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Queen of Swords (Teaser) Jul. 11th, 2010 @ 04:07 pm
Queen of Swords

I had promised myself never to wait by the door for another man, and least of all for Damien Frost, who had once held cold, sharp steel against the tender, white under part of my throat and laughed. But, I needed him now more than ever, and he had agreed to come when I called. If I had not become involved with the Nightkind, in all their danger and splendor, then the burning gaze of some invisible enemy would not now haunt my best friend, Naomi’s, dreams. Naomi was helpless now without the ability to see the world of the Nightkind, and Damien Frost had promised me a gift to her of the dark sight. All his gifts come with a price, usually a price too great to pay, but for Naomi’s life I knew I must take the risk.

The temperature plunged suddenly to an arctic chill, and before my eyes, frost painted silvery cracks on the windows. The three-note chime of my front door bell was unnecessary; the cold had warned me already of Damien’s presence. I hugged my arms around my chest and wished for one of the warm, shapeless sweaters Naomi knits. Then I opened the door. As always the sight of him made me gasp. His hair hung long around his face like a lion’s mane in silver and his skin glistened with a layer of ice. His dark cloak hid his body from me, but I remember well the play of muscles beneath his snow-white skin, and the way his hands felt stroking my body, so cold, but burning with fire underneath.

He smiled at me in a way both predatory and erotic like the side of a blade caressing skin. His midnight blue eyes pierced mine. I spoke quickly to hide the anger and desire warring in my breast.

“Do you have what I asked for? The Oracle said you would be the only one who would know.”

He smiled again and reached into his dark cloak, which gave me a momentary glimpse of the vials of swirling liquids of all colors, of the glittering knives, and of the strange amulets he kept hidden within its folds. I raised my hand to the faint scar that traced my throat like a red necklace, and he placed into my other hand a yellowing scroll sealed with white wax. Our fingers touched for a moment and I could feel again the volcano roaring beneath his glacial skin. I drew back and turned my thoughts again to Naomi tormented by dreams she could not understand and pursued by a monster she could not see, unable to take solace even in her beloved library.

“Will it work?” I asked him, my voice strong and determined.

“If you perform the spell correctly, but that is up to you, not me.”

I nodded assent. “Name your price, Damien.”

He smiled again and spoke softly. “Nothing,” he said and turned to leave with his cloak swirling around him.

I knew I should not call after him, but I curiosity has always been my downfall.

“You always charge for your services. What makes this time different?”

He reached the door and then turned to face me.

“I’m doing this for you,” he said, his voice suddenly soft.

“What do you mean?”

Suddenly he was in front of me again with his sharp teeth inches away from my face and his eyes wild. He had never looked in all the time I had known him more like a demon than at this moment. “If you tell anyone what I say to you now, I will ensure you die, and die painfully.”

I gulped and nodded.

His breath was in my ear like a cool breeze then and he said the words that I had never expected to hear from him. “I’m in love with you, Ana Norton. I have always been in love with you.”


* * *

I cleared my throat and stopped reading out loud, “Anyway, that’s the last few pages of Midnight Blue by Kaye Witherspoon. Now do you see why we have to go to the reading? It ends with a cliffhanger and book ten won’t be out for months.”
Chase, stretched across three different subway seats next to me, swiveled to face me, “Admit it. You’re here because you totally have a crush on Damien Frost.”

“I do not. You’re the one who’s into blonde and broad shouldered. You’d date Conan the Barbarian if he were gay.”

Chase sat up. “He’s fictional, Robina. You can’t date fictional people.”

“I heard about this guy in Japan—“

“I do not want to hear about your guy in Japan and whatever seriously creepy thing he did.”

“He’s not my guy in Japan and all he did was—“

“Oh my God, Robina look over there.” He pointed to where five guys dressed as Tetris pieces were struggling to pull their cardboard box-suited selves through the door.

I knocked his arm down with my elbow. “Why couldn’t we wear costumes, again?”

“Because costumes make you look stupid. Case in point.” He started pointing again at the Tetris pieces who were trying to sit down without denting their cardboard boxes.

“Very funny, Chase. Sometimes I think you just don’t get Cons. You’re supposed to look stupid. It’s a bonding thing.”

“Sometimes I think you just don’t get skirts. Put your knees together, Rob. I do not need to know about your Sailor Moon underpants.”

An old lady with the kind of purple hair old ladies get when they think they’re dying their hair auburn glared at us over a folded newspaper. We giggled and ignored her, but got off when it started getting crowded. The convention center was only a few blocks away. I glanced over at Chase and then started running. I could already hear what sounded like lute music coming from up ahead.

The Fantasy One Convention happens every year, but this was our first time going. The weekend it usually happens has, up until this year, been the same as the big all-state fencing tournament that my team always goes to. If I want to make captain of women’s epee next year, I can’t exactly miss a match. So, it was a serious stroke of luck that whoever runs the convention moved it over a week. It was also pretty lucky that Chase had remembered to buy us tickets online ahead of time. The walk-in line went around the block.

The convention center rose about six stories above us, painted the sort of color that no one remembers, but no one can object to. The sort of color you can’t find even in the 365 box of crayons, a sort of no-color, like ecru or taupe. Above the double doors, embossed in white, were the words “Convention Center,” in case someone couldn’t tell just by looking at the surprisingly hairy man dressed as Princess Leia, Cinnabun hair and all, or the Tetris boys desperately trying to navigate the revolving doors without squashing their boxes.

“So what’s our goal here?” asked Chase, looking skeptically at Princess Leia’s chest hair.

“Well, ideally, for me at least, I’d like my manuscript to somehow fall into Kaye Witherspoon’s hands and for her to love it so much she gives it to her publisher and I become a famous author. How about you?”

“The same.”

“You want to be a famous author? I thought you wanted to major in psych and do experiments and stuff.”

“I do. I meant I want you to meet your favorite author and impress her and get all famous. Also, I’d maybe like to score a date. It’s been over a month since Alex dumped me and there are, like, five guys over there dressed as Spock.”

“Where? I can’t see.” The crowd had closed in around me and most of my field of vision was cut off by the back of some girl’s corset top. Chase, being six foot two with a couple extra inches on top for the afro, stood high above the press of people. I, five foot two on tip toe, and only then in my tallest pair of combat boots, was in danger of being trampled by it.

Chase pointed, but I still couldn’t see. “Hey, Chase, I’m suffocating down here. I’m going to head to the front.”

“How? In case, you hadn’t noticed, we’re in line.” To underscore his point, a group of guys a few feet back began belting out ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall a Capella.

“You know how.”

Chase smacked himself on the forehead. “Rob, don’t. One of these days your going to get yourself trampled.”

I grinned, “But today is not that day!” Head down and elbows out, teeth gritted I charged forward into the crowd. My strategy worked on the principle that no one likes being elbowed in the kidney or having their foot stepped on by a tiny little girl in fishnets, but most people are too polite to do anything about it. It was a good principle, and with a minimum of bloodshed, I made it to the front of the line and clean air.

The woman at the desk glared at me, but put her hand out to accept my ticket. I searched the pockets of my hoodie, but found only candy wrappers, lipstick, and half a number two pencil. The gatekeeper put on her sternest face, prepared to have me booted no doubt, when the cavalry arrived. Or at least Chase did, with some seriously crumpled tickets. He handed them over and the two of us filled out the nametags on our passes and walked in to heaven.

An elderly couple played medieval-looking lutes at the entrance and past them I could see a woman selling roses dipped in black dye and clothes made of crushed velvet and lace. Anime played on three different screens in the back, bathing the room alternately in red, blue, and green light.

“Come on, Rob. There are some event books over here.” He picked one up and rifled through, reading occasionally. “Ooh, they’re play-testing Dune Online. Oh and there’s a book signing by that author you hate.”

“That guy who always writes about dragons?”

“Yeah, him.”

“And look—“

“Chase, how the hell did you follow me through the line? I was kind of blazing a trail for one.”

“Oh, I just told them that if they let me get to you, I’d get you to stop hurting them.”

“No, seriously, Chase.”

“Robina, we were, like, ten seconds from the front. I got there by – and here’s a novel concept – waiting in line like everyone else. I almost beat you to there. You were going the wrong way for about half the time.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry. You’re stupid, so you can’t really help doing stupid stuff sometimes.”

“Asshole.”
“Rob, enough. This is really important. Did you see any of the Spocks while you were coming up here?”

“Yeah, I think I head-butted one of them.”

“Why the hell did you do that?”

“He was looking down my shirt. He might have been drooling.”

“So, my chances aren’t looking good?”

“You’re pathetic.” I started walking further into the convention, beckoning for Chase to follow.

“Wait, Robina. I’ve found something seriously cool. They’re screening all the Star Trek movies in order in the lounge. They’re even doing Wrath of Khan with a live cast like Rocky Horror.”

“You’re really pathetic.”
“You know you love me.”

“Of course I do. Why else would I have put up with you all this time even though you stole my green train car in preschool?”

Chase laughed. “I still contend that the green train car was mine. Yours was the pink one because you’re a girl.”
I stuck out my tongue. “I’m going to wander around the vendors for a bit, I’ll come grab you out of the Trek-a-Thon when its time to go see Kaye Witherspoon read.”

“Deal.” We shook on it and he started to walk away, pulled like an iron filing to the irresistible magnet of Star Trek.

I called after him, “I think I’m going to get a sword. Every fencer should have one.”

He called back without turning around, “You have no idea how many ways this is a bad idea.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure I do.”

As a self-respecting swordswoman, I’d decided on a few rules for sword shopping. First and foremost, don’t buy a sword with a hilt that looks like a dragon, a unicorn, or a faerie. Second, and almost equally important, no swords with glass beads on the pommel trying to look like oversized diamonds. Third, never buy a sword at a convention from someone dressed up as a medieval knight, and definitely don’t buy a sword from a balding Klingon. I wanted something with a good balance and heft, something that looks like you could use it in a fight. Even if I was only going to hang it on bedroom wall, since, unfortunately Fantasy One had its own policy about swords – nothing that could be used as an actual weapon could be sold on premise.

Due to my, apparently unusual, desire to own a sword that looks like some type of sword, it took me almost an hour to find what I wanted in a booth in the back. It was perfect – a rapier that looked kind of like my epee, but more badass, with the hilt in a darker sort of metal. The guard fit over my hand perfectly and the balance felt natural, if heavy, compared to what I was used to. I made a few experimental thrusts out into a relatively clear part of the vendors’ area, before the shake of a security guard’s head warned me of the penalty of sword play. I bought the sword with most of the money from the absolutely disastrous month where Chase got me a job at the Dairy Queen. The steel wasn’t exactly high quality, I couldn’t afford that, and it’d probably break if I actually tried to use it on anyone, but so what. I felt like a mini-skirt wearing Cyrano de Bergerac with my sword sticking about a foot up out of my backpack.

I checked my watch. Still plenty of time before Kaye Witherspoon’s reading. Damn. I looked around for something to do and that is when I saw the fortune teller’s booth. It wasn’t decorated the way you’d think, no red and purple brocade, no crystal ball, no candles dripping, no feathers, or leaves, or fake skulls, not even any poorly thought out attempts at multi-culturalism. Even the sword-seller had a green drop cloth and a banner with a fake heraldic shield of crossed swords and a lonely, awkward-looking axe at the bottom. But this table was plain white, making no attempt to hide the blue-pen incisions and bored pencil-doodles of countless vendors before her. The only thing on the table was a deck of Tarot cards in a clear Ziploc bag.

After the past hour of purples and golds and women in chainmail bikinis paid to stand around in front of booths, the plain table was a sight for sore eyes. I sat down in the rickety plastic chair across from the fortune teller and looked over at her. She was probably the most unusual person I had ever seen. It wasn’t her clothes, like you might expect. She was wearing jeans that were a little worn out at the knees and a t-shirt I’d seen on sale at the Gap a couple weeks back. It was everything else.

Her hair looked long enough to sit on – something I’ve never managed to get my hair to do – but it was pure white, not pale blonde, or fading gray, but a total white. Her skin was white, or rather nearly transparent; I could see the blue veins hovering under the surface like a treasure map or the blueprint of an unbuilt house.

The top half of her face was covered by those thick, dark sunglasses that go all the way from hairline to nostril and wrap around behind the ears that blind people and severely fashion-challenged old people sometimes wear. If she was albino, it would make sense that she’d be extra photosensitive. So, the glasses made sense. I just hoped she could read the cards through those things.

I suppose she looked at me for a little while, I couldn’t really tell. Then she spoke almost in a whisper.

“Hello, Robina Cooper.”

I jumped slightly in my seat, unnerved at her, of all people, knowing my name. “How did you…?”

“Your name is on your nametag, Robina.”

I looked down. Robina Cooper in black felt tip marker looked back at me. I’d dotted the “i” with a little drawing of a skull. The “o”s in Cooper were supposed to be eyeballs, but Chase said they looked more like boobs. I’m not really sure why he should be the expert on that one, though.

“Robina Cooper, you came here to see your future, did you not?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess so. I do some Tarot reading at home, but I’m not very good at it and I’ve never been read by a professional before.”

“You’ll find it’s quite simple, though my methods are not exactly standard. Is that acceptable?”

“Sure.”
She opened the Ziploc bag and held the cards for a moment in her hands, then passed them, still warm, to me. “Shuffle the cards any way you want. Let all the possibilities occur and recur between your hands. When you are ready, select one.”

I tried to do this really smooth looking shuffle and bridge that my Dad had taught me ages ago, but these cards were bigger than I was used to and slipped out of my hands, scattering. I grimaced.

“Don’t worry,” said the fortune teller, “You haven’t hurt them.” Her face was turned to the cards on the floor. I stumbled out of seat and picked up the fallen cards and shuffled them gently back into the deck. After another couple rounds, I felt ready and drew out a card.
I could see a woman in a crown with long brown hair. Her eyes looked sad, as if gazing after something lost, but her mouth was firm and resolute. In her hands she clasped a sword and a spray of roses. Underneath I could see the legend, “The Queen of Swords.”

“So, um, what does this mean?” I asked, unable to take my eyes away from the woman on the card. She looked back at me, sword ready.

“This card is your indicator. It is the card that has chosen you out of all of them to be yours, to represent you and to guide your fate.”

“Is that good?”
“It is fitting.”

“Well, what does it mean?”

“The Queen of Swords is a saddened woman, for she has lost something and she is all alone, severed from those she loves. But, she is a strong woman, one of the lesser trumps, so she does not fear. She can represent many things: absence, sterility, privation, and separation.”

“Wait a minute, why did you say it was fitting? That doesn’t sound like me at all.” I may not have been the most popular girl at school by a long shot, but I had friends and Chase who I’d known since practically forever. Plus, my parents and my little brother.

“The cards can be interpreted in many ways. This is but one possibility and only time will tell."

Fortune tellers are supposed to put everything in the best light, right? That’s how they make their money, telling people it won’t be so bad. So, why was this one going all dire on me? I stood up, starting to get a little creeped out. “How much do I owe you?” I asked, not caring about the answer, just leaving.

The fortune teller just stared at me, reflecting me back doubled in her dark glasses. My identical twins smiled my fake smile back at me from inside brown glass. Defeated, I sat back down.

“Is there much more?” I wondered.

“Of course there is, Robina. But I do not think you will get to hear it.”

“Why?” I asked, curious in spite of myself.

The fortune teller smiled without opening her mouth and it was at that moment that I felt Chase’s hands come down on my shoulders. I yelped and spun around to face him.

“What the hell are you doing, Rob? The reading starts in, like, five minutes and, unless we want to end up in the nosebleed section—“

“It’s a reading, Chase. Not, I repeat, not, a football stadium. There are no nosebleed seats.”

“Whatever. She’s your favorite author, not mine.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming. I just have to pay her,” I gestured to the fortune teller and Chase straightened up and smiled nervously.

“Don’t worry about payment, Robina Cooper. We hardly had time to get started.”
I thanked her and turned away, beginning to follow Chase back through the maze of booths to the lecture hall, when I felt another tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was the fortune teller standing right behind me. I managed to stifle another yelp of surprise.

“Uh, hi. Did I forget something back at your booth?” Chase tugged at my arm. For all his protestations, he was as eager to see Kaye Witherspoon speak as I was.

“No, Robina. But, I have something for you. Keep it close to you. It will become important soon.”

I felt her hand brush against mine, cold, and dry, and faintly powdery, like the wing of a moth, and then I was left standing awkwardly, a cardboard rectangle in my right hand, while the white figure of the fortune teller disappeared into the crowd.

“What the hell was that all about?”

I shrugged. “How should I know? I think she likes me.”

“Also, she is seriously creepy.”

“I had noticed.”

“Regardless of our relative abilities to identify a total creepazoid when we see one, there is one thing of utmost important that you seem to be forgetting.”

“What?”

“She gave you a present! Show me what it is already.”

Chase leaned in and I opened my hand on the blue and white patterned back of a Tarot card. I flipped it over and the Queen of Swords looked back at me. She held my eyes for a moment before I looked away and stuffed the card in behind the few bills I had left in my wallet after buying the rapier.

“Do you have any idea…?”

“She said it was the card that represented me. Don’t know why she gave it to me, though.”

“Creepazoid.”

“Totally. Now let’s get to the reading already.”

Chase and I squeezed our way in between vendors and out into the main walkway.
“Which way now?” I asked. Chase’s secret talent was that he always knew where he was going. He explained this away as being the result of only one of us – him – holding the map the right way around. I preferred to think of it as his mutant super power.

Chase gestured down the main corridor. “The reading’s in the Great Hall, so it should be behind the big doors over there.”

“Ooh, Great Hall. That sounds fancy.”

Chase pointed to the no-color paint job with its no-color trim. “Wanna bet?”
I shrugged and raced ahead to the double doors. I’d expected a press of people all jostling to get in to see Kaye Witherspoon, but the hallway was practically empty. We had to be way later than we thought. Unfortunately, Chase’s mutant power doesn’t extend to time and my watch didn’t go with my outfit at all.

I opened the door and peered around. The rest of the convention center was warm, maybe a little too warm, but in here it was refrigerated lunch meat cold. I zipped up my hoodie one handed and even shivered a little. Despite its no-color paint job, this was the first room I’d seen all day with any cool factor. It was big and circular with a ceiling up above all six stories with balconies looking down at each level. In the center I could see a raised stage with a podium ringed all around with the kind of metal folding chairs guaranteed to make the backs of my knees all sweaty. Only about half the seats were full.

Of course, I knew her latest book, Midnight Blue, hadn’t made the New York Times bestseller list. Neither had the one before, The Clock Strikes Midnight, for that matter. I’d even read the Times article about her waning popularity, something about the changing zeitgeist of the American people and blah-dee-blah. But, it also said something that I kind of had to agree with, even if I didn’t want to. The thing I’d always loved about Kaye Witherspoon was her characters and the way they just sucked me into their world. And Ana Norton just wasn’t quite as Ana Norton-y as she was in Shades of Midnight or even Midnight Sun, and anyway Damien would never confess his love to her. It was totally out of character and everyone knew it.

