one. Was she dying? Was she ready to? She shut her eyes against the sunlight and fell asleep to a lullaby of beeps and whooshes.

She opened her eyes and Jorge was there, standing over her with a worried expression. “My love…” he whispered. She could feel his breath against her ear, and the vision faded back to the anguish of darkness, a darkness so complete that it eclipsed her blindness. Could she go where he did? Should she? She turned toward him in the dark and he was transformed, becoming once again as insubstantial and enduring as her memories. Miranda drifted in and out of consciousness.

Metal slammed against concrete, the sound an explosion of light in the endless expanse of black. The fetid stench from the ocean filled her sinuses. She yearned to cover her face, but she couldn’t move—trapped in a body she couldn’t control.

A man’s sobs pierced the fog in her mind but didn’t dispel it. Miranda recognized the voice from somewhere. She heard more familiar voices and her mind moved towards them. Miranda couldn’t distinguish one from another as their semi-intelligible words punctuated by muffled shouts and screams floated around her in waves.

“…decoy truck… if she hadn’t…”

“…near the spine…losing a lot of blood…”

A woman’s broken cries joined the man’s. “Luisa… little girl…”

“…them out of here…”

A single high-pitched tone impaled itself into her brain. “…coding too…”

Red streaks shot across the darkness behind her eyes, then explosions of white lights like fireworks, then a black so complete that the word darkness felt inadequate.

Her eyes opened to an intense circle of light that beckoned her forward. Most everyone she once knew and loved would greet her on the other side of that light. Jorge was on the other side of that light.

She’d been waiting so long for the chance to be with him again.

Looking back over her shoulder, Miranda was somehow unsurprised to find herself floating. The pristine hospital room below appeared to her in neon whites and garish reds. Miranda’s body lay on a hospital gurney at the edge of the room, in shadows so dark Miranda couldn’t make out her own face. In the middle of the room, bathed in a bright spotlight, a small girl in a party dress lay curled up tight on another gurney. Her niece, as Miranda remembered her.

Miranda cringed with regret. She should have been there for her niece and nephews, but she’d let herself be paralyzed by fear and depression. For so long she’d locked herself away in her cabin just waiting for the end. Didn’t make the effort to find her kin. Denied Xipilli even the remotest chance of having a normal life. Stopped being part of the human race.

She couldn’t leave things like this. Jorge would just have to wait a little while longer. She turned back toward the child and slipped into an exhausted and dreamless sleep.

Miranda could suddenly feel her body again, each aching, oxygen-deprived cell of it, all at once. She gasped and opened her eyes wide and she felt for her pottery whistle. It was missing. She started to sit up and suddenly there were gentle but firm hands on her shoulders.

“No, no, now.” It was Jilly’s chirpy voice that admonished her. “Your necklace is on the table right next to you. You can’t get up quite yet. Let me get Dr. Lydia in here.”

“Where am I?” Miranda’s voice sounded weaker than she liked, “Where is Xipilli?”

“You’re in the hospital wing. Rachel poisoned you. Hemlock in the glove. Dr. Lydia had you brought here for supportive care. Rachel intended to poison your raptor too, but he was too smart for her.” Jilly paused long enough to check Miranda’s blood pressure again. “Xipilli is relaxing back at the house. I had Chance give him a white rabbit, it’s got a light avian sedative in to keep him calm.”

“How many days has it been?” Miranda asked. It felt like she’d been sleeping forever.

“It took about six hours for the poison to clear your bloodstream,” Jilly’s footsteps tapped from one side of Miranda’s bed to the other, “then you slept for fourteen more. Didn’t even miss lunch.” The footsteps were temporarily replaced by the scratching of a pencil on paper as Jilly noted something

“I thought I heard people,” Miranda interjected, “but it was like a dream. Were there people here?”

“Yes,” Jilly replied “Your people had a little run-in with Rachel. Luisa is in the bed right next to you. She was shot during the rescue attempt. We got the bullet out already, but we won’t know how badly the swelling in her spine affected her until she wakes up.”

Miranda reached out to find her niece’s hand. “Other side, hun.” Jilly gently placed Lu’s hand in Miranda’s. It was warm and she could feel a healthy pulse.

“She’s not awake yet?” Miranda asked.

“It’ll be a while before she regains consciousness,” Jilly replied. “It’s an older anesthetic. Dr. Lydia will be here soon, to check on both of you. I suspect you’ll be back with your bird before sunset.”

“Where did everyone else go?” It still felt weird to have an “everyone else” to ask about.

“They’re in the cafeteria area, discussing their next steps.”

“That’s where I’d like to be then.” Mira tried to sound resolute enough to fool Jilly into thinking she was strong enough to go.

“As soon as Dr. Lydia clears you,” Jilly said, not fooled one bit.

