The flight to West Palm Beach, Florida was a tightly packed one. Janice and I were one of the few splashes of hair color engulfed in a sea of white and silver and gray: all the snowbirds migrating south to avoid the oncoming winter. While Janice clutched the armrests on either side of her, anxious as only a first time flyer can be, I was wishing I had internet access. I wanted nothing more than to be doing more research, this time about The Gathered and their connection to Passit.
My traveling companion would have made it almost impossible, anyway.
Every time the plane swayed with turbulence, she’d gasp and look at me with bugged out, terror stricken eyes. “What was that?”
“Shane hated flying,” she said. “We-we always drove everywhere, even out to California once. And after Ben was born, we pretty much stopped traveling. Do you think he was scared? Ben. He’s only five, h-he’s only seen planes on TV, never up close.”
I tried to smile. I even tried to make it reassuring. What I managed, though, was probably closer to a grimace. Honestly, I didn’t think Ben was scared. As far as he knew, he was just going on a trip with Grandma, someone who he loved and trusted. Janice was the unfortunate one; she was the one who knew he was in danger. I put my hand on her arm and gave it a squeeze, a far more reliable gesture than my attempt at an expression had been, and she turned to look out the window again.
Normally I would have tried to fall asleep on a plane, I hated being awake in such a confined area, surrounded by people sniffling and coughing and smacking their lips on the in-flight pretzels, but I didn’t then. I couldn’t risk it. I wasn’t sure how those nasty little Fingers traveled or if being surrounded by so many others would deter them, but the last thing I needed was to wind up drifting off to Ibsilyth and facing another of its monsters.
I could only imagine what Janice would think if I woke up screaming for my life again.
Instead, we passed the time by playing a fun game of Mother’s Worst Nightmare: Janice would suggest something terrible happening to Ben and I’d do my west to calm her down again. It was a difficult role for me, especially since I was certain Josie hadn’t brought Ben down to Florida to visit Disney. More than once, I had to shush her and remind her we were in a very public, very closed space, and her simmering panic would only cause a chain reaction that might very well ground us before we reached our destination.
Between the kidnapping of her son and her fear of flying, I was worried Janice might actually have a nervous breakdown before we touched down.
It was with no small measure of relief, then, that we made it to West Palm with little more than some tears shed to show for it.
We were greeted with muggy, hot air even as we disembarked from the plane and walked up the bridge to the gate. Florida apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that it was already September. Janice pushed her way through the crowd, anxious to be on our way, and I followed in her wake. Neither of us apologized: we were now on a mission.
“Bags or car first?” She asked over her shoulder.
The fear that had been so present on the plane had dulled slightly, and in its place a spark of determination had taken light. Now that she was back on her feet and more in control of the situation, she had a single goal, and that was to find her son.
“Um, why don’t you go grab bags, I’ll meet you at the car rental place. Mine was the red plaid with the bright green name tag hanging off the top handle.”
While she went one way towards the baggage claim, I went the other towards the kiosk. A bored look woman was sitting behind the counter, idly flipping through a magazine. When she saw me approaching, she quickly set it aside and stood up with a customer service ready smile.
“Welcome to West Palm Beach, I’m Becka, do you have a reservation?”
“No, I just need to get whatever’s cheapest.”
I could already hear my credit card crying out for mercy from my purse. I had always been so careful about keeping it reserved for emergencies or items I’d be able to pay off in one or two payments. Now, though, I was racking up big ticket bills faster than I’d known I was capable of.
Becka pecked away at her keyboard with long, brightly colored nails. “Just you?”
“Me and a friend. I’ll be driving.”
“And where are you planning to go?”
She paused with a slight frown, her brow furrowing. “Passit, huh? I’m not familiar with that town, give me a second to look it up.”
“I’m not seeing it on a map. Is it near here?”
“I don’t know, maybe an hour and a half, two hours north of here?”
“Are you sure you have the right name?” She asked.
“Yes,” I replied through grit teeth, “it’s by, uh, Okee…Okee-fucking, it’s by that place with the giant lake.”
That was the only thing I remembered from my brief search that morning while we waited to board.
“Okeechobee!” She said helpfully and I nodded. “Sorry, hon, there’s no Passit in Florida. Maybe you mean Pahokee?”
Don’t argue, don’t argue, don’t argue, I told myself to stave off my kneejerk reaction. She didn’t need to know where Passit was or even that it existed: she just needed to give me a car.
“Pahokee, yeah, that must be it.”
“Pahokee?” Janice had appeared beside me. “No, Passit.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I mumbled at her.
Becka retained her smile, although now it had taken on an uncertain edge as she looked between us. “So…you’re going to Pahokee?”
“Yes,” I said.
“No,” Janice said.
I jabbed her in the ribs with my elbow and shot her a withering look. “Yes,” I repeated more firmly.
Janice didn’t argue that time.
“Ok then,” Becka made note of it in her computer. I doubted she cared much either way, she just had to do her job and get us out of there, but the less fuss we kicked up, the better. We already had enough obstacles in our way without losing out on having a car.