But, I figured she still had some real fans, people that remembered what happened in Alone at Midnight or the totally shocking ending of City of Midnight. I wish I could write like that. The whole front page of the book section in The Times the week it came out was just a big picture of the cover. Someday, if I was really lucky, I wanted to write something that reached people like that. And, hey, maybe with the small crowd I’d get a chance to talk with her a bit. I had something I was working on stuffed in my backpack just in case.

Chase had already started ahead to grab seats near the front and waved frantically, one arm over his head, for me to join him. He looked like an idiot and I was about to shout just that to him across the empty metal seats, when something up above caught my eye. A man in what looked like a long dark cloak leaned precariously out over the railing of one of the higher balconies. He must have seen me looking at him, because he turned his head to face me and sort of gestured to me with his cloak. I thought he might be cute, but it was hard to tell, since he was far away and had long silvery hair falling in his face.

I ran up to Chase, “Hey, look there’s somebody up there.” I pointed vigorously.

He rolled his eyes without turning. “Yeah, probably a janitor or something. Only Convention Center staff are allowed up there.”

The man in the cloak stepped behind a pillar, and I couldn’t see him anymore. I stamped my foot in frustration.

“Chase, answer me this: Do janitors usually wear floor-length cloaks?”

“I don’t think so. That kind of thing probably picks up some serious dust. Now, let me ask you a question: What the hell are you going on about?”

“The guy up there, he was wearing a cloak, so he couldn’t be a janitor. I’m betting he’s another Con-goer like us.”

“So?”
“So that means we could get up there, look at all the stuff we’re not supposed to see. It’d be totally cool.”
“Yes, let’s get kicked out of the convention for sneaking into some top secret hotel rooms and forbidden offices. Great plan, Robina. You’re a regular Napoleon.”

“And who does that make you? Waterloo?”

“Waterloo is a place, not a person. It’s where the British defeated Napoleon’s conquering army.”

“So, you’re not Waterloo.”

“No, I’m Chase Lalonde and I’m pretty sure you’ve come unhinged, well, even more unhinged than usual.”
“No. You’ve got to follow my logic.” He rolled his eyes at that. “You said that I’m Napoleon, right? And you aren’t Waterloo. And only Waterloo can defeat Napoleon. So, not being Waterloo, you can’t defeat me. So, I win. We’re going to go exploring upstairs after the reading.”

“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“You just say that because you can’t refute my logic.”

“Your logic is illogical!”

“That is precisely what makes it impossible to refute.”

He scratched his afro resignedly. “Fine. But, let’s at least sit down now. The Tetris block guys are looking at us like we’re weird and that’s just sad.”

I burst out laughing and, after a quick high five, he joined me. That was when the Kaye Witherspoon’s introduction began. A short woman in traffic cone-orange t-shirt with FANTASY ONE written across the front in block capitals walked out from a side door I hadn’t noticed. She kept fidgeting with her glasses, her hair, and the papers in front of her and she had to pull the mic way down before she could be heard at all. It was an uncomfortably similar picture to my last class presentation in American history.

She cleared her throat a couple times and then read from the printed card in front of her. “Fantasy One is honored to have with us an authoress as well-known and well-loved as Kaye Witherspoon. As I’m sure all of you know, she is the author of the Ana Norton series of books, in which a cop nearly killed in the line of duty gains the ability to see otherworldly creatures called the Nightkind. With the past nine books Ms. Witherspoon has developed the story of Ana Norton, a woman trapped between worlds, and her best friend Naomi Gordon, her lover and mortal enemy Damien Frost, and the mysterious Oracle who presides over all their fates. Ms. Witherspoon left us with something of a cliffhanger in book nine, so I’m sure we’re all extra eager for the sneak preview of book ten, The View from Midnight, read to us by the authoress herself. I’m sure there will be many surprises in store for us. There will, unfortunately, be no book signing or question and answer session after the reading as Ms. Witherspoon is feeling indisposed.” I frowned. I’d brought my three favorite books for her to sign. My backpack was heavy, but it no longer seemed worth it. The speaker did not stop for my disappointment. “The fact that she is here is testament to her love for her many fans. So, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, on behalf of Fantasy One, Ms. Kaye Witherspoon.”

We all applauded as hard as we could as Kaye Witherspoon walked out of the same little side door. In ever way she was different from the woman who introduced her. She was tall, probably almost six feet, and she wore enough make up for two supermodel photo shoots. Her hair was the bright red of new copper pennies and magazine cover-perfect. She held her head with complete confidence, taking no notice of the empty seats to either side of her as she glided down the aisle left open for her. Chase and I glanced at each other. This was not the smiling, messy haired, sweater wearing Kaye Witherspoon we knew from the backs of her books.
When she got to the podium she did not glance out over the audience, she simply sat down and began to read. Her voice poured over us and we listened.

* * *

The white chalk circle was drawn lightly on the black stone of the basement, and Naomi crouched within it with her auburn hair falling over her face and hiding her glasses. She shivered, and I wished I could go into the circle to comfort her, but I clenched Damien Frost’s spell in one white-knuckled hand. If this were another of his tricks, or led in some way to Naomi’s death, I would no longer care about his supposed love for me or his certain passion. I had told Naomi of my dealings with the Nightkind, and so it was my fault they came for her and my duty to save my best friend. But, if Damien caused Naomi harm in any way, I swore I would find a way to make him pay. But now I must concentrate on Naomi and her invisible tormentor whose very gaze burned like fire. She’d told me of his mad laugh, like white water over sharp rocks, when he said he would come for her, when he’d said he’d destroy her with his own hands. I shivered at the thought of one of his nightmare hands touching my poor Naomi.

The spell itself had none of Damien’s strange unguents, vials of colorful liquids, or chanting from arcane tomes, and I could not be sure if this ought to make me more or less suspicious. The candelabras were already arranged around the circle and the pure white candles cast flickering black and red shadows over Naomi’s scared face. All that was left for the spell was a piece of me to bind the circle and a poem. I slipped out from between my breasts the pendant of St. Anthony my grandmother had given me before she died. She told me then that if I held onto it I would never be lost and she was right. The pendant deflected a bullet meant for my heart that had been shot by the drug dealer I was trying to arrest. He had meant to kill me, and instead he had opened up my world to the Nightkind. I remember the Oracle telling me of this talisman’s power as we sat alone together in her darkened workshop. Her ghostly pale skin was made all the whiter by the darkness behind her, and her long hair floated around her head in a breeze no one else could feel. She told me that as the pendant spared my life, a piece of my soul was bound to it and I must always keep it close. But, the Oracle also taught me that it gave me the power to close magic circles and keep the roiling energy within from spilling out and destroying everything in its path. I cast the pendant out to the far side of the circle and unrolled the scroll in my hand.

“Are you ready?” I asked.

“Will this work?” she replied anxiously.

“It has to.”

What do we do?” she asked.

I said the only thing I could: “We begin.”

She nodded and I closed my eyes and began to will the dark energies coursing in my veins out into the circle. The candles flickered and glowed blue, and, by their light, I began to chant the words Damien had written for me in his old fashioned script:

I call upon thee, last rays of fading light
Shine down on she who waits below
I invoke thee, first glimmerings of night
Rise up and speak what she must know
I call upon thee, spirit bright
Cast all illusions from her eyes
I invoke thee, darkling Wight
Give her strength and let her rise!

The words tolled like church bells in my head as I watched Naomi rise to her feet as if in a daze. My pendant flared white hot like the center of the flame. The candles glowed an eerie green and then died altogether. The magic circle shone the only light in the room, a pure and piercing white that grew brighter and brighter as I watched. As the last words left my mouth, the white light exploded into swirling colors as brilliant and strange as the northern lights shining in an empty sky. Naomi’s arms flung out into the swirling colors and I could see them travel like lightning over her and make her writhe in some ecstatic dance. The radiant beams pierced her again and again, until I longed to cross the barrier of the magic circle and save her from the agony, but I knew that if I just set one foot across the edge of the circle, all the energy contained within would come rushing into the world. Finally the colors dimmed and faded back into the chalk lines of the circle, and Naomi collapsed limp to the floor.

When I was sure the spell had run its course, I lifted my pendant up and placed it again between my breasts and scuffed the chalk lines with one foot. The candles relit and began to give off a cheery golden glow as I bent over Naomi and raised her to a sitting position.

“Are you alright?” I whispered in her ear.

“So dark,” she moaned. “I can’t see.” She began to claw at her eyes and I had to pull her hands away.

I turned her face to the brightest burning candles. “Can you see the candles, Naomi? They’re right there.”

She pulled her hands away from me and covered her eyes. “Too bright. The light is too bright.”

I licked my fingers and doused all the candles before returning to my beleaguered friend’s side. “All the candles are out now. It’s not too bright anymore. Look.”

I could see her in the dim light coming from under the door out of the basement as she gazed about the room. Suddenly she gasped. “Ana!” she cried out.

“I’m right here,” I said, scared for her well-being.

“I know. I can see you, Ana. You burn so bright you look like a star.”


* * *

Kaye Witherspoon ceased speaking and, aligning the edges of her manuscript against the podium with a thump, turned to walk away. Her hair swung across her face like a red velvet curtain at the sort of fancy movie theater you only see in movies. When she was halfway down the aisle, she turned and glanced back at us. When she spoke, her voice sounded strained from the long reading, but we saw her lips curl up for a moment in a smile.

“I am sure that many of you out there are writers,” she said, “and I would encourage you to follow in my footsteps. I have always found on the journey of life that the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Then, without a backward glance, she vanished through the small door. The woman in the orange shirt, the one who had introduced Kaye Witherspoon in the first place, came running out of the door a few seconds later and took the podium. She babbled on about something for awhile, but I wasn’t listening. I could feel a really bad idea growing in the back of my mind, and I knew that when Chase was done protesting against it, he’d absolutely love it.

“Well, that was weird.”

I glanced over at Chase. “Huh?”

“I’ve seen drag queens with less make-up on. She looked like a Martian.”

“Chase, be nice. Didn’t you hear what orange-shirt said, she’s really sick. She was probably just trying to make herself look a little less pale.”

“She did look pretty pasty, I’ll give you that.”

“And she was acting pretty strange.”

“That I noticed. She was totally rude, and she spent the whole time staring right at you.”

“She did?”

“Yeah, it was seriously weird.”

“You were sitting right next to me. How do you know she wasn’t checking you out?

“Because she wasn’t. She was looking at you.”

“Cool.”

“I don’t know.”

“Will you at least admit that you can’t wait for The View from Midnight to come out? All that stuff she just read was totally awesome.”

“It was pretty good, I guess. The poem was kind of weird, though.”

“Always Mister Cool, that’s you. But anyway, that reminds me, I have a totally amazing idea.”

“Let me guess: it involves sneaking into the employees only part of the Convention Center and then doing something tremendously stupid.”

“Exactly.” I gave him a bear hug. “You know me so well!”

“So, what kind of insanity are you involving me in this time?”

“We’re going to find the spookiest room in the Center and then we’re going to cast the spell.”

I pulled out my notebook and showed him the page where I’d scribbled it down as Kaye Witherspoon was reading it.

“You are completely insane.”

“Completely. Which way to the stairs up?”

“I’ll bet they’re behind one of the doors marked “Employees Only.”

“Ooh, where are those?”

“Back on the main convention floor. I noticed one when I was coming to save you from the creepy fortune teller of doom.”

He started off back down the hallway and I followed. “She wasn’t that bad. She even gave me a present.”

“She gave you a picture of a girl with a sword. That is exactly the kind of encouragement you do not need.” He eyed my new rapier suspiciously.

When we got back to the main room, Chase pointed the way and I walked over to look at the door – wooden, with a glaringly yellow sign saying “Employees Only,” the kind of sign you really can’t miss, even if you’re trying. I pulled on the handle, unlocked. The door swung open with a disappointing lack of hinge squeaking onto a dim stairwell.

Chase put his hand on my shoulder, holding me back. “Come on, Rob. Let’s go see the Dune Online demo. What if someone sees us?”

“If you hadn’t wanted to do this, you wouldn’t have shown me the door.”

He shrugged. “Touché. Let’s get this show on the road then.”

Chase closed the door and the loud noise of the convention fell to a whisper and it was suddenly really, really dark. There was a little light coming from under the door, but it was really only enough to make things more confusing. I’m not afraid to admit that I quickly stumbled into the bottom step, tripped, and went sprawling. If it were a little brighter Chase probably would have gotten another look at my Sailor Moon panties.

However, I, at least, was walking in the right direction. From the thumps and cursing I could hear, it sounded like Chase was stubbing his toe repeatedly on the wall to my left.

“Chase? What the hell are you doing?” I shouted in his general direction cheerfully.

“I’m looking for one of those emergency flashlights they keep in case of power failure and—ah, here it is!” A small yellowish glow illuminated the wall directly in front of Chase’s head. Then he began swinging it around toward me. I quickly flipped my skirt back down before I was blinded by the sudden light in my eyes.

Chase seemed unaffected. “Hey, Rob. There’s another flashlight over by your butt. Reach around and grab it.” I twisted, saw the light and flicked it on. Now, armed with a flashlight, I stood up and looked around. There was nothing to see but the stairs going up farther than our flashlights could reach. Something – I don’t know if it was the silence, or the layers of dust, or just knowing that we weren’t supposed to be there – made us stay quiet as we went up the stairs. By unspoken consensus, we went up past the doors we found on each landing with their neatly stenciled numbers, until we reached the highest floor and the worn looking curve of the number six.

Chase opened the door and I followed him out onto the carpeted hallway. The first room we peeked into was full of boxes. Another one was wall-to-wall folding chairs and tables. The final room was the only one we could possibly use. I shone my flashlight over the room: big table in the center, scattered chairs, a window with the shade down on the far wall, a tangle of audio-visual equipment at the front that looked like it had been high tech sometime during the 1950s. Not exactly promising spell casting material, but I wasn’t about to admit that to Chase.

“Perfect,” I announced and ran around the table to pull open the shade. The sun, dipping behind a nearby office building, turned a patch of sky soupy red. The rest had already fallen dark.

“Perfect?” Chase echoed, raising an eyebrow. “How do you plan on doing this?”

The table looked too big to move, so I climbed on top of it. There was plenty of space for us both to stand up there if I just knocked some stray wires and a carton of novelty pens off the end.

“Okay,” I said, striding as dramatically as I could, “The magic circle is going to go up here. We’ll put the flashlights on either side, like the candles were in The View from Midnight. It’ll be great.”

In the back of my mind an image formed. Me, only older maybe and a couple inches taller, maybe twenty pounds lighter, and wearing those cool black robes that dark sorcerers are supposed to. I’m standing there with incandescent sparks flying from my hands and my magic circle has enough wattage for a forest full of Christmas trees, each a different a color. I am prepared to cast a great spell, something earth shattering, but benevolent. The forces are aligned. I can feel the power in my wrists, in my shoulder blades. Dark energy coursing up and down my spine—

“Hey, Rob, do you have any white chalk, because I don’t really carry that stuff around normally? Also, any candelabras in that bag of yours?”

Back to earth. I shook my head. “We’re using the flashlights instead of candelabras, remember. And,” I rummaged around in my pockets, “We can use this tube of lipstick to draw the circle.”

“Then how are we going to read the poem thing?”

“I’m pretty sure I have it memorized.”

Of course you do.”

“Oh, come on; don’t tell me you’re not excited.”

“Of course I’m excited. We broke into someplace we’re not supposed to be and now we’re going to do a dark ritual in here. It’s totally awesome…it’s just, I’m wearing a t-shirt with a Rubik’s cube printed on it and your fishnets are starting to run.”

“Chase, you’ve got to ignore all that. Think black robes and gothic ruins and drippy candles! This kind of thing is boring if you don’t.”

“Okay, okay.”

“Good. Now get up on the table and help me draw all over it in lipstick.”

“Well, when you put it that way, how can I refuse?”

I grinned. “Now, that’s the snarky asshole I know and love,” I said and gave him a hand up onto the table.

Chase’s magic circle looked a bit like an amoeba, so we had to scuff it out and try again. My attempt was a bit more circle-y and Chase got the flashlights set up and as bright as they could go. I stood over near one of the flashlights checking over the poem one last time and surreptitiously trying to figure out how much lipstick I’d gotten on my hands. Then, I stepped into the center of the circle. Chase was already standing there, looking slightly concerned.

“Don’t we need an object that’s tied to your spirit or something to close the circle?”

I nodded and rummaged in my backpack, pulling out my wallet. The Queen of Swords still hid behind my last couple of dollar bills.

“How about this?” I asked, pulling it out and waving it at him. “The fortune teller said that it’s my indicator and it represents me. That sounds like the right sort of thing.”

“That better work. We don’t want to release all kinds of crazy magical energy everywhere.”

“It’s not real, Chase,” I said, feeling like a traitor.

“I know. You just said I should try to get more into it, so I am.”

“I guess that means we’re ready.”

Chase nodded, grinning like an idiot.

I knelt down and placed the Queen of Swords onto the circle. The flashlights flickered. I squeaked. Chase checked them and announced that we’d pretty much run out their battery life.

“Okay then,” I said, “Let’s get started already.”
We knelt together in the center of the circle, eyes closed, and I began to recite the words to the poem. I tried to imagine the words tolling like bells in my head, but I couldn’t be sure I got it right. I peeked out through my eyelashes, but didn’t see our own personal aurora borealis anywhere. The flashlights, however, had gone out completely. A sliver of light from the window reflected off the glossy face of the Queen of Swords.

I screamed the final word of the poem: “Rise!” and a buzzing filled my ears. We rose and opened our eyes and we could see nothing. The light was so bright we had to shut our eyes again and count to ten before opening them. The florescent lights all across the ceiling of our room and running down the hallway outside had all turned on. The buzzing noise came from the ancient wiring. I sighed, not sure if it was with relief or disappointment.

“Well, that was fun while it lasted,” I muttered.

Chase looked alarmed. “All that shouting probably let the security people know we’re up here. That has to be why they turned on the lights.”

“Shit! We have to get out of here.”

I grabbed the Queen of Swords and shoved it back into my wallet, then scuffed the lipstick magic circle just in case. Chase tugged at my arm and started running after him, down the hall, down the stairway, every moment expecting convention security to materialize. We reached the door to the convention level out of breath, but laughing. No one had heard us. No one was coming for us. The lights must have just turned themselves on.

I pushed the door open and Chase followed me. Of course we were wrong, just like we were about everything else. Something had happened. A figure hung above the convention, a pale woman floating in a cloud of hair. She was hard to look at directly. Light seemed to gravitate toward her, dimming the lamps and darkening the windows and running in strands up from the people below to tangle in her hair. I shaded my eyes with a hand and then she turned to face me.

