I lug the paint-peeling trash cans up the hill in the backyard and lean them against the hollow oak tree drooping over the marigolds. They slide on the grass and I steady them. Crinkles of green embalms my hands. I then glance back at the flowerbed downhill in front of the pool and sense that it looks even lonelier without the crowded bunches of sultry Spurweed snaking around the browning Maiden grass. It’s all dirt now, save for the overgrown grass and my long wooden shovel with its steel mouth reflecting and cooking in the sun.
I start to stamp on clumps of Spurweed ten to fifteen at a time, towering my right leg over the bunch, and then dropping it down like a crane to expose the darkened roots, which is, of course, to avoid the nauseatingly banal task of handpicking each one by one. The caked mud on my steel-toed boots is dried, hardened, and ugly-looking, and my jeans fluctuate between rigidity and dampness from kneeling down in the slush. My long sleeve shirt with my navy-blue college lettering on it is blemished with streaks of dirt, and smells, and is comfortably sweaty, and I want to tear it off.
I go over to the yellow hose left of the garden and wash myself off.
I continue to yank weeds from the soil, getting thistles stuck in my rubber gloves, shaking my hand to get them out, and then continuing on with my work. They hurt like hell, and every few pulls, a few of the bushier ones pierce my bare hands, and all I really want to do is fall over and curse and throw a fit and jump into the pool, and then slope my callous-infested hands in a subzero bucket of ice—if that even exists. But I restrain the pursuit of this hypothetical aspiration in order to continue working at a steady pace.
I walk over to the bending-wire fence behind the garden and take hold of it. It’s thin and insubstantial, and maybe I will twist its oval ridges and rip out a chunk for me to jump through. Why not; I’d run into the forest; I’d sprint, and my stringy hair would float behind my head; the icy winds would wrap around me, and eventually, I’d get somewhere unfamiliar and emerge from the trees to a place where nobody knows my name, or cares to learn it.
I wipe my sweaty forehead with my arm, and as I do, Mrs. Baldwin calls for me from the front yard.
“T-ii-mm! Come get a drink. All done for the day.”
I slip off my muddy gloves, place them in my back pocket, and toss a mint in my mouth. “One second, Ma’am.”
Mrs. Baldwin’s home is Victorian, I guess, or however an old mansion that is gigantic and old-fashioned is professionally designated. And it has a stale and uptight aroma about it: like the place is on its way out after many years of dutiful service. Thank you for your service, I whisper.
There is a winding ornate staircase with an ivory hallway runner descending to the first step. It seeps down like a languid river, calm and collected, no cascades or sways. The ceilings are broad and milk white. The paint is evenly spread. It is unnerving. There is an oil expressionist painting that extends from one side of the second floor, to the other, like a college dorm tapestry; it depicts a shirtless man—a mainly man—with a ball of chest hair and a bearded face. He’s biting into an orange. Not an apple. An orange.
Directly in front of the stairwell is a glass vase with mostly white flowers, miniature yellow blooms scattered in between. The flowers sit on a circular stone table that has two thick and wide legs. It seems like it was taken from an old museum, of sorts. Although this entire home is really an old museum. I picture people, any people really, her friends, I suppose, or loathed acquaintances, or likable colleagues, or obliged to invite colleagues, waiting for Mrs. Baldwin to gradually tiptoe down the steps. She wears her nightgown, her slippers, or whatever the hell she wears or wore to bed at one point—and then—she peeks into the viewing hole and allows the visitors in a moment later. She kisses them all on the cheek. Takes their coats. She wears her sleep attire in order to show the visitors that it is just another charade. Just another night at the Baldwin residence. She changes after the first group piles in and walks down the steps looking like the rest. Her husband whistles.
I imagine the parties that could have went on when Mrs. Baldwin’s husband Alan was alive and well. Over the top snotty outfits worn by all, harmless and harmful drinking, the snickering, the gossip, the all-male servers hiking from the bottom floor to the top—top to bottom—clenching circular black trays, sporting rigid white gloves, wearing their stone faces well, with curling mustaches that they oil tenderly before a night’s labor, approaching the guests with a napkin and a crab cake. And then the guests. They are beautiful female snobs rocking ovular diamond necklaces that dip down to above their breasts, kissing their white wine, trying to impress one another, doing so accordingly. The men wear blazers, of course, choking silk black bowties, that will be loosened in the car ride home, and set aside in the glove compartment for the next charade. I now observe the house the way it is now. Desolate even, like my own. Outdated. A step behind the world; a sort of old harbor and human sanctuary that has shriveled up and been left behind by a transformed America that no longer prefers suburban materialism the way it used to
Maybe I’m all wrong.
Mrs. Baldwin is in fact in her eighties and I suppose it is a likelihood that she’s lived in this home for most of her life. It is suburban residence that exemplifies ‘old money,’ or rather the very notion of the, once, communally held American Dream with which all people assumed subservience towards. But what kept her on the outskirts of Delaware? Why hadn’t she traveled or gone on to live somewhere nicer? Somewhere where you didn’t freeze for more than half the year. If I was her age, and without a significant other or work obligation, I’d have left this area long ago. Hell, I want to leave it at 20. But she must’ve remained comfortable in the tender confines of her first-class vintage home all these years. A home that makes one feel transported to another time, to another life—to another futile existence.
“Here you are, Tim,” Mrs. Baldwin says, walking towards me with a glass of water and an envelope.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Oh, you’ve done quite a good job. Quite a good one indeed. Those damn weeds of mine thrive this time of year! It’s quite hot out, even for a strong boy like yourself. I gave you a little bonus, Tim. I did.”
“Oh, that isn’t necessary, Mrs. Baldwin. It’s alright.”
“No, no! It’s my pleasure. Can you come back in two weeks to clear the flowerbeds again?”
“I’m sorry. I’ll be back at college. I go back tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, darn. I’ll have to hire the Mexicans down the block again.”
She pauses for a moment—rethinking her words.
“Well...anyhow, I wish you a splendid school year. What is it you are studying again?”
I start mouthing a response.
“Oh, oh. Let me guess. Your majoring in Economics and Political Science? Or International Studies? Maybe the Natural sciences? Biology?”
“Oh, quite good. Quite alright.”
I scratch at my ear.
“I better get going. Thank you for the money.”
“Of course! I’ll see you over your break.”
She walks me to the door, and I walk down the cracked and powdery brick steps. I wave and she smiles.
I change into sneakers and get the air conditioning panting before I sit in the steaming car. I light a cigarette and gaze at Mrs. Baldwin’s home from the very tip of the driveway. The house begins to illuminate in the induction of the summer darkness. A lamppost turns yellow to my side. And then another.
I wonder if she is still roaming about inside. I wonder if she is conscious. I wonder if she persists when left alone inside. I wonder if she becomes a statue.
I light another cigarette.
Once the car seems cool enough, I take my right hand off the roof of the car and slide myself into the driver’s seat. I shift the car into drive, put on my high beams to radiate the path ahead of me, and am on my solemn way, into the coming night.
It is 6:00 PM. Outside in the looped driveway, Donna Reedman’s car is packed to the brim. But inside, Donna washes the last dish. It sparkles.
She spins around to lay it atop the pile, and as she sets it down, she pauses, and sees the off-putting Paul lugging himself unhurriedly down the khaki-carpeted steps. His long and black and stringy hair hangs over his forehead and he wears a white shirt and briefs. He dangles an empty wrapper-peeled beer bottle in one hand, rubs his nose, and negates eye contact. He walks into the living room and turns on the TV.
Donna walks over to him, plants in front of the screen. She grabs the remote control and mutes it. She crosses her arms and he shifts his body left, then right, then back to the middle—like a child might when he gives in to his Mother’s declaration of a cartoon-less day.
“We need to tell Tim the news when he gets home. This has gotten out of control, Paul. He’s going back to school tomorrow for God sakes.”
Paul looks down and his hands. His palms are still red and marked up. He balls his hands in a fist, and then unclenches them, and purses his lips. He looks at Donna blankly, and nods.
“You do it.”
The Ju-Ju Tatum
Stoney Jackson got expelled from Boyle County School for lying again, although neither Miss Feathering nor Principal McIntyre could prove he’d lied. The impossibility spared Stoney a whipping, but McIntyre told him to go home and not come back for a week.
“You’re not to say a word about this, Miss Feathering,” McIntyre told her, “If I could, I’d expel you too.”
“Why me, Sir? You don’t believe that blasphemy he told, do you?”
McIntyre knew she had connections in Frankfort, but he wasn’t willing to lose his soul to defend a teacher so recently arrived from a big northern city school. He trained his squint on her. She was a Suffragette, no doubt. “If what Stoney says is true, this could mean trouble and, Lord knows, we don’t need no more trouble in Boyle County.”
She didn’t stir from her seat across from McIntyre’s desk. “Ghost horses are the imaginings of children and fools. Believing Confederate soldiers rise from the grave when the New Moon is high, goes against the Bible. If it’s true, it’s witchcraft! You don’t believe a twelve-year-old boy capable of consorting with demons, do you?”
“Cain’t say I do, and cain’t say I don’t. I’ve lived in Boyle County all my life and know three men who died from a horse throw on the night of a New Moon. If Stoney saw a ghost horse last night, I ain’t takin’ no chances.” He looked over his shoulder, then lowered his head. “He and Freedom Washington could be friends. Passes by Deerson’s farm on his way home.”
“Anyone armed with reason has no cause for fear, and I’ll prove it. I’ll ride past Deerson’s farm straight to Caleb Jones’ grave the next New Moon, by myself, if I have to.”
Stoney overheard her declaration. He’d hidden between the schoolhouse and a mulberry bush beneath McIntyre’s office window, anxious to learn of Feathering’s fate. Yes, he lied about things like being sick when he didn’t do his homework, or when Sander’s Creek called him to fish instead of sitting in a classroom all day, but he’d never lie about seeing the harbinger of impending doom. “Someone’s in for bad luck,” he told Feathering when he showed up late and sleepy. She’d called him to the cloak room and demanded an explanation. He warned her she wouldn’t like his answer. “At least it weren’t saddled. That would mean the Grim Reaper was comin’. Maybe for you.”
“Stoney Jones, what exactly did you say to Miss Feathering that got her all upset?” Joanna Jackson had him sitting at the table, helping her peel apples. Three apple pies are what Rev. and Mrs. Peterson ordered, and three they’d get, even if meant using the last of the summer crop.
“Miss Feathering’s from Chicago. What does she know ‘bout lurking dangers? A New Moon is fixin’ to appear, and she needed warning. She laughed and said only ignorant people believed in country tales, but I know what I saw. I told her she better not raise the Rebel ire of Caleb Jones, is all.”
“You scared her. Scared her to her bones, and you did it on purpose,” his mother said. Couldn’t two things be true at the same time?
“She told me to take admit I lied, only I cain’t deny what I seen. Don’t want Caleb Jones and his mama comin’ after me.”
She put down her paring knife. “Look me square in the eye, and tell me the truth, Stoney.”
He ran upstairs to his room, removed two sheets of paper he stole from Feathering’s desk, and returned to the kitchen. “Here’s the truth,” he said and read what he’d transcribed:
Jonetta Jones had two fine sons,
one dressed in blue, the other in gray.
One fought for ol’ Abe Lincoln,
The other laid down his life that day
For Jeff Davis’ side.
He took two bullets to his chest,
Suffered two day afore givin’ up the ghost,
But still don’t know no rest.
The union boys buried William Jones,
while leavin’ Caleb in the sun,
vowing with a pitiful sigh,
“Shoot me again, and again, again,
‘til I’m buried, I won’t die.”
Ain’t his grave-site
under yonder dogwood’s boughs?
Sure, we covered up his bones,
but insult ain’t yet put right.
To this day, in the New Moon’s light,
he calls for a horse to ride,
and somewhere a man is thrown aground,
as his steed gallops to Caleb’s side.
I swear, Mama, I did see the ghost horse. Right in our backyard from my bedroom window. She’s the finest horse I’ve ever seen, and we got some mighty fine bloodlines in Kentucky.”
His mam’s face was pale. She whispered, “That’s a fact. But wherever did you get that poem?
“I found it in the school library,” Stoney lied.
“But you do say the ghost horse weren’t saddled?”
“Nope. Not last night.”
“There’s comfort in that.” She stood, and then sat down again, making sure he looked at her straight on. “You can’t tell anyone else about this, Stoney. You’ll scare everybody. We don’t want no night riders burning us out. And tonight, you keep your shade drawn, you hear?”
He nodded yes, and peeled the last two apples as his mother rolled out her dough. There was only one person who wouldn’t be afraid of the legend’s poem, and that was the man who’d told it to him: Mr. Washington.
Freedom Washington claimed to be eighty years old. He also claimed to have fought in the Battle of Perryville in October of ’62, and said he saw William and Caleb Jones fall. Stoney didn’t believe him at first, but the more Mr. Washington told him, the more he realized no one could make up stories like that.
Mr. Washington had been slave, and had come north after the war lookin’ for work. Mr. Deerson hired him as a stable boy, but he was so good with the horses he was soon promoted to a groom and then trainer. All the black folks looked up to him. By the time he was old, he’d saved enough money to buy and acre and build a house. “He can plant a broom straw and grow something to eat,” Stoney’s daddy said of him.
But Mr. Washington’s first love was horses. “In Lu’siana, I saw the Master ride his big roan every day, lookin’ all proud astride an animal that was ten times strong as he was. I said to myself, someday I’ll ride a horse that fine, and one day I did, all the way to freedom. Yes, Sir, I said, ’cause they can only hang me once.”
Stoney thought that was the wisest thing he’d ever heard, a sort of poor man’s bible teaching.
“When the war came, I joined the Union cause as a cook for Gen. Buell’s men. They raided all the farms. Took my horse along with all the others. I didn’t mind giving up my life for the union, but my horse?”
Stoney and Mr. Washington laughed about that, which was god because there were times Stoney cold not laugh.
“Thousands of blue and gray unformed bodies laid on the hills, and in the streets of Perryville,” the old man said. “Such bleeding and crying I ain’t seen since the slave markets. I’ll never forget it.”
“You ought to make sure no one forgets it,” Stoney said as they sat on Deerson’s haybales inside the barn.
“Cain’t read nor write myself, but you’re good at it. I’ll tell you what to write and you hide my words ‘til I’m gone. We’ll sit by the creek and catch us some fish, and I’ll cook ‘em up fine while you write.”
“Why don’t you want nobody to read your words, Mr. Washington? Yankees pay good money to hear how brave their soldiers were.”
“You just promise me, and I’ll tell you by and by. I promise.” And he made good on that promise the day Stoney came to ask him about the ghost horse. They were inside Deerson’s barn, sitting on the haybales as they often did when they wanted to talk privately. Mr. Washington spied a piece of wood about eight inches long near one of the stalls, examined it, unsheathed his knife. and began whittling away the bits that weren’t needed.
“Mr. Deerson’s granddaughter said you was evicted from school. You’ll be smarter if you stay.”
“I don’t hardly mind,” Stoney said. “Miss Feathering is God-fearin’ but don’t know much except book learnin.’ I come here when I want to know important things. Like the whole story of Caleb Jones.”
Mr. Washington chuckled at that. “Mr. Deerson’s granddaughter said you gave that lady a fright talkin’ about the ghost horse. Only one secret ‘round here. Guess it’s time you knew it too … although the truth is best kept secret sometimes. You know that after the battle of Perryville the Union soldiers packed up their dead and buried them proper, and left the Rebs to lie in the sun and rot. Wouldn’t let no one put ‘em under neither. When the wind shifted there was a horrible stink. What you don’t know is that I knew where Caleb’s body was ‘cause I saw him fall. I took one of the officer’s horses, and slung what was left of Caleb over his back. I be knowin’ the Jones for years and they was good to me. It wasn’t right for one of her boys to be buried and the other not. I dug his grave myself, and laid him under the dogwood tree ‘for I rode back to the Union camp.”
“Then Caleb Jones is buried in our orchard?”
“It’s true, Stoney. The Jones’ sold off their land and moved to Louisville after they lost their sons. There weren’t no one left to help them farm. Mr. Jones opened a seed store.”