After sorting through the rest of the paperwork, we were handed a key for a Ford Focus and wished an enjoyable visit to the great state of Florida. While Janice continued to side eye me dubiously, I thanked her and hurried away.
“What the hell? We’re not going to Pahokee!” She said as soon as we were out of earshot.
“No, we’re not, but she couldn’t find Passit in her computer. I wasn’t about to stand there and look like a crazy person demanding a car to a place that she doesn’t think exists,” I said.
“How could she not find it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Passit except that something happened there that was bad enough for even The Gathered to cut ties. Maybe it’s just super small and they don’t have a sister rental company there, maybe it’s a nickname. We’ll figure it out.”
“What if Marcus lied to you?” She asked quietly. “What if all of this was just a trick to get you to go away?”
I didn’t have an answer for that. I just told her to help me find the tram that would take us to the rental parking lot and our car.
If it was all one big conspiracy, then they’d done a good job. I hadn’t thought twice about getting Janice and I down to Florida as quickly as possible. If we had made a mistake, then I was even more afraid of what would happen to Ben back at White Crow. I didn’t even want to consider it.
We found our car, an older model in forest green, waiting for us just outside the tram. As we handed off our rental slip to the security guard on our way out, Janice leaned over me.
“Hey, are you familiar with Passit?” She asked him with an excited, touristy tone.
“Passit? What’s that?” He replied.
“Nothing,” Janice deflated back into her seat.
Again we were told to enjoy our stay and the booth’s barricade arm swung upward. I had to temper myself to keep from flooring it out of the airport.
With the help of my phone’s GPS, we navigated out to the highway and turned north.
“Do you even know where we’re going?” Janice asked.
“Not really,” I admitted. “Okeechobee, I guess. It seems to be the nearest real town. As good as place to try and get answers as any.”
“Want me to find a hotel?”
Having something to do seemed to help refocus Janice and she tossed out suggestions for places that we might stay in, including reviews and ratings. After we narrowed the list down, she made some calls and got us a couple of side by side rooms at a small place towards the west side of town, as close as we could get to Passit.
“Do you think the cops will think it’s suspicious that I left?” Janice was staring at her lap, her hands entwined into a tight, white ball. “Will they think I’m involved?”
“I think they’ll see it as a mom trying to get her kid back,” I said. “It’s not like they can’t call you or you’re hiding that you went.”
She was quiet for a while.
“Do you think he’s ok?” There was a catch in her voice.
“Yeah,” I said, not adding the ominous for now that begged to follow.
We followed the interstate and its palm trees up the coast for a time before abandoning it in favor of a smaller westward bound highway that would take us towards central Florida. It was a flat state, and the more we got away from I-95, the more empty it became. There were long stretches of open fields dotted with grazing cows on either side of our double laned road. Occasionally, we’d see a mobile home or gates to a ranch set far back down a dirt drive, but otherwise, there wasn’t much to see.
Okeechobee itself wasn’t much more interesting.
It was a small, blue collar town of half empty strip malls and fast food restaurants. The downtown area, which had been labeled historic, was quaint and, quite frankly, one of the few charming things about the place. Janice seemed to share my first impression of it and chewed her lip nervously.
“Why would she come here?” She mused aloud.
“She didn’t,” I reminded her.
“I mean Florida in general. I don’t understand. She never mentioned it at all! You think she’d have slipped up or something at least once. About this, about The Gathered. I don’t get how she kept it all from me.”
I thought of my own mother and the secrets she’d managed to keep.
“If it’s important enough, I guess you do what it takes,” was all I said.
Our inn was a run down little thing painted in a pale yellow that seemed like it was trying too hard to make it appear more cheerful. Neither of us were very concerned with looks, though: we didn’t plan on being around very often. The front door was open except for a thin screen that slammed noisily behind us.
Inside, an overweight woman was watching TV behind the front desk and sipping from a straw stuck in a large styrofoam cup.
“Heya,” she said, friendly enough even if she didn’t look towards us. “You gotta reservation?”
“Yeah. It’s under —“
“York,” she finished for me.
Janice and I both stiffened, immediately defensive.
The woman must had noticed because she chortled with amusement. “You’re the only one on the books.”
“Oh, right,” I flashed her a weak smile. Apparently I was more on edge than I’d realized.
From the way I felt Janice relax beside me, I could tell she felt the same.
“Hey, do you know how to get to Passit?” Janice asked conversationally while I handed over my credit card.
“Nu uh,” the woman replied quickly. “You looking for places to go, there’s some pamphlets on the wall over there. The lake’s real nice, go back east and the beaches are great, Vero’s got an outlet mall. Lots to do.”
“Thanks,” I said.
We gathered up our bags and headed back outside to find our room. A woman, tall and blonde, was standing just outside when we exited and she was watching us with an intent gaze.
As we passed, she spoke in a low voice.
“Did I hear you ask about Passit?”
Janice and I hesitated.
“Did I?” The woman pressed, taking a step towards us.
“Yeah,” Janice said, unconsciously putting her bag between herself and the strange woman.
“Then maybe you can help me.”
I glanced from Janice to the woman. “How?”
She held out a hand and I accepted it slowly.
“My name’s Sasha,” she said. “I’m looking for my sister.”