There was no hair. No light. No woman. The figure was as white as if it had been cut from a bar of soap, and from the top of its head grew tentacles like boneless, eyeless snakes writhing in the air conditioned, popcorn-scented air. I could see the tentacles grasping something that shimmered when I tried to look directly. She drew it up into the tangle of hair and I could see the shimmering thing unspooling from one person after another below. Our eyes met. She had no eyes. Small, pulpy tentacles grew out of the empty sockets and they bent to focus on me. I held a scream back in with both hands. She was wearing jeans that were a little worn out at the knees and a t-shirt I’d seen on sale at the Gap a couple weeks back.

I must be dreaming. I must be dreaming. I must be dreaming. Chase tugged at my arm, but I ignored him. He must have said something, but I couldn’t hear it over the rushing in my ears. The eyeless white thing feeding on the people around me. The eyeless white thing in the clothes of the fortune teller. A woman hanging in space, hair whipping around her, skin as white as chalk.

“What do we do?” Chase asked.
And suddenly everything clicked inside my head. White skin. Hair floating on a breeze no one else could feel. I was looking at Ana Norton’s Oracle. And then I remembered how the great hall was so much colder, and that’s where the man in the cloak was, the man with silvery hair. Damien Frost. The spell had worked. We could see the Nightkind, or whatever they were. The spell had worked.

And they could see us.

My mind raced. Damien Frost. The Oracle. But where was Ana Norton?

I glanced back up at the floating woman. The tentacles in her eye sockets sought out my eyes and she pointed with one hand down toward me. And she smiled. I’d gotten everything I’d ever wanted.

The Queen of Swords glowed through my wallet and the front pocket of my hoodie, a pure white light that shone like church bells tolling in my ears. The magic circle was closing around us.
“What do we do?” Chase asked again.

I said the only thing I could: “We run.”

Memento Mori (Part Two) Jul. 11th, 2010 @ 03:12 pm
Memento Mori

I had to get out of here. Out of our apartment. Off our street. Away from our town. I had to stay busy, keep my mind occupied, or I would go insane. I thought of seeing Irene in the mirror at the hospital and felt sick. I couldn’t let myself fall apart like that. I ran to the bathroom and turned the shower as hot as it would go. I closed my eyes and let the scalding water clean my skin and clear my mind. When I stepped out and stood dripping in my towel, I felt almost myself.

I fumbled behind the faucet for my glasses and put them on and the world settled into focus. The hot air from the shower had clouded my mirror, so I wiped a spot clean with a corner of my towel. My face floated in the misty void of the wet mirror and I watched myself frown at what I saw. I have always been prone to developing dark circles beneath my eyes when I don’t get enough sleep, and it’s only gotten worse with age. But, the image in my mirror looked as if it had not slept in weeks, if not months. The circles beneath my eyes had deepened to livid bruises and my skin looked sallow, almost greenish. The odd color of my skin made my veins stand out like a map of the New York subway system tattooed across my face.

What had that so-called doctor of medicine given me while I was passed out yesterday? It had to be more than cogentin – a muscle relaxant can’t make you look that awful when you wake up in the morning. I shook my head, feeling sick. Something had been done to me, and I didn’t know what. The only person who might know was Cliff. He’d taken me to the hospital, so he might have seen what Dr. Jiang did to me. At the very least, he could help me rule out whether not this had anything to do with my visit to the hospital.

I went in to the main room and moved the papers around on my desk until I uncovered my cell phone. I picked it up and got about halfway through punching in Cliff’s number before I glanced at the clock on the wall. Cliff would be at the dig with some of the students from one of the classes he was covering for me and he never answered his phone when he was working. It was a matter of personal pride to him. I would have to drive out to the dig if I wanted to talk to him, and that meant shaving and getting dressed.

I walked back to the bathroom and got out my razor and shaving cream. I soaped up and ran the razor over my jaw, only half paying attention to what I was doing. It wasn’t until I reached the tricky part under my chin and down my neck that I really had to look in the mirror. I peered intently at the white shaving cream covering my throat and felt more than saw a flicker of motion outside of the clear space on the mirror. A flash of red, misty as if seen through a veil of rain, and the suggestion of a face. I couldn’t stop myself from whirling around to see if someone was behind me. There was no one, and by the time I turned back the only face in the mirror was my own.

A trickle of blood dripped down my throat from where, in my distraction, I’d cut myself. Three purple drops ran down my neck and caught in the curve of my collar bone. I blinked twice, hard, and my own face looked back at me each time, sallow and bloodshot, but mine. Whatever I had seen before, it was gone. I pulled off a piece of toilet paper to blot my neck, but the cut had stopped bleeding. I traced its edge with one finger. It gaped open right above one of my veins and it looked deep, but the wound was dry. I shrugged at myself in the mirror. None of this made sense.

I rushed to my room to start dressing. I couldn’t stay here one minute longer. I would go to the dig. Cliff would be there with my students. I could ask him about what had happened at the hospital and look around and see if there had been any interesting finds. It would be good to get out, get fresh air. I wouldn’t be alone.

It was about a fifteen minute drive to the dig site over roads winding between cattle pastures and stands of trees just beginning to turn red. The air had the silvery, electric taste it gets before rain, but the clouds scudding across the sky were thin and empty of promise. I parked in an empty field and, shivering, pulled my overcoat out of the trunk and buttoned all the way up to my chin. It was a long walk uphill out to the dig site and I was already cold. The ground was dry, but when it rained, we would sink in mud up to our knees.

I could hear a thin barking in the distance, probably Indy. Indy – short for Indiana Jones, of course – is the exact size, shape, color, and texture of a mop. Despite this, I have seen him bend himself in half catching a Frisbee twice his size and drag it back to me. Cliff found Indy while digging in Pennsylvania. He claims he heard Indy barking and it led him to the site of his greatest find, which was buried just beneath the tip of the dog’s tail. Because of this he firmly believes that Indy has a sixth sense for finding artifacts and, as yet, I have been unable to disprove his theory.

As I came up over the edge of the hill, I heard Indy’s excited barking from behind the trees. I walked toward the sound. The small dog exploded out of the bushes, trailing a tangled leash, and made straight for my leg. His ears lay flat against his head and he growled once low in his throat. I stopped. Cliff moved fast at the heels of the dog, reaching for the leash just outside of his grasp.

Some part of my brain knew something was wrong, even as I bent over to scoop the furry dynamo into my arms and spare Cliff the trouble of the chase. I felt a sharp pain in my leg and yelped, falling over backward and scrambling away from the dog dashing for my head. Cliff lifted him out of the way, muttering curses and giving me time to pick myself up. My pants leg was torn through and underneath I could see a double row of tooth marks running around my ankle. After the initial pain of the bite, it hardly hurt, but I could see dark fluid pooling in the cuts.

I looked up. Indy cowered against Cliff’s chest, whining and shaking as he tried to bury his nose in Cliff’s arm pit.

“Oh my God! Are you okay? What the hell happened?” asked Cliff, transferring Indy to one arm so he could help me up with the other. He looked more upset than I was.

I ignored the arm, pulling my self up. “I think I’m okay, but I have no idea what happened, other than, you know, the obvious.”

“I’m so sorry, man. I can’t believe he bit you. You know how he is. If a robber came to the house, Indy would show him where I keep the good china in exchange for a belly rub.”

“You have good china?”

“Yeah. My mom gave it to me. Don’t you dare say anything.”

“My lips are sealed.”

“Good. Let’s get you bandaged up and then I’ll deal with Dr. Jones here.” He transferred his grip to keep the dog from leaping over his shoulder and onto the ground and I hobbled after him back to the dig site. Cliff had brought a folding chair out with him and I sank gratefully into it, stretching out my leg. As soon as Cliff had handed Indy off to the nearest responsible-looking student, he grabbed his first aid kit and brought it over.

“Here, let me take a look at the leg.”

“I can handle it.”

“Just because you took a first aid class as an undergrad does not make you a medical expert.”

“Apparently you taking a dog training class a few years ago doesn’t mean a heck of a lot either.”
Cliff stumbled back at my tone of voice. “Look, I’m really sorry. I don’t know what happened. If there’s any way I can make this up to you—“

He would have kept going if I hadn’t cut him off. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. I’m just in some pain. Let me deal with the bandaging, okay? I’ll use plenty of Neosporin.”

I cuffed back the edge of my pants, wincing as threads brushed against the open wound.
“Hmm…it’s not bleeding much at all,” I muttered to myself, bent almost double to inspect my own ankle. “The wound must not be as deep as it looks, so I shouldn’t need stitches.”
Cliff glanced over skeptically.

“Just pass me the bottle of Neosporin and don’t you dare mother at me.”

He handed each of the things to me as he spoke and I started cleaning out the wound as best as I could. There was hardly any blood, just a trickle of some brownish-green fluid – probably some kind of plant sap I’d brushed against. Afterward, I smeared a thick layer of Neosporin over it and tied on the bandage. My ankle felt wobbly, but not hot the way an infection feels. If anything, my ankle felt cold, like the wind touched me there more than anywhere else. I settled myself more comfortably into the chair.

“You want me to help you back to your car? I can probably leave these guys alone for a bit without them misclassifying too many artifacts. It’s pretty much just sheep bones anyway.”

“Thanks, but I actually came here because I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“We could talk on the way. You look god-awful, man. Pardon my French.”

“That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Okay. The explanation for this one should be interesting.” He crouched down next to my chair, careful to keep his coat from dragging on the ground.

“What happened while I was unconscious at the hospital?”

“I don’t know. I sat in the waiting room. Why?”

“Well, I woke up the morning after I got back from there and I look, as you put it, god-awful. I wanted to know what Dr. Jiang gave me, besides cogentin that is, that might have side effects like this.”

“Simon, you want to know what happened while you were unconscious – here it is. Dr. Jiang saved your life. After you passed out, you started convulsing, sort of. Dr. Jiang said your muscles had contracted to a third of their normal length. They were tearing themselves apart. I’d never seen anything like it.”

“But—“
“No. It looked like you were going to die, Simon. Don’t blame the doctor, just quit the paranoid head-trip and take care of yourself. When was the last time you ate anything?”

“Um, I don’t know.”

“I have a ham and cheese sandwich in a bag somewhere under the chair. Eat it.”

“Isn’t that your lunch?”
“I’m trying to lose weight, anyway.”

Cliff ambled away, leaving me to grope in the darkness under the chair to find his sandwich bag. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince myself to do more than nibble at the corners. On the far side of the dig site, a stray beam of light found its way between the clouds to make a red-headed girl’s hair glow like a gold coin. I thought again of Irene as I first saw her, red-hair dark with rain, burying her hands in the warm mud, reaching into the ground as if she could pull out its secret heart. The girl crouched to look at something between two roots of a tree and her burning hair passed into shadow. The empty space beneath my ribs filled with lead. I coughed and turned away.

I had come here to escape these long moments of self-reflection and self-pity. I pulled myself to my feet and limped over to where some of the students worked. I could smell earth and desiccated leaves and the expectant scent of rain. I could hear the intermittent thock-thock of shovels hitting stones and the grunts of hard labor. I could see the remains of stone walls in which people had lived a century ago, now overgrown with wild grass and the puffball heads of dandelions. I would not look at the red-headed girl whose hair glowed like a gold coin. I would not cry.

“Professor Cleary?”

“Yes?”

I looked over my shoulder at a tall young man – one of the students in my 101 class. His name came to me a moment later, Johnny.

“I, uh, I wanted to say how sorry I am and everything. It’s terrible what happened.”

I nodded, unable to open my mouth enough to speak.

“Um, also, Mariella wanted me to tell you she found something weird.”
I took a deep breath. I couldn’t let my mind wander in front of my students. I couldn’t grieve. I had to be their teacher.

“Was it another sheep skull?” The ex-slaves who had lived on this land had continued working for their former owner after they were freed, raising and breeding sheep from New Zealand. Most of the finds that excited the students were the bones of sheep that they liked to tell each other, when they thought Cliff and I were out of ear shot, were really the remains of horribly mutated humans.

“No,” replied Johnny, “But it has bones in it. Little ones – like maybe from a bird.”

“Don’t move the artifact. I’ll help you catalog it and then we’ll move it together.”
Johnny led the way over to the girl with the red hair. The sun had passed behind a cloud again and her hair no longer glowed, but it was still the same color as Irene’s. Otherwise, Mariella looked nothing like her. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking of the image I had seen in the hospital and again in my bathroom mirror. Whatever was happening to me, it had not escaped from the mirror into my life.

“Hey, Professor, look.” Mariella ceased hopping up and down with excitement and crouched to point at something half buried.

It had been red once, but had faded to a brown that matched the pit in which they had found it. The outlines were that of a bag made of rough cloth and cinched shut with a rotted-through strand of rope. The seam along one side had burst open, speckling the objects inside with dirt. I could see the protruding edges of small bones, the winking eyes of glass beads gone dull with age, and behind them, impressed in the cloth, the twisty shadow of John the Conqueror root. It smelled of the deep places in the earth and morning glories, and I could almost feel my spine straighten.

“So, what is it?” Mariella’s voice broke my reverie.

In an attempt to get them to take this seriously, I put on my most professorial voice. “It is what is generally known as a mojo bag, although in the francophone tradition it may be referred to as gris-gris, which has several variant spellings that—” I paused, realizing I had lost my students. “In the African-American tradition of hoodoo – evidently practiced by the family living in the house we are currently excavating – the mojo bag is a type of magic charm used to bring good luck. Typically they’re worn under the clothing, but, judging by the placement of this piece, I’d say this one was purposefully buried in front of the house as a ward against evil influences.”

“Weird.” Johnny this time.

“Not at all, really. Most cultures create some sort of talisman to ward off evil. I’m sure you can think of other examples if you try.”

Johnny looked away, more thoroughly reprimanded than I had intended. I crouched down and reached into my coat pocket, pulling out a small brush. I reached into the pit Mariella and Johnny had dug and began to wipe flecks of dirt off the fabric. I felt the coarse edge of the cloth brush the underside of my fingers as I clumsily shifted weight. The sore muscles I’d had since the morning I collapsed to the floor and had to be taken to the hospital unclenched themselves. Some tight thing in my chest unclenched and my lungs expanded. Joint aches I hadn’t even known I had faded. The dull, heavy feeling I’d been carrying in my stomach passed, and I was suddenly ravenously hungry.

The backs of my eyelids were like a movie screen on which I could see a woman like and unlike my Irene. Her skin was white as sickness and her hair floated around her head in a fiery halo. Her eyes were green as a cat’s. But the freckles on her cheekbones and the curve of her neck were familiar. I had seen that upturned nose, those curving lips, that pointed chin, every morning I had woken up next to my wife. She pressed herself against the wrong side of a mirror reflecting an empty room. I could see her dress, the white one with the pink rosettes on the collar, the one that Irene was buried in. Her long-nailed hands clawed the glass, seeking purchase. She snarled, lips drawing back to reveal rows of sharp, white teeth and the pointed red tongue that ran over them. Her eyes, green as glacial ice and just as cold, found mine and I stumbled back, pulling my hand away from the mojo bag.

The image vanished and my chest tightened and the aches in my muscles and joints returned with staggering intensity. I fell backward into a sitting position, sucking in air through clenched teeth. I wasn’t hungry anymore.

“You okay, Professor?” Mariella’s face close to mine, mouth contorted with worry.

I couldn’t help myself after what I’d just seen; I recoiled. I scooted backward, trying to put distance between myself and the red-haired girl. I had to calm myself. I couldn’t let my students see me like this. They deserved better. I tried to compose my face into calmer lines, but they only looked at me with more worry.

“Look, why don’t you go talk to Cliff – Professor Radcliff that is – and get him to help you. I need to…” My sentence trailed off lamely. I didn’t know what I needed to do other than go someplace else.

I pushed myself awkwardly to my feet and walked off before they could ask me more questions. I had no answers. None at all. Looking back over my shoulder when I reached the crest of the hill, I could see the black silhouettes of Johnny and Mariella gesturing animatedly in front of the larger darkness that was Cliff. My mind felt too heavy to wonder what they said.
I couldn’t go home and I couldn’t stay here. My mind was playing tricks on me. Sunlight glancing off a girl’s hair had made me feel so full and so hollow, like all I had inside me was a scream shaped like a name. I bit my lips to keep them closed so I wouldn’t scream aloud – Irene. I walked, vision blurring with tears I refused to shed, back to the car. I sat in the front seat with my hand hovering, ready to move from park to drive, but my mind blank. Tears slid soundlessly down my eyelashes and ran over the lenses of my glasses, streaking them with the patterns of rain falling on windows. I felt too empty to be sad.

I took off my glasses and cleaned the lenses. I ran the sleeves of my coat roughly over my eyes. I couldn’t just sit here in a parked car half a mile from the dig site and think about Irene trapped behind glass. I had to go somewhere. I switched the car into drive. I would go to the pool at the St. Stephen’s gym. I’ve always been able to think more clearly underwater, as if the brief escape from gravity and solid surfaces loosed some bonds on my brain. When I told Irene about this, she’d said it made sense.

“Why?” I asked.
“You’re a Scorpio, which, even though it’s supposed to be a scorpion, is a water sign. So, it makes sense you’d love swimming.”

“And you’re a Pisces, which is the fish one, right?” She nodded. “So, unless I miss my guess, you are also a water sign.”

She nodded again, smiling. “I’ll make an astrologer out of you yet.”

“So, what does that mean?”

“What does what mean?”
“Us both being water signs. Your column – it’s all about looking at people’s zodiac signs and seeing if their compatible and whatnot. Well, what about us. Are we compatible?”

I snuggled down next to her, putting the tip of my nose against the soft skin of her neck.
“It’s not that easy. I mean, two water signs, it can go either way.” She pulled away slightly, tapping her index finger against her front two teeth as she thought. “On one hand, it means we’ll always understand each other. We’ll have a bond that can’t be broken. On the other hand, sometimes, two water signs together can get dangerous. They can lose themselves in each other and never find their way out.” She pulled closer to me, smiling slightly. “But, of course you don’t believe in any of this.”

I shook my head. “Not really, but I can think of worse people to lose myself with.”

“Aren’t you a charmer.”
“I try.”

I ran my hand over my face, pushing away the memory, and pulled into the faculty parking lot. I got out of the car and the slam of the door as I closed it echoed behind me for a moment as I walked up to the gym. The sun hung behind the trees edging the hill behind the gym so that its light seemed to compress the view before me into two dimensions. It seemed to me for a moment like a child’s charcoal drawing – the sort of thing that might have “my house” written in clumsy letters above it in the paper-white sky. The front door squeaked as I opened it. I nodded to the student at the front desk, someone I’d had in class a year or two ago, who didn’t need to check my ID to know I was a professor here and entitled to use the facilities. Even from here the chlorine smell was strong enough to burn my nostrils.

I looked down over the swimming pool from the viewing windows before heading down to the locker room to change. From above the pool was a perfect turquoise rectangle. Of course, if you scooped the water into your hand, it would be clear, not turquoise. The color came from the tiles at the bottom of the pool, tiles at the bottom of every pool designed to convince us that water was meant to be the color of a semi-precious stone. Still, there was something right about the turquoise color and the astringent smell of chlorine in my nose.