“I’m feeling fine.” Miranda insisted.

Jilly’s voice took on a firmer tone. “Everyone but Lu here will be at my house for supper,” she said. “You can get caught up then.” Miranda began to argue again, but even after 14 hours of sleep, she just didn’t have the energy—fighting the toxin had taken all the strength she had. Miranda fell back into a dreamless sleep.

“You have a strong constitution,” Dr. Lydia remarked, placing a steaming bowl of yesterday’s rosemary stew on the table in front of Miranda. “Hemlock’s a nasty poison, people half your age have succumbed to less.” 

“I’m glad to be out of the hospital,” Miranda absentmindedly touched the clay whistle hanging from her neck. She slowly inhaled the steam from the stew, luxuriating in the sharp scent of the rosemary. Xipilli gave out an offended squawk from his perch when Miranda took a bite before giving him anything to eat. “And glad to be with Xipilli, despite his demanding ways. He usually eats before I cook.”

 “Don’t let him fool you,” Chance said. “He had another white rabbit before we brought you home, and two ‘possums. He’s had plenty to eat.”

“He’s always been a bit of a diva,” Miranda replied, ruffling his feathers with her fingers, “but he’s worth the effort.”

“He’s worth a lot more than that,” Jilly replied from the kitchen, “at least to some of us. My sister set up a rescue for endangered apex predators near Mesa de la Simona, Mexico, just before the second wave of pulmonis hit. Harpy eagles and jaguars mainly—a few boa constrictors.” She walked into the living area, spoon tapping against the sides of a metal bowl as she stirred something sweet and cinnamony. “Prey animals are bouncing back more quickly than predators in Mexico. It’s causing imbalances. More apex predators are needed. A healthy, breeding age male eagle is extremely valuable.”

Miranda couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “Are you telling me there’s an actual harpy eagle conservation center still running in Mexico?”

“Harpy eagles and other predators,” Jilly confirmed, “surrounded by a town full of people devoted to working with apex predators.”


“It was a tiny town to begin with, just under 500 people,” Jilly answered. “They got hit early—before communications went down. Most of the survivors were volunteers at the center. They abandoned the towns and made the Center for Predator Preservation the hub of a brand new town.”

There was a knock at the door. Chance strode rapidly across the room, his heavy boots shaking the floor with every step. Jilly continued as Chance greeted the other guests, “Additional survivors trickled in from surrounding areas, and now the population of Diente y Garra is almost 200 strong.

Miranda stroked the feathers around Xipilli’s neck and head and pondered the new information. She barely noticed the small stream of people entering the room.

 “Eagle lady! I’m so glad you made it!” The buoyant voice was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place the young man it belonged to right away. Xipilli gave out a loud squawk and his wing brushed the top of Miranda’s head as he lunged forward. The young man had moved too quickly for Xipilli’s comfort. “Woah. Sorry, beautiful bird. Didn’t mean to offend.” Ah, now she knew. Frida’s brother, the one with the truck. What was his name?

Ah, right—“Caleb! It’s good to hear your voice!” Miranda got straight to the point. “How did you get out of that truck alive?”

“Jacob—and you.” Caleb cleared his voice then clarified. “Jacob found us at the truck. He was telling us about the soup, but then Rachel caught sight of your bird. When she left Jacob took the opportunity to knock out the one remaining guard and started unlocking handcuffs. Released the adults and five of the kids then disappeared. Lu and Frida took the kids we’d released back home. We followed the truck. Your niece came back with a plan.” Miranda’s eyebrows shot up.

“Lu figured out who you were as soon as I mentioned your eagle.” Aiden chuckled, but Miranda detected a touch of a sob underneath it. The swelling from the bullet had crushed some of Luisa’s nerves along the spine. Dr. Lydia had given her a shot to help stimulate nerve growth. Even if it worked, it would still be months before Lu would be able to walk again. “She was a little hard on herself for not noticing sooner,” he said, “but we worked that out.”

“She had a plan?” Miranda asked. She was worried about her niece, but the only thing that could help her body heal right now was time. Time and patience. There might be something she could do about her nephew though, and she suspected that Lu’s plan held the key to that.

“Yeah.” A woman’s voice replied. Miranda guessed it was Maria, Aiden’s wife, who was speaking. “Jacob disappeared so he could follow Lu to talk to her. He found out where the kids are being kept. They’re being used to mine the old landfills off the coast. Jacob got the landfill manual from Rachel somehow—Jacob and Lu worked out the plan while they walked.”

“Does anyone actually know the plan?” Miranda asked.

“Yes.” Aiden’s reply was reluctant. “I know the plan, but it’s dangerous. It depends on an echolocation box, which can only be used by a blind person, and on Jacob being exactly where he’s expected. We haven’t heard hide nor hair of the boy since then and Lu’s out of commission.” In other words, it was a longshot— a longshot with a handicap.