They both went silent; the only sound was the chuch-chuch of Mr. Washington’s knife. Stoney leaned against a hay bale, and thought about his mother’s fearful eyes. The Klan kept people law-abiding alright, whether a law had been broken or not. Certainly, he and his Mama and Mr. Washington weren’t powerful enough to fend them off.
“War is a terrible plague, Stoney. Of all men’s foolery, it’s the worst. Your daddy didn’t come home. Your mama’s without her man. But, sometimes, it’s got to be. The Civil War weren’t no dilemma for Lu’siana folks. They knew which side they were fightin’ on. But Kentucky folks, they was as divided as the country. Guess why they put that sayin’ on the flag: united we stand, divided we fall. Got to remind people.”
“Did the Jones know you buried their son?”
“I didn’t tell ‘em. Don’t nobody know, ‘cept me and you.”
“But if you didn’t tell ‘em, why’d you do it?”
Mr. Washington took a drink from the old war canteen he always carried over his shoulder. “It weren’t about burying. It was about honor among fightin’ men. William and Caleb were sixteen and fourteen when they picked up their rifles, but a man either has courage or he don’t and there’s no blue or gray in the grave. There’s only the respect for having the guts to fight in the battle. I know what it’s like to be treated like you ain’t nothin’.”
Mr. Washington stopped his whittling and handed the little carved man to Stoney. “You get a cord —silk if you can but leather will do. You wear the Ju-Ju Tatum ‘round your neck and it’ll protect you.”
Stoney turned the figure over and saw Mr. Washington had carved the initials INRI in its back. “Protect me from what?”
“From whatever come your way on the night of the New Moon. You done been given a special gift, but with that come special danger too. Miss Feathering is determined to take it away from you, but don’t you let her.”
Stoney put the Ju-Ju Tatum in his pocket. “This be slave magic?”
“This be Freedom Washington’s magic. Soon time’ll take all those who were once owned in body but not in spirit. All our slaves be gone. Magic come from stories then.”
Deerson’s farm was a long two miles from the Jackson’s. Stoney knew he’d better leave if he was going to walk it before dusk. “I’d best be saying good-bye, Mr. Washington. I thank you for the truth. You did a brave thing burying Caleb Jones. I’m proud to know a man as brave as you.”
“You go on home, now. Keep off the road.”
It was good advice, but the problem was, he couldn’t outrun the sun that was sinking fast. The fields were dangerous at night. Stumble into a rabbit hole, get snake-bit, or meet a foaming-mouthed dog, and it might be days before you were found. Kentucky folks built small walls of stone that lined the roads, flat rocks that kept in moisture, held the mud and grass in place, and kept the roads passable as they could be without cementing.
He gave the Ju-Ju Tatum in his overalls pocket a squeeze, climbed over, and took off sprinting. Past Deerson’s tobacco fields, and paddocks. Past the turn-off for Sander’s creek. But then he heard hoof-beats and saw moon-lit smoke. Coming towards him was an army of white-robed men in white peaked hoods, carrying the torches that lit up the sky with terror.
Quick as a lightning bug, he jumped right and scrambled over the rock wall to hide himself. All the while, praying the Jackson farm wasn’t their destination. If Deerson’s granddaughter knew had what he’d told Miss Feathering, everyone in the county knew. All he could say was, “Mama. I’m sorry” through his tears.
There must have been at least thirty in the grisly parade. If any of them noticed the boy cowering behind dead cornstalks, it would have been just a glance because they were riding hard. Passed him in seconds with nary a whoop or a yell. Only the fire light and the ground-pounding horses announced their mission. To Stoney, they were an ever-present mystery. Among all the gentlemen who’d be in church Sunday morning would be the Klansmen who rode Saturday night, doling out their own brand of justice. Why did they have to hide if they were so sure they were doing right?
He took off running, away from the diming light trail as fast as he could. He saw the glowing windows of his house, and turned up the lane through the orchard. “Ma, it’s me!” he cried out, and she came out to the back porch, craning her neck as she searched for him.
“Stoney! Stoney, you get yourself in here. Hurry, now.”
Panting and crying, he bunded up the back stairs into her panicked arms. “You saw them?” he said.
“Yes, I saw them. Where you been? I left you a note. I took the pies over to the Reverend, and when I got back, you hadn’t eaten the little pie I made you.” She wrapped her arm around his shoulder and held him tight all the way to a kitchen chair, and he could feel her trembling.
“I thought they might have come here, Ma. But then I thought, no, I’d have seen the light from a house burning. I hid just the same.”
She sank into a chair, and buried her face in her hands. He’d never seen his mother cry before. It seemed like she couldn’t hold her worry inside no matter how hard she tried. “I’m sorry, Mama.”
She went to the bread box and pulled out a saucer that held a little apple pie. “Take this upstairs with you.” She got a glass, too, and filled it with milk and handed them to him. “Go to bed.
The second night of the New Moon, Stoney sat at his bedroom window well after midnight, watching the tree shadows dance in the wind, wondering if the ghost horse would appear. Around his neck was the Ju-Ju Tatum, secured not by silk, but by a braid of three strands of satin he’d shredded from one of his grandmother’s ancient pillowcases. The attic was full of treasures threatening to disappear, and he’d harvested many of them. He’d eaten his apple pie with a silver pickle fork he’d rescued. And on his dresser was a leather frame he’d salvaged from his granddaddy’s trunk for the photo of his Daddy in his doughboy uniform.
What a shame Freedom Washington had no children. None that he spoke of anyway. His mama said Mr. Washington probably did have some kin, somewhere, but slave families were often separated. Stoney like to think Mr. Washington regarded him as kin a hundred times removed, especially since he now wore Ju-Ju Tatum ‘round his neck. He lied to think he was related to the Joneses in a way too, now that it was just him and his Ma making their way alone.
“It’s their fruit trees what supports us now your daddy’s gone,” she told him. “I don’t mind a twit if Caleb is buried near them. There ain’t that much that separates the dead from the living, anyways. Just a thread as thin as a spider’s.” It might be true. Many families seemed to have kin buried near them, mostly children they couldn’t afford funerals for, so maybe Caleb Jones counted even if he didn’t know it.
He came suddenly alert when he saw the horse in the orchard. It seemed at first she was playing hide-n-seek the way she appeared in one place, disappeared, and reappeared somewhere’s else. She’d toss her head, making her mane fall in ripples along side her neck, and she’d prance a step or two. Why, she’s dancing, Stoney thought. And then he saw the boy, under the dogwood tree, holding out an apple with his right hand. His uniform was ragged. His hat set alop on top his head. Over his shoulder he wore a canteen like Mr. Washington’s, and a powder horn crossed his chest. It was a forbidden scene, one he’d never seen if he hadn’t disobeyed his mama, but he couldn’t force himself to pull the shade.
He wanted to cry out, “Mama, come see, and know I was telling you the truth,” but the hour was late and he felt a strange sense of greed. He wanted the vision to himself. He stripped the white case off his pillow and waved it from the window. It was the universal sign of surrender, he’d been told. Caleb had to know he meant no harm.
Finally, the boy looked up and Stoney saw his moonlit face. If he was a restless soul, he sure covered it well with a cheerful smile, and a gallant wave. The ghost horse came to him, and proved that even in death horses like apples. Caleb saddled her deftly, and put the bridle over her head. Did it mean no man had been thrown? Caleb lifted himself into the saddle, and once again turned to wave, this time good-bye as he cantered off through the orchard.
The legend ain’t a story, it’s real, Stoney thought as sleep overtook him. He knew the truth. It belonged to him and not Miss Feathering or Principal McIntyre or the Klansmen could take it from him.
Stoney woke to his mother calling him down to breakfast. The perfume of Johnny Cake and honey wafted upstairs, and he shed his blankets like snakeskin. It was a glorious autumn Sunday, and he was filled with a glorious sense of certainty.
“Don’t dawdle, Stoney, I’ve got things to do.”
“And wipe the smiles off your face today.”
She didn’t look at him. Whatever happened must have been awful. “Are you goin’ see Reverend Peterson?” It was better than asking who died.
“Freedom Washington passed last night. There’s a meeting before service.”
“Mr. Washington’s gone?” His hand moved to the Ju-Ju Tatum. “Was it the Klansmen?”
“No. Nobody knows what happened. Deerson came by early. Said he found him in one of the stalls. They’ve been waiting on a mare to foal, and Freedom was staying with her.”
“The question is, where’s he gonna be buried and who’s gonna pay for his box. Some folks don’t believe he should have a Christian burial at all. Not even the black folks.”
Stoney pushed his plate aside. “I’ll go with you.”
“This ain’t none of your business, Boy. You stay home and do your chores. Eat now.”
“Nope. I’m going with you. Mr. Washington was my friend. I got to tell folks the truth about him.”
His mama stopped washing her pans. “Are you gonna confess your sins and testify?”
“I don’t know about that…”
She came over to him. “Have you been moved by the Holy Spirit?”
“I don’t know if it was a holy spirit, but I was moved just the same.” His answer was important. It would decide Mr. Washington’s fate. “The Spirit done told me where Mr. Washington should be buried.”
She drew back, and searched his eyes. She found determination. “Then you hitch up the surrey and we’ll go together.”
All the important people would be there. Rev. and Mrs. Peterson. Principal McIntyre. The two town gossips. Mr. Deerson, because he was a deacon, and the colored folks who were convinced Mr. Washington was a Creole voo-doo priest. All the way there, Stoney thought about what he would say to the assembly. He even prayed for the right words for his eulogy, as they called it.
Each one of twenty-odd folks who came to Grace Baptist stood and spoke about how Freedom Washington never went to church, always made plain that he wasn’t a part of the congregation, and spent all his time carving graven mages for magic spells. The consensus was, he shouldn’t be buried in the church cemetery or in potter’s field. Finally, Rev. Peterson said, “Enough discussion about what we ain’t gonna do. Now let’s hear suggestions about what we can do. We cain’t leave him to the elements.”
Stoney raised his hand. “I’d like to speak, Reverend,” he said.
Before anyone could object, Mr. Deerson said, “Let him speak. He knew Freedom better than most of us.”
Stoney held a Bible in his right hand and his left held the Ju-Ju Tatum around his neck, as he walked down the aisle to the Reverend’s lectern. He hadn’t noticed more people had come into the church. Miss Feathering was sitting in the pew directly behind his mama. But it didn’t shake him a whit. Just seeing her reminded him of what Mr. Washington had told him ‘bout not letting her take his gift.
“The Holy Spirit visited me again last night. Not in the form of a white bird, but in the form of a white horse. He went to Caleb Jones’ resting place and called him up out of the grave because Caleb had a good deed to do. He had to go with God to get the soul of the man who rescued him from dishonor, and pay Mr. Washington back for it. So, Caleb he tacked up and off they rode together. You know why? Because the Holy Spirit didn’t want Mr. Washington to be afraid of dyin’. He wanted Mr. Washington to know he was going to be really free now.”
“That’s blasphemy!’ Miss Feathering said. “The Holy Spirit isn’t going to come in the form of a white horse.”
“I thought God can do pretty much anything, Reverend Peterson, Sir.” Stoney said.
“Your accusation is noted, Miss Feathering, but let’s hear the boy out,” the Reverend said. “You ain’t from around here. We’ve all heard stories about Caleb Jones. I’d like to hear the truth about him and Freedom Washington. Go on, Stoney.”
Stoney took the Ju-Ju Tatum from his neck and held it up so they could all see. “Those weren’t graven images he carved, they was his hobby. No worse than carving a bedstead or a clock. He made this for me yesterday.” He handed the Ju-Ju Tatum to Reverend Peterson, who looked at it closely as he continued.
“Mr. Washington whittled it the last time I saw him. Each little shaving is a minute spent talking with me. Tellin’ me I should stay in school. Laughin’ with me. I hear tell that Christians do good even when nobody’s lookin’ and don’t nobody know. I’d say burying the dead son of Mr. and Mrs. Jones when a general of the whole United States army says not to, just ‘cause it’s the right thing to do, counts as doin’ good.”
“All well and good, but that doesn’t mean he was a Christian, Reverend,” Mr. McIntyre said. “I think that’s what nagging at us.”
“Wait a minute,” Rev. Peterson said as handed the Ju-Ju Tatum back to Stoney. “Freedom was from Lu’siana. Lots of Catholics down there. We don’t hold with statues in church, but Catholics got a long history of religious art. I think Freedom might have been a Catholic, Stoney. You see those letters he carved on the back? INRI —Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
“It don’t matter to me what he was,” Stoney said. “If it’s alright with y’all, you can bury Mr. Washington under the dogwood tree where Caleb Jones is buried. If none of you wants to pray over him, I’ll do it ‘cause he was my friend, too…”
“I ain’t one much for building boxes, but I’ll donate the wood,” Mr. Deerson said. He turned to Stoney. “Do you think Freedom and Caleb will stay in their graves now that they’re both buried proper?”
“I think they will. The next time I see the ghost horse, I’ll get to ride it. Until them I have Mr. Washington’s stories and his poem to remember him.”
“You come by my place after school. I’ll be needing somebody to help me with my horses now that Freedom is gone. I got some mighty fine horses here. I won’t let just anyone tend ‘em.”
The problem of what to do when their living legend passed was settled there on the spot. With Deerson’s wood and the nimble hands of a black carpenter, Freedom Washington was laid to rest with the bones of Caleb Jones lying beside him. Miss Feathering didn’t come to the service. Neither did the two town biddies, but Rev. Peterson prayed over the Catholic and the Reb proper, and called them heroes.
Lana Grimes (born LaTasha Allen) spent high school in the drama department. If she wasn’t acting on the stage, she was behind the scenes directing, choreographing, writing, building a set piece, or producing the show. Her love of the stage filtered into creating character profiles for online role-play blogs, and so was born the writer. Lana’s early work includes fan-fiction stories and flash fictions based around a song.
In early 2018 Lana began writing her first fiction story on a popular literary server. The reader’s response gave her the confidence to later return to school. She enrolled at Full Sail University studying for her bachelor’s degree in creative writing for entertainment claims it to be the third best decision of her life, behind her spouse and son.
“Mama it’s not safe for you to keep leaving the nursing home without letting anyone know,” he said with a frustrated sigh.
“You don’t understand, Jason,” she replied. “This is where it happened.”
Jason clenched his jaw in frustration, his eyes swept over the hotel room just through the glass doorway. Inside was an average room with two double beds, a desk, dresser, and television. They sat at a plastic outdoor table in an awning covered patio area. He turned to gaze at his mother. She’s holding a small silver flask and her eyes are glossed over. Jason pinched the bridge of his nose, unclenched his jaw and took a deep breath to sooth his nerves.
“Okay then,” he said, softly. “Make me understand ma, tell me what’s significant about this adventure.”
“This is where it all began, Jason,” she said. “Your Daddy and I lived in this very room for six months before he was called off to war.”
She paused to smile down at the flask in her hand. Her fingers caressed it sliding over the engraved initials ‘M.B.’
“I still remember it so clearly,” his mother continued. “He would come home from the repair shop about the same time I would the beauty parlor. We would turn on the old radio and dance for hours. In that corner right there…” she paused and pointed to a spot behind Jason.
A tear trickled down her cheek and he turned to look at the corner. Nothing significant except an overgrown bush was there, he turned back to face his mother. Her gaze never wavered as she pulled the flask close to her bosom and hugged it tight.
“That’s where Matt proposed,” she said with a smile. “His parents weren’t too fond of him not wanting to be an accountant. Mine wanted me to marry rich. Neither of us wanted those futures, so we ran away. Made this room our home while we saved to buy a house. Then he was drafted. Matter of fact you were made here the night he shipped out.”
Jason cleared his throat. “I didn’t need that last bit mom.”
“Oh hush,” she shook her head. “Don’t act like you and Tracy just magically had my grandbabies.”
“Well no but…” he began.
“But nothing boy,” she said. “Now, where was I?”
“The draft,” he supplied.