I walked down to the side of the pool, swim trunks bunching around my legs. I left my glasses on an abandoned pool chair with a duct tape red cross on the back, the college’s sop to life guard duty, and plunged into the pool. I sunk beneath the water, eyes open, and the scream that I’d held so long trapped in my lungs left me in a cloud of air bubbles rising silently to the surface.

The first time I brought Irene here, I remember, she wore a green and yellow paisley bikini with a tie in the back that always looked like it was about to come untied and gigantic wraparound shades. She said sunglasses were an integral part of the swimming experience and couldn’t be neglected even if the pool was indoors. I jumped in right away, but she’d sat on the side, kicking her feet to send little waves to splash me in the face when I surfaced.
I caught her feet and slid my hands up along her legs to her thighs, pulling her into the water with me. I kept one hand on the wall, while she wrapped arms and legs around me, her mouth on mine so hard I could barely breathe. Her hand teasing at the waistband of my swim trunks. My hand untying the knot in her bikini top. The top drifted away, carried by one of the wavelets made by her kicking feet, and her breast floated free on top of the water, dappled with freckles except for two perfect circles of pure white skin around the raised red mound of each nipple. The bright red and green of her tattoo glowed underwater like some rare tropical fish. My swimsuit joined hers, lost in the water, and we sunk together to the bottom of the pool. Her hands tangled in my hair. My hands traced the curve between her legs. I moved inside her, so warm in the surrounding cold water. She gasped bubbles of air in a column to the surface, eyes closed, skin blue in the aquarium light, like a mermaid with her hair a nimbus of fire around her head.

Tightness in my chest pulled me from my reverie. I gasped, sucking in water instead of air. My nose hovered centimeters above the tile floor of the pool. Far above, the florescent lights filtered down to me through the water, deep blue and wavering as ghosts. I swam to the surface, spitting water and choking on air. That wasn’t how it had happened. We’d come to the pool together and I’d dragged her in with me. We were about to kiss when a couple of students from my freshman seminar showed up with an inflatable volleyball and started stringing up a net across the pool. We’d climbed out of the water, suddenly shy, me walking a step behind her to hide the awkward bulge of my swim trunks.

I paddled to the side of the pool and pulled myself out and knelt a moment, dripping wet, staring at my reflection. Without my glasses, my vision blurred and what looked back at me seemed almost doubled. I shook my head and climbed unsteadily to my feet. It had seemed so real, more real, almost, than what had really happened. I picked up my glasses off the lifeguard’s empty chair and settled them on my nose, heedless of the wet. I went back to the side of the pool and gazed in. There was my reflection. Brown hair beginning to gray at the temples, overlong nose, the beginnings of a paunch around my middle. The blue of the water made my image seem darker than it should be, almost purple.

The water seemed to cloud for a second, or perhaps I blinked, and she was next to me. Her white arms around me, her naked body pressed against my side, her mouth so close to my neck that I could almost feel her hot breath, but I felt nothing. She was there in the water with my reflection. Her freckled thighs. Her flaming hair. Her green cat’s eyes. Her sharp, red mouth, brushing my reflection’s throat. But, I felt nothing. I reached into the water as if I could lift her out, but was left staring at my empty reflection.

I dipped my hand once more into the water. Cold. I left my hand there until it began to feel numb. My mind was playing tricks on me again. I’d run out of our apartment after seeing her, run all the way to the dig, and then I’d run from there to the pool. But she had followed me everywhere. There was no place in my life that I had not brought her, which was not thick with the memories of her. But I didn’t want to escape her, did I? Whatever was happening in my mind, it was probably the last chance I had to see my wife. I smiled slightly and grabbed a towel out of the bin and headed for the changing room. This was a gift. I would go home.
I toweled dry, staring into the warped green metal of a row of lockers. My face stared back. I blinked. Even in the dull reflection of the dented metal, I could tell something was wrong. Something was wrong with my face. I squinted and peered closer, but couldn’t get the image to resolve beyond a sense of something-is-not-right. I ran into the men’s bathroom and almost did not recognize myself in the mirror that spanned the back wall behind the sinks. The air was heavy and blurred the image with condensation. I went up close to the mirror, almost afraid to clear a space to look in.
Dark lines crisscrossed my brow and traced the edges of my eye sockets. They outlined my cheekbones and the folds of my jaw and I could see them disappearing into the parts of my throat hidden by condensation on the glass. I wiped off more of the mirror with my towel. Thick bands of reddish-brown ran down from my cheeks, through my throat, and met beneath my solar plexus at my heart. I knew what this meant. I shivered and every hair on my body stood at attention.

I had had blood poisoning once, when I’d fallen and cut open my elbow hiking to a dig in China. I hadn’t been able to get water I trusted to clean my wound, so I’d let it go. I ended up in the hospital three weeks later, a single black vein snaking its way up my arm, over my shoulder, and down almost to my heart. I crouched down on the floor and wrapped my arms around my knees. When I’d gotten back to Beijing, the doctor had told me that, if I’d waited any longer, the infection would have reached my heart. And, he said, if the infection reaches your heart, you die. It was as simple as that.

Could it be the dog bite? The stitches in my head? No, infection like this takes time – a slow dark line growing by millimeters along a single vein. This was different. Every vein and artery rusted dark. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. Air rushed in and out too fast to catch in my lungs, and I leaned into the sink to support myself. My hand caught on the handle and cold water spurted onto my chest. I didn’t look down. My hands were shaking too much to turn the water back off.

I stared into the mirror, unable to break eye contact with myself, as the brown of my veins shifted to a sick green, like something left out in the sun to rot. My chest burned from lack of air. The green lines spread over my body like ink, tracing the large veins and arteries, spreading into the fine capillaries. My body doubled, forcibly wrenching my eyes from the mirror, as I vomited yellowish fluid into the white sink. I watched it spiral down the drain with the water, wiping my mouth on the corner of a towel. The room smelled astringent, like unripe fruit and rotting gums. I couldn’t stay here. I had to go home.

I pulled my shirt on without bothering with half the buttons. I left the belt off my pants. Somehow I made it to the car and I have no idea how I got home. I don’t remember anything about the drive home except a smell – still water and rotting rose petals, rancid sugar and black earth. I staggered into our apartment and collapsed on the couch, unable to make it as far as the bedroom. The world swam against my half-closed lids a moment and then I was gone.
I was back in the dark place with a single band of light across my vision. I strained my eyes to see two figures bathed in light – a tall man in a priest’s black clothes and white collar, and a slight woman with red-hair in a black dress. I strained toward her, but as before I could not move even to blink. The priest put his hand on the woman’s shoulder, but she shrugged it off and turned toward me. She kneeled down until her face filled my vision – Irene. Her eyes were swollen with tears, turning her deep green eyes almost gray, but she spared me the smallest of smiles. “I love you,” her lips said without sound, “I love you.” I struggled against unbending muscle and rigid tendons to raise my hand even a fraction of an inch to caress her face, but could do nothing. Irene raised her hand and blotted out my light.
I lay unmoving in total darkness. I could feel the narrow walls that confined me against my shoulders and knew I should be afraid, but I was not. All I could think about was Irene’s face, tears locked up in her eyes unable to escape. I don’t know how long I waited in the dark before I felt motion, but just as I was beginning to try to discern the direction of my travel, a banging noise began. The banging reverberated, growing louder and louder, accompanied by a high and repetitive two-note ring. Some distant part of me, a phantom limb of my conscious mind, knew what this was and what it meant and pulled me up into the waking world.

I pulled myself to a see seated position. Cliff was using his patented method of getting into people’s homes at all hours of the night, banging on the door with one hand while repeatedly hitting the doorbell with the other. If I didn’t get up soon, he’d add shouting my name repeatedly to the mix.

“Simon! Simon, I know you’re in here. Answer the goddamn door!”

My next door neighbors would try to get me evicted if this went on too much longer. I stood up and shuffled to the door and pulled it open.

“What?”
“I wanted to say I was really sorry about Indy biting—“ He paused mid-thought and stared at me, mouth ajar. “Good God, man, you look awful. What the hell happened to you?”

I shrugged.

“It looks like blood poisoning. You should really go to the hospital.”

“They’ll just tell me what I already know.”
“Which is…?” He shouldered past me into the apartment and pulled the door closed behind both of us.

“That it’s psychosomatic.”

“How the hell could it all be in your head? I can see that you look like shit.”

“I—“ I paused, unsure how, or if, to go on. “It’s complicated.” I sat down on the couch and he pulled up a kitchen chair to face me. “I’ve been seeing Irene. At the pool, the dig, the hospital, even in the bathroom mirror. She looks alive. I saw her buried, I know—but, she looks, she looks…She was so young, Cliff. People shouldn’t die that young. I’m old, I mean, older, and—”

“That’s survivor’s guilt, Simon,” Cliff interrupted, “If you could have saved her, you would have. You were always after her to wear a seatbelt…”

“That’s what I mean. Worrying about wearing a seatbelt, it’s worrying about death. You have to be a certain age to think about death like that, like it’s personal. It would be obscene for her to have to think like that. About her own death.”

“Simon – and I never thought I would say this – but, you have to put the anthropology lesson away. Intellectualizing death, it doesn’t make it easier. You just have to live through it. It’s what Irene would want.”

“How do you know what my wife would want?”

“Don’t be stupid, Simon. She loved you; of course she’d want you to be happy.”

I laughed, because it was better than crying.

“Dwelling on this isn’t good for you. Let’s talk about something else.”
Silence stretched between us.

Finally, Cliff spoke, “History’s Mysteries is having a special on the holy grail. I won’t even make fun of you for getting all mad when they bring in British historians, when we know five people better in the U.S.”

I smiled. Cliff was my best friend for a reason. With an effort of will, I forced everything that had happened from my head. I needed a moment of normal life, even if it was just a moment. “They just have Brits on because it sounds more ‘authentic.’ All the really important grail research has been happening here ever since Don Foreman moved to Boston. Everyone knows that.”

He clicked the TV on. “That’s what I mean. There’s nothing better for grief than getting pissed off about something stupid.” He paused. “I’m getting a beer.”

“Get me one too.”

“Looking like that? Hell, no.”

“It’s my beer!”

“And you aren’t drinking any of it.” He got up and walked into the kitchen and I heard the whooshing sound of the fridge opening.

I closed my eyes. I could be normal for Cliff. This is what I’d been trying to do all day, after all, get my mind off of it. Maybe this would help. If it was psychosomatic, then Cliff was right, dwelling on it would only make it worse. I opened my eyes.

Carefully keeping my voice light, I shouted over my shoulder, “Get back here quickly or you’ll miss the panning-across-totally-irrelevant-friezes part of the show.”

“As long as I don’t miss the bearded re-enactors in period inappropriate colorful cloaks, I’ll be fine,” he said, plopping down on the couch and putting his feet up on the displaced kitchen chair.

I dozed off and on, catching about half the episode and trying not to drool too obviously on my collar. My eyes were only half open when I heard the music of the credits.

“Hey, Simon,” Cliff said, clapping me on the back, “I’m going to have to crash here tonight. I am way too drunk to drive home.”

I glanced over at the beer bottle on the table. He’d barely touched it. He glanced surreptitiously at me with suddenly clear eyes and I understood. He was worried about me. He knew if he asked to stay over to make sure I was okay, I’d send him packing. So, by pretending to be drunk, he gave himself an ironclad excuse to spend the night and keep an eye on me. I thought for a moment of calling him on it, but was too tired for the resulting argument.

“Yeah, that brand is a bit stronger than most. The fold-out bed in the couch has sheets on it already and there should be an old comforter in the linen closet. I can’t promise it won’t be pink or have flowers on it, though.”

“That’s fine. I’ll take care of it. You get to bed.”

He didn’t have to say it twice. I barely managed to change from street clothes to pajamas before crawling under the covers and falling asleep. My dream began in darkness where the other dream had left me. I was being carried somewhere, but I couldn’t orient myself. My nose filled with the blue smell of car exhaust and I could hear the steady rumble of turning wheels and the occasional screech as we jerked to a stop.

I felt myself, within my dark container, lifted again and carried and then I was being lowered down in slow jerks. I jostled as I hit bottom, limbs finally moving, though not of my own volition. I struggled to right myself, but again, could not move. That is when I began to hear the thock-thock noises that I recognized from years of archaeology, that I’d heard just that day at the dig. It was the sound of shovels biting into earth, of earth falling and hitting wood. They were burying me. They were burying me alive.

A piercing noise woke me and it took me a few moments of struggling against the binding sheets to realize it was my own scream, somehow disembodied by the transition from sleep to wakefulness. I shook hard as I pushed myself out of bed, heart pounding loud enough to echo in my inner ear. I stifled another scream. I couldn’t ignore the dreams anymore, or the visions of Irene. Not after this. What kind of person was I to wait so long? But, I couldn’t dwell on that. All the visions, the dreams, she’d been trying to communicate with me, to tell me she’d been buried alive. Every moment I waited now decreased my chances of rescuing her.
I tried to take a step and almost fell. I was so weak. Irene had talked about bad karma, and this must be what it felt like. I crawled on hands and knees out to the couch where Cliff lay, snoring loud enough to drown out my scream. I supported myself on the edge of the bed and shook him as best as I could.

“Cliff!” I shouted in his ear.

“One more minute,” he mumbled, starting to roll over.

“No, Cliff, this is important. You have to help me. I can’t do it alone.”
Cliff blinked and fumbled for the switch on the lamp next to his bed. He had to stifle a scream of his own when the light came on.

“Simon? You look…” He trailed off, mouth still open.

“It doesn’t matter.” I glanced down at my arms. The skin was the purple-brown of rotten meat and shriveled tight against the bone. My fingers were claws I could not uncurl. My vision lurched with sudden vertigo and I put my head down on the edge of the bed, heart pounding in my ears again. Then I forced myself up. I didn’t have time for this.

“It’s bad karma, or,” I searched for one of the other things Irene had told me about, “Or the Wiccans say that every deed you do returns to you tenfold. And I did a really bad thing.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I buried Irene alive. I didn’t know. She’s down there, Cliff. I need your help to bring her back.”

Cliff rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes. “Simon, please. Listen to yourself. Don’t you think they would have noticed if she was alive when they embalmed her?”

“She wasn’t embalmed.”

“What?”

“I’ll explain in the car. We have to go to the graveyard now.”

Cliff climbed out of bed. “If we do this thing, you have to promise me to see a doctor. I know a specialist in New York City who’ll see you. I’ll call him tomorrow morning.”

“Anything you want.”
“I still have a couple shovels in the trunk of my car from the dig, and an emergency flashlight.”
“I ha
d her buried in the faculty lot. She wanted to be near the old oak.”

“I know. Let’s get going before I come to my senses.”

I leaned on him and together we hobbled out to the car.

As soon as we were seated, he turned to me and said, “If whatever is happening to you is psychosomatic, maybe seeing that she’s really gone will, I don’t know, help you let go. That’s why I’m doing this. You understand?”

I nodded. It didn’t matter why he helped, only that he did. It had taken me too long to understand as is, and it was a miracle she’d survived this long. If we waited any longer, she would really be dead.

“Now,” Cliff said, eyes back on the road, “Tell me why she wasn’t embalmed.”

“She didn’t want to be. The embalming fluids are poisonous and she didn’t want to be responsible for formaldehyde in the ground water killing the trees. She made me promise I wouldn’t let her parents embalm her.”

“But, her parents are Catholic, right? They wanted her embalmed.”

I nodded. “So, I told them she was and I asked the mortician to fix her up as best he could and I kept the coffin lid part way down so that her parents couldn’t get too good of a look. It’s what she wanted.”

I thought again of the bar of light from my dream. That must have been all she could see, looking out of the shaded coffin, unable to move, unable to cry for help. I shivered. I’m coming as fast I can, I thought. Forgive me; I’m coming as fast as I can.

Cliff pulled into the faculty parking lot with a nervous squeal of tires and popped the trunk from the dashboard control. The shovels were back there and an emergency flashlight. We were prepared. A torn fingernail of moon cast the spiky shadows of trees over the feeble light coming from the car windows. I leaned heavily on my shovel, afraid I would fall, and switched on the flashlight. For a moment I was blind and then the world returned, pierced through with yellowed light. Fighting vertigo, I hobbled forward as fast as I could.

There was no gate to mark where the cemetery began, no latch to lift or lock to pick. There was only a wicker archway and an uneven stone path with grass growing in the cracks. The wind blew cold against my face and the leaves in the trees rattled like half-hearted applause. The beam of my flashlight caught the first gravestones and made them glow white against the black fingers of moss. The shadow of the oak tree was my path up the hill, leading to the newest grave marker with her name like a fresh wound in its granite face.

“Here,” I said, and the word seemed to cut my lips.

“How deep,” said Cliff, his normally booming voice barely above a whisper.
“Not very. They couldn’t dig too deep. Because of the roots.”

I felt more than saw him nod and we began to dig. I heard again the thock-thock of shovel on dirt, but digging down this time. Uncovering, not burying. The handle was slick with sweat and something worse between my hands and I could hardly raise my arms, but I did, again and again.

It was Cliff whose shovel first struck wood with a hollow ring, and up out of the hole wafted the smell of still water and rancid sugar, rotting rose petals and black earth. I could see the wreath I’d laid atop the casket, withered flowers brown as dirt. My shovel fell from nerveless fingers and I grappled with the ground, tearing to pieces everything between myself and my wife. I was on my hands and knees, my belly; I tasted dirt and didn’t have the energy to spit. I heard a distant voice crying out again and again, “Irene,” and it seemed a long time before I realized it was mine.

Finally, my hands found the latch, and my frantic gestures brought Cliff over to help me lift. The lid rose slowly at first and then more quickly. I took a deep breath, trying to remember what little CPR I knew, and smelled decay. It was the sickly sweet smell of rotten meat, of mushrooms growing in fetid wood, of old wounds left to fester. I gagged and swung the flashlight around. For a moment I thought I saw the beam glance off of her dancing green eyes, but then the light shown in full and I could see. The light reflected off the green-glinting carapaces of beetles swarming over her burst stomach. I could hear Cliff retching behind me into the bushes. I could see eyeless things crawling through her flesh on many legs.

One of her hands lay on her breast, clutching the desiccated remains of roses swarming with ants. The other hand lay at her side curled into a claw. Her skin was so dark that her metacarpal bones seemed to glow where they pierced the back of her hand. She was dead. She had been dead for a long time. There was no way I could have saved her. My body shook with sobs, but though my eyes burned, no tears fell. She was dead. She had been dead for a long time. There was no way I could have saved her.

I raised my hands to my eyes to block the sight of her, and as they passed through the beam of the flashlight, I saw what they had become. The skin was dark and shriveled into a claw. I turned my hand to see the back and the metacarpal bones gaped out at me through broken skin. There was no blood, no pain, only sudden, dawning understanding. I looked down at Irene’s hand and saw a withered claw identical to my own, its bones emerging from blackened skin. I lay my hand next to hers. The same. She was dead. She had been dead for a long time. I could still save her. I just had to get away from here. I had to get home.

Cliff lifted me up off the ground. “It’s time to go home,” he said.

I nodded, hiding my hands from him behind my back.

“We have to close the coffin now and bury her again. You understand that she’s dead, right?”

I nodded again. “I just want to go home.”

Cliff closed the coffin and together we swept the dirt back over her. It made the sound from my dream. The sound of earth falling onto buried wood. Cliff gunned the engine and pulled out, turning the radio up as loud as it would go, as if he could drown out what we had just seen.

“You know I’ve seen some really awful things,” he screamed at me over the noise, “You were with me at the dig in Pennsylvania. But, that, I…” He stopped. Music filled the car, blotting out the silence of the night.

Then, he began again, “I don’t want to see you at work tomorrow. You’re going to sleep in and then you’re going to see the specialist in New York. The man owes me a big favor and I’m going to make him come out here. And we are never, ever going to talk about what we did tonight. I’m going to have nightmares for the rest of my goddamn life as is. Okay?”

“Okay.”

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. But Cliff had been a good friend to me. I owed him more than that. “Thank you,” I said, barely audible above the screech of the bass guitar, “Thank you for everything. You’ve been a good friend to me.”

“The best. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t owe me big time. You’re going to have to do whatever I say for the rest of your life, got it?”

I nodded. “The rest of my life.”

The drum solo crashed around us and I leaned back into my seat. The rest of my life had ended a few days ago. I had dreamed two different ways things could have gone. First I’d seen myself at Irene’s funeral, just as I remembered it. But then I’d seen her at my funeral. Because she didn’t have to be the one who died. It could be either of us. Irene was dead now, but she needed to come back. I’d seen her wherever I looked because she had come to me after death. I was the only one who loved her enough to give her a life, my life. When I touched the mojo bag I’d seen her imprisoned because that is what it was made to do, prevent dead spirits from returning to take the life force of the living. If I held onto it, I’d get better. My skin would grow together and my color would return to normal. I’d live another thirty-or-so years as healthy as I ever was.

But I couldn’t do that. Irene was so young, with so much life ahead of her. She shouldn’t have been the one to die. I knew that all along. It should have been me. But, I could make it right. I love you, Irene, I thought. I’m coming as fast as I can.

Cliff dropped me off without a word, lost in his own dark thoughts. I waited until he’d pulled away, tail lights glowing like eyes in the distance, before I said goodbye. I unlocked the door and went inside. I turned on all the lights and went through the apartment. The dirty spoons in the bottom of the sink reflected her green eyes back at me. I caught a glimpse of her red hair in the shiny glass face of the wall clock in her bedroom. It was time.

I hadn’t opened Irene’s closet since the day she died, but the only full length mirror in the apartment was on the back of that door. I looked into it and she was waiting for me – beautiful, and young, and untouched by decay. Glancing at my own blackened, shriveled arms, I was glad I could not see my own reflection. “I love you,” I whispered to her, and her lips moved with mine. My fingers brushed against the mirror and passed through as if into still water, leaving ripples in their wake. I grasped Irene’s hands. They were cold, but slowly warmed in my arms. I drew her toward me and we kissed against the boundary of the glass and turned, so that I now stood on the other side.

“I love you,” she whispered to me, and my mouth followed hers. I watched her receding back until she passed out of sight and away into life. Cliff would be coming soon to drop off the personal effects from my office at St. Stephen’s and she needed to answer the door. Irene would cry and Cliff would comfort her.

That was the danger, Irene had said, of two water signs together. You could lose yourself in each other, lose track of who was who, who had lived and who had died. I could think of worse people to lose myself with. I closed my eyes and turned and walked out into the emptiness.

Memento Mori (Part One) Jul. 11th, 2010 @ 03:11 pm
Memento Mori

The recirculated air had no smell. The walls were white, the carpet white, the wood between the window panes was painted white. Irene would have hated this funeral home. She’d say it had no spirit, no imagination, something like that. In our apartment, she liked to cut pictures out of old National Geographic magazines and stick them to the walls with masking tape just to cover up all that blank white space. The metal folding chair felt cold through the seat of my pants. The priest said something about eternal life.

Irene would have had something ironic to whisper in my ear, but I came up blank. The priest was still talking, but I only caught the occasional word over the roaring in my head. I would never again hear her tell a joke. The thought hit me with the force of a blow. I would never again hear her sing in the shower or see her dance to the music playing in the supermarket. I would never again smell her peppermint-breath or see the way her nose wrinkled when she tasted something she didn’t like. I would never again see the way she arched her neck back when we made love. I gasped in pain and some distant relation of my Irene’s glared at me over her magenta talons. I was not going to cry, I told myself. Irene deserved better. I was not going to cry. I pressed my hands into my eye sockets, trying to hold it all in.

I heard shuffling around me and peered out between my fingers. Everyone was getting up. The priest was gesturing to the back of the room. The casket stood half-open, waiting. I could feel the heat of Irene’s body behind me. The priest put his hand on my shoulder and, without thinking, I shrugged it off.

“Come on, Mr. Cleary.”

“Doctor,” I mumbled, mouth on autopilot.
He ignored me. “As her husband, you get the first visitation with our dearly departed.”

I suppressed the sudden urge to punch the priest in the face and followed him up to the casket. Her eyes were closed, as if she were asleep, and I wished this were one of the stories she loved so much, so I could wake her with a kiss. She always looked so young when she slept, barely more than a girl. The white dress I’d picked for her with the pink rosettes around the collar looked like a nightgown. Her rose-and-thorns tattoo peaked out from under the collar. I could see the rouge the mortician put on her cheeks to make them glow rosy and the white powder he used to cover up her freckles. Her cheeks looked naked without them. But, he’d missed the ones across the tops of her breasts and the backs of her arms and for that I was suddenly and powerfully grateful. Her smile was the one I knew – sharp and sweet and slightly crooked, as if she got some joke the whole rest of the world had missed.

I fell to my knees in front of her and put my hands against the edge of the casket. I wanted more than anything to reach in and touch her, but I was afraid the warmth of my hands would melt her away. For the first time in my life I wanted to be able to cry, but my eyes burned without tears. I don’t know how long I knelt there, shaking, my whole world contracted to a single strand of her red hair moving ever so slightly, like a living thing, in the wind of the giant fan above our heads. After what seemed like moments, or maybe days, the priest put his hand on my shoulder and half-lifted me to my feet.
“Come on. It’s not healthy to stay here too long, and the others are waiting.”
The other mourners formed a line behind me, black and even as marching ants. I shuffled forward and one of Irene’s innumerable relatives took my place. The priest’s hand was on my shoulder again.
“If you need anything, even just to talk, I’m here for you. I want you to know that.”
I shook my head, mouth gummy with unspoken words, and turned and walked away. The woman who had glared at me before sniffed as I passed. She had never approved of Irene and me. I didn’t care. I had to get away from all of them – the silent, gray faces and the bulging, tear-swollen eyes. I ran out into the showroom, feet soundless on the carpeting. Coffins crouched on either side of an aisle, like guests at a wedding, decorated with wreaths of white roses and calla lilies or potted marigolds. I couldn’t remember if I’d chosen roses or lilies for Irene’s coffin. Roses, I thought. She always loved yellow roses. I put my aching forehead against the cool wall underneath the air vent and stifled a scream with both hands.

When the wake was finally over, I rode in the hearse with Irene’s parents and surviving grandmother. Only the five of us would bury her. A cold wind picked up when we got out of the hearse and I could smell the promise of rain. Irene and I had a plot reserved for us in the cemetery of St. Stephen’s College, where I taught archaeology. We used to take walks here when the sun was out and it would filter down on us green through the leaves of the massive oak in the center. We would sit between the roots of the oak together and she’d rest her head on my shoulder. A sob wracked my body. We were going to bury her now beside the tree. It would be a shallow grave, because of the roots, the undertaker had told me. I didn’t mind – the closer to the surface, the closer to me.

A hole had already been cut into the earth when I arrived, an empty rectangle, like a piece of missing flesh. I watched them lower the casket into the ground, smoothly on oiled winches. Professionals. Gooseflesh rose along my arms and I clenched my hands, driving my fingernails deeper into my palms with every turn that took her down. Four crescent moons, beaded with blood, formed a line across my palm. With a thud, the coffin hit bottom.

“Do you want to say a few words?” The priest asked, suddenly at my elbow. Perversely, the only words that came to mind were the ones I said to her on nights I stayed up later than her, working on my book: “Goodnight, my love. Sleep well and get up well.” I shook my head, unable to speak, my throat too clogged with all the words I’d never say to her again.

I don’t remember the car ride back to my apartment, save that it was silent and we all shook with every bump in the road. But, somehow I managed to find myself back home, surrounded by the bustle of her extended family. One aunt blended into another, wispy and tenuous as morning mist, as they gave me their condolences. I stared blankly as her uncles invited me to play pool at my own pool table and her sister offered me pasta casserole from my own fridge. Finally I found myself sitting on the couch Irene and I had hauled back to our apartment from a yard sale a week after we’d gotten the apartment together. She’d worn a white t-shirt that had turned nearly transparent as we sweated the few blocks home, revealing the lacy edge of her black bra. I stared into the still, black pool of the switched-off television set and did not cry.

I could not remember if I had fallen asleep or if the unblinking black eye of the television had swallowed me and only now spat me back out into an empty house, tie sideways and sweat prickling behind my elbows and knees. Someone had draped a blanket over me and it took me a few moments to untangle my limbs and stand up. I stumbled to the bathroom and turned the shower on with the water as hot as it would go. I stripped off my clothes and climbed into the water, watching my skin turn pink and then red in blistering heat that, try as I might, I could not seem to feel.

Irene’s tall, bright green shampoo bottle stood on the shelf next to the squat bottle of my Neutrogena for Men. Sour apple, it said on the side in elaborate script. The bottle clattered to the floor, cap popping off and spilling slick green liquid across the basin of the tub. I interposed my feet between the shampoo and the bright metal spot of the drain, not knowing why it was important to save it. Her shampoo had always smelled to me of green jell-o and cough syrup. I got down on my knees beneath the hot rain of the shower; scooping the green liquid into my hands and watching it drip between my fingers.

Irene always kept her hair short, but she still insisted on buying expensive shampoo. She would squeeze it into my hands and then let me run my fingers through her hair. I would turn her red curls – so different from my gray-brown hair – into castles and the horns of dinosaurs, before I would run my fingers, still filled with foam, down her spine to the small of her back. She would laugh and turn to me; face tilted up into the shower spray, green eyes squeezed shut against the stinging water. My eyes burned, but I could not get the tears to fall.

I finished my shower mechanically and walked to the kitchen wrapped in a towel. I took out the first thing I found in the fridge, a six pack of chocolate pudding cups. Unable to find a clean spoon, I ate them with my fingers.

I stumbled into bed, still clothed. I hoped that if I fell asleep in this dream, I would wake up in the real world with Irene lying next to me. It’s only a dream, I thought, as sleep sunk its claws into me and pulled me under.

My dreams had always been like movies, full color and surround sound, but without smells or tastes. But this dream was all darkness, slashed with a single band of light against which moved indistinct forms. There were voices in the dream, but they sounded the way voices do heard from the bottom of a deep pool, muffled and gurgling. But I could smell – my nose was full of the stink of still water and rancid sugar, rotting rose petals and black earth.

I tried to open my eyes, but something gooey and sick held them closed. I tried to open my mouth, but something sweet and dry filled up my throat. I couldn’t move. I knew this without having to try. All I could do was focus on the sliver of light and try to see through the slits left open at the bottoms of my eyes. The dark, half-formed things continued to move against the light, even as the light grew brighter and brighter and finally swallowed them whole.

I woke to sunlight illuminating the dark corners of my room. The window was further away than it should be. Still half asleep, I puzzled at the distance of the window, before realizing that in my sleep I had rolled over onto Irene’s side of the bed. I had even slept like her, curled up on my side, rather than lying flat on my back like I normally do.

Irene’s side of the bed smelled like her – her shampoo, the aloe of her hand lotion, the peppermint candies she liked. I stayed in bed a moment longer, pulling the covers up over my head to inhale her into myself. I remembered reading somewhere that smell affected the brain differently from the other four senses. Hearing, sight, taste, and touch were processed in the thalamus, while smell – alone of all the senses – immediately engaged with the places in the brain where memories were stored. Smell, according to the article, was the gateway to all memory. I breathed in her scent again.

The first time I’d seen – really seen – Irene, the air was heavy with the green smell of rain, clean earth and the bitter taste of old, forgotten things. Irene was a graduate student in my archaeology class. We were on a dig. St. Stephen’s College had just gotten permission to excavate the home of a group of freed slaves who had once lived nearby in the Hudson Valley. It was pouring, rain thick as drops of mercury puddling on my glasses and making prisms out of every flash of light. Half of the class hadn’t shown up, but Irene was there. I’d assigned the class to divide the dig site into even sections and mark them with string before we could begin the excavation. Irene, being Irene, wasn’t interested. I remember her boots, knee-high and green with googly eyes on the toes to make her feet look like cartoon frogs, and her hair slicked flat against her head and darkened with rainwater.

Her friends surrounded her, but in the way of memories, they were nothing but flickering ghosts, fluttering and meaningless. Irene’s hands rooted themselves into the earth, straining to pull something forth. She turned her face up to the sky, and the rain poured over her until it looked like she cried, but she was smiling.

I did not know how much time had passed before I forced myself to untangle my aching limbs from the softness of the bedspread and stand up. I shuffled hungry and half asleep, looking for my slippers and then for breakfast. The sunlight was an eggy yellow coming through the kitchen window and falling in neat squares across the middle of the kitchen table. It hadn’t rained in weeks and the grass was turning brown.

The red light on the answering machine blinked its warning at me, but I ignored it. I hurt. Every bone and muscle felt slightly out of my place. My joints ached and would not bend. The bright sunlight stung my eyes and dried my mouth and every step was a dull ache through my whole body. I could barely move. I lowered myself into a seat at the table and placed my hands flat in front of me. It took me minutes to convince my knuckles to bend enough to let me pick up my coffee mug.

My legs felt weighted as I shoved myself to my feet and shuffled over to the coffee machine. I’d woken late and the coffee had already cooled and begun to turn to sludge, but I drank it down anyway. I hoped the coffee would help me shake off the sleep paralysis that refused to leave my body. I tried to breathe, but nothing filled my lungs. My muscles clenched, grinding bone on bone. My head hit the linoleum floor and bounced. I could feel my heart beating, slow and regular. I knew I should have been scared, but everything felt so distant, like I was looking at myself through the wrong end of a telescope.

I’d never really looked at the floor before. Regular white squares stretching to infinity. A clear plastic candy wrapper hovered in front of my face, a few pinkish sugar crystals still clinging to one edge. Further out a napkin lay crumpled on one side, something written on it, but without my glasses I couldn’t tell what. My head felt sticky, something brown and wet in my vision. Coffee or blood? The phone rang again, but I couldn’t even turn my head enough to see the blinking red light.

A blurry face hovered over me. A beard. It must be Cliff.

“What the hell did you do to yourself?”

I tried desperately to get my eyes to focus.

“Never mind. I’m getting you to the hospital.”
Finally, I managed to get my mouth to work. “Not hospital.”

“You’ve got pieces of coffee mug sticking out of your head. I’m taking you to the emergency room.”

He moved my arm and I heard a sharp pop and then all I could hear was screaming. It took me a few minutes to realize the sound was coming from me. I woke up in a white room. My head felt numb and I felt around, finding a patch of hair missing and six neat stitches across my scalp. My shoulder ached and my limbs felt heavy, but not stiff.

“You awake?” Cliff’s voice.

“Yes. Thank y—“

“Shut up. What the hell were you thinking?”

“Huh?”

“Irene would want you to live. She’d want you to enjoy life. I knew her too. Hell, I met her before you did. So, I’m telling you. She would never forgive you if she found out you went and killed yourself on her account.”

“What? I didn’t—“
“When I got you to the hospital, the doctor said your muscles were tensed so badly they were tearing themselves apart. He said you’d probably taken some kind of drug. He had to inject you with cogentin before he could get you to lie down. You were stiff as a board.”

“I didn’t do anything. I woke up like that. I think I slept funny.”

“You serious?”

“Uh-huh. Why were you at my house, anyway?”

“I’ve been covering your classes for the past week. The dean wanted me to give you some papers to grade and update you on how it’s all going. I called you a couple times to see when you wanted to meet, but you didn’t answer, so I figured I’d come over and check up on you.”

“Thanks. You’re a good friend.”

“The best.” He paused. “Don’t worry about getting back quickly. I’m having a better time with your 101 kids than I’m having with my 300 levels.” He grinned. “Your students miss you, but they’ll put up with me for a while yet.”

I smiled. That sounded more like Cliff. Hearing him worry about me was just too strange. I looked around the room. White walls. White floor. White sheets. The window looked out on the parking lot. The last time I’d seen Irene had been in this hospital. I’d come to see her as soon as they called me and told me about the car crash. They had hidden her body under a sheet, but I could see the tubes going in and out, the edges of bandages stained pink and crusty yellow. Her face was purple and blue against the white pillowcase and her freckles were almost invisible. She’d tried to smile and be brave for me. She’d tried to tell me she loved me, but all she could do was cough and the nurse had to put the breathing tube back into the empty hole in her throat. I remember her hands, chipped green nail polish and broken blood vessels across the knuckles where she’d gripped the steering wheel too hard.

I didn’t notice I was crying until I felt my whole body begin to shake. Hot tears fell onto the white hospital sheets, turning them transparent, and I thought about clean rain falling years and years ago.

The doctor walked in right as I was wiping off my face, clearing his throat in a way he probably thought was subtle. I looked up and turned to face him.

“I’m Dr. Jiang,” he said, holding out his hand to shake.

“I’m Dr. Cleary,” I replied, taking his hand.

He gestured for Cliff to leave the room and, rolling his eyes behind Dr. Jiang’s back, he did.

“Now, I want you to be honest with me. Have you taken any drugs within the past few days?”

“No.”

“Your friend tells me you’ve suffered a loss recently. It’s perfectly understandable if you’ve been using pills to help you sleep. Your secret is safe with me.”

“I haven’t even taken Advil since...” I stopped, unable to finish the sentence.
“Since your wife died?”
I nodded.

“I took a blood sample and gave you an x-ray while you were still out. You don’t have any bone or muscle damage, but you do have heightened calcium levels and a dangerously low body temperature. You have no history of illness that could account for this. It sounds like drug abuse and I can’t treat you if you won’t be honest with me.”

“Doctor, I don’t know what you’re trying to accuse me of and I don’t care. I think I’m quite well enough to leave.”