“Tell me more,” she said, leaning forward.

Miranda crept through the abandoned corridor, a dilapidated remnant of the passageways that connected the mainland to the islands that once served as the city’s landfills. The maintenance systems had been mostly ignored for the last decade, but someone had managed to get some of the machinery running. There was an ever-present whine echoing through the corridors. It sounded like trouble. Trouble for someone else, not for her. It wasn’t likely to affect her mission in the least.

She pushed the button on the echolocation box and it started its quiet chattering. In her mind, the sharp edges of the tunnel were illuminated in blue static. Xipilli wouldn’t have had enough room to fully stretch out his wings if he had come with her. She was glad she had left him safely back at the Kennedy-Ponce center. Rebar protruded from the curved cement walls, and the mesh steel grating that had previously served as a walkway had gaping holes in it. The curved floor of the tunnel didn’t show up under the holes in the grating for some reason, making them look like they went on forever.

Miranda had never smelled anything as putrid as the heavy, humid air that filled the tunnel, and she’d smelled some putrid things in the early days of the apocalypse. The nearly tangible scent of millions of tons of rotting garbage wafted through the tunnel from the landfill, colliding with the sickeningly salty air that rose from the sea. She’d have to burn her clothes when she got back to the science center.

 Sweat beaded on her scalp and slid down the sides of her face. She tried to ignore the itch as a bead of salty sweat rolled over the incision on her temple where they had embedded the new wire transponder. It had taken Miranda a few days to get used to the box and the implant that went along with it. She certainly wasn’t as proficient as her niece, but she had learned enough not to run into walls or fall through holes in the grating—she hoped.

As she carefully made her way along the walkway, she fought the urge to get down on her hands and knees to feel the floor. Her new “sight” still felt strange and tenuous,  but crawling along the floor like a baby wouldn’t be at all effective. People were counting on her, people she loved, she had to stay upright and move forward. Miranda steadied her resolve and progressed through the tunnel, half expecting to plunge into a hole with every step. Her ankle rolled a little on the edge of a hole that spanned all but four inches of the walkway, but she didn’t topple.

The blue lines of the walls began to shift and shimmer like moving water as she went deeper into the tunnel, revealing the true sentinels of the contaminated treasure trove—a fast-moving river of teardrop-shaped beetles that keened like banshees when touched by any sort of light. Miranda shuddered. The sound of this many banshee beetles echoing through a stone tunnel could deafen her, permanently. It would only take a single beam of light.

Her fingers touched the familiar grooves of the whistle around her neck. Breathe in—one, two, three… breathe out—one, two, three, four, five… At least she didn’t need to traverse the whole ten-mile tunnel; she only had to get to the control hatch less than a mile further in.

The rumbling of the grating under her feet was more pronounced deeper in the tunnel.  The constant jagged sound from the machinery made it much more difficult to read the echolocation box. The blue lines jumped and wiggled like a room full of kittens and the continuous thrumming vibration rendered them numb. She could neither see nor feel where to set her feet without a great deal of concentration. Lu would have gotten through faster. When Miranda was younger she would have moved forward with more confidence, too, but younger bodies bruised where older bodies broke, so she took her time.

It seemed like an hour or two had passed before she reached the door she was looking for, but in reality, the whole journey had taken just twenty minutes. Time was infuriating like that; making terrible, frightening experiences stretch out but snatching the beautiful moments away like candyfloss.

She brushed the beetles from the doorknob and stepped inside the control room. It had been abandoned for years. Not because it didn’t work, but because the lights would set off the banshee beetles. Miranda shut the door behind her as a precaution and pulled a yard of blackout fabric out of her pack, quickly covering the instrument panel before turning it on.

She waited, listening for her cue.

“Fire!” A panicked voice carried through the tunnel from the landfill, “Fire! Northwest quadrant!” The shouting from the landfill was louder than she thought it would be. Thank goodness the banshees weren’t set off by sounds. Her hands flew across the dashboard, flipping dials and hitting buttons. She’d practiced this part so many times that she could have done it in her sleep. She didn’t stop until she heard the splash from the hatch door hitting the ocean. And now it was up to Jacob. She sure hoped he was there.

The smell of toxic burning garbage wafted down the tunnel. There was no way to know if the mission was a success until she got out of these tunnels and back on the beach. Time for her to go. The trip back through the tunnel went more quickly than the trip in. She was eager to hear her nephew’s voice again and she’d been this route before. It was a relief to step out into the relatively clear ocean air. She turned off the echolocation box and stood quietly for a moment. Miranda stiffened as her hearing came sharply into focus. Chance should have been here with the truck. She heard someone behind her, but they weren’t saying anything. Miranda turned to face the tunnel and flipped on the echolocation device.