“Right! You couldn’t just say no to your government,” she continued still holding the flask tight. “It got us that house so much faster though, he made seventy-eight dollars a month. That’s double what he was making at the mechanic’s shop and triple what I was bringing in.”
“Dad stayed in the army, didn’t he?” Jason asked.
“He did,” she said. “Decided he had enough after he heard you had that fight with Davey Cork. Said he couldn’t have his boy losing to someone named ‘Davey’ that it was time you learned how hold your own. Opened the repair shop the next day.”
Jason smiled at his mother and chuckled when she tried to hide a yawn. “You’re just as bad as my kids. Why don’t you go on in and lay down mama, we’ll head home in the morning.”
“Jason,” she stood up; flask clutched so tightly to her chest her knuckles appeared white. “I just want you to know how proud I am of you and that I love you more than anything. Thank you for being here for me when I need you.”
“Always mama,” he said. “Now, head on in I’m going to give Tracy a call then I’ll be right behind you.”
He watched her go and closed the door behind her. Slipping his phone out of his back pocket, he sighed and loosened his tie while he waited for his wife to pick up.
“Did you find her?” Tracy’s voice asked once the call connected.
“Yeah, we’re at a hotel just outside of Atlanta,” Jason said. “Did I ever tell you thank you for thinking of putting a tracking device in her necklace?”
“Every time,” she said. “Jason, we can’t afford for this to keep happening.”
“I know Trace.”
“Do you?” she asked. “You indulge her every time she takes off, this is the fifth time this year and it’s only April.”
“I had to miss work again,” she continued. “You’re missing hours at the shop.”
“I know Damn it,” He snapped. “Cut her some slack will ya, it’s not like she asked to get sick and need to be put in a home.”
“You’re right,” Tracy replied, her voice was strained.
Jason groaned and ran his hand through his hair “I’m sorry babe. This is all ju…”
“Should I call the home and tell them she’s on her way back?” she interrupted.
“No, I think it’s time we look into a new one,” he said. “I’ll just bring her home with me. I’m not sure how much I trust them anymore. We’re staying the night here and will drive home in the morning. I can’t wait to tell you the story she told this time, had the flask with my dad’s ashes clutched tight the whole time! Can you believe it will be a year tomorrow that my father died?”
“Don’t think about that right now,” she said. “Worry about getting home safe tomorrow so we can mourn him as a family. Goodnight Jason, I love you.”
The next morning, Jason nudged his mother gently to wake her. When she didn’t respond he tried again, and again. His father’s flask fell onto the bed next to her as he reached to check her pulse. Jason sat on the edge of the bed and looked around at the room. His gaze stopped at the back corner that his mother pointed to the night before. He blinked backed his tears then turned to the still woman on the bed.
“Well, thanks for telling me how it all began,” he said. “I’m glad you got to be here in the end.”
Salwa Kariem is an Egyptian aspiring writer. She attended the faculty of English Language and Literature and majored in Feminism. She likes to write all kinds of writings. She also works as an English Instructor for a reputable international company. She is a fitness enthusiast and likes to listen to people.
A SHORT STORY
On a fine morning, she wakes up, all cranky. She gets dressed, goes down the stairs, goes up again, and then sleeps. She dreams of a fortune-teller. A fine, spare built woman. “She is beautiful,” she tells herself. She feels her sweat going down her spine, that bone-withering feeling she is familiar with weighs on her.
The fortune-teller commences her speech, “Look, young lady, you are to go in a deep slumber, breaking all the shackles of this modern world, flying way back in time, to an era that you belong to!”
She startles and tells her, “but I can’t! I am happy where I am now.” She adds “Plus, I am a woman of colour, I don’t think any era will really suit me.”
The fortune-teller looks at her with a grim and responds with all the mockery she has in her “you are to blame whenever you go; you are a woman dear. Yet, let not pain elude your intelligence. Women are known for their wit. “I want to be known for something else. I don’t want to be the cunning material; I want to be the strong one.” She says angrily. She steps forward and kills the fortune-teller in cold blood. She continues walking till she finds a hairdresser. She thinks to herself that a facial is in order. She finds the hairdresser attractive in a raffish way. She is not a woman of education it appears to be. Yet, she has an undeniable charisma. She asks her to do her a facial. The hairdresser looks at her face and tells her “you have a pretty, small face, don’t you?” She asks the hairdresser “if you want to be known for something, what will you choose? Beauty, strength, or wit?” The hairdresser looks at her in denial “is that a rhetorical question, love? Of course, I will choose beauty.” She looks at her and contemplates, “well you have a great deal of beauty, don’t you think that you might be in need of something else? More important?” The hairdresser’s own mental capacity is roaming around the entire universe looking for an answer. The hairdresser ponders the question, weighs everything against the other, and then comes up with an answer, “Well, I just need to be pretty and a man takes care of all the rest. Why would I bother tiring and exhausting my feminine body in a quest for something else? They are created to serve us; to work and get the bacon home!” She relaxes and draws out a razor blade; she starts to cut her face and body.
She gets gnawed at by these futile conversations. She is in desperate need of a glass of water. Nevertheless, she can’t find one. She gets close to a well. She gets closer and closer. She finds a woman. She seems to have a pious face. Yet, only her eyes can show. She asks “Do you happen to have some water, madam? I am really thirsty.” The woman doesn’t answer at first but then tells her “thirst is a humane quality. We all get thirsty. Praise the lord and ask him for forgiveness.” She gets perplexed, “Madam, all I asked for was some water. You have a well below your hands. Couldn’t you spare me some?” The woman replies, “why are you thirsty? Why didn’t you pack a water bottle? Why do you blame the lord for everything and you are to blame? Can’t you look at yourself? You are sweating like a pig; yet, you won’t get a drop of water from my stock. It is hot and will be hotter.” She finds the woman irritating. She decides to leave. The woman adds, “You didn’t even try to convince me to give you some water.” She looks behind her upon leaving and asks her, “what if I can give you a question instead? You kept bombarding me with a herd of questions. Can I?” The woman looks at her all lofty and nods. “Okay, if I give you the option of being known for something, what will you choose: Beauty, strength, or wit?” The woman triumphs and answers her in a pitiful manner “Young girl, I don’t get to choose, the Lord chooses for me and I get to abide by his choice.” She holds her by the neck and drowns her. “Well, your Lord has already chosen for you then.”
She is all tired and up in arms with the world of her dreams. She finds a tree, an apple tree. She picks an apple and sits under the tree’s shades. A man comes up to her and asks “you ate from this tree! It is a bad tree. All women who ate from it died already. I guess. You are to be more careful. It is the forbidden tree. Trees are nice things, but they can be really vengeful.” She looks at him, trying to recognise him. “Have we met before? You look like someone I am familiar with.” He smiles or rather smirks and answers, “Don’t you know me? I am the one who crafted the dream; I am the dream man. I get to interfere with your dreams and cater them, tailoring them however I need. You get to obey. Don’t you think that this is a recurring dream? You kill me every time.” She gets all scared “why do I do that? You seem like a nice guy.” He says “all the people you have killed are nice people, but you killed them anyway.”
She recognises him. She knows where she saw him. He is the master of puppets: The Puppeteer. “So, every time I kill you at the end of the dream. Well, I won't kill you this time then. I will just craft you a dream, a storyline, and you shall follow till the end of time. Keep repeating the same until..” He doesn’t wait for her to complete. He draws up a gun and shoots himself. She wakes up, gets dressed, goes down the stairs, goes up again, and then sleeps.
Shane Pillay is from Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
He is a creative artist who has works on music and art, with partnerships from USA, the Ukraine, Indonesia and Australia.
He has also produced animation films.
His short stories have been published by multiple journals, including Hawaii Pacific Review, Nthanda Review and Fiction Magazines.
He has an adult novella, "Affairs of the Dick", published by The Little French Books, as well as a horror novella, "The Knocking", published by Alban Publishing.
My website is www.shanepillay.com.
Terry White was born, raised, and still lives in Northeastern Ohio. He has published hardboiled novels (as Robert or Robb White), a pair of noir novels, and 3 collections of short stories. White has been nominated for a Derringer award and his story "Inside Man” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2019.
Every Sparrow That Falls
Jonas was told by the anesthesiologist to count backward from one hundred; then he remembered Alice sitting across from him reading a recipe magazine. Three benign polyps were found, excised, he was told—everything went OK. She drove because the anesthetic was still working in him, making him feel sluggish.
The day after, he took his usual two cups of coffee on the porch overlooking a blue slice of Lake Erie. When Alice joined him with her bowl of cereal and blueberries, he was talking to himself.
“Make what go away?” Alice asked him.
“Nothing,” Jonas said. “I didn’t say anything.”
“You said something about ‘making it go away,’” she replied. “Maybe you were talking about me.”
“Why should I say something like that?”
“Why are you acting like an idiot?”
“I’m sitting here trying to enjoy my coffee and you’re fucking up my peace with your gibberish!”
Alice could match his heat any day and one-up it, but she wasn’t in a mood to argue. She was looking forward to spending the day with their newest grandchild.
Tranquility restored itself despite that gnawing in Jonas, but he couldn’t articulate what it was.
That evening during the six o’clock news, he annoyed her by ranting at the senseless antics, carelessness, or outright criminal behavior of local Clevelanders. The Black Lives Matter movement was up in arms again over yet another unarmed black man being shot.
Jonas’ ire was provoked worse than usual because of the number of mixed-race couples on television—in commercials advertising stock trading, insurance, car sales, whatever. The only mixed-race couples in Northtown weren’t the happy couples on TV, either. They tended to be white-trash females pushing brown babies in strollers or yanking their biracial toddlers by the arm into and out of the Dollar General stores in the plaza. Jonas stood in line at the Sav-A-Lot looking through the plate glass as three young mothers, all white, all with babies in strollers got into a screaming match over the father of all three babies.
“Hollywood Jews jam it down our throats,” he complained.
Alice responded in expected fashion: “I’m sick of hearing you talk like that.”
More often than not, the specter of Death wasn’t the Grim Reaper figure with its tattered medieval cloak and scythe lurking just out of sight behind the couch. It was a cavalcade of notions trooping into his consciousness, all involving death-from-above, death-from-a-thousand-cuts, or death-by-design. For days he worried a Mount Everest-sized asteroid invisible behind the sun was on a planet-destroying trajectory aimed right for Earth. Thinking of it, he spilled his coffee on the new tile floor Alice had ordered and had installed before his operation. He apologized for his clumsiness while his heart thudded in his chest. The rock that did in the dinosaurs was a good sixty-five million years ago, but the knowledge it could happen any day was depressing.
“What makes you so jumpy?” Alice, annoyed, handed him a couple Handi-wipes. He bent down to clean the mess.
“I was thinking of a meteorite hitting the Earth,” he said.
“You’re getting senile, old man,” she replied. “Better watch out.”
Stupidly, he rose to the bait. “You should watch out, Alice. You and everybody else on the planet. Apophis has a three percent chance of smashing in to the planet in Twenty-Twenty-Nine.”
“Who’s an Apophis?”
“If you watched something besides Bachelorette and America’s Got Singers you’d know.”
“It’s America’s Got Talent, dummy.”
“I mean the one where the three judges swing around in their little cars, like those Scrambler carts at the fair and slap a buzzer.”
“Jesus, are you out of touch,” she mocked. “That’s American Idol.”
“OK, I give up. Your shows—you know what I mean!”
He was weary, defeated, unable to explain. How could he draw for her that grotesque image that appeared laser-etched into his memory while he was looked out over the canopy of ash, oak, willow, and locust for the bald eagles that had appeared magically one day and built their eyrie in the tallest locust trees by the breakwall? Jonas loved spying them from his wicker chair, thrilled when they beat the warm air high up with their massive dark wings and then plunged to the water’s surface for the fish near the breakwall. Red-winged blackbirds buzzed the eagles’ tails like tandem jet fighters harassing a lumbering bomber. Only the gulls remained aloof from the law that pitted every bird against every other bird; they flew highest, soaring and dipping, making cree-craw noises aloft over the harbor.
That ugly grey, peanut-shaped asteroid hurtling at thousands of miles-per-hour aimed for—God alone knew. He read there was a 2.7 chance (not the 3 percent he’d exaggerated to Alice) that Apophis would hit that “keyhole” near the Earth’s gravitational field and get pulled into a life-ending collision.
“Maybe you should go see a doctor,” Alice said quietly.
The lack of sarcasm in her voice was oddly galling, worse. She complained constantly of his increasing weight gain. The boy who’d courted her as a teenager had a thirty-two inch waist. The aging man who lay next to her in bed weighed 230 pounds and couldn’t get into his pants now.
“You think I’m crazy.”
“I didn’t say that,” she replied, a little edge creeping into her tone. “I think you’ve been obsessing about things lately. Since you retired, I mean.”
That button was getting pushed more often. Although he wouldn’t concede anything, he fired a salvo of facts and figures—Jonas was at ease with numbers—to distract her, an often-used gambit in their years of marital strife.
“Shows what you know, Alice,” he said. “If Apophis had hit that opening in Earth’s orbit back in Oh-Four, it would have set up a collision for Twenty-Thirty-Six. A Level Four, Miss Smarty-Pants, the highest rating for a near-impact on the Torino Scale ever--Adiós, Earth!”
He laid down a barrage of facts, confident the gist was correct. He knew the keyhole the asteroid had to make was a mere half-mile wide, and the asteroid was a mere tenth of a mile wide, not the massive rock of his claims. Still, a little exaggeration for effect didn’t hurt.
She headed back to the kitchen. He didn’t know if she was impressed or indifferent. She seemed to be on her own trajectory since she had retired last year. A frenzy of activities compared to his indolence and hammock-time. She took yoga Pilates, did tai chi twice a week, and went to the senior center for crafts. Only the fact they both harmonized in joint pain on their nightly trip up the stairs to bed did they seem locked in a familiar orbit.
That night, Jonas bolted upright in bed. He was aware his lips were moving, but he had no recollection of his dream or to whom he had been speaking, if to anyone.
Alice stirred beside him, groaned. “Go back to sleep.”
Try as hard as he could, he couldn’t recover the dream, not even the shreds he could recall from past dreams where a kaleidoscope of colors dissolved as soon as his consciousness took over. The red LED lights of the alarm on the night table on Alice’s side proclaimed 4:20, an hour before dawn’s first light.
He had stumbled into bed while the credits to Body Heat were still rolling against a powder-blue tropical sky. Jonas suspected it was a matte painting of Hawaii’s jagged-edged Big Island. He watched that film whenever the summer heat matched the film’s.
He got out of bed and gathered his tee-shirt and grey cotton shorts in the dark. He knew where his clothes were left out of some habit engraved into his paleocortex. Jonas worried he was becoming robotic, like the father on one of his crime shows who was bludgeoned by his son in his sleep and woke brain-damaged yet able to perform his usual morning chores; he made coffee and fetched the newspaper on the porch before collapsing. Neighbors found him like that, the tops of his pajamas soaked and a bloody halo surrounding his head. Jonas wondered at what point exactly that man’s soul left his body while the machine was still functioning in its task.
Alice found him in his chair on the porch at seven. She grumbled something about his getting up too early and headed for the bathroom for her shower. Jonas didn’t reply. He wondered if all marriages ripened like rotted fruit on the vine. Alice had one old sepia photo of her Italian grandparents; their bleak, razor-slitted smiles and stiff clothing made him wince.
His stomach was upset, an everyday thing since the surgery. Coffee not only failed to work its resuscitative magic, but it sloshed from one end of his stomach to the other, making risible or embarrassing noises when company stopped by. His father had died of a bleeding duodenal ulcer when Jonas was 25 and the image that always occurred first was the rusty trail of blood stains on the carpeting as his father was carried downstairs by the ambulance men, bleeding from the rectum. By associational logic, his mind swung to those wretches in Africa dying of Ebola while bleeding from every orifice.
They ate bats dipped in hot grease, he thought. What did you expect?