I climbed shakily out of bed, suddenly freezing without the warm blanket draped over my legs, and began pulling on my pants. I had some medical textbooks and diagnostic manuals in a cardboard box labeled “bath supplies” in the shelf above the closet in our room. I’ve always found books more reliable than people.

Dr. Jiang called after me as I left the room, “I wrote a prescription for some pain killers in case you get worse. Pick it up at the checkout desk.”

When I saw the line at the checkout desk, I could almost believe that he’d sent me here as a punishment. I shivered in the air conditioning while the woman behind the checkout desk typed with one finger very slowly. There was a mirror covering the wall behind her head and she stopped periodically to look at her reflection. The man in front of me was arguing with her, speaking quietly his face very close to hers. To my left hung a pastel poster of a cat clinging to a tree branch with most of his body dangling in the wind. The legend read “Hang in there!” There was another poster next to it of a goldfish bowl and a vase of flowers. I looked away before I could read what that one said and turned to face front, determined not to see another inspirational poster.

I stared at the mirror. I could see myself swaying slightly on my feet, five o’clock shadow threatening to swallow my face. I let my gaze drift to the people behind me. A young family with three small girls and a father talking into a near-invisible earpiece. A couple of backpackers, one with a bandage across her temples. A woman bouncing a sleeping baby. And Irene.

I started, nearly knocking myself over. The woman in the mirror had the same red hair and eyes the same cat’s eye green. I could see the pattern of freckles over her nose, the dimple high on her left cheek when she smiled, even the edge of her rose tattoo where it disappeared into the collar of her shirt. I could feel my pulse pounding in my throat. She smiled at me, her beautiful crooked smile. I spun around, heedless of the syringe full of muscle relaxants in my system, and knocked into the man on the cell phone. He glared at me, but I ignored him, trying to see between the heads of the backpackers and behind the worried mother. Nothing. Not even a flicker of red hair.

I turned back to the mirror. There was no one behind the mother and child. Maybe it had been a nurse passing through, someone who looked a little like Irene. I couldn’t have gotten a too good of a look at her in the mirror, so my brain supplied the details that I couldn’t see. That had to be it. I felt a scream bubbling in my chest and clawing its way up my throat. I made fists and dug my fingernails into my palms.

The ride home was long, but without conversation. Cliff read the mapquest directions out loud and I rested my head against the window, feeling every bump in the road reverberate in my skull, and tried not to scream. My stomach hurt as if I’d been punched. I didn’t want Cliff to see me like this. We’d been friends since I joined the anthropology department at St. Stephen’s College ten years ago and it was sort of his fault that I started dating Irene. Cliff had dragged me to a bar in Tivoli so he could try once again to pick up the hot bartender – his words, not mine – with the sleeve tattoos and the bull ring through her nose. (His full name is Christopher Robin Radcliff, so sometimes he feels like he has something to prove.)

While Cliff made his fifth unsuccessful attempt, I sipped an American lager that tasted more or less the same as the can it came in and kept my head down. The bar was full of students and I was hoping none of them would recognize me. But then Irene came over. She was wearing something black and tight that showed all of the rose-and-thorns tattoo over her left breast. She held a glass of red wine in her right hand and she smelled like peppermint and aloe and the red currant tang of cheap wine. She was beautiful.

“I missed your class after I dropped out,” she said. “I even thought about stopping by since I still live in the area, but I didn’t think I’d find you here. How are you liking the beer?”

“This is not beer,” I replied, knowing even as I said it, that I would end up babbling. “Beer dates back to the sixth millennium BC. The Sumerians wrote prayers to the goddess Ninkasi to praise her for the gift of beer. Even the Epic of Gilgamesh contains references to beer. One could even say that beer was one of the great discoveries of the early stages of human society. We were not truly civilized until we had learned the art of fermentation. But this tasteless brown water in no way lives up to the storied history of brewing. It shames our ancestors and their craft. I wouldn’t even be here if my friend over there weren’t trying to pick up the barkeeper.”

To this day I have no idea why she took a liking to me. I don’t know what I said or did, but she put her mouth close to mine to stop the flow of words and somehow we ended up back at her apartment, kissing in her bed on top of her Spiderman sheets and I was in love.

Cliff dropped me off at home with papers to grade and a stern injunction to call him if I felt the slightest bit strange. I grabbed a step stool and feeling slightly dizzy, pulled the box of medical books down from the shelf and started reading about musculoskeletal disorders and calcium levels. An hour later I still hadn’t found what I was looking for and I was starting to feel badly about the way I’d treated Dr. Jiang. The sudden and total rigor of the body was a complete anomaly. Nothing in any of my books accounted for it.

I smiled. I knew I should have been panicking. I should be combing through the books, searching the internet, at the very least writing down my experience to show a specialist. But all I could think about was Irene waiting for me at the hospital. Her smile – white teeth and red lips, the crinkles it made around her green eyes and the dimples in her cheeks. Somehow it felt right that whatever was happening to me be unexplainable, or at least unexplained.

I started crying again, soundless sobs shaking me. I shut the book before my tears could damage the pages. Even while the tears ran down my face and dripped off the tip of my nose, I felt better. Irene had always told me that crying was helpful, even necessary, that it was how people coped. But I still remember my father telling me as a child, when I’d skinned my knee learning to bike, that men don’t cry. No matter what happens to them, men don’t cry. Whatever arguments we’d had later in life, the things he’d said to me when I was small stuck with me.
I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands until they were red and sore, but I’d stopped crying. I still didn’t know what chemicals they’d pumped into me to loosen my muscles or what kind of effects they could have on me. I thought again about the vanishing image of Irene in the hospital mirror and it seemed a little less miraculous and a little more pathetic. I shook my head to clear it. If I didn’t keep busy, if I didn’t keep myself distracted, I would go insane.

I looked down at the medical books again, but the words seemed to float above the pages, gray and wavering. I shook my head to clear it, but it only made me dizzy. The cogentin must finally be taking full effect, I thought. My legs felt a long way away from my body as I forced them to take me to my bed. I collapsed face first on the pillow and didn’t bother pulling up the covers.

In my dream, I was back in the dark place with its single bar of light. My nostrils were full of the stench of still water and rancid sugar, rotting rose petals and black earth. Slowly, the indistinct forms began to materialize against the light. As I watched, they gained clarity, and I could see two men dressed all in black. The taller of the two spoke to the other and placed a hand on his shoulder. The silent man shrugged off the hand and began to walk away. In the way of dreams, this seemed terribly important. I wanted to call him back, to warn him of something, but I didn’t know what. I attempted to speak, but found myself unable to control my muscles even enough to open my mouth. My tongue was dry and hot, like something that had been buried in the desert a long time ago.

Terror constricted my veins. I tried to gasp for breath, but could not draw in air. My world contracted to narrow focus. If I could move a single muscle, draw a single breath, blink, or cry, or scream, everything would be alright. But I could do nothing. The tall man approached me and bent low over my strip of light. He wore a collar like a priest and spoke words that meant nothing to me. The light vanished under his hands and I could feel my shoulders brushing against the walls of something.

I woke gasping for air and struggling against the blankets that somehow during the course of the night had wrapped themselves around me. My breathing returned to normal and I rolled myself over to look at the alarm clock on the bedside table. It was mid-morning and, out the window, clouds scudded across the sky, filling the room with uncomfortable shadows and blue aquarium light. I had rolled onto Irene’s side of the pillow and it smelled like her hair when it was freshly washed – green jell-o and cough syrup from her shampoo. I buried my face in the pillow, but quickly pushed it away and rolled over onto my side of the bed. Her smell was a hook twisting in my chest.

I had to get up. I pulled myself out of bed and stood shivering in rumpled clothing. My belt had unbuckled itself during the night and I refastened it before walking into the kitchen. Dirty dishes sat in the sink and the table was covered with something sticky. I picked a relatively clean glass up off the table and filled it with water from the tap.
Irene’s books had begun to spill over into the kitchen. I could see astrology books with star charts folded and stuffed between the pages, ruining the integrity of the binding, and magazines with covers in bright Easter colors and her name in blue or purple script on the front. I’d asked her about it when we first started dating, and she explained that she wrote a love-life horoscope column and if I were a sixteen-year-old girl I would have known exactly who she was.

I asked her, “Do you believe in it?”

And she said, “Writing for magazines or telling the future?”

“Both. Either.”
“Well, the horoscope-writing gig pays next to nothing, but you get to make your own hours and it’s pretty much the only career that encourages my unhealthy obsession with alliteration. As for telling the future, I guess that depends on how I’m feeling. Sometimes I just know the whole world is full of magic and all I have to do is look up at the stars and I can know anything. Other times I figure as long as I keep fooling other people into feeling that way, I’m doing a good job.”

I shrugged, unsure what to say.

“Do you have a problem with my job?” I could see the beginning of angry lines forming between her eyebrows. “I know it’s not ‘academic’ or ‘intellectual,’ but it’s my job and I’m good at it.”

“Wait, wait. Don’t get angry at me just yet. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know anything about the subject and if there is one thing you learn in my line of work, it’s that you don’t go barging into someone else’s discipline willy-nilly.”

“I can’t believe you just said ‘willy-nilly.’”

“What?”

“No one says ‘willy-nilly.’”

“I do.”

“Fine. No one, other than you, says willy-nilly. And you don’t count because you are the kind of person who says ‘willy-nilly.’”

“That is a fine example of circular logic you have there.”

“Yep. Do you want me to read your stars?”

“I would be delighted if you would, uh, do me the honor of reading my stars.”

“Aren’t you a charmer.”

“I try.”

“And you do very well.”

Before I could process what had just happened, she got up, kissed me on the bridge of my nose and began dimming the lights.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m creating a proper atmosphere. You can’t do anything even slightly occult with florescent bulbs around.”

“Won’t you have trouble reading your arcane texts?”

“Don’t worry about it; I have pretty much everything up here.” She smiled and tapped her temple with one finger. “But, if you want me to do you a proper star chart, I will need pen and paper and for that, light.”

She pulled a candle out of her kitchen drawer, lit it, and set it in a stand in the center of the table. She then pulled me into the circle of light with her and, still holding both my hands, asked, “So, when were you born and where?”

She looked down; her hands full of pencils and paper, and the candlelight turned her eyelashes into slotted shadows down her cheeks and made her skin seem to glow.

I shook myself free of memory and looked down at my hands. Wet. My hands were shaking and I’d spilled the glass. The florescent lights bore down on me, cold and impersonal, as I toweled dry the kitchen floor.

Brightly colored fridge magnets in the shape of the letters of the alphabet decorated the fridge, holding up a grocery list, all but the last item in Irene’s handwriting. Glass jars of loose leaf teas labeled with strips of masking tape – violet mint, lemon ginger, apple peach, cranberry cinnamon. Irene liked to make her own mixes, even if no one else would drink them. Across from them on the far counter stood the collection of salt and pepper shakers Irene’s mother sent her in lieu of postcards when she traveled. Irene had tried to explain the family tradition behind it, but I had never been able to understand. I met the painted-on eyes of a salt-filled shepherdess in a pink hoop skirt and her pepper-flecked sheep.

Dust motes danced in the pale light from the window and I remembered reading once a long time ago that most of dust is shed skin. I wondered how much of it was hers. Everything in our apartment was covered in a fine down of her soft skin. I breathed her in with every breath. She clung to the inside of my throat and floated through my lungs. I gasped, struggling for breath, my mouth and nose choked with the smell of still water and rancid sugar, rotting rose petals and black earth.

To Be Continued

Winter Jul. 11th, 2010 @ 02:40 pm
Winter

There is a presence in completely dark rooms – even rooms in ordinary houses – a sense of certainty that someone else is there. It fills all the space where you are not. It wraps long arms around you and whispers in your ear. It lets you know without a doubt that this house in the dark is not yours. I know this house is not mine. This story is not mine. Winter has come, and three days ago all the mirrors in the house stopped reflecting my face. The snow is falling. Frost draws illusory cracks on the windows and reflects the glow of candles. I can feel the house’s hunger growing in my belly, sharp as the corners of the sickle moon.

Winter is the hungry season. Nothing grows in the village on the far side of the forest. All the animals have already been slaughtered. I know the village, though I do not remember why. I know the mothers with their large red hands and the embroidery around the edges of their aprons. I know the fathers with dirt beneath their fingernails and teeth ground down to powder.

I can see two of their children reflected in the mirrors outside the room where I sleep. They repeat endlessly, passed back and forth between facing mirrors – two small dark lines walking across a field of snow, beneath a blinding white sky. Sometimes I imagine that they are two tally marks on a perfectly white sheet of paper and I know I have been here too long.

The children will be cold and scared. They will not have eaten in days. They will not know why their parents have taken them into the woods and left them alone. The dark presence wraps its arms around my shoulders and guides me down the long spiral of stairs. Every winter the house rearranges itself. But always the kitchen is right beside the main room. It will be warm and welcoming with a fire for the children to warm their hands over and thick stew simmering on the hearth stones.

I flinch and the dark presence wraps me tighter. It places my hand on the door at the base of the stairs. I open the door and there are the children, hands frozen to the bone, skin hanging on them where they should be plump. The presence knows I cannot leave them in the cold. So, I take them into the kitchen and let them sit in front of the fire and watch the hearthstones drink greedily the ice crystals that melt out of the weave of their sweaters. I ladle stew into earthenware bowls – chunks of lamb, whole onions and carrots, and bones at the bottom.

They eat crouched together without leaving the sheltering warmth of the fireplace. When they are finished, the girl stands and her brother follows, his hand pulling on the sleeve of her sweater. He is small and pale, blonde hair lifting from his scalp to float around his head as it dries. Glints of red catch in his hair from the firelight and reflect in his eyes. For a moment, I see him burning, his head wreathed in flames, his shy smile transforming into a scream. I shake my head and the boy as he is now returns to me, hiding in the shadow of his tall, dark sister. She turns to him, pulling smooth, flat rocks from inside the pockets of her apron, and hands them to him. The boy plays with the rocks in the corner of the fireplace, stacking them and laughing when they fall loudly on the hearthstones.

His sister looks once back at him before walking up to me.

I open my mouth to speak, to say, “Run while you still can. It’s better to die outside in the snow than to stay in here where it’s warm.”

But I feel the darkness coiling in my throat and instead I hear my own voice say, “My name is Anna. What’s yours?”

“I’m Claire,” says the girl, “My brother’s name is Jack.” She pauses, considering her words.

“People don’t just take children in and feed them stew. Not in the winter.” She holds up her hand as if expecting protest. “I understand. You want something. That’s okay. Whatever it is you want, ask me. I’ll do it. Just let my brother be. He’s small and not strong like me. But he’s smart and sometimes he sees things no one else does. So, you see, I have to protect him.”

“I understand. I had a brother once too, a long time ago.” As I say it, I realize it is true, though I remember nothing about him. “I don’t want you to do anything too hard. I’m all alone out here and I’m not as young as I was, so I could use a bit of help around the house.”
“I
can do that. I took care of everything after Mama died.”

I nod, wanting to put my hands around her and hold her, but fearing that the dark presence would put its arms around her too.

“Anna?” she says after a moment of silence.
“Yes, dear?”

“Jack doesn’t know why Da and Step-Ma left us in the woods. I told him we just got lost. Please…don’t say anything.”

“Jack is lucky to have a sister like you watching out for him.”

I smile, closing my lips over teeth growing gradually sharper. My hands shake and I clench them together behind me, fingernails digging in, creating crescent moons of whitened skin all along the edge of my palm.

“Claire, let’s start doing the dishes,” I say, “You wash and I’ll dry.”

The wash basin is full, as it has always been since I came to the house, and the water is warm against Claire’s skin, pulling some of the deep chill out of her bones. Her shoulders begin to relax, but her eyes remain hard and unreadable.

I look back to see the boy, Jack, asleep, his head resting in his hands and stones scattered at his feet. I pick him up and carry him to bed, the dark presence guiding my feet to where the children will sleep this winter. There is a candle by the boy’s bedside, spreading a small pool of golden light across the heaped covers, lumpy with down. The light catches in the eyes of the wood rabbit carved into the headboard and for a moment it looks knowingly at me. As I tuck her brother in, the girl begins to yawn, but stands still at the door.

“Come in,” I say. “Don’t you want to go to bed?”

“You sure you don’t have something else you want me to do?” Her eyes do not waver as she begins to unbutton her dress. She lets the dress fall and walks to me naked. Her nipples look violet in the half-darkness and her skin seems to glisten, as though touched with ice.

She reaches up to touch my cheek. The laughter of the dark presence echoes in my head as I catch her hand and shake my head.

“That’s not what I want, Claire. I just want to keep you and your brother safe and out of the cold.”

Claire stands silent looking up at me and her face is hard and cold as the northern ice that never thaws. Then the harsh planes of her face collapse into themselves and she is a child again, a small girl child, and she is crying. I hold out my hand and she follows me outside to sit in front of the fire. She is still naked and she shivers and crosses her arms over her chest to keep out the cold. Her nipples look hard and blood red in the glow of the fire, like pomegranate seeds, and her eyes are much too dark to be the eyes of a child. I think of my own eyes, back when mirrors still held my reflection, and before I know I mean to speak, my mouth is open.

“You’ll never have to show yourself like that again, for anyone. I’ll make sure of it,” I say, which is true. “I’ll take care of you and your brother from now on,” I say, and I suppose that is true as well.

She looks back at me, her face serious, but softer than it was. The remains of her tears turn her eyelashes to icicles. She takes a deep breath of the warm air.

“I’m sorry, Anna. I shouldn’t have, you know…” Her voice trails off as she gestures to her bare body. I bring her a patchwork quilt and she wraps it around herself gratefully. “I just—“ she stops again, deciding how to begin. “You’re just the first grown-up who’s done anything for us, for Jack and me, without wanting me to do that. At least since Ma died.”

“What about your father?” I ask, but I know the story already.

The mother hardly cold in the ground before the father takes the daughter to bed, his hand over her mouth so she can’t scream and wake her little brother. There is blood running down her thighs and she doesn’t understand. When he is done with her she finds a bruise like a deep purple rose on each thigh. The neighbors know. There isn’t much you can hide in a little village, but they say nothing. Children throw stones and call her names.

Claire looks up at me and her eyes are hard again, “My father? Who do you think taught me to do that?” Her voice is flat, without bitterness. “I had to. He said he’d hurt Jack if I didn’t. I’m his big sister, Ma always told me to look out for him.” Her voice is tired now, no longer flat. Jack’s name sticks on her tongue.

Claire doesn’t have to finish telling the story. I know how it ends. The father crushes the girl, his hot breath through ground-down teeth hot in her ear. There is pain, but she is used to that now. Then the sound of the door opening, a creak of un-oiled hinges, and the tombstone shadow of the new wife falls across them. There is an argument, heard through a closed door, and then the girl and her brother are left in the woods in the winter, cold and hungry, with their heads full of stories about wolves.

For a moment, I remember every shadow, every touch. I remember the hot breath and the bruises. And I remember a little boy and a little girl with red hair shining bright against the snow. He cries and she comforts him. They walk into the woods. It is the same story. It is always the same story. I only wish I could remember who they were.