Miranda saw the truck, but no sign of Chance. Rachel was near the mouth of the tunnel, however, and she wasn’t alone. Two armed guards flanked her. Three young, healthy, armed individuals sent out to take in one little old blind lady. Maybe she should take that as a compliment.

“You!” The velveteen of Rachel’s voice was sharpened by rage. “It’s always you!” She advanced on Miranda, feet crunching through the salty sand of the beach. “You’re supposed to be dead. You, and your murdering bird, and that little brat you were with! Why won’t you just die?!” Miranda’s hand flew to her whistle but Rachel pushed her to the ground, snapping the cord right off of her neck and throwing the whistle towards the ocean. “You. Stupid. Old. Crone!” Each was word punctuated by a kick to the ribs.

Miranda had never been kicked in the ribs before. It hurt. A lot. Lying face down in the smelly, dirty sand, she realized she was really and truly angry. Angry for herself, angry for her wounded bird, angry for all the children ripped from their homes to sift through ancient garbage. The whining engine in the distance was getting closer. Miranda wasn’t alone. She stood up.

“What do you think you’re accomplishing, besides causing yourself more pain?” Rachel sneered. Miranda took every pent-up scrap of rage and screamed in Rachel’s face. “What? That was all you had?” Then Xipilli screeched in response. Rachel’s face swiveled towards the sound as two shots rang out, one striking each of the armed guards. Jilly had arrived, looking for her husband.

Miranda punched Rachel square in the face, knocking her to the ground.

“Nice hit!” Jilly said as she came up behind Miranda. She quickly handed the glove and bird off to the older woman, then secured Rachel. Miranda marveled once again the crown of feathers encircling Xipilli’s face Chance stumbled out from behind his pickup, clutching his forehead where they’d knocked him out.

Jilly examined her husband’s forehead. “That’s probably going to leave a rakish scar,”  she said, wiping the blood from his eye. “I think it’s time to get home now. We saw Jacob’s boat heading towards the center. It was full of kids, at least three or four dozen of them. Definitely more than just Salvation’s missing kids.” Miranda hoped Jacob’s brother was among those rescued. Xipilli fretted— hopping from one foot to the other until Miranda turned off the echolocation box.

“We should take Rachel here to Professor Kane.” Chance said, referring to the most senior and respected of the Science Center’s members. “She can get information from her. Maybe we can stop this disgusting practice before it spreads.”

“I agree,” replied Jilly. “You take this person to Professor Kane. I’ll take Miranda and Xipilli to the house.”

Jacob had brought thirty-eight children out of the landfill. Twenty-two from Salvation, eleven from Jacob’s destroyed hometown, and five who had been there so long they didn’t remember where they were from. Aiden and Maria took most of the children from Salvation home, along with some of Xipilli’s discarded feathers as a decoration for Fern’s room. Matthew stayed behind with Miranda and Lu. The other children stayed at the center for now, helping and learning.

“You just about ready?” Jilly called from the driver’s seat of a converted RV. It was time to take the breeding pair of eagles back to their natural habitat. Matt burst through the front door of the house backward, holding the strap of his bag in his teeth as he pulled Lu’s wheelchair behind him. 

“Igoddit,” he said, trying to enunciate past the strap clenched between his teeth and failing miserably. Miranda deftly grabbed the bag from his teeth before climbing in their own converted camper van. The back was outfitted with perches galore, and one very large safety cage for Xipilli. She set ‘Pilli on one of the highest perches, then went back to help her nephew wrangle the wheelchair into the car.

“Ow!” Lu exclaimed with that special kind of impatience and irritation that we save for our families. “Can you maybe not hit me in the head with Grandma’s cards?”

“Sorry,” he replied, still struggling to get the wheelchair across the uneven ground. “Still getting the hang of this.”

“Tuck the cards under your shirt, Matthew,” Miranda interjected, lifting the front of Lu’s wheelchair into the RV. “They’ll be safer there.” The two of them latched Lu’s wheelchair into place and Matthew climbed into the driver’s seat.

“Aunt Randy?” Lu’s voice reminded Miranda less of the bold, brash adventurer she’d met in the forest and more of the sweet, practical child she’d been before she’d been thrust prematurely into the role of caretaker.

“Yes?” Miranda queried. She ran her fingers over Xipilli’s head affectionately as Matthew started the van.

“Do you think they’ll let me raise one of the little ones?” Lu’s voice was so full of hope that it made Miranda smile. This was the child she knew. Strong, but not hard.

“Of course,” she replied as they drove off towards their new life. “They would be fools not to.”

This is the final installment of Nine of Pentacles! Stay tuned for new information!

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