Only his view from the porch soothed, dampened his growing irritation at a world he didn’t understand anymore. When he and Alice had moved into the old house shortly before his retirement—its white columns out front mashing Colonial into Victorian—he knew from the moment he stepped into the foyer and beheld the high ceilings, the walnut-stained woodwork in the dining room, and spied that Norwegian maple through the window did he know he was finally at home. The ancient maple had seen Iroquois hunting near the lake (its sinewy, wind-twisted limbs reminded him of a Greek discus thrower sculpture at the moment of greatest torque). After so many lesser jobs, moves out-of-state—and, yes, years of alcoholism, always the shadow on his life’s X-ray—he had returned to Northtown after the wars, eager for calm. Now this ugly obsession with dying like the thirteenth guest at the dinner party.
Their first Christmas in the place was a blessing: a herd of deer came up from the wetlands near the breakwall and lingered in his backyard for a half-hour. Jonas never took his eyes off them. Two does settled on their haunches in a pose of complete ease while the bucks stood guard and held their position like sentries on post. Fat flakes dropped from a pewter sky. Jonas experienced a joy he yearned for again but never found.
Death clung to him like a smell. He went outside to weed his garden in the intense heat, happy despite the awful humidity. His Amish straw hat irritated him over his brow. When he came inside to shower, he discovered a welt where he’d rubbed it. The following day it had opened and bled, two days later, it was a weeping, crimson zigzag over his left eyebrow. By evening, he had a black eye beneath it and the wound was suppurating.
He went to the local emergency room for an antibiotic and waited in the lobby along with a dozen white trash, all bickering and smelling faintly of chicken soup or onions. Death here, especially, he thought. Hospitals were factories working for Death. The intern on duty applied Bactrim unguent and gave him a shot, which cured it, although the leprous-white scar above his eye faced him in the mirror and would go with him into his casket unless the mortician decided to cover it with make-up. That experience led to phantasms and more fears in his daydreams and at night: human beings devoured by flesh-eating bacteria, brain-eating amoebas—all sorts of vicious viruses waiting to devour him in hideous ways. His eyes and ears picked out stories on the news and television of children infected while playing in drainage ditches after a thunderstorm, a girl who fell from a zip line and cut herself—losing a hand and both legs in mere weeks—people using unsanitized navage devices from the pharmacy to irrigate their sinuses—death via bacteria straight into the meat of the brain like a myriad of tiny Trojan horses. He told Alice about a middle-aged man forced off a plane after vacationing on some beach resort where he’d contracted a necrotic tissue disease that consumed him from the inside out.
“The passengers were vomiting in the aisles from the smell he gave off,” Jonas reported. “The plane was forced to land and they kicked him off.”
“That’s terrible,” Alice said. “I’m going to tai chi at the library tonight.”
“The doorway to hell,” he muttered.
“Stop mumbling, old man,” Alice said. “If it rains, shut the window in my sewing room.”
They kissed goodbye. It was a fervent habit of hers now.
She knows, Jonas thought with sadness; she sees me heading toward that cliff alone.
But the image that came most often to mind wasn’t a cliff where the ranks of the soon-to-be dead stepped off into oblivion but rows of people marching, footsore and terrified, while security police in black overcoats hefting submachine guns prodded them in a foreign tongue toward a pit where they would be executed. He’d read of the atrocities in the Baltic States during the Second World War. A Latvian Einsatzgruppen commander named Jeckeln popularized his own efficient method for disposing of masses of victims in short order: they were stripped nude and ordered to run through a double cordon of armed guards to the killing pits. To save themselves the trouble of burying the dead, they forced the living victims to lay on top of the dead bodies in the pits. Each one murdered with a single shot to the back of the neck to save ammunition; anyone not dead was buried alive. They called it “sardine packing.” He imagined the pits heaving with the movement of the undead trying to work their way to the top.
“We’re just rats in a maze of sewers,” he said to Alice.
The week after his operation, their male cat died. The day before he died, Jonas held him in his arms while the cat mustered a weak purr, unable or un willing to eat the food they had set out for him. The cat’s death on the bathroom tile in a corner by the tub scalded Jonas and brought forth hot tears he tried to hide from Alice. Anger scorched a path up his esophagus—why Death? Why all this dying? What is the point?
Jonas had held a deep anger toward God ever since his father’s sudden death while he was out of state in graduate school. This wobbly speck of planet in a black, cold universe was more like Satan’s creation than God’s.
He turned on the television hoping for some mindless distraction and found it. A variety channel was interviewing one of the Kardashian women. He didn’t know one from the other but he knew they all had black boyfriends or husbands. This one looked younger, although that perfect oval face expressed the same features in the dark eyes from an Armenian heritage. The male interviewer’s hair was lacquered up in the latest Hollywood style no working-class man would ever adopts; it fell like a combing wave at the center of his forehead and reminded Jonas of a cartoon character from the Depression era.
“Things come round again, buddy-boy,” he said to the interviewer, who was gushing over the newest article from this Kardashian’s clothing line—or was it her perfume line? It didn’t matter. The language of hyperbole would have worked for either product. The black boyfriend with his mahogany complexion and glistening dreadlocks suddenly walked on stage to the oohs and ahs of the tame audience. He looked cocky, barely acknowledging the applause or the emcee’s embarrassing homage—a prince receiving his due.
The glib banter passing back and forth among the three on the screen was hard to follow because they used slang, left out words, and made casual references and assumptions that didn’t require explaining—if you were a fan or a simple-minded teenager. The black man spoke well without the phony blaccent of his peers and those rap celebrities (all of whom, Jonas suspected, went to privileged schools) He despised Samuel L. Jackson, who if he popped up on the TV in a film or commercial, would set Jonas’ teeth on edge and propel him to grab the remote to hit the mute button. He wondered if the Kardashian knew her family in the old country was lucky not to have been slaughtered like sheep by the Turks. With nine hundred million in the bank, he thought, what does she care?
He didn’t understand how the pendulum could swing so far one way and then back. He found it incomprehensible other people—the blacks, browns, and yellows of the world—could hate him for being born white.
He heard Alice’s SUV pull into the driveway. Athena perked up her ears and ran to the window ledge. He had taken her in when she was a kitten, although he didn’t know until later on she was already a mother and nearly full grown. So hungry then, he remembered. He had been feeding a big stray tom every morning with leftovers. She had appeared out of nowhere—starved, assertive, bold, black, so filthy from her wanderings over the hill chasing chipmunks and mice that she pushed the big tom aside so to get at the food he placed on top of a foundation stone between his property and the neighbors’.
One day Athena showed up with a handwritten note tucked inside the collar he’d decided to put on her stating they “could keep her, her name was Athena.”
“There’s a dead bird in the yard, a big one,” Alice said walking in the door.
“So what?” Jonas replied. “Birds die all the time. Nobody gives a shit.”
“It looks like a hawk.”
It was a beautiful, mature Cooper’s Hawk. It lay with wings outspread as if in flight but in the yard beside the cement steps; its head was half-obscured by the morning glories Jonas planted to twine around the metal rails of the porch. It didn’t look dead. The butter-yellow legs, speckled chest, and outstretched wings made it look as though the bird had fallen asleep.
The bird was tagged. He lifted it gently from the grass, half-afraid it was asleep and would thrust that curved beak into his hand once it awoke. But the limp head slipped down, and bounced against his wrist on the walk to the garage; he set the bird on his work table. The thought of having to cut off the bird’s limb to free the metal clip nauseated him. He went inside for Alice’s magnifying glass on her night table.
He called the phone number on the band and repeated the sequence of numbers stamped into the metal. A woman’s voice, definitely a black woman, asked him how he had found the bird, so he gave her a brief narrative. When she asked him how the bird died, he said he thought it might have struck the house while diving for prey. Pigeons landed in the maple tree together, descended together, drew themselves into their rigid hierarchies, and flew off when spooked together. Any noise at all would do: the back door shutting, the garage door opening, a motorcycle’s backfire, a child crying across the street. Silence and speed were the tools of death, for once a month at least, he’d come across a tiny circle of feathers in the lawn, evidence of a hawk strike. He’d seen it happen—a buffeting in air, the hawk’s ruthless explosion of talons, the victim inert after a short struggle beneath the big bird. Then the hawk would lift the pigeon a few feet off the ground and fly serenely over the canopy to feast.
The burnished secretary in the house Jonas was raised held scores of Reader’s Digests but only two books: The Caine Mutiny, a book his mother said belonged to his father even though Jonas had never seen his dad read anything but the daily newspaper. The other was a white, leather-bound Douay-Rheims bible Jonas used to take down and read whenever he was bored. The nuns at school were never good with bible verses. They believed in metaphors of hell—time languishing in the pit of hell longer than grains of sand on all the beaches in the world if every grain of sand was a thousand years, a clock that ticked You’ll never get out, you’ll never get out. Dinned into the tiny heads of children to make them behave. Horribili visu—one of the senile nuns used to proclaim before they put her out to pasture.
Jonas loved numbers more than words, and feared a God who had the time to count the hairs of every human head but was unable or unwilling to intervene in the slaughter of his creatures. Large mammal or insect, monkey or lizard, it didn’t matter. The nuns were so sure. . . . and not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father, they said. Jonas often thought they winked at one another over dinner in the convent. You should have seen their faces when I told them that, he could imagine one of them saying to the others.
A Möbius loop inside a circle turning infinitely like an old hard drive with no terminating instructions in the never-ending circle of life and death. That, for him, was the inconsolable mystery of life.
Yet it must end, Jonas thought. The universe was doomed to darkness, programmed from the instant of the Big Bang. Every star in the universe destined to implode, blast the smoldering contents of its inner furnace into blackest space until every molecule decays. The sun, a middling star, will nova, become a red giant and consume all the planets except the outer gas giants. Unless human beings can invent a device to tow Earth to a safety zone, it’ll be eaten by the sun, Jonas knew. Seventh-grade astronomy: Everything is falling into the sun, he thought: me, that maple tree, Lake Erie, the coyotes in their burrows near his neighbor John’s bee houses over the hill. A family of deer lay on the hillside soaking up the sun’s rays at sunset. The buck swiveled his massive head to look at him--
Alice astounded him by never giving a moment’s thought to any of what worried him profoundly. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know it was coming. Somehow the notion of dying on her back with a tube down her throat didn’t phase her. She never wondered: Is this all there is? She lived without the fear that oozed from his pores, and he didn’t know what to make of that. It was as if she held a deep secret from him. It was like discovering the familiar plain wooden hutch in his bathroom disguised a secret panel behind the towels.
Two weeks later, in the afternoon mail, besides the utility bills, he found a certificate of appreciation from the Canadian Wildlife Service with his name on it. It said the Cooper Hawk was hatched in 2014 from a reserve on Pelee Island on the Canada/U.S. border near Sandusky. The bander’s name and address was also included. It seemed odd. Part death certificate, part Good Samaritan award.
Jonas decided to frame it and removed a family photo of his parents taken at a club in the harbor where they drank. It was a reprint, possibly from an older sister keen on genealogy. His parents and another couple were smiling for the photo. Cocktails scattered around the table. It had a noirish look to it, very Tom Brenneman’s restaurant in Los Angeles, circa 1950’s. His father in a serge suit with tie and his mother—not the beauty of her family of women, certainly—looking modestly attractive, coy, like a film ingenue. He didn’t know the other couple. All of them long dead. Jonas kept a table of actuarial statistics in his head for death. His M.B.A. in economics diploma was missing. His mother, he remembered, flaunted it on the kitchen table for his aunts and uncles who used to drop by for coffee in the morning and Stroh’s beer in the afternoons. But even that was a faded recollection, too many years ago, long after his father’s death, and he had no idea where it was today.
One week after his surgery, he told Alice he was going to McDonald’s for a fish sandwich. She told him to skip the fries because his cholesterol numbers had come back high again.
He sat at the light at the corner of Lake and Ninth—the third traffic light within a hundred yards—mentally figuring out how many weeks he had spent sitting at traffic lights. A battered silver Datsun pulled beside him with the radio blasting rap music. The woofers in the stereo system were so shot that the bass rattled the chassis of the car out of sync with the rapper’s booming monologue, a braggadocio of women, expensive cars, and sex, all of it a grotesque mashup of slang-ridden violence and double entendre.
The driver was a white male, very young, probably a teenager, whose countenance held a look Jonas had seen often on the faces of youth in his town: brash, indolent, indifferent. One tanned, muscular arm hung outside, a cigarette between his fingers.
Jonas grit his teeth at the verbal assault of profanity-laced talk-singing—whatever it was—that thudded all around the intersection, ricocheting off the hoods and roofs of cars on a day already uncomfortable with humidity and heat. The filth poured into Jonas’ ears by this so-called artist and of course into anyone else’s at the light was an affront to civility and middle-class decency.
Inside his reverberating bubble, Jonas was forced to endure it. It mattered not whether his or the other drivers’ windows were up for the a/c or down. You had to listen. You had no choice.
By God, Jonas thought, I do have a choice. Turn that mindless shit down, you imbecile!
The teenager swiveled his head in Jonas’ direction. Jonas beheld the shaved head—a popular menacing look sported by trendy youth, noted the silver earrings, the baleful stare. The boy stared at him, his private rapture with the music broken by the irate senior citizen beside him.
Just as the light changed, the boy flicked his cigarette against Jonas’ car and shouted: “Fuck you, old man!”
Jonas, wild with rage, stepped out of his car just as the herd of traffic began to move forward. He even took a few steps toward the Datsun, now speeding off, before he realized what he was doing. He scrambled back into his Jeep, looked at the Datsun disappear down Lake Avenue, and watched the driver stick an arm out the window and jab his middle finger up and down until he was out of sight.
The nape of his neck tingled as he felt the probing eyes of a half-dozen drivers probe him as they passed on the left, some no doubt wondering what had just occurred but unsure if the din of rap music had been the cause or the result. The woman in the car behind him tapped her horn three times for him to get going.
He forgot about the fish sandwich and kept driving down Lake Avenue, intending to turn but seemingly unable to do anything but follow in the direction of that oafish teenager who had offended him first with the loud music and then with the personal attack.
Black rage took over Jonas’ mind, preventing him from making the turn left, homeward. West 11th, 12th, 13th whizzed past his passenger window, but he would not make the turn. He knew what he would do if he found that driver again. His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel.
“I want to smash that motherfucking punk’s skull into his shoulder blades,” he said between gritted teeth. He caught his own reflection in the rearview mirror, and almost didn’t recognize himself. The fox face and black hair, five-o’clock shadow were long gone, but it was as if the white-haired, pudgy faced middle-aged man staring back at him was a stranger.
“Kill that sonofabitch,” he said to the mirror’s image. “Kill him.”
He was too agitated to go home. He swung into the right lane and took West Avenue at the light. West was where many of the town’s blacks and Hispanics lived. Those old houses were once owned by Italian families. Some were deserted, abandoned. Some had been boarded up by police in drug raids. A large stone Baptist church with a message board that offered jovial or punning statements about God dominated the block where Alice’s family had once lived. One of their first dates was to attend the annual feast of the Madonna, eat pasta e faglioli in the church basement and watch the fireworks on the Sunday night in summer when the three-day feast ended. Alice asked him to take West to the Giant Eagle instead of his normal route last weekend when they did their grocery shopping. She wanted to see her old neighborhood. He’d counted as many as thirty-nine young black men hanging out on the street, some with their pants down so low their skivvies were exposed.
“Time’s change,” she said so softly he barely heard her.
“Yeah, for the worse,” he’d replied.
He’d worked as a mold-puller in the fiberglass plant around the corner from the church when they were first married. By noon, he was so exhausted he’d snooze in his hot car eating the tasteless bologna and cheese sandwiches Alice packed in the morning. He recalled the rubbery taste even now. The faded, gray cement-block plant was covered with graffiti, gang signs, and creeper vines now. Sumac sprouted inside from broken windows.
“Check that out, Alice.”
A mother and her children were pushing a baby in a stroller.
“There’s a man with them, maybe her husband—and he’s white,” Jonas said, nodding toward the tall, bearded male tagging along behind them.
“Two of the kids are black. Look. The boy and the girl.”
He knew without using his peripheral vision she was curling her lip, formulating a sarcastic response to his simple observation.
“You can’t let it go, can you?”
