The Plymouth breaks down in Shawnee, Oklahoma. It’s just past 2:00 p.m. on October 30th. Jake, the tow guy, recommends they take a load off at the Motel 8 since it’s going to be about six hours to get the piece from Tulsa, the only place in the state that carries the car’s rare parts, and make the repairs.
They take his word for it because none of them ever bothered to study auto maintenance for 1967 Plymouths.
Everyone takes the chance to sleep. Even Connor is unable to resist the soft cushion of a mattress on his back despite his uncharacteristic desire to find his father, and within twenty minutes he is as deceptively peaceful looking as the others.
Cordy can’t lie on a bed with them. She takes the key and leaves.
Shawnee isn’t the smallest town she’s ever seen, but it’s one of the dustiest. She walks for hours, her feet kicking up the dirt sidewalk as she passes home after home with unpaved driveways. She wonders how much time the women spend dusting every day and becomes more tired just imagining it.
Even the pumpkins and scarecrows propped against stacks of hay are discolored with a film of beige.
She is surprised by how much a smile can hurt when she sees an especially nasty cardboard skeleton with “wash me” etched in the coating and right below that “+ new skin.”
It’s a nice distraction. She senses a tiny bit of her body’s poison leech away with the awareness that she is surrounded by absolute normalness.
It is the most relaxed she has felt in the last thirty-four hours when the first vision hits.
Without warning, she clutches her chest feeling the pull of what she is sure is Angel’s soul. She swoons as the essence of him consumes her. The ground that was hard as granite becomes like quicksand beneath her and she falls to her knees.
Her nails break and split as she claws at the ground that, in her mind, is a muddy pit. She can sense him drifting further away but she’s stuck, mired up to her neck unable to reach out to him.
As quickly as the feeling came, it releases her and she flails to suck a sliver of cool breath from the suffocating, dirt-filled air.
The panic that had been slowly building since Connor showed up is now a boulder on her back. She has no idea how close or far away he remains but what she does know is that she must reach him. Soon.
She pounds on the earth and wails at fate for keeping her in this shithole of a town.
If not for Connor, though, they would still be in LA and she is grateful for that at least.
As soon as Wesley cracked the wall around his memory, Connor was instantly anxious to lead them to Angel, although he wasn’t able to articulate why they needed to reach him. Just that they must and Cordy sensed it was true.
How Connor could possibly know the way is still a puzzle to her, but she has never doubted that boy’s tracking abilities. He isn’t able to draw them a map or tell them exactly how much further they have to go, but she knows he will get them there eventually.
For the first time, she has proof that she is right in that belief. Angel is close but where?
It’s now a waiting game and Cordelia sucks at games.
She stands with difficulty – hearing every tendon in her body pop – and brushes the dirt off her knees. Her breathing finally steadies as she checks her watch and sees it’s a quarter to six. She’s been gone almost three hours and the sun is setting quickly.
Stretching her torso, determined to jog back and push the car if she has to, she looks up and sees the stone covered First Church of the Nazarene. Her head tilts like a curious bird since moments before she would’ve sworn it wasn’t there.
“Great, Cordelia. Hallucinate much?”
Large, stained glass windows surround the structure from earth to ceiling. Each panel glistens with rich, gem colored mosaics of lions and lambs, penitent sinners receiving absolution, martyrs in rapture, and – in the center of them all – Mary, full of grace, her eyes sapphires of redemption.
The doors are open wide, a brilliant light streaming through like the tunnel leading directly to heaven.
It’s warm and welcoming and Cordy feels prickles underneath her skin – the melting of frozen bones.
A thought zigzags through her dark, clouded mind like a lightening strike. Her nostrils flare and she breaths deep to catch the crisp ozone trail.
Maybe her faith isn’t gone just misplaced. Maybe God is benevolent. Maybe…
Cordy jerks her eyes to the arthritic hand on her shoulder. Turning her head further, she looks into the black eyes of an age-spotted, leather skinned woman. The deep winkles, the cataracts, the gnarled joints attest to a woman over a hundred years old except she stands ramrod straight. That spine is ageless.
“Three strikes and you’re out.” Her cracked lips split revealing a toothless, rubbery grin. Cordy winces at the rotten stench coming from her mouth.
“I don’t know what –”
“Sure ya do, honey. God and baseball – same thing.”
Cordy hates baseball. She stares again at the house of dualities – love and grace, judgment and perdition. The warm yellow glow ebbs into ice blue and back to gold again. She shivers as she feels the feathery, understanding pat of the woman’s hand on her shoulder.
“Ow!” Nails drag down her back and she arches as she shifts her weight to her toes. Spinning and kicking her leg meets the nothingness of the night air.
Quickly she twirls around and around but the woman is nowhere to be seen.
Her breath catches as she checks for the church and sighs relieved that at least she’s not imagining that.
One foot inches toward the light and beneath her the ground trembles. She hears her name, a deep rumbling bass, rolling from below, calling out. It vibrates inside her like agony.
To where? Her instincts tell her sanctuary but is that in front of her or three miles behind?
A loud whip crack sounds and a dry branch flies at her slicing her thigh. She screams and pivots but sees nothing but darkness behind her.
She circles in place, eyes glued for what might come next.
“That all ya got, bitch?” she screams into the void. “Dennis’s mother was scarier.”
The air is heavy and stagnant like a nursing home’s waiting for its next death.
Cordy glances toward the church again. A beacon. A shelter. She wonders if she can make it and if she should try.
She tilts slightly forward and instantly a whirlwind of dust, dead leaves and pebbles fly in her face, choking and pelting her.
Cordy doesn’t waste another moment for a longing look at the church. She runs into the dark the way she came.
“Where the hell you been, girl? We were about to leave your ass.”
“Stuff it, Gunn. Where’s Connor?”
“Bathroom. He’s the last one. The car’s ready in case you’re interested.” Gunn snatches up the bag of groceries and Cordy hears him mumble something about women, fuckin’ PMS and turning gay as he tucks a stake in the waist of his pants.
He’s almost at the door when she says, “Gunn, wait.” Her back still to him, it seems unnatural but she softens her voice and says, “Sorry.”
He nods. She doesn’t see it, but she feels it, before he opens the door and leaves.
Cordy’s shoulders sag with her exhale. The bathroom door hinges squeak as Connor enters but stops realizing he’s alone with her.
“You ready?” Cordy asks.
He mumbles a yeah and crosses to leave.
“Connor, we’re close, aren’t we?”
He knows she means close to wherever Angel is and not as family. “Yes.”
She grabs his arm as he turns. “When we get there – no matter what – you stay back. You understand? No heroics.”
“No,” he says, jerking away.
“I’m not asking. If it means tying you up again or putting a bolt through your leg, I won’t hesitate. Got it?”
He looks like he wants to spit at her again. Cordy prepares for it but it never comes. He doesn’t say yes but he doesn’t say no. She knows he’ll decide when the time comes and so will she.
It’s another three hours through curving, mountainous roads and walls of green black forests before Connor sits up straight and says, “There. Turn there.”
Cordy has no idea where they are. Since they retrieved the Plymouth and began the drive east again, she has pulled deeper and deeper into herself searching for the clue that would lead her to the answer.
She knows it has to be her that saves Angel. That has always been her mission on a spiritual level but now it’s literal. She just doesn’t know how.
The sign says 59 S.
As soon as they nose south, Cordy gets her second vision.
She names it vision because that’s the most familiar and closest description, but she knows it’s not. It’s an invasion of pure evil. A coiled snake that strikes and takes bites of her brain, learning her weaknesses and infecting her strengths.
When it leaves, she knows better what lies ahead but only in an abstract way. She has no face for the enemy and that bothers her.
“You all right?” Wesley asks from the driver’s seat.
“Yeah. Wes, do you remember the paranoia demon in the hotel?”
Wes glances sideways for a second but he doesn’t detect any nostalgia in the question.
“Yes, what about it?”
“It really had a thing for you.”
He slowly turns and looks at her. In the pale dashboard light he can see her expression doesn’t change, but he is sure it was in her voice. Just for a moment he heard her. Cordy. He looks back at the road and smiles – it’s small but it’s there.
Cordy thinks it may be the last one for a long time.
It’s another thirty minutes in silence before the Plymouth turns left onto 246. The cabin suddenly brightens as the headlights bounce off a wall of dense fog. Connor’s back straightens again – his eyes darting left and right.
“We’re close,” he says.
“Me and my Adrienne Barbeau man boobs are feelin’ that,” Gunn says, unable to stop the goose bumps racing up his arms. “John Carpenter would be lovin’ this.”
Fred stares out the side window looking for anything beyond the mist that will ground her in reality and not the scary fantasies she has swirling in her brain. “I prefer full moons, clear skies and big spotlights myself. Never did care for snipe huntin’ blindfolded.”
Cordy thinks this is anything but a snipe hunt. A fool’s errand for sure, but the snipe is real this time.
“Hey, Fred,” Cordy keeps her eyes ahead as she speaks.
“You still have that dress you wore to the ballet?”
Fred looks across to Gunn, her confusion by the question clear. “Yeah. It was too messed up to return, remember?”
“You should put it on when you get home. Go out again. Have a really good time.”
“Oh? O-okay.” Gunn looks at her and she shrugs still puzzled.
Cordy senses Wesley’s shoulders tense next to her. She isn’t sure if it’s because of the ballet mention or his concentration on the road.
“Go with her,” she mumbles to him.
Wesley’s eyes concentrate on the task before him but his head tilts slightly, his salt and pepper stubbled chin angled toward her acknowledging he’s heard. He nods once.
“Good. That’s good,” she trails off turning her head to stare into the wall of gray fog. She says to herself, “Somebody better end up damn happy around here.”
“Right. There’s a right turn up ahead.” Connor’s arm juts out into the front seat pointing next to her.
Wesley slows the car to a crawl so he doesn’t miss the turn. Within seconds the veil opens enough to make out a dirt road.
Massive primeval oaks coated with dried and dripping red leaves stand sentinel at the entrance. The jagged shadows of pines cut across the trail painting the illusion of an exploded mine field.
He pulls off the road but doesn’t turn in.
Gunn studies the area, glad to have a moment to assess his surroundings. “Could’ve just put a sign sayin’ ‘Evil this way.’ I’m really tired of the creepy melodramatic build up.”
“I always liked that about you, Gunn. No bullshit.” Cordy’s voice is almost dreamy.
Gunn notices. “Hey, Barbie. You still protectin’ me?”
Cordy is surprised to feel something at the nickname. She was sure that girl died a year ago. “Never stopped,” she says even though she knows it’s a lie. But she also knows Gunn will believe it.
Being at a standstill, the air in the crowded car is too stifling for Fred. She rolls down her window and they are bombarded by a deafening pounding, staccato knockknockknocks on hardwood.
“What is it?” She asks, her hands pillowing her ears.
Thousands of beaks ricocheting faster – louder – unforgiving.
“I’m thinking The Welcome Wagon knows we’re here,” Cordy deadpans. “Think there’ll be cheese?”
Gunn reaches in front of Fred and rolls up the window muffling but not entirely quieting the noise.
“Okay, what the fuck’s going on? We’ve been following the human bloodhound for a couple thousand miles now, and I think I’ve followed our psychotic leader pretty well until now. But that? That shit out there is a little more creep than my creep meter can stand.”
Gunn turns to Connor, always surprised to hear anything come from the boy’s mouth. “You agree you’re psychotic?”
“I agree that shit is creepy. But there’ll be more. Lots more.”
The unemotional tone of his prediction gives the rest of them an unneeded extra jolt of adrenaline. But Cordy doesn’t think it’s dire or frightening. She laughs – just one loud burst that makes them all jump in their seats.
“Sorry,” she says. “It sounded funny to me.”
“It’s good to hear you laugh, but perhaps you could hold it until after we kill whatever this is and get Angel back,” Wesley says sounding almost like the leader they once had.
Cordy wants to bust a gut again, but she resists. “Sure, Wes. Not a problem.” She takes a big breath and pushes back the hair that has fallen in her face. “Well, shall we? I don’t think the boogieman is coming to us this time.”
“Right,” Wes says. “Let’s do it.” He turns the wheel toward the abyss and edges forward.
As they pass the gateway, the third vision slides behind her eyes and the how is no longer a mystery. A song weaves in her brain, the minor key drugging and hypnotizing like a mother’s lullaby.
She smiles. It feels like going home.