Claire is looking at me now, expecting something and I don’t know what to do, so I open my arms and she climbs into them. She fits there perfectly, like she was my own child. For a moment I let myself imagine that she is my daughter and Jack my son and the house is just a house with darkness only where some tall thing blocks the light.

I would cook for them. We wouldn’t have lamb and onions like the house provides, but I know how to make traps to catch small animals and where to look to dig up the nuts squirrels bury for the winter. Claire and I would do the dishes together every night; I would wash and she would dry. When spring came we’d teach Jack how to plant a garden. I’d trade vegetables for wool and sew him a better toy than those rocks he plays with.

I smile slightly and feel my teeth, teeth grown sharp enough to cut. My stomach clenches with a hunger not my own and my arms stiffen against Claire’s small body. I can see the dark presence now, sliding like oil over the windows and whispering around the edges of the fire place. Its cold fingers crawl along the nape of my neck and disappear into my skull. It knows my dream and its hunger is knives in my belly.

I push Claire out of my arms. I can’t make her feel safe here. I can’t let her feel like she belongs. If I do, she won’t take her brother and leave. It would be better for them to wander in the woods, to die in the snow if they must, than to stay here with the darkness and what comes after.

Claire turns her head up to look at me, confused. I try to put into my face my disgust at myself, at the house, and every terrible thing I’ve done here and I turn to face her and she sees. Hate me, I beg her with my eyes, afraid to open my mouth with my teeth grown so long and sharp. Hate me and run. Save your brother and yourself.

Claire recoils from me and dashes a few steps away. Then she turns back to look over her shoulder. “You can think whatever you want about me, about what I did. Just don’t throw us out. I can work. I’m a good worker. I’ll take care of the house for you. I just have to protect Jack.”

The dark presence wraps around my neck and makes me nod and smile to her, like the mother I cannot let myself become. She turns and walks away back to the room I’d given her and to her waiting brother. Her hands shake only a little as she opens the door. She is far enough away now that she won’t see my teeth, so I try one last time to save her.

“There is only one rule here,” I call after her, “Only one thing I really need from you. Promise me you won’t go down into the cellar under the house. It’s full of old rusting things and isn’t safe. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to keep your brother out of there too.”

She nods, but the animal wariness is still in her eyes. Perhaps she would hate me enough to disobey. Perhaps she would find the room. Perhaps she would take her brother and run before it is too late. If the house had not stolen the words to all my prayers, I would get down on my knees and pray God make it so. But, even still, I can feel the hunger and the cold twisting in my belly, and my teeth growing long and sharp enough to cut the inside of my lips.

The house is different every winter. Its rooms find new arrangements, its stairs new twists and turns. But, always there is a thin door in the kitchen, almost hidden between the stove and the washbasin. Behind it there are always stairs, leading down into the cellar. Every winter, when I walk this way – as I do now – the cellar is different. But, I do not need a candle to find my way. The house guides my feet, softly across the cold stone floor, until my hands find the door to the brick room.

I open the door, but do not enter. The toes of my stockings just reach across the divide between stone and brick to touch the barest edge of the room beyond the open door. The floor is warm, like a child sick with fever, and the mortar feels soft as flesh. I raise my eyes to the far side of the room and, though it is dark, the house forces me to see them. The children are bloodless shadows against the wall, glowing faintly where their skin merges with the brick. Some are almost whole; hands and feet still free, and they flutter like trapped moths – others are nothing but eyes pressed into the mortar between two bricks.

Their pain comes to me in the air of the room, an animal scent of wet fur and piss, and for a moment I hate them. I bare my teeth. They have grown long and sharp even behind my straining-closed lips, but now I feel them, thin and prickly as needles, meeting above and below my lips like perfect white sutures. They cut my skin, but draw no blood.

I do not hate the children that have come to me winter after winter. I do not hate them when the dark presence wraps its arms around me and I take them by the hand and lead them down the stairs and into the cellar. I do not hate them when I take them to this room and hold them against the wall, feeling the brick slide under their skin, pulling them into the house. But, I feel hunger sharp as the teeth of the winter wind. My belly is empty and soon it will be full. And I do hate. I hate myself for my weakness, for bringing the children here. I sing to my trapped, dying children. I sing them a lullaby that I do not remember learning. I tell them of a mother who so loved her son that she pulled the moon down from the sky for her baby boy to play with. I sing of love and feel the hooks of the house burn cold under my skin.

My mouth is dry as I walk up the stairs and close the door. I find my bed and lie, eyes open. I dream of wolves, fur white against white snow, almost invisible except for the jeweled red of their bloody mouths. I dream of bats, wheeling cold and sharp against the night sky – so black against the darkness that they cannot be seen except for when a flapping wing hides, for a moment, the stars. I dream of a field in winter, the snow half-hiding broken granite teeth. There were names here on the stones, but time and winter’s ice have washed them clean.

I wake to sunlight glittering in the snow that covers the windows. It is morning, but my room is full of twilight. I close my eyes and let my mind slip out through the cracks of my skull. I see the boy, Jack, still wrapped in covers in his bed. He sucks his thumb, eyelashes casting long shadows across his face. Claire’s bed is made. She is in the kitchen, stirring a pot of oatmeal over the stove. The candles in their wall sconces have dripped wax on the floor and dust gathers in the corners of the room, new-grown cobwebs span the corners of dark hallways. The house has changed again while I slept.

Claire will work and she will feel that she earns her keep. She will stay. I know that now. I cannot hope for her to take her brother and run out into the snow, away from a house where no dust gathers, where plates clean themselves while your eyes are turned, and fresh candles grow from the stumps of those that burn themselves to ash.

Claire curtsies when she sees me in the doorway to the kitchen. I smile, my teeth no longer quite so sharp, and wish her good morning. I move to take a turn stirring the pot of oatmeal, but Claire is reluctant to let go of the wooden spoon. Her hands are dry and chapped from her time out in the snow. We do not talk of last night and the things she said beside the fire. We will never speak of that again.

The smell of oatmeal wakes her brother and we both hear the sound of his footsteps on the stairs. He comes into the room and Claire abandons the oatmeal to my stirring. Jack attaches a hand to the ties of her apron and says nothing. I serve them oatmeal and pretend to eat my own. Claire waits until she has finished her bowl before she speaks.

“Anna?”
I nod. The dark presence hangs in the room, but I do not feel its tightness in my throat.

“I’ve done some cleaning up around the house already, but there is a lot more I can do. I can sweep and wash the floors and polish the silverware and heat up some water to wash clothes and—“

“You’re a smart girl,” I say, “I know you’ll take care of my poor old house. It’s just nice to have children in the house again. I get lonely out here in the forest.”

Almost without my noticing, the darkness has crept into my mouth and speaks through me to the children. Claire nods, pleased, but Jack just piles his stones on the table in front of him and does not look at me. His knuckles are white where they clutch at his sister’s dress.
Claire and I clean the dishes as we did the night before and I do not tell her that the house will clean them whatever we do. Afterward she trails close behind me as I find this winter’s location for the broom closet and hand her one of the brooms. She is eager to be useful, her eyes finding every dirty footprint and dusty corner the house has made for her. Jack walks behind her with his pocketful of stones, thumb back in his mouth. His eyes glow yellow with the reflected flame of a candle, but there are none lit. I think again of my visions, the brother burning and the sister under ice.

I call after them as they walk to the kitchen – Claire to sweep and Jack to watch – “Remember. Clean any part of the house on this level and upstairs, but don’t go down into the cellar. It’s not safe down there – and Claire?”

She turns to look at me.

“The door to the cellar is through the kitchen. Try to keep Jack out of there.”

She nods and takes Jack’s hand. “I’ll keep him close to me.” I do not see a flicker of curiosity in her dark eyes, only relief at having found a safe place for her brother. The dark presence laughs at me out of the door frames and the corners of rooms. It does not matter what I say. Claire will not go into the cellar and find my secret until I take her there myself. I cannot save her.

Claire is down on her knees in the kitchen with a wet rag, scrubbing the stone floor. Jack sits next to her, building a tower out of his stones, carefully placing the biggest stone on a level part of the floor, then putting the next largest on top of it until he has the smallest stone balanced precariously on the top. Laughing, he knocks the tower over, scattering stones across the floor. Claire looks at him sharply and he gathers them up and brings them to her.

“Tell me a story,” says Jack.

Claire smiles and dips the rag into the bucket by her side. “Once upon a time there was a girl and a boy—“

“Is that us?” asks Jack.

“Who’s telling the story here?”
“You.”

“The boy and the girl got lost in a dark forest in wintertime and they were very scared—“
“You are talking about us. I bet they find a house next, with a nice old lady and oatmeal.”

“Alright. They find a house. If you’re so smart, tell me what the house was made out of?”

Jack looks around the kitchen, eyes fastening on a tin of cookies high up on one of the shelves. “Gingerbread!”

“Don’t be silly, Jack. You can’t make a house out of gingerbread.” She wipes her dirty hands off on her apron before ruffling his hair to take the sting out of her words.

“You told me I could say.”

She smiles. “The boy and the girl, after wandering for a long time in the dark forest come across a house made out of gingerbread, with windows made of—“ this time Claire looks up at the shelf, “maple candy, and the roof is covered in strawberry preserves.”

“What about the door?”

“The door is a giant oatmeal cookie and the knob is made out of a raisin.”

“Is the nice lady a baker?”

“Yes, and she lets the boy and girl stay with her all winter and help her bake. She has barrels full of sugar and others full of flour, jars and jars of preserves, and shelves full of maple syrup bottles.”

“Where does she keep it all?” asks Jack, eyes round and wide.

“In the cellar,” says Claire, glancing over at the door. “But, the boy and his sister weren’t allowed down there, so they wouldn’t make a mess of things. And they were good children and very obedient and never made any trouble and so the nice old lady let them stay.”

“What about their parents?”
Claire’s eyes look dark and far too old. Tears sparkle in them, but do not fall; as if she is so cold inside that she has frozen them there in her eyes. I could see her for a moment, near, but somehow impossible to touch – suspended beneath ice that slowly clouds with frost and obscures her from view. I shake my head to clear it, my own eyes stinging, but unable to cry. I turn away and begin to walk up the stairs before I can hear her answer.

That night I dream again of the white wolves and their red, red mouths and I feel my teeth – even through my sleep – grow sharp and cut the inside of my lips. There are two children in this dream and they are lost in a forest of white, snow-covered trees. The wolves are so white against the snow and the trees that the watchful girl does not see them. The boy is not looking; every few steps he drops behind him a stone that sinks into the snow and is gone. They vanish and I dream of the field of broken granite teeth and the dark, blue heart of the flame.

When I wake, the snow has fallen so thickly against the windows that it is night-dark inside the house. I light a candle and stare for a moment into its blue center before walking down the stairs to bring light to the children I hear beginning to stir below. Along the way, I light the candles in the wall sconces and watch the little flames dance in the snowy whiteness of the mirrors that do not reflect my face.

I open the door of the children’s room and the glow of my candle catches Claire awake and standing over the shadow of her brother’s bed. Her face is a pale circle, her eyes wide and dark with fear.

“What is it?”

She gestures to the bed and I look again. The bulge beneath the covers is too still. I lift the blankets and see, in place of Jack, a pair of goose down pillows.

“I don’t know where he is,” she says, but her eyes are wide and I know that she does. I see in her eyes very clearly the gingerbread house of her story with its cellar full of sugar and maple syrup. She is afraid I will think that she was planning to steal from me. But I know better. I know why she sent him down into the cellar, knowing that I might cast him out into the cold. I know that there is only so long you can protect someone, even someone you love, before you have to hate them a little bit too. I remember a pair of eyes in the mortar of the house and the boy they used to belong to – a boy with red hair, like mine was when I was a girl.

I close my eyes and let my mind float away from my body, where the dark presence twines around it and purrs like a cat. My mind dives down through the stone floor and into the cellar. It flies to the brick room where Jack is standing with the stub of lit candle dripping white wax in streaks across his hand.

He is looking at the children in the wall. Their eyes glow yellow in the light of his candle. Their mouths form silent warnings as they struggle and writhe against the bricks. The places where flesh becomes stone stretch and distend, pulling their skin across their faces, closing their eyes and working their jaws. Pain rolls off of them in waves, smelling sick-sweet, like too much sugar.

Jack screams and drops the candle. The only light comes from the faint glow of the dying children’s bodies as they sink deeper and deeper into the brick and mortar. Jack turns and runs, stumbling against walls and the edges of doorframes, tripping over tree roots and the stones spilling from his ripped pocket. His mouth is a perfect O of fear and rage.

Claire follows me down stairs and I feel the dark presence hovering between us. I gesture to reassure her, but do not trust myself to speak with the darkness floating so close to my mouth. My teeth are long and sharp and they struggle to free themselves from behind my lips. I keep my mouth closed and walk to the kitchen. I light the fire beneath the stove. There is a tray of cookies on the table, gooey-white uncooked dough in the shapes of boys and girls – two arms, two legs, and a round circle for a head. I try to slow my breathing, but I see it clouding before me even near the heat of the oven.

I open the oven and put the cookie sheet inside. I have forgotten to wrap my hands in my apron, but my hands are like ice and the fire cannot touch them. I lean in as far as I can go. The heat is not unbearable. My tears thaw inside of my eyes and begin to flow down my cheeks.

I hear Jack ascending the stairs, his footfalls heavy. He pushes past Claire and comes straight for me. I lean further in. I search for the blue part of the flame, only it will be hot enough to melt away the ice. The dark presence does not wrap its arms around me and drag me from the oven. It does not coil in my throat and force me to explain, to make the children love and trust me again. I wait for the darkness and I pray with whatever small part of me it has not conquered that it will be fooled.

I hear the door burst open. Jack stands in the kitchen behind me. I can hear his heart pounding. I can feel the tickle of the flames against my frozen face.

“You were going to hurt my sister.” I hear Jack say. His breath too labored to let him scream. “You were going to hurt me.”

I hold my breath, waiting for what, I pray, must come next. Claire gasps and I hear her footsteps coming closer.

“Da said I was the man of the house when he wasn’t around and I had to protect my sister, even if she is bigger than me. So, I can’t let you hurt her.”

I feel his hands on my back, pushing. I fall into the fire. The fire is yellow and bright, hiding its cold blue heart. I hear the oven door slam shut and look up, finally allowing my mouth to open in a smile of triumph. Jack is screaming. I don’t know how he got into the oven, but he is here, with me, and his hair is wreathed in flames. His eyes glow with yellow reflected light. He flails against me, pushing at the door, trying to open it. But the fire has swallowed us and we cannot return.

Past Jack, I see Claire standing perfectly still. She does not move to open the door and free her brother. The window in the oven door begins to fog with steam and for a second it is ice frosting over and Claire hangs suspended at the bottom of a frozen lake. Then I see the dark presence coil itself around her. Its arms enfold her, its darkness fills her mouth and her eyes. Her lips are violet and her skin glistens as though touched with ice.

For an instant, I remember another woman burning, holding a child with red hair. I remember the way the window in the oven door clouded with steam, hiding them from view and leaving only an empty mirror, white as snow.

I look at my hands and see blackened claws. I feel no pain, but I am burning, burning to death. My prayers have been answered, I think, and then I understand. This is my reward, this painless death in the blue heart of the fire. This is my reward for giving the house a new guardian. The darkness whispers to Claire, and though I cannot hear it, I know what it says, for it said the same thing to me once long ago – “This is your home. You will never again have to wander hungry and cold through the woods. I will never turn you away.” Claire looks away from her brother’s screaming face and walks deeper into her house. I hold her brother to my breast as we burn.

Let’s Do the Time War Again (Doctor Who/Rocky Horror) Jul. 10th, 2010 @ 11:23 am
Let’s Do the Time War Again (Doctor Who/Rocky Horror)

The Master:
I’m subduing;
Time is bending
Madness takes its toll.
But listen closely...

The Doctor:
Not for very much longer.

The Master:
I've got to keep control.

I remember during the time war
Thinking those moments when
The Blackness would hit me

The Doctor:
And space-time would be calling...

Daleks:
Let's do the time war again.
Let's do the time war again.

Donna:
It's just a turn to the left.

All:
And then a step to the right.

Donna:
Put your hands on your hips.

All:
You have a terrible fright.
But it's the TARDIS thrust
That really drives you insane.
Let's do the time war again.
Let's do the time war again.

The Doctor:
It's so dreamy, the TARDIS frees me.
So you can't stop me, no, not at all.
Into other dimensions, with
voyeuristic intentions,
Well outnumbered, I save all.

The Master:
With a bit of a mind flip

The Doctor:
You're into the time slip.

The Master:
And nothing can ever be the same.

The Doctor:
You're spaced out on a station.

The Master:
Prepared for intimidation.

All:
Let's do the time war again.
Let's do the time war again.

Rose:
Well I was running through the shop
just a-having a fright
When a hell of a guy gave me a crazy flight.
He shook-a me up, he took me by surprise.
He had a TARDIS box, and stars in his eyes.
He stared at me and I felt a change.
Time meant nothing, never would again.

All:
Let's do the time war again.
Let's do the time war again.

Donna:
It's just a turn to the left.

All:
And then a step to the right.

Donna:
Put your hands on your hips.

All:
You have a terrible fright.
But it's the TARDIS thrust
That really drives you insane.
Let's do the time war again.
Let's do the time war again.

Novella Update Oct. 9th, 2009 @ 12:12 am
My novella is now officially part of the October 2009 issue of Reflection's Edge. You can find it here: http://reflectionsedge.com/index.php/2009/10/changes.

*grins*

My Novella is Going to be Published! Jul. 1st, 2009 @ 10:09 am
My novella, Changes, was just accepted for publication in Reflection's Edge. I'm so excited! *bounces*

Winter Jul. 1st, 2009 @ 10:02 am
Winter

There is a presence in completely dark rooms – even rooms in ordinary houses – a sense of certainty that someone else is there. It fills all the space where you are not. It wraps long arms around you and whispers in your ear. It lets you know without a doubt that this house in the dark is not yours. I know this house is not mine. This story is not mine. Winter has come and three days ago all the mirrors in the house stopped reflecting my face. The snow is falling. Frost draws illusory cracks on the windows and reflects the glow of candles. I can feel the house’s hunger growing in my belly, sharp as the corners of the sickle moon.

Winter is the hungry season. Nothing grows in the village on the far side of the forest. All the animals have already been slaughtered. I know the village, though I do not remember why. I know the mothers with their large red hands and the embroidery around the edges of their aprons. I know the fathers with dirt beneath their fingernails and teeth ground down to powder.

I can see two of their children reflected in the mirrors outside the room where I sleep. They repeat endlessly, passed back and forth between facing mirrors – two small dark lines walking across a field of snow, beneath a blinding white sky. Sometimes I imagine that they are two tally marks on a perfectly white sheet of paper and I know I have been here too long.

The children will be cold and scared. They will not have eaten in days. They will not know why their parents have taken them into the woods and left them alone. The dark presence wraps its arms around my shoulders and guides me down the long spiral of stairs. Every winter the house rearranges itself. But always the kitchen is right beside the main room. It will be warm and welcoming with a fire for the children to warm their hands over and thick stew simmering on the hearth stones.

I flinch and the dark presence wraps me tighter. It places my hand on the door at the base of the stairs. I open the door and there are the children, hands frozen to the bone, skin hanging off of them where they should be plump. The presence knows I cannot leave them in the cold. So, I take them into the kitchen and let them sit in front of the fire and watch the hearthstones drink greedily the ice crystals that melt out of the weave of their sweaters. I ladle stew into earthenware bowls – chunks of lamb, whole onions and carrots, and bones at the bottom.

They eat crouched together without leaving the sheltering warmth of the fireplace. When they are finished, the girl stands and her brother follows, his hand pulling on the sleeve of her sweater. He is small and pale, blonde hair lifting from his scalp to float around his head as it dries. Glints of red catch in his hair from the firelight and reflect in his eyes. For a moment, I see him burning, his head wreathed in flames, his shy smile transforming into a scream. I shake my head and the boy as he is now returns to me, hiding in the shadow of his tall, dark sister. She turns to him, pulling smooth flat rocks from inside the pockets of her apron, and hands them to him. The boy plays with the rocks in the corner of the fireplace, stacking them and laughing when they fall loudly on the hearthstones.

His sister looks once back at him before walking up to me.

I open my mouth to speak, to say, “Run while you still can. It’s better to die outside in the snow than to stay in here where it’s warm.”

But I feel the darkness coiling in my throat and instead I hear my own voice say, “My name is Anna. What’s yours?”

“I’m Claire,” says the girl, “My brother’s name is Jack.” She pauses, considering her words. “People don’t just take children in and feed them stew. Not in the winter.” She holds up her hand as if expecting protest. “I understand. You want something. That’s okay. Whatever it is you want, ask me. I’ll do it. Just let my brother be. He’s small and not strong like me. But he’s smart and sometimes he sees things no one else does. So, you see, I have to protect him.”

“I understand. I had a brother once too, a long time ago.” As I say it, I realize it is true, though I remember nothing about him. “I don’t want you to do anything too hard. I’m all alone out here and I’m not as young as I was, so I could use a bit of help around the house.”

“I can do that. I took care of everything after Mama died.”

I nod, wanting to put my hands around her and hold her, but fearing that the dark presence would put its arms around her too.

“Anna?” she says after a moment of silence.

“Yes, dear?”

“Jack doesn’t know why Da and Step-Ma left us in the woods. I told him we just got lost. Please…don’t say anything.”

“Jack is lucky to have a sister like you watching out for him.”

I smile, closing my lips over teeth growing gradually sharper. My hands shake and I clench them together behind me, fingernails digging into skin, creating crescent moons of whitened skin all along the edge of my palm.

“Claire, let’s start doing the dishes,” I say, “You wash and I’ll dry.”

The wash basin is full, as it has always been since I came to the house, and the water is warm against Claire’s skin, pulling some of the deep chill out of her bones. Her shoulders begin to relax, but her eyes remain hard and unreadable.

I look back to see the boy, Jack, asleep, his head resting in his hands and stones scattered at his feet. I pick him up and carry him to bed, the dark presence guiding my feet to where the children will sleep this winter. There is a candle by the boy’s bedside, spreading a small pool of golden light across the heaped covers, lumpy with down. The light catches in the eyes of the wood rabbit carved into the headboard and for a moment it looks knowingly at me. As I tuck her brother in, the girl begins to yawn, but stands still at the door.

“Come in,” I say. “Don’t you want to go to bed?”

“You sure you don’t have something else you want me to do?” Her eyes do not waver as she begins to unbutton her dress. She lets the dress fall and walks to me naked. Her nipples look violet in the half-darkness and her skin seems to glisten, as though touched with ice.

She reaches up to touch my cheek. The laughter of the dark presence echoes in my head as I catch her hand and shake my head.

“That’s not what I want, Claire. I just want to keep you and your brother safe and out of the cold.”

I pull back the covers on her bed and let her climb in and huddle among them.

“There is only one rule here,” I say, “Only one thing I really need from you. Promise me you won’t go down into the cellar under the house. It’s full of old rusting things and isn’t safe. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to keep your brother out of there too.”

She nods, but the animal wariness does not leave her eyes. Perhaps this one would disobey. Perhaps she would find the room. Perhaps she would take her brother and run before it is too late. If the house had not stolen the words to all my prayers, I would get down on my knees and pray God make it so. But, even still, I can feel the hunger and the cold twisting in my belly, and my teeth growing long and sharp enough to cut the inside of my lips.

The house is different every winter. Its rooms find new arrangements, its stairs new twists and turns. But, always there is a thin door in the kitchen, almost hidden between the stove and the washbasin. Behind it there are always stairs, leading down into the basement. Every winter, when I walk this way – as I do now – the basement is different. But, I do not need a candle to find my way. The house guides my feet, softly across the cold stone floor, until my hands find the door to the brick room.

I open the door, but do not enter. The toes of my socks just reach across the divide between stone and brick to touch the barest edge of the room beyond the open door. The floor is warm, like a child sick with fever, and the mortar feels soft as flesh. I raise my eyes to the far wall of the room and, though it is dark, the house forces me to see them. The children are bloodless shadows against the wall, glowing faintly where their skin merges with the brick. Some are almost whole; hands and feet still free, and they flutter against wall like moths – others are nothing but eyes trapped in the mortar between two bricks.

Their pain comes to me in the air of the room, an animal scent of wet fur and piss, and for a moment I hate them. I bare my teeth. They have grown long and sharp even behind my straining-closed lips, but now I feel them, thin and prickly as needles, meeting above and below my lips like perfect white sutures. They cut my skin, but draw no blood.

I do not hate the children that have come to me winter after winter. I do not hate them when the dark presence wraps its arms around me and I take them by the hand and lead them down the stairs and into the basement. I do not hate them when I take them to this room and hold them against the wall, feeling the brick slide under their skin, pulling them into the house. But, I feel hunger sharp as the teeth of the winter wind. My belly is empty and soon it will be full. And I do hate. I hate myself for my weakness, for bringing the children here. I sing to my trapped, dying children. I sing them a lullaby that I do not remember learning. I tell them of a mother who so loved her son that she pulled the moon down from the sky for her baby boy to play with. I sing of love and feel the hooks of the house burn cold under my skin.

My mouth is dry and I walk up the stairs and close the door. I find my bed and lie eyes open. I dream of wolves, fur white against white snow, almost invisible except for the jeweled red of their bloody mouths. I dream of bats, wheeling cold and sharp against the night sky – so black against the darkness that they cannot be seen except for when a flapping wing hides for a moment the stars. I dream of a field in winter, the snow half-hiding broken granite teeth. There were names here in the stones, but time and winter’s ice have washed them clean.

I wake to sunlight glittering in the snow that covers the windows. It is morning, but my room is full of twilight. I close my eyes and let my mind slip out through the cracks of my skull. I see the boy, Jack, still wrapped in covers in his bed. He sucks his thumb, eyelashes casting long shadows across his face. Claire’s bed is made. She is in the kitchen, stirring a pot of oatmeal over the stove. The candles in their wall sconces have dripped wax on the floor and dust gathers in the corners of the room, new-grown cobwebs span the corners of dark hallways. The house has changed again while I slept. Claire will work and she will feel that she earns her keep. She will stay. I know that now. I cannot hope for her to take her brother and run out into the snow, away from a house where no dust gathers, where plates clean themselves while your eyes are turned, and fresh candles grow from the stumps of those that burn themselves to ash.

Claire curtsies when she sees me in the doorway to the kitchen. I smile, my teeth no longer quite so sharp, and wish her good morning. I move to take a turn stirring the pot of oatmeal, but Claire is reluctant to let go of the wooden spoon. Her hands are dry and chapped from her time out in the snow.

The smell of oatmeal wakes her brother and we both hear the sound of his footsteps on the stairs. He comes into the room and Claire abandons the oatmeal to my stirring. Jack attaches a hand to the ties of her apron and says nothing. I serve them oatmeal and pretend to eat my own. Claire waits until she has finished her bowl before she speaks.

“Anna?”

I nod. The dark presence hangs in the room, but I do not feel its tightness in my throat.

“I’ve done some cleaning up around the house already, but there is a lot more I can do. I can sweep and wash the floors and polish the silverware and heat up some water to wash clothes and—“

“You’re a smart girl,” I say, “I know you’ll take care of my poor old house. It’s just nice to have children in the house again. I get lonely out here in the forest.”

Almost without my noticing, the darkness has crept into my mouth and speaks through me to the children. Claire nods, pleased, but Jack just piles his stones on the table in front of him and does not look at me. His knuckles are white where they clutch at his sister’s dress.

Claire and I clean the dishes as we did the night before and I do not tell her that the house will clean them whatever we do. Afterward she trails close behind me as I find this winter’s location for the broom closet and hand her one of the brooms. She is eager to be useful, her eyes finding every dirty footprint and dusty corner the house has made for her. Jack walks behind her with his pocketful of stones, thumb back in his mouth. His eyes glow yellow with the reflected flame of a candle, but there are none lit. I think again of my visions, the brother burning and the sister under ice.

I call after them as they walk to the kitchen – Claire to sweep and Jack to watch – “Remember. Clean any part of the house on this level and upstairs, but don’t go down into the basement. It’s not safe down there – and Claire?”

She turns to look at me.

“The door to the basement is through the kitchen. Try to keep Jack out of there.”

She nods and takes Jack’s hand. “I’ll keep him close to me.” I do not see a flicker of curiosity in her dark eyes, only relief at having found a safe place for her brother. The dark presence laughs at me out of the door frames and the corners of rooms. It does not matter what I say. Claire will not go into the basement and find my secret until I take her there myself.
Claire is down on her knees in the kitchen with a wet rag, scrubbing the stone floor. Jack sits next to her, building a tower out of his stones, carefully placing the biggest stone on a level part of the floor, then putting the next largest on top of it until he has the smallest stone balanced precariously on the top. Laughing, he knocks the tower over, scattering stones across the floor. Claire looks at him sharply and he gathers them up and brings them to her.

“Tell me a story,” says Jack.

Claire smiles and dips the rag into the bucket by her side. “Once upon a time there was a girl and a boy—“

“Is that us?” asks Jack.

“Who’s telling the story here?”

“You.”

“The boy and the girl got lost in a dark forest in wintertime and they were very scared—“

“You are talking about us. I bet they find a house next, with a nice old lady and oatmeal.”

“Alright. They find a house. If you’re so smart, tell me what the house was made out of?”

Jack looks around the kitchen, eyes fastening on a tin of cookies high up on one of the shelves. “Gingerbread!”

“Don’t be silly, Jack. You can’t make a house out of gingerbread.” She wipes her dirty hands off on her apron before ruffling his hair to take the sting out of her words.

“You told me I could say.”

She smiles. “The boy and the girl, after wandering for a long time in the dark forest come across a house made out of gingerbread, with windows made of—“ this time Claire looks up at the shelf, “maple candy, and the roof is covered in strawberry preserves.”

“What about the door?”

“The door is a giant oatmeal cookie and the knob is made out of a raisin.”

“Is the nice lady a baker?”

“Yes, and she lets the boy and girl stay with her all winter and help her bake. She has barrels full of sugar and others full of flour, jars and jars of preserves, and shelves full of maple syrup bottles.”

“Where does she keep it all?” asks Jack, eyes round and wide.

“In the basement,” says Claire, glancing over at the door. “But, the boy and his sister weren’t allowed down there, so they wouldn’t make a mess of things. And they were good children and very obedient and never made any trouble and so the nice old lady let them stay.”

“What about their parents?”

Claire’s eyes look dark and far too old. Tears sparkle in them, but do not fall; as if she is so cold inside that she has frozen them there in her eyes. I could see her for a moment, near, but somehow impossible to touch – suspended beneath ice that slowly clouds with frost and obscures her from view. I shake my head to clear it, my own eyes stinging, but unable to cry. I turn away and begin to walk up the stairs before I can hear her answer.

That night I dream again of the white wolves and their red, red mouths and I feel my teeth – even through my sleep – grow sharp and cut the inside of my lips. There are two children in this dream and they are lost in a forest of white, snow-covered, trees. The wolves are so white against the snow and the trees that the watchful girl does not see them. The boy is not looking, every few steps he drops behind him a stone that sinks into the snow and is gone. They vanish and I dream of the field of broken granite teeth and the dark, blue heart of the flame.

When I wake, the snow has fallen so thickly against the windows that it is night-dark inside the house. I light a candle and stare for a moment into its blue center before walking down the stairs to bring light to the children I hear beginning to stir below. Along the way, I light the candles in the wall sconces and watch the little flames dance in the snowy whiteness of the mirrors that do not reflect my face.

I open the door of the children’s room and the glow of my candle catches Claire awake and standing over the shadow of her brother’s bed. Her face is a pale circle, her eyes wide and dark with fear.

“What is it?”
She gestures to the bed and I look again. The bulge beneath the covers is too still. I lift the blankets and see, in place of Jack, a pair of goose down pillows.

“I don’t know where he is,” she says, but her eyes are wide and I know that she does. I see in her eyes very clearly the gingerbread house of her story with its basement full of sugar and maple syrup. She is afraid I will think that she was planning to steal from me. She is afraid I will cast them out into the cold and the dark.

I close my eyes and let my mind float away from my body, where the dark presence twines around it and purrs like a cat. My mind dives down through the stone floor and into the basement. It flies to the brick room where Jack is standing with the stub of lit candle dripping white wax in streaks across his hand.

He is looking at the children in the wall. Their eyes glow yellow in the light of his candle. There mouths form silent warnings as they struggle and writhe against the bricks. The places where flesh becomes stone stretch and distend, pulling their skin across their faces, closing their eyes and working their jaws. Pain rolls off of them in waves, smelling sick-sweet, like too much sugar.

Jack screams and drops the candle. The only light comes from the faint glow of the dying children’s bodies as they sink deeper and deeper into the brick and mortar of the wall. Jack turns and runs, stumbling against walls and the edges of doorframes, tripping over tree roots and the stones spilling from his ripped pocket. His mouth is a perfect O of fear and rage.

Claire follows me down stairs and I feel the dark presence hovering between us. I gesture to reassure her, but do not trust myself to speak with the darkness floating so close to my mouth. My teeth are long and sharp and they struggle to free themselves from behind my lips. I keep my mouth closed and walk to the kitchen. I light the fire beneath the stove. There are a tray of cookies on the table, gooey-white uncooked dough in the shapes of boys and girls – two arms, two legs, and a round circle for a head. I try to slow my breathing, but I see it clouding before me even near the heat of the oven.

I open the oven and put the cookie sheet inside. I have forgotten to wrap my hands in my apron, but my hands are like ice and the fire cannot touch them. I lean in as far as I can go. The heat is not unbearable. My tears thaw inside of my eyes and begin to flow down my cheeks.

I hear Jack ascending the stairs, his footfalls heavy. He pushes past Claire and comes straight for me. I lean further in. I search for the blue part of the flame, only it will be hot enough to melt away the ice. The dark presence does not wrap its arms around me and drag me from the oven. It does not coil in my throat and force me to explain, to make the children love and trust me again. I wait for the darkness and I pray with whatever small part of me it has not conquered that it will be fooled.

I hear the door burst open. Jack stands in the kitchen behind me. I can hear his heart pounding. I can feel the tickle of the flames against my frozen face.

“You were going to hurt my sister.” I hear Jack say. His breath too labored to let him scream. “You were going to hurt me.”

I hold my breath, waiting for what, I pray, must come next. Claire gasps and I hear her footsteps coming closer.

“Da said I was the man of the house when he wasn’t around and I had to look out for my sister, even if she is bigger than me. So, I can’t let you hurt her.”

I feel his hands on my back, pushing. I fall into the fire. The fire is yellow and bright, hiding its cold blue heart. I hear the oven door slam shut and look up, finally allowing my mouth to open in a smile of triumph. Jack is screaming. His hair is wreathed in flames. His eyes glow with yellow reflected light. He flails against me, pushing at the door, trying to open it. But the fire has swallowed us and we cannot return. Past Jack, I see Claire standing perfectly still. She does not move to open the door and free her brother. The window in the oven door begins to fog with steam and for a second it is ice frosting over and Claire hangs suspended at the bottom of a frozen lake. Then I see the dark presence coil itself around her. Its arms enfold her, its darkness fills her mouth and her eyes. Her lips are violet and her skin glistens as though touched with ice.

I look at my hands and see blackened claws. I feel no pain, but I am burning, burning to death. My prayers have been answered, I think, and then I understand. This is my reward, this painless death in the blue heart of the fire. This is my reward for giving the house a new guardian. The darkness whispers to Claire, and though I cannot hear it, I know what it says, for it said the same thing to me once long ago – “This is your home. You will never again have to wander hungry and cold through the woods. I will never turn you away.” Claire looks away from her brother’s screaming face and walks deeper into her house. I hold her brother to my breast as we burn.

Changes May. 4th, 2009 @ 06:18 pm
Changes

The camera looks out on white – white walls, white tile floor, white sheets on the bed. The man is the only trace of color. The bulge in the bed sheets is his wife. He turns to the camera for a moment and it captures his face, an empty room devoid of any life. His fingers move independently of him, clutching convulsively at the guardrail of the bed. A microphone records the irregular ting-ting of his wedding ring colliding with metal. The man opens his mouth to speak once or twice, but his words choke him and he is silent. After a few minutes he stands up and begins pacing the room, looking always away from the shape in the bed. Now he speaks and the microphone records his words. On the other side of the wall, unseen, someone listens.

Do you know what they said to me one time when I was waiting for you? One of the doctors said, “Think of a balloon with many dots drawn on its surface. Now inflate the balloon. The dots aren’t moving away from each other, are they? Their world is just expanding.” His voice was flat coming out of one of those metal boxes they wear around their necks, and I swear, Charlotte, if you hadn’t come out right then with that smile on your face, I would have hit him right there. For his flat face and flat voice and the way he spoke like he was reading everything out of some book on comforting the bereaved.

They want me to leave. Your doctor keeps telling me that you can’t hear me. You’re too deeply asleep now – like a “caterpillar in a chrysalis, waiting to become a butterfly,” he says. I don’t really care. I need to tell you a story. Our story. The story of Jonathon and Charlotte Callahan and how everything changed.


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My Book! Oct. 4th, 2008 @ 11:49 am
The book I worked on over the summer, Religion in America, is listed on Amazon.com. Its coming out in April. I was the section editor for "Other Faiths" and wrote the section on Atheism, Agnosticism and Humanism. I also did a lot of editing and writing for other chapters. So, I'm really excited that this book that I worked on all summer is going to become not just an idea but a real book that real people will read!

Click here to see its Amazon.com page.
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