“Hey, all I’m saying is she’s white, the mother. Hubbie’s white and he doesn’t look like the usual tattooed freak white trash you see in this part of town.”
“You’re assuming he’s her husband,” she said.
“He obviously wasn’t the sperm donor for half the family,” Jonas replied. “Maybe he was in the service and comes home, you know, sees he’s got a pair of halfies to take care of.”
“You make me sick sometimes, Jonas. You really do.”
Jonas took in the woman’s features as they passed. She was petite, a bottle blonde, shapely in tight jeans, tanned. An ankle tattoo revealed the triquetra, a triple moon.
“These skanks, they spread their legs for every black who comes around, get knocked up, shit them out, go on welfare and taxpayers like me—”
“Shut up, please.”
Alice, like most of the women in his family, wasn’t the proper sounding board for his vexation at what he deemed the mulattoeing of America. But there it was. In plain sight, too. No shame anymore. Why others couldn’t see the obvious amazed him sometimes. He and Alice didn’t have to worry, after all. Their grandchildren would be doing the backstroke in this cesspool of miscegenation, the unabated tsunamis of immigrants pouring across the border from Central America. America was a basket case, he argued, pointlessly, to her.
“You know, English won’t even be spoken in most states in the Southwest in a couple decades,” he fumed.
Just like that skank and her big dupe of a husband. Breeding machines. Somewhere a statistic rolled out unbidden: the human race had once been down to a lowly 5,000 breeding females at some point not long after our human ancestors clambered down from the trees and began walking upright.
“ . . . bonobos,” he mumbled.
“Those other monkeys who stayed in the trees,” he replied to her. “The chimpanzees came down instead. That’s why the human race is in the shape it’s in. Aggressive, vicious, cannibalistic, war-mongering simians instead of those long-haired, black bonobos who wanted to lie around all day and have sex.”
“Sometimes I think galloping senility has got you by the brain,” Alice said.
He could tell from her tone she had tuned him out, bored with his conversation.
Today, there were only a couple dozen males loitering around on West Avenue. Someone had a barbecue going on his lawn with a sign selling ribs and chicken. He wished Alice were with him. She could calm him when he was like this. Even grocery stores were not safe places for him.
Jonas had worked in a family grocery store all through high school. It was a bittersweet memory. He’d made money but lost out on the social activities of his peers. Fridays in summer were the worst: 12-hour days with a lunch break standing at the cash register. One time, his degenerate manager, a fat slob, had fondled his genitals while he was on break in the kitchen, and he’d casually picked up the butcher knife from the counter and held it up, silently, still eating his sandwich. That manager fired him because he took off time to stay after school to work on the yearbook; then, his classmate, the editor, fired him for going to work when he was supposed to be at the meetings.
By the time he reached the Giant Eagle parking lot, he’d calmed down even though the teenager’s obscene gesture and his failure to confront him in the street still rankled.
When he left the store, the robin’s-egg blue sky had turned dark; the thick cumulous clouds were swollen with gray bellies. A storm was moving in from the southwest.
He was putting the last one-use bag in the back of the Jeep when it ripped open and two cans of sweet corn fell through the bottom followed by the carton of eggs. The young girl at the register had packed that one while he was busy paying with his credit card.
The word fuck was out of his mouth as soon as he saw the damage on the asphalt. In a rage, he kicked the carton of eggs under the Jeep and slammed the tailgate shut.
“Imbecile, idiot, dumb little cunt—”
At that moment, a silver Datsun driven by the teenager with his buzzcut drove past.
Jonas stared, mouth agape.
What are you gonna do about it, chickenshit?
The words flashed across his neocortex like a computerized message on the LED sign over the nearby gas station. “I’ll fucking show you what I’m going to do,” Jonas replied to no one, his eyes never leaving the license plate of the Datsun.
In a second, he was grinding gears and in pursuit. His heart thumped in his chest, a jackrabbit’s leg. He kept pace, a difficult thing to do with the teenager’s erratic driving—lane-changing without signals, speeding through caution lights, and weaving too close to the curb.
On his cell phone now, Jonas guessed.
Down West, flooring it across the overpass above the railroad yard, his overtaxed Datsun engine fighting the steep angle of climb while the kid tromped the gas pedal.
Jonas barked a laugh. Above the din of the rattling muffler, he could clearly hear the ear-bleed decibel level of the rap song playing from the boy’s stereo.
“Scumbag motherfucker, here I come,” Jonas said. He thought of that hawk that patrolled his backyard ever alert for the gathering of pigeons below.
The Datsun turned left at the intersection of Lake and Carpenter Road. Jonas slipped behind him, three cars back. He’d make the turn with the rest at the light change.
His mind tugged restlessly at him: What are you going to do, old fool?
Nothing—yet, Jonas said to it. Be quiet, watch and wait. You’ll know when I know.
In truth, he didn’t know, not yet. He was magnetized by the Datsun. He’d follow it if the boy did a sudden U-turn and bolted for Cleveland. One way or the other, he was going to confront him up close, make him pay.
He remembered the loose tire iron in the back of the Jeep under the umbrella. One of his tires had dry rot and he changed it and remembered too late he still had a lever lying behind the bad tire. He was too exhausted by then to put it back in its sleeve with the jack and the two rods that comprised the set, so he tossed it into the trunk and forgot about it.
Old Sister Regis, whose wrinkled face looked as if the tiny fissures were filled with talcum, told his class the Devil never sleeps: He whispers in your ear when you are at your weakest. . .
The Datsun made the turn into the parking lot of Sandalwood estates, Northtown’s most notorious housing project, just as the rain began falling. Cops routinely made 500 calls here a year, according to the Herald-Tribune. Welfare moms, hordes of black and biracial children, ex-cons, black gangsters, mental defectives, and criminals on the lam from Cleveland and Erie, PA were its regular denizens.
“It figures,” Jonas said.
He turned in without hesitation, eyes focused on the Datsun’s brake lights. He passed a small group of young boys beside a dumpster oblivious of the falling rain. One boy between ten and twelve wearing a LeBron James jersey that hung over his skinny torso like a shroud called out something to him as he drove past but the rain pattering against his windshield beat away the sound. At the far end, the Datsun swung into a lined parking slot; the driver jumped out, slammed the door behind him as the thumping caterwaul of the CD player’s song died in mid-bellow.
Jonas pulled in beside him. Grabbing the bar from the trunk was a moment’s work. His back was soaked.
With an act of will, he shut down the voice in his head building to a tremolo scream. Tunnel vision began to take over as he headed for the glass rectangle where the insolent kid had disappeared a moment before. He tucked the tire iron into his pants, careful not to let the beveled end slide down toward his genitalia.
The hallway was dark in patches because of the missing fluorescent lights overhead. The gray-brown carpeting had a staggered fleurs-de-lis design and exuded a sour smell.
He walked down the corridor, hoping no security guard was on duty in the lobby. The stifled voice in his head burst free like a trapped bird: What are you doing, you fool--
A figure loomed out of the darkness ahead. The punk in profile. Jonas picked up his pace, a trot became a lope, but just as he approached the driver—him, no doubt about it now—he heard the pneumatic hiss of elevator doors closing.
God damn it to hell, Jonas cursed.
The car moved up the floors inside the shaft. An old-fashioned elevator with a cable and pulley wheel, not a modern hydraulic. He looked around--Good, no one. He listened intently with the side of his face pressed against the greasy metal doors as the car and the counterweight rode the guide rails upward.
Jonas timed the syncopation of floors being passed in the hollowed shaft and waited for the tell-tale sound of the braking system engaging. Doors opening up above. He had one chance at this.
Second, third, fourth—Got it, got you, boy . . .
Jonas resisted the urge to thumb the button repeatedly like nervous people in films. He waited for the car to descend in its agonizing slow return to the first floor. He stood a few feet back from the doors when he felt a presence behind him. A man had come from the same darkened hallway and stood over his left shoulder.
“Takes all motherfuckin’ day,” he said sotto voce, more to himself than to Jonas.
Jonas was in a full sweat, a yard-mowing kind of sweat that caused salty perspiration to drip into his eyes and burn. He recovered enough composure to mumble an agreement. The man was tall, bearded but he couldn’t see his face. Two strangers waiting at an elevator, one white, one black.
The doors clacked open. Three young women, two black, one white, giggled, and stepped off. None gave Jonas more than a quick cut of the eyes. Their perfume was citrusy, and his nose tickled.
“Well, lookee, lookee here! Lookit you’all! Sharisse, hey baby. What’s happenin’?”
The black man gushed at them and they ceased giggling over their elevator conversation to greet him back. Jonas thought his name sounded like “Tarvarius” or “Torris-something,” unfamiliar to Jonas, non-Caucasian as were most black names.
A rapid-fire conversation him and the three women ensued. The two black girls talked over each other as Tarvarius unleashed a formulaic patter of compliments, which produced more giggles. Their names, like his, seemed onomatopoetically foreign—Shakina, Tanika, Sharisse. Enquiries were made about acquaintances or his with street names like “Oz” and “Bones.”
“You seen Oz around, Tee?” the white girl asked; she had purple streaks in her hair, rings on most of her fingers but hollows under her eyes and some scratches across her cheeks.
“Oz, he out ridin’ with ‘Crime Wave’ now, Cass,” Tarvarius told the white girl. “They on a mission. He be back in time for the party, don’t you worry.”
Jonas breathed deeply, stepped inside the elevator and moved diffidently to the back. Any attempt to push a floor button would be an act of aggression, but he didn’t know how long the insipid, maddening gibberish of these young people would last; every second mattered. His guts churned as if he’d swallowed a chunk of ice.
Thunder boomed outside. Without another word spoken, the girls stepped around Tarvarius like a bow wave splitting and he entered the elevator.
“What floor, man?” the black man said, glancing at Jonas over his shoulder.
The doors clacked shut and the platform jolted once, then settled into its steady rhythmic rise. The man got off at three and didn’t look back. Jonas released a huge exhalation of air he’d unconsciously trapped in his lungs.
Stepping off the elevator, he took in the odds of finding the driver. His brain computed the L-shaped hallway and number of floors instantly. He had no more than a 32-to-1 chance of locating the right apartment. He couldn’t knock on doors and he couldn’t prowl long before he’d be noticed. He decided to make one pass down the hallway, keeping close to the doors in case he heard that voice again. He kept one hand on the handle of the tire iron.
Voices. The last apartment on the left. He couldn’t tell ages but none of the others had sounds coming from them.
One chance, he thought. Maybe the gods would favor him for once.
He knocked twice, hard. His gag reflex kicked in, stoked by the adrenalin flooding his system.
The door opened on its own, as if by some invisible mechanical hand. Scented air warmed by cooking hit him in both nostrils. He heard a scratchy voice beckoning him to enter.
In the corner of a tidy apartment cluttered with bric-a-brac everywhere, he saw a wheelchair-bound woman with a shawl over her shoulders. She was old, very dark-skinned, almost coal-black like the people in the Congo he’d seen on the cover of a National Geographic.
God Almighty, Jonas thought, Strega Nona herself. Except that this old grannie wore dark glasses in her dark apartment. Then it clicked: she’s blind.
“Who’s there?” the old woman called out in a chirpy voice.
“It’s me,” Jonas said stupidly. “I mean, I’m lost. I was looking. I thought—”
“I thought you was the Meals-on-Wheels woman,” she chirped again, more bird-like than ever.
“Come in, come in, sir. You’re welcome here.”
“Oh no,” Jonas replied, face reddening at the terrible error, and overwhelmed by a sudden clarity of vision, a horror and a repugnance that brought up his gag reflex again.
“Please come in,” the old woman repeated. “You are early but you are welcome here.”
As clear as his vision had been a moment ago, it clouded over, like a ragged black curtain about to fall over his eyes, and he stumbled against the door jamb, his legs wobbly, disobedient. He reached behind him, swiping for the door knob.
“Do you believe in the living Christ, sir?” the old woman said.
“There’s nothing to believe in,” Jonas said, nauseated. On the verge of escape, he thought he might salvage one crumb from the disaster. “God forgot about me a long time ago.”
“Nossir, you’re wrong,” she said and nodded her head so vigorously that Jonas was afraid she’d strain herself. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Heavenly Father knowing.”
“Ma’am, do you know a young man who lives on this floor? He’s about nineteen, has a shaved head and earrings.”
“She cackled that laugh again. “My godson,” she said. “What’s that boy done now?”
Before he could formulate a false answer, she asked him why he didn’t believe.
“I used to,” Jonas said. The need to confess, unburden himself, was overpowering. “When I was a boy.”
“Why did you stop?”
“I fell—away,” he said timidly. A granddaughter with light skin and missing teeth exposing her incisors entered from the darkened hallway. “Grammie, will you tell me a story?
“Not now, sugar pie,” the old lady replied without turning her head. “My granddaughter Tanisha. She five and smart as a whip. See, I got company, baby. Grammie tell you a story later.”
“Go bring that man some cookies.”
The child skipped off down the hallway. If she’d told the child to bring him a pig’s head on a flaming stick, he couldn’t have been more revolted.
“No, ma’am, thank you, but I really have to go,” Jonas said.
Jonas turned the knob but the door wouldn’t open. She must have it mechanically rigged to the chair somehow, he thought. Spooky old goat . . .
“Days of tribulation,” she crooned, her voice deeper, assured. “Yessssir”—hissing it at him like a basket of snakes--
the Rapture, it’s comin’ sure as I’m sittin’ here lookin’ at you.”
Jonas slowly turned, a prisoner of this ancient crone with a face creased by a thousand wrinkles and fissures that dispersed light and shadow like a full moon through a telescope. Her motorized wheelchair purred.
“Seven years of tribulation, uh-huh, yessir. People risin’ from their graves, some leavin’ here to meet the Lord in the air.”
“Tribulation, seven years,” Jonas repeated dully, his tongue thick.
“Fear the Lord,” she said. “You know the Preacher’s words?”
Jonas thought she was speaking of some black celebrity reverend like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson.
“No, Ma’am, I don’t.”
Revelations, she means. The four horses of the Apocalypse—God, it figures.
Before Jonas could reply, a half-dozen people of all ages entered the apartment, and he had to step back to avoid the rush. The young white girl from downstairs holding a baby in her arms acknowledged him with a glance. The baby was chubby-cheeked, with ash-blonde curls and blue eyes. Her mocha-dusted facial features carried unmistakable Negroid features.
More people entered: black, white, Hispanic—young and old. Some looked at Jonas but none stopped to ask him his business in the apartment.
“We havin’ a christening today, Mister, for Cassie’s little girl,” the old lady chortled.
She was soon surrounded by the people who entered. Jonas watched them nervously feeling as if he were having an out-of-body experience. A knitted cross-stitch sampler was framed on another wall in blue and gold thread: My yoke is easy & My burden is light. A theater-poster-sized print of the angel Michael with a flaming sword descending from the skies with a wrathful look on his face seized Jonas by the throat. If she had sprung from that wheelchair swinging a sword at his head, he would not have been surprised.
By ones and twos and small groups they kept coming—all in high spirits, many bearing gifts. The old lady’s chair became a cynosure where homage was proffered. She gave her blessing to all and accepted the homage of her status.
The apartment was thronged with people. Most of the women brought food on plates and in covered dishes. The aromas filled the stuffy apartment with exotic, heady scents. Jonas was mesmerized by the scene and couldn’t leave, although he had no story to tell anyone who asked who he was and why he was here. No one did.
Time dissolved like sugar in water. Jonas’ mind withdrew into a blank. He felt himself become invisible, a watcher. He gazed at the room’s religious artifacts. The bronzed crucifix on one wall near the tiny kitchen. Even as a boy, crucifixes made Jonas nervous. How could the God of the entire universe allow Himself to feel pain? From the very creatures He Himself had made? His reverie left him feeling drugged, but he decided to leave while he was still unharmed in the midst of this bizarre situation.
He fumbled for the door knob, which refused to open. His grip on the tire iron slipped and it fell with a clang to the floor. Mindlessly, he reached down for it, and the door swung open suddenly and several more people came in at once, among them the teenager he had come to brain.
The boy reached down to pick up the tire iron. He looked at Jonas, no recognition in his eyes, just the casual insouciance of youth and indifference to anyone in Jonas’ age bracket.
He handed Jonas the metal rod, handle edge first, without a word and walked into the apartment. Several people greeted him by name. The kid doesn’t know me, doesn’t remember a thing. I came up here to smash his head in and he doesn’t even remember who I am.
He watched the boy lean over the wheelchair and kiss the old lady on a withered cheek. She pulled his head to her and spoke into his ear.
Jonas stared as the boy came toward him, weaving through the knots of chatting, laughing people.
“Grammie told me to take you around, like, introduce you. What’s your name, man?”
Jonas meekly followed her godson as he took him around to be introduced to the invited guests for the baby’s christening. Some men looked askance, unsure, but others nodded or acknowledged him. The boy sped up the pace of his intros, eager to get the task accomplished. Jonas cowered like a homunculus behind his chosen name: he was, he said, a retired C.P.A, he grew up close to Sandalwood, yes, he still lived in town, no, he didn’t know the baby’s mother—banalities that rendered him harmless. No one challenged his presence at the party.
Jonas wondered if she had divined his true purpose, knew somehow he had come to harm her godson. St. Michael’s fierce image and fiery sword were her totem to ward off evil, him. He grew dizzy and felt emptiness opening up beneath his feet like an elevator shaft straight into the bowels of the earth, plunging him into his own pocket of hell.
Jonas didn’t remember leaving, or the walk to the elevator, descending, but he was outside stumbling toward his car. The same group of boys near the dumpster buzzed with shrieks and stamped their feet in puddles. It seemed he had been gone for days, not hours.
His car was unlocked, still hot to the touch despite the rain pelting down. The rank smell of rotting garbage drifted over, but he recalled the sweet scents of the apartment upstairs where people were still celebrating a baby’s naming in the mysteries of Christ and her initiation into the journey of faith that lay ahead.
The kingdom of God belongs to such as these . . . The verse from Mark climbed out of the depths from some long-ago catechism lesson at Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows.
Jonas shielded his eyes from the sun that bore through the gray clouds. He wouldn’t have been shocked to see the bulging disk of new sun in its place. The apartment windows, now opaque from the golden light bursting through the remains of the thunderstorm, pierced him with sadness. He thought of the old woman inside one of those cramped spaces, a shriveled black angel.
He drove home, back to Alice and his view, his pigeons, while shafts of light strobed the clouds. Coming to the same intersection where he had encountered the silver Datsun that morning, he saw the sky above the lake speckled with gulls—or were they souls? Jonas thought of the floating forms of people in the Rapture and envied them those seven years of tribulation they would not have to endure.
Jay Curtis is non-binary and currently living in Detroit, Michigan. They have been exploring themes of sexuality, gender, and the fantastical for over a decade. Despite graduating from the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, they have largely worked in the service industry and depend on writing to offset their extroverted customer-facing self. When they're not too busy with their Masters degree or work, Jay obsesses over their book series and other short stories. You can find more about Jay and their projects at writingjaycurtis.wordpress.com.
First & Last
She was in several of my classes, and she was the one who got in trouble for talking. Hannah always had something to say. She was the one who had opinions about controversial topics, hot updates on all the gossip, and an impossible response to the private conversation whispered behind binders.
In a way, I admired her - I had a secret. I hated the sound of my voice, the soft look of my face, and the way my hair curled. I never expected my reflection in the mirror would be the end result of puberty, and sometimes when I caught that foreign face off the computer screen, I imagined the girl was simply on the other side of it, a separate being separately wondering the same about me.
In most situations, I felt uncomfortable. My shirt didn’t fit right, my voice squeaked too loudly, and others would simply talk around me, across the table, over my shoulders and never to me.
I liked being this passive creature. I could observe without compromising myself. This way, no one had to know my secret. They could simply assume.
No one could assume things about Hannah. She would actively go out of her way to prove something right or wrong or to be the case; true, she liked playing Devil’s Advocate, but I always suspected she couldn’t help herself. She enjoyed shocking those around her, and by the time we’d reached senior year, it was a compulsion.
Most people rolled their eyes at her. They’d learned her game, and they’d play along. But at the end of the day, everyone knew Hannah, with the plainest name in the whole world, was simply another face in the crowd.
I thought that’s why she did it.
We were at an assembly meeting, all of the seniors, and we — they, obviously, the popular students, the future leaders of America — had several items on the agenda, ranging from Prom duties and ticket sales to the new sign-out procedures for off-campus lunch.
I remembered distinctly: I was three rows behind her and eight rows to her left. You see, she had curly hair, too. Beautiful springy blond curls, and I knew, from watching my own every day, her own weren’t natural, despite how naturally they would bounce and sway with her every move.
It was this motion that caught my eye in that moment, and I swiveled my head to see Hannah launch herself out her seat.
“I’m not a girl!” Her whole voice rang out in the auditorium, stilling our classmates.
We all stared at her, and those of us on the stage, microphones in hand, were too stunned to react. But Hannah wasn’t finished.
“I hereby make a motion to start a Gay-Straight Alliance.” She paused to flip her seat down and tested it with her foot before pushing herself into the air, head held high.
She surveyed the world around her, all those pairs of senior’s eyes impatiently waiting for her moment to pass. With one foot on the back of her chair and the other in the seat, she rested her fists on her hips and chewed her lips, slowly making eye contact with each of those around her.
“Our high school is one of the last few in our district not to have one.” She shakes her head in disapproval. “That means that we’re all cowering behind our masks, pretending to be someone we’re not. That’s not healthy. We need a space to explore ourselves, and within the proposed GSA, we’d be able to organize student events, meet with the alliances of other high schools, and make our voices be heard.”
A notion so simple, right? Hannah had spent her entire existence being heard. What did she understand of struggling to be listened to?
She pushed onward, motioning to a girl across the theater. “Molly, you’re bisexual. This would be the perfect group for you to finally have that validated.” Hannah pointed to two different girls next to each other in the row behind me. “Erika and Ally, you’ve been dating since like sophomore year, but did you know there are eight other lesbians in our school? Some of them are even here in this auditorium with us right now.
“Daniel,” She addressed one of the students on the stage. “How hard did you lobby to perform Buyer & Cellar? I know you worked extremely hard on it, too. You even used the monologue bit at the end for your Juilliard audition, right?”
Daniel nodded and lifted the microphone. “And I nailed it.”
“Because you’re a proud gay man!” Hannah screamed at him gleefully, grinning from ear to ear.
She threw her arms wide. “We are a diverse group of students already, but let’s explore it more!”
Daniel nudged the student president Michelle, standing on the stage next to him, and she spoke into her microphone.
“Hannah, I love your idea, and I agree this is an organization we should move forward with starting.” Michelle grinned. “Actually, I already have the packet. I think I might like girls and had been looking into the GSA.”
She hesitated. “One thing, though, Hannah.”
Hannah paused her fist pumps.
“I think it’s technically called Gender and Sexualities Alliance now, to be even more inclusive.”
Hannah waved her hands. “Fine. I just want to say thanks for listening. I was nervous about how this would go, but it looks like we’re all kinda on the same page.”
“Thank you, Hannah.” Michelle smiled and clapped, the rest of us joining in.
I watched Hannah as she clambered back down.
“One last thing.” She twirled around. “Um, I’m getting my boobs removed over spring break, and I want to be called Rand now.”
She plopped down in her seat, and Michelle cleared her throat to get back to business.
“I’m not a girl either.”
I felt my face go hot and flushed, and my hands were clenched in anxious fists.
So many eyes on me. Too many.
“Thanks.” I blurted out and hunkered back down in my chair.
Michelle nodded kindly. “Okay, thanks. Anyone else?”
I pulled my hood up over my head, embarrassed and shaking. Where did that nerve come from?
I snuck a glance out of the corner of my eye, and three rows up and eight seats over Rand was grinning at me, her pink lips smushed together in a way that made my stomach knot.
I walked to and from school. I didn’t drive. I mean, I had a license, but we only had one car and my mom needed it for work. I didn’t mind the walk. It cleared my head for homework and gave me creative room to work on my story. I was writing a book series — well, originally, it was intended to be a stand-alone book, but I fell in love with my characters and couldn’t help it. They had more story to tell than what I thought. Most of my walking to and from school was brainstorming and world-building, and with my earbuds in, everything else easily fell away.
After what happened in the assembly, I had been exposed, my secret no longer my own, and I escaped into my world to avoid the curious eyes in the hallway, doodled little blurbs in the margins of my notebooks, and acted out the scenes on the walk home, my lips moving through the characters’ lines.
I wasn’t making very much headway into the story, and largely, I felt my shortcoming came from the distraction of the day. There was something so…extraordinarily human about Hannah, now Rand. Something so pure yet driven, I feared I could never capture in a character. How could you express the headiness of her curls or pink-lipped smile? Plus, now, she went from Hannah to Rand, which was nowhere near as plain of a name. There was intrigue and mystery.
She was the kind of not-girl you wanted to sit in front of for hours and listen to her talk about…well, everything, and even then, you wouldn’t be able to understand the mystery of her. In fact, I firmly believed you could spend an eternity attempting to solve the riddle that was Rand and still unlock nothing.
Never in my life had I wanted to talk to someone so badly before. Now. When I’d blown my cover before the whole senior class, with nothing more to say than a “thanks”. I’d heard the rumors about me, but this would send them over the edge. I was the opposite of Rand. I knew nothing, and that fact, which had once calmed me and kept me happily in my corner of the world, now propelled me into the spotlight, discernment upon my head like a crown.
I trudged up my driveway, no further along in my story nor my processing of the day, and I had nothing to show for it either. Summarily, it was a failure of a day.
I tossed my keys on the counter, and the clamor of them startled my mother.
“Mom, you’re home?” I leaned against the kitchen sink, my heart racing.
“Yeah, my day was shorter than I thought.” She grinned at me, coming to me and planting a kiss on each cheek. “How was your day, sweetheart?”
I groaned and collapsed into her arms. “I can’t wait to go to college.”
She hummed and brushed the curls out of my face. “Wanna talk about it?”
“I have homework.” I begrudgingly shoved out of her comforting embrace and re-shouldered my backpack. “I was going to make dinner. Is that still fine?”
She smiled and cupped my face with her hands. “That sounds delightful. I have some work I can do in my study.”
I muttered something positively cliche and forced myself up the stairs to my bedroom.
I opened my laptop and flung my backpack onto my bed, hurling myself after it, face first into my pillows. I tried to imagine what my characters would say in this moment of failing self-pity, but even my muse refused to play along.
My laptop pinged with the receipt of a message, and I glanced up to see a Facebook chat bubble blinking.
I rolled off my bed and one-handedly groped the top of my desk for my laptop, nearly dropping it on my face. I set it before me on the carpet and frowned.
It was a message from Hannah. She hadn’t changed her name on Facebook yet?
It was a simple hi, and because I’d taken so long to reply, my phone vibrated in my pocket with a reminder of the message.
I clicked into the bubble window and stared at her message. She’d already seen I’d read it, so it was too late to turn back now — but I had no idea what to say. Hi? I respect what you did today? You gave me the courage, too?
It was all obvious and boring and terrible, and I hated everything my stupid brain thought of. So instead I lamely typed back “hey” and watched as the scrolling ellipses bubbled away in return. It cycled through endlessly, and I feared she was writing me a novel until her reply simply read “thanks for what you did”.
My brow furrowed at my screen. What in the hell? Had she even been at the same assembly as me? What did she have to thank me for? I was the one who was a day late and a dollar short to the party and made a complete ass of myself.
“what for?” I snorted and watched as she typed back “for speaking up like that, I thought I was going to be the only trans kid in school so it’s nice to know I’m not alone, you know?”
Trans kid? Woah now. I only said I wasn’t a girl, which was true, but…trans? That has a whole…thing attached to it.
I grimaced and typed “yeah, totally, safety in numbers” to appease her, hoping she would lose interest.
Rand had other expectations.
“wanna hang out this weekend?” She offered. “I’ve only spoken with other trans kids online, so wouldn’t it be awesome for us to share our experiences with each other?”
I squirmed uncomfortably on my carpet.
My main characters unhelpfully poofed into existence on each of my shoulders, whispering the pro’s and con’s of a tete-a-tete with Rand. On one hand, there would be my chance at peeking behind the mysterious curtain that was Rand, and on the other, Rand would be doing the same to me, what little mystery there was. I yearned to know how she realized she wasn’t a girl and what she wanted to be when she grew up, but at the same time, I didn’t have answers to those questions so how could I ask them?
On one hand, Rand was getting top surgery and this interested me, but on the other hand, what about me? I simply wanted to keep my head down and graduate and go to college and become a published author. Why did I have to try on new names and new clothes and different pronouns and different bodies? Sure, I despised everything about my current disposition, but that didn’t mean I had to change it. Even thinking about it alone was burdensome.
“we could meet for coffee or hang out at my house or something” She continued. “And we’ll have to find a teacher to sponsor us for GSA, so maybe we could brainstorm who our favorite it is or whatever”
I pursed my lips, tucking my chin in the heel of my hand. My toes kicked together as I contemplated my response, and as usual, Rand still had words.
“oohh! or we could go shopping! I’ll need clothes for after the surgery, and I want some new dresses”
I cocked my head at this. “wait, you’ll still wear dresses?”
“Sure! Dresses are amazing!”
I shook my head. “But you’re not a girl, and you won’t have boobs anymore, will they even fit?”
She sent me a cry-laughing emoji, and my stomach knotted. Did I say something wrong?
“You’re funny” She threw in another laughing emoji.
I didn’t understand what I’d said, but I relented to a meeting with Rand.
The coffee shop was across the street from the vintage clothing store Rand wanted to meet at, and I continuously glanced up from my laptop and through the fogged windows. I’d arrived at the coffee shop that morning, and we weren’t due to meet until the afternoon, but I needed the space for writing. I was behind my word schedule, and with my mom off on a short business trip, the coffee didn’t replenish itself as magically at my house as it did here.
I took a sip of the latte cupped in my hands, desperate to avoid screwing up the foam art, and my glasses fogged up. I sighed and pushed them up into my curls, perching my latte off to the side of my laptop at a safe distance. I’d spilled my fair share of liquids onto my computer, and my mother was over having to repair it. If I ruined my keyboard further or rendered the rest of the computer useless, it was on my head — and my money was keyed up for other expenses, like writing contest fees and paid membership dues.
My fingers skittered across the keys, the heel of my hand rudely hitting the trackpad intermittently, and overall, I felt pretty good about the plot points I was checking off. I knew some scenes needed some work, and I’d long ago turned the grammar and spell check off and dreaded the day it was time to reignite it.
I glanced at the clothing store again. Rand was searching for new dresses. If I’d just told the whole world I wasn’t a girl, I didn’t think my first fashion move would be to reinforce the femininity of my figure — except I did recently announce my gender confusion and had no fashion at all, so who was I to judge?
The biggest difference between myself and Rand, I’d decided, was not only did I know nothing, but I barely knew myself. And perhaps there was something there that, say, needed a therapist or some other journey of self-discovery, but I wasn’t sure that was a…thing I wanted to do.
On the other hand, if the thrift store had some suspenders, I wouldn’t be able to say no. I’m a sucker for century-old gangster looks, and nothing says “I’ve got the juice” like a pair of suspenders.
I was more interested in fashion than I wanted to admit, but again, I had a word count to hit and no time to waste.
The coffee shop’s door had a little bell on it, annoyingly, so any time someone entered, it would jingle-jangle welcomingly and jar me back into reality. I had my headphones in, of course, because I’m only slightly a masochist, which helped to push the bell into white noise land, but any excuse to procrastinate was good enough to force my eyes up and away from my laptop and back to the clothing store across the street.
I told myself I merely needed to give my eyes a break, for my health’s sake, but there’s only so much you can see through a fogged window before your muse simply stops imagining anything but taking a little trip across the street to the store.
A figure blocked my blurred vision, and I squinted, knocking my glasses back down.
Rand grinned down at me. “How excited are you?”
I cleared my throat nervously and sprang to my feet, offering my hand.
She eyed my hand with a quirked eyebrow and pushed it away, lurching up onto her tiptoes to sling her arms around me.
I froze, feeling her body pressed against mine.
“Hug me back, you idiot.” She whispered into my ear, and I did as I was told.
It was strange.
She was shorter than I had realized, and as she pulled away and rocked back onto her heels, I became uncomfortably aware of how large her curves were up against my own.
She motioned to my latte. “Is that with the coconut milk? I’ve always wanted to try.”
I nodded, and before I could say anything, she scooped up my drink to taste it, her pink lips sinking into the beautiful foam art, effortlessly obscuring the design. Perhaps there was something to be said about my inability to express things and therefore my own need to preserve the fleeting wonders around me, but with Rand, there wasn’t the time.
She gulped down a mouthful and wriggled happily, grinning ear to ear. “Oh, that’s so creamy and delicious. I have to have one.”
With determination, she thrust my coffee into my hands and strode off to order her own.
Dumbfounded, I sank back into my seat, sipped at my assaulted latte, and stared at the blinking cursor in the middle of a dense paragraph, aggravated my muse lacked the attention span to have completed the damn sentence.
Rand bounced back to my table and flopped into the chair across from mine. “So I want to get a couple dresses, but also some boy stuff. That way I’ll be prepared for either extreme, whenever I’m feeling it, you know?”
I shook my head. I did not know.
She rolled her eyes and giggled. “You crack me up. What are you looking for?”
I hesitated. “At the store?”
She laughed louder, and the barista called her new name, sliding a foamy latte across the counter. She bounded away to retrieve it.
I could not, for the life of me, understand her.
“So I was imagining you.” She slid back into the chair delicately, licking at her foam mustache. “I think you would look incredible in, like, this classic look, with old wing-tipped dress shoes and a tie.”
I grinned involuntarily. Had I not pictured this version of me?
She noted the grin plastered on my stupid face and nodded. “Thought so.” She leaned forward and plucked at the tufts of rogue curls. “Would you want to keep these?"
I grabbed at her hand protectively. "I haven't decided."
She narrowed her eyes at me, and I mumbled the confession. "I hate my hair."
Rand leaned back in her chair, slinging her leg tightly over her knee, her toes swinging up and down through the air. "You could get it cut into a bob." She curled her forefinger around her chin in thought. "Shorter in the back, longer on the top to preserve a hint of those curls, maybe some shaved action along the neck."
Her voice wandered off as she scrutinized this visual overlay, and I sat there beneath her analytical gaze, sipping on my latte.
"Why'd you do it?" I blurted out.
She focused back on the real me again, pausing. She ducked her head and leaned forward to plant both feet back on the ground. "Same reason as you, I guess."
Rand locked eyes with me. "I was tired of people not knowing the truth.”
The vintage thrift shop was otherworldly.
The front doors had ornate hanging mirrors blocking the glass sections, and eclectic folding curtains, with bangles and knickknacks hanging from them, bookended the entryway. Even in the rain, it glittered and sparkled and induced a hazy hallucinatory effect.
As I stepped through the doorway, I felt sucked out of the rain and into the dry haven, soothing nature sounds and old scratched records playing on a restored gramophone floating and mingling in the air like audible cobwebs to clear from your path. On my left were rows of overcrowded racks, hand-painted signs with approximate sizings on the ends, and on my right were an assortment of seating areas, trunks, worn wooden armoires without their doors -- all adorned with accessories. From jewelry, to hats, scarves and ascots, to ties and pocket squares, even shoes with their laces tied together and strung over wooden branches on a makeshift Christmas tree.
Beyond these two dichotomies was the cash register, and beyond that, changing rooms. The back of the store lacked no oddity either, with faded brushed gold trim and bubblegum pink wallpaper intermittently covered with old newspaper trimmings. The counter was littered with more accessories, and not a single item looked like it had ever spent time wrapped up in plastic or been in disuse. The charm was intangible.
Rand beamed at the girl working the register and scurried down the rows, hunting for her dresses.
A wool felt fedora, in its wide-brimmed glory, was perched upon the head of a mannequin, oddly slumped in one of the high-backed arm chairs. This item called to me. It was very Indiana Jones, very bold and masculine, and I instinctively felt drawn to it.
My hand hovering in the air, fingertips poised to snatch up the hat -- and the mannequin moved.
I scrambled backwards, embarrassed and annoyed I hadn't noticed the man sitting in the chair, simply dozing off.
He chuckled up at me. "Didn't mean to startle you."
I shook my head. "I swear to God I wasn't trying to steal your hat."
He removed it, frowning as if he didn't recognize it. "This ol' thing?" He grinned. "No worries." He thrust it at me. "Go ahead, try it on. I was hoping it would provide me cover to steal a quick nap."
I stared at him. What?
He waved the fedora at me. "Here. Take it. I bet it looks great on you."
I tentatively accepted the hat from him and slowly settled it onto my head.
He nodded. "Oh, yeah, you have to buy it."
He was pointing, and I followed his finger to see a mirror behind me.
The reflection turned, wide brim of the hat obscuring the figure's face, except for a mischievous smile slowly overtaking the lips.
I tilted my head to each side. Something was off.
I pulled the elastic band from my wrist and fought to pull the curls into a ponytail at the nape of my neck.
Better. It still wasn't what I had hoped, but at this point, I wasn't sure if it was because I needed my hair shorter or my body less...of a thing. So I shoved the curls up into the top of the hat and nodded. Even better.
The man in the chair crowed with laughter and slapped his hand against his knee. "By golly, that's a hat fit for you, young man."
I started at this, spinning on my heel defensively. "What?"
He motioned to...well, all of me. "You aren't trying that hard to hide it, child."
I slumped shoulders, the hat's shadow falling over my face. "I can really pull this off?"
He hummed in thought and eventually leapt to his feet, motioning for me to look in the mirror once more. He guided my gaze gently with his fingertips.
"Imagine this." He whispered at my shoulder, a hint of Cajun drawl in his lilting voice. "Some dark jeans and a big belt buckle, tanned leather cowboy boots poking out of your jeans. You have a hand tucked into one of the pockets." At this he nudged my hand, and I did as told, fingers sliding into my pocket. "A collared shirt, with the top several buttons undone, and the color dirtied and smudged from its original bleached white. Maybe a pack of smokes in the pocket, or rolled into the short sleeves." He mimed my hand removing the cigarettes.
"But smoking kills." I whispered.
"Fine." He mimicked tossing the pack away. "No smokes, but if you get curious, don't start with the menthols."
I snorted with short laughter, and he clapped a hand on my back with ease.
"You work with your hands, and you're dirty with grease or dust, or the simple grime of hard labor." He imagined, his drawl husky in my ear. "And some day, you'll take over your dad's business, the best firstborn son he ever had."
I sniffed, wistful at the idea of being close to my dad, and shoved away from him.
I removed the hat, the magic of the moment scattering, and I handed it back to him. "Thanks."
He shook his head, palms up at me. "It was meant for you. Keep it."
Across the store, Rand called my name, and I thanked the man once again, his dark form blurring into the shadows of the store as I moved toward her.
"What do you think?" She beseeched, flipping between two dresses, one in each hand. "Earthy green or candy red? I can't decide between them."
I shook my head and crammed the hat back on, glancing one last time at the chair where the man had been.
When I looked back at her, another look had overtaken her entirely, and it made my heart stop in its tracks.
There, before me, with a green house dress pinned over her street clothes like a paper doll, Rand stared up at me with the most voluminous jade eyes I'd ever seen. Her cheeks soft and pink, her lips parted and caught between words, and her luscious blond curls spilling down her back, and she simply stared at me, mouth agape, enchanted by the cowboy-Indiana-Jones wannabe before her.
"You're hot." She whispered.
I ducked my head, grinning stupidly, and shook my head. I caught her gaze under the brim of the hat. "The green dress."
She nodded, eyes never leaving mine. "I mean, A-"
I shushed her, plucking the candy red option from her other hand. "You should go try it on. I'll be in the men's section over there."
She grinned mysteriously, and for a moment, I feared I'd said something stupid again but merely watched her disappear behind the changing room curtains.
I hitched my thumbs through my belt loops, fully embodying the roleplay, and sauntered over to the racks roughly in my size. Of course in the accessories free-for-all land, there had been suspenders and wing-tipped shoes-as-ornaments aplenty, but with this hat firmly becoming an appendage of my identity, I suspected the clean, smartly dressed man approach was not for me after all.
There were collared shirts galore, but none of them struck my fancy and all of them required silk pocket squares. Every time I pulled one from the rack, my nose turned up in disgust. This version of man simply wasn't mine.
I needed something more...down to earth, or modern, even hipster. I caught a glimpse of my figure in a mirror and allowed my imagination to fancy a beard. Yes. Bearded, dirty...and not in a collared shirt, of course!
I rushed to the proper row of clothing and sorted through it, several dark v-necks instantly jumping out at me as well as a few novelty tees, some sweaters, and pants.
I was having a hard time imaging what my hard labor was, perhaps woodworking, but whatever it may be, there was an earthiness grounded into this hazy vision.
I heard Rand calling me once more and looked up to see her, posing between the two curtain flaps, green house dress formidable.
"This is the one." She announced. She strode through the store, hips swaying to and fro, and it jarred my stupid brain to see someone so feminine and confident, yet not a girl, especially someone who had that look on their face as they approached me.
Rand stopped across from me, arms leaning on the rack of clothes. "You should try something on, too. We can be twins."
I held up the shirts in my hands. "I don't know."
She crumpled her brow in thought. "If you do the grey v-neck without the pattern, then you should go with the tan pants but roll up the edges. If you do a patterned shirt, it should be the light blue, and you'd want dark pants and probably some high-tops."
I stared at her blankly. "Which one?"
She motioned for me to shove my hair back up in the hat and nodded confidently. "The first look. Grab the pants behind you and leave the other shirts here, just in case."
I did as instructed and let myself be ushered off to the changing rooms. I couldn't mistake the heightened fluttering of my heart in my chest, and I eagerly stripped out of my clothes to don the new look. I took in the new stranger in the mirror and frowned. Something was still off.
Rand poked her head into the changing room. "What's wrong?"
I shook my head. "There's something off."
She grunted and disappeared again.
I tugged at the foreign hem, hoping it would adjust the way I wanted, and eventually Rand reappeared with a couple of bikini tops in hand.
"Trust me." She demanded, hiking my shirt up.
I allowed her to pull it over my head.
"Definitely don't do this all the time." She murmured into my skin as she tugged each top over my head and into place. "But in a pinch, this should help with the dysphoria."
She studied me, like she had done in the coffee shop, and commanded me to smush what little chest I had into my armpits as much as I could. When she was happy with the result, she pushed the shirt back into my arms, and I wriggled into it, the hem falling into place.
"Trust me." Rand grinned up at me before spinning me to the mirror.
For the first time, the mirror didn't lie. My hands flew to my mouth. That guy in the mirror -- it was a whole thing, and it was the most beautiful thing in the world.
I caught Rand staring at me in the reflection.
"You're really hot." She quirked an eyebrow at me.
My lips burst into a smile of their own, and I sheepishly ducked my head. "Rand..."
"I'm serious." She grabbed my chin and raised my eyes to her own. "I like this you, A-"
"That name." I withdrew immediately.
I glanced at her and regretted the suddenness of my actions. "Sorry, I...I hate that name."
"I get it." She shrugged in understanding. "We should get you a new one of those next."
I glanced back at myself in the mirror.
"You can wear that out of the store if you want." Rand hopped up on her tiptoes to rest her chin on my shoulder. "I think you should."
She smiled at me, softly this time, and I spun to watch her curtsy. She tugged at the brim of my hat, forcing my head down, and I erupted into laughter, swatting at her hands as she teased and danced around me.
Never in my life had I imagined such a private moment being shared so vulnerably, especially with Rand, the most extraordinary person in the world.
My mom knocked on my bedroom door.
I looked up from my laptop, laying in the middle of my floor. "Come in."
She poked her head in. "Am I interrupting?"
I shook my head and pushed myself up into a seated position.
She pointed at the bag from the thrift store. "Did you have fun with Hannah the other day?"
"Her name's Rand now." I gently reminded. "She's genderfluid."
My mom hummed in thought and sank into the carpet across from me. "What does that mean exactly?"
"It means sometimes she's a girl and sometimes she's a boy and sometimes she's both or neither or something in between." I studied my mother as her brow furrowed. "She's trans."
My mom nodded. "And you're hanging out with her now?"
The question was prodding and assuming and so unabashedly direct.
I stared at my mother. I'd never had a boyfriend to gossip about or school drama with the girls to fess up about, and now, here in this moment, I was disappointing her in a whole new way.
I wanted to tell her how the simple thought of Rand made my heart melt. I wanted to crawl across the carpet and explain how I'd made such a fool of myself in front of the whole senior class and now everyone at school knew, waiting for me to make another announcement. But there was nothing exciting or enthralling, or even inviting about me.
On the one hand, I still had my characters and my books to write, and I wanted to tell my mom I'd finally made headway on a big plot twist I'd been stuck on for months now. She always asked how my writing was going and when she could read it. She wanted to help after all, and even though it was impossible for her to offer an unbiased opinion, it was still feedback.
Next to Rand, however, nearly nothing else seemed to matter.
So, I sucked in a big breath and nodded.
"I think I'm trans, too."
My mom froze, shocked.
Words hung in the air between us.
"I want to become a boy." I confessed, my fists pressing into my knees anxiously. "I bought clothes today at the thrift store and am going to get my haircut with Rand next week, before she has her surgery."
My mom's face was unreadable, and that scared me. We'd had the most sacred, unbreakable, impossible against-all-odds bond, and now, what was to come of it? All because of the selfishness of my secret.
Who did I think I was?
When my mother spoke, her voice was quiet, and for the first time I could remember, she seemed uncertain. The strong pillar that is my mother weakened by my ego.
She softly stared at me expectantly.
I shook my head, apologetic and sympathetic for her cause.
"I understand that it took a lot of courage to tell me this." She continued in a whisper. "I thank you for being brave enough to share this important aspect to yourself. What can I do?"
I frowned. "Are you okay with this?"
"Sweetheart, I've known you your whole life." She smiled at me weakly. "I've had my ideas of you since before you were even born. But it's not about what I think. This is who you are."
My stomach knotted darkly. "But I'll never live up to-"
"Baby." She stopped me with her hand on my arm. "Whatever you're thinking, it can still happen. Anything is possible these days."
I stared at her. Who did I think she was? "You're incredible."
"No, mijo." Her face relaxed into a smile, and she pulled me into an embrace. "You are."
I laid there in my mom's arms for a long while, my characters and my homework forgotten. I melted into her like I used to when I was young. I laid there, and I rested, and I remembered, as always, it would always be me and my mother against the world.
My father had forsaken his opportunity long ago. I yearned, of course, to be able to have his influence in my life, positive and encouraging and uplifting and everything fundamental in a father, but I had already accepted the alternative. It was something more collective than my failing attempt to hide my true nature, my father being the selfish human that he was, and something far less secretive. Almost as if his selfishness was something socially expected and therefore the standard, whereas mine was rudely abnormal and dangerous.
My father and I couldn't be more different, yet here I was, the firstborn son he never had, blanketed in a comforting embrace from my mother. I wanted to be strong and push away and wipe my tears on my sleeve and mask my emotions, like what my father would instruct, squeezing my shoulder in a masculine display of strength. I wanted to embody that toxicity, lean into it wholeheartedly, I did -- but hearing the steady beat of my mother's heart, something so resilient and impossibly unbreakable, lured me down from the edge of the high dive over that acrid pool. How easy and stereotypical and blasé to grow that face of pretend stoicism like a beard. How mind-numbingly futile.
No, I should want to be strong, like my mother's heart, for my mother, the most amazing spirit in the whole world. How effortlessly she had switched to mijo instead of mija, and how unquestioning she had been. Who did I think I was, having a mother as divine as mine? Who was she?
Rand wasn't alone. Unlike me, she had four siblings, all younger than she was. Her house was a different kind of chaos, sounds I'd never been aware of before harmonized and clamored throughout the living spaces like the audio was another physical creature within the walls.
Perhaps, in another life, I had had siblings of my own. Would I have been the oldest, like Rand?
As I watched the intensity in her sister's face, I suspected I would've preferred to be the youngest.
She chewed her lip thoughtfully, occasionally blowing on my nails. Her brow crunched adorably in a way I'd seen Rand's do multiple times by now.
Rand's little sister Amanda huffed up at me. "Are you sure you like this color?"
I shrugged. Amanda, the most intelligent eight year old I'd met, albeit I had known very few of them, had a YouTube channel she tended to. At eight. Amanda, you see, was obsessed with nail art, and like any good salesman, could convince a polar bear it needed ice. She was so masterfully persuasive in weaseling her way into your heart. Thus, my nails became this week's demo for her channel. She was recording her process now -- and I did mean process.
Amanda blew on my nails again and addressed her webcam. "The delicate nails really make it more difficult to get this swirl just right, but I think the thumb might be big enough of a canvas for us to work with."
Rand rolled her eyes. "Amanda, can't you do this later? We've got a haircut to get to, and you're wasting his time with this."
"I honestly don't mind." I interjected, butterflies in my stomach at the word "his".
Rand was the first person to say that one little word without making it...into a thing, and I couldn't deny the somersaults within my ribcage at her audacity. But it felt so...right.
Rand snorted. "Yeah, well, she can literally do your nails any other time you're here, but right now, we're in a hurry!"
"Fine!" Amanda screeched. "Ruin my art, why don’t you!"
With a stomp of her foot and the true disposition of an eight year old, Amanda stormed out of the room, whipping her webcam off the floor, without bothering to clean up her nail accessories.
Rand shook her head, chuckling lightly. "Drama queen, that one."
I smiled up at her as she nonchalantly slouched off the side of her bed, big eyes boring into mine. "I kinda like it."
"Only because you don't have any siblings of your own." She gently poked my nose with her forefinger.
I swatted at her and grinned. "Have you found the perfect hairstyle for me yet?"
She groaned and rolled over, disappearing over the edge of the bed, and I sat patiently on the carpet, listening to her rummage through her backpack.
"I found this magazine at the grocery store today and thought you might like it." She grunted, swinging back around.
She thrusted it into my lap, and I took in the cover. It was some men's magazine, but this particular issue was dedicated to the hot new looks for the summer.
"I dog-eared the pages I think you'd like." She ruffled my curls good-naturedly. "But you can check 'em out in the car on the way over. Can't be late!"
She vaulted from her bed and dragged me up to my feet with an unexpectedly strong grip. I followed her to her mom's minivan and obediently buckled myself into the passenger seat.
The vibrancy of the house radiated off of Rand as she continued to talk, so many ideas falling out of her mouth, childlike excitement in her eagerness to share them with me.
I watched her pink lips as they moved and nodded when I needed to, and asked questions in the right place. I wondered if she knew how attractive she was.
Sure, she had to have had boys tripping over themselves in the hallway, but what about girls? Especially now, she wasn't a girl to them. Who else saw what I did?
Who else could?
Rand chattered animatedly, one hand always circling through the air, as the other steered us through traffic. She was a natural at everything she did and a master of everything she touched. There was an air of command about her, untouchable to me, and sometimes, when the afternoon sun glinted through the windshield, I could see it in the starburst glare encompassing her.
Of course, she was explaining her new hairdo style choices, but ultimately, it didn’t concern me. I couldn't imagine myself without the curls, and while the idea of not having them anymore was uncomfortably foreign, I wanted them gone. I'd packed my new thrift store outfit in a bag, stuffed under Rand's bed back at her house, for me to try on once I had the proper hair, and Rand kept hinting at some present she'd bought me. What it was, I couldn't glean from her, naturally a master of secrets when it suited her, so instead of letting my mind run wild with ideas, I directed her attention to her surgery.
It was tomorrow after all. She was nervous, I could tell. I didn't blame her. I was nowhere near as busty as she, and abhorred mine altogether, but she had come to know hers well and had grown comfortable. She knew how to dress herself as a woman with breasts and hadn't known anything else. Without that social conditioning, what else was she expected to know? She was nervous simply because she'd never not had them, wanted them gone, couldn't believe it was finally happening, and had stopped being able to envision herself as flat-chested for fear the dream might collapse, the bubble burst.
How could I blame her? I mean, my curls could grow back, but a total removal? And she was sure of it, undoubtedly. But it's more permanent than a tattoo, more final than scarring, forever a reminder of what her body had been to her once.
Rand pushed me into the barber chair at the salon and flipped through the pages demandingly, and I watched her hand down the decision, the judge that she was. How lucky I was to have such blind trust in her, but I couldn't help it. Her certainty was heady, and I rode her confidence like waves.
I watched as Rand swiveled my chair around, her large eyes on mine, reassuring me I was going to love it, and I relaxed back against the faux leather, the large vinyl apron swirling around me. I had been positioned so I couldn't see, but I thought I liked it better that way -- like when I'd seen myself with the old Indiana Jones hat for the first time. It never gave that reflection a chance.
My chin tilted down as the sound of the electric razor hummed at my ears. I would want my own chest to be completely flat one day, but with as small as they were now, doubling up on the sports bras was adequate. An idea blossomed in my mind.
"I think I need to start working out."
I saw Rand clap her hands out of the corner of my eye, and she nodded vigorously.
"Yes, let's build up some muscle!" She slapped her arm, flexing it commandingly. "With the right protein intake and schedule, who'll need testosterone!"
I snorted. "I can't look like a pre-teen boy forever."
She giggled, and the barber told me to raise my chin. I caught Rand's eyes with my own.
"You're going to be stupid hot one day."
Her mouth pinched into a crooked grin, and I couldn't identify the look in her eyes. If I wasn't mistaken, I would say she was seeing me for the man I was going to be. The barber swung me back around to face the mirror once they were done, and for the first time, my heart hammering in my chest. I could clearly see him, too.
When I was growing up, I wanted nothing more in the world than a pet. For the longest time, it was an elephant, Dumbo my source of inspiration there, and I think it took the disappointment until my seventh birthday before I finally understood the backyard was no place for a pet elephant. Now, of course, elephants deserve more than domestic captivity under the giant dogwood trees, but that was loss of innocence.
Once I'd come to terms with my pachyderm love interest, I moved on to something a little more manageable, like reptiles. My mom was firmly against snakes as a whole, distrusting of them as a species, which I always thought unfair, but she ended up allowing me to have some turtles. They were relaxed and mostly spent their time sunbathing, and they always seemed to like it when I would lift them out of their terrarium to roam around my bedroom.
Of course, I would talk to them, too.
"Charles and Noreen," I would whisper to them, my chin on my hands, my eyes level with their own. "You don't mind that I hate my body, right? You don't even know what gender is."
Their heads would bob in agreement, and I would feed them their vegetables and watch them munch.
"What would you think if I told you I wanted a different body? Could I move into one of your shells until my real home came along?"
And I would imagine them shaking their heads miserably. "No, you dolt, that's hermit crabs. We molt parts of our shells away and it grows with us."
I would hum and bob my head in reply. "Yes, of course, how foolish I am. Maybe one day I'll shed the parts that don't fit anymore and continue growing."
Charles and Noreen, my turtle council, in all their infinite wisdom, would munch their vegetables and scramble over the carpet and bob their heads and tan in their terrarium -- and they always accepted me for who I was.
I felt the same, standing as I did now, before the wall of stuffed animals in the gift shop. A dark green, friendly-looking turtle stared up at me motionless, a stark contrast to my once-living Elders, but the look in his eyes was the same. He was perfect.
I scrounged up the change from my pocket and meandered back down the hospital hall.
Rand was still passed out in her bed. She, I had learned, was insanely sensitive to anesthesia medicines, and I wasn't sure she had been aware of this before now either.
Her mother peered up at me over the top of her glasses, pausing in her book reading. "Find anything good?"
"Just this." I waved the stuffed turtle.
She smiled at me kindly. "She'll love it."
I retook my seat beside her and slid down a bit, slouching with my knees wide.
She knocked her book against my knee gently. "Thank you again for coming along. I know it means a lot to her."
I studied Rand in her unnaturally quiet state. How curious to see her face so soft and tender, her pink lips slightly parted in deep slumber, her big eyes closed.
I ran my hand through my hair, startled by the shortness of it and let my fingers scratch at the buzzed stubble at the back of my neck.
Rand's mom chuckled. "Takes some getting used to, doesn't it?"
I nodded and mumbled something incoherent. Rand's mother was like my mom except more tired, if that was possible. I assumed the addition of children exhausted her.
"So have you found your name yet?"
I slid my gaze to the turtle in my hands, praying for his wisdom to come. "Rand says it's like trying on clothes. You'll know it's the right one when you hear it."
Her mother grinned. "I wonder how she heard 'Rand' then? It's such an uncommon name."
I shrugged. "Maybe she liked it because it made her feel invincible."
I glanced up to see her mother sizing me up out of the sides of her eyes, and my cheeks flushed, feeling foolish for having let my own mind speak in place of the turtle's.
Rand rolled her head over, her face sluggish and hazy, and she grimaced, fingers tenderly reaching for her chest.
"Hi, baby." Her mother cooed, leaning forward to catch her hand. "How you feeling?"
She groaned something deep and shook her head. "Right now? I'm just riding this wave."
Her mother chuckled. "Well, the doctor prescribed you some Vicodin for when you come down, so let me know if you feel any pain."
"Oh, the pain's there." She grinned sloppily. "But it's like...It's like over there." She pointed to the end of her bed and giggled, an uncomfortable sound like her mouth was full of soup or melting ice cubes.
Rand locked shaky eyes with me. "You're here!"
I grinned and nodded. "Of course."
She held out her arms. "You're the best."
I presented her with the turtle. "I got you a little recovery buddy. This is Charles, and he wants to know all about you."
I couldn't help my smile as Rand grasped the stuffed toy with both hands and gave him the biggest hug. She had no hesitation in making introductions and whispered furiously to the turtle.
Rand's mother chuckled again and patted my knee. "You know her well."
Perfectly timed, the doctor poked his head in for a word with her, and I watched her move to the other side of the curtain.
I glanced back at Rand, murmuring and drooling. Fighting her anesthetic high and spilling her secrets to her new turtle guide. Her cheeks were pink from the sleep, eyes still a little blurry, but she was Rand all right. She still possessed all the mysteries in the world, and when she threw her head back to laugh at her own private joke, the room vibrated with her spirit.
I disagreed with Rand's mother. I did not know her well, but only well enough to share a bit of myself with her. For where there should be questions of how and why, I simply accepted and attempted to give her a glimpse of my own spirit. Maybe all Rand truly needed was the kind of love that I had to give her. Maybe, I did know her well.
Rand had seventeen prom-posals in the two weeks after spring break, guys, girls, and the every color in between. It was impressive, and by the middle of the first week, it almost seemed like an unspoken challenge of who could out-ask her next. There were light-up signs and musical numbers and even balloons -- balloon guy got detention because there were a lot of them and most ended up in the rafters in the gymnasium. Balloon guy also asked three other people at the same time. One bird and a thousand balloons?
I didn't understand the appeal of exceeding expectations, so I failed. What if the appeal was that there weren't any expectations? Those who were already going together knew it, and everyone else knew it, too. Sure, there were a few surprises, but they were still in the same social groups. Nothing unpredictable.
Rand walked home with me now. She had discovered the solace and comfort of my house and seemed to relish the quiet. I liked how much she liked it, how new it was to her for simple reasons.
Today, I was enlisted in carrying her gifts home.
She grinned up at me, the sun glaring off her Ray Bans, and I hugged the teddy bears and pride flag and snacks to my chest.
She plucked a chicken nugget from the oddest of bouquets I'd ever seen and studied it happily. "It's like never-ending Hanukkah."
She bit half of it and waggled the other half like bait at my mouth. "Open up!"
I did as instructed and chewed on the cold chicken. My tongue prickled and danced at what I could only assume to be a sprinkle of MSG in the meat, and my stomach growled at me for more.
"I don't know why all these people keep asking me out." She laughed, half nervous and half incredulous, and as I watched her skip around me, avoiding my eyes. I frowned.
How could she not know why? How was she so oblivious to how amazing a creature she was?
She tugged at her binder and threw her hair up into a messy ponytail. "I mean, I get that I'm like the best genderfluid person ever at this school, but c'mon! This is getting out of hand."
She tilted her chin up at me, freckles poking out from under her sunglasses. "Maybe they all took bets and it's some kinda game to them all."
"That's a little pessimistic for you, isn't it?" I motioned for another chicken nugget.
She acquiesced with a giggle. "Yeah, you must be rubbing off on me."
I rolled my eyes as we walked up my driveway. I scrambled for my keys and eventually had her retrieve them from my backpack. As we barged into the empty house, Rand tossed her bouquet of fast food onto the counter and demanded I put her things anywhere. I chose, of course, to place the teddy bears with the others, the snacks in her backpack, and the pride flag on my wall. She'd already gotten several pride flags and was running out of things to do with them, so she let me collect them instead. I didn't think she noticed I kept returning the snacks to her backpack, but when she'd find me between classes, she always had a new bag in hand, crinkling away for the munchies.
Rand collapsed onto my bed with a dramatic sigh and stared up at my ceiling.
"I think it's all bullshit, you know."
I cocked an eyebrow at her, stepping back down from my desk chair to admire my handiwork at pinning up the flag. "What are you talking about?"
"All these fakers asking me to Prom." She flipped her chin as if I'd missed something huge and flicked the sunglasses up into her blond locks. "It's all bullshit."
"I don't follow." I perched myself at her feet.
"Well, you know they only did it because I've been making such a splash. I mean, do you remember this happening last year?"
I shook my head.
"Yeah, because it's bullshit." She sighed again and shot up to a seated position."You know what?"
I watched her, knowing full well she would tell me.
"I don't want to go with any of them anyway." She tapped my arm. "Because we're going together, right?"
I stilled under her hand.
"Oh, don't give me that face." She threw up her hands and fell back into my pillows. "You're the only person in my life that I can be my true self with, and you're my favorite person."
I narrowed my eyes at her. "Do you want to go to Prom with me?"
"God, yes!" She covered her face in exacerbation. "I swear you're purposefully dense!"
I chuckled at this. "Maybe."
I picked at non-existent fluff on her leggings. "It's nice of you to say those things."
Rand peeked at me with one eye between her fingers. "What, that you're my favorite?"
I nodded and poked at her feet. She squirmed with an adorable giggle but settled them into my lap, and I settled against my footboard, her feet in my hands.
"Well, it's true." She murmured.
She stared intensely at my ceiling. All I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears, and my heart hammered against my ribcage.
I slowly moved my thumbs in circles to calm my breath and give my mind something tangible to focus on.
"I really like you." She whispered. "So much, I do, A-"
I shushed her soothingly, and she backpedaled. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry. Jesus, what's wrong with me, you'd think I'd get it-"
"Rand." I interrupted mildly. "I hushed you because you don't have to explain yourself to me."
She frowned at me, puzzled.
"I'll go to Prom with you." I continued, massaging the heel of my hand into the ball of her foot to ignore the hurricane of butterflies alive in my stomach. "I like you, too."
She beamed at me. "I think you might be the most interesting person I've ever met."
She could have been telling the truth when she confessed this, but only because she could never meet her own beautiful self. She would never understand how lovely and surprising her mind was, how she made me want to be the best man I could be. Or how she was the balloons to lift me from my seat and into the rafters. Rand would never know how her kaleidoscope spirit made me feel so alive.
My schedule was tight. There wasn't very much time left before Prom, and I had several workout routines to complete and weight lifting goals to achieve. My upper body muscles hadn't strengthened dramatically, no, but I needed to squeeze into the tux Rand had picked out for me.
For the first time in the history of our school, they were to crown a Senior Ruler and Junior Ruler, in place of King and Queen. The GSA had been busy and so time consuming my characters often felt neglected.
I let them air their grievances with me as I ran on the treadmill or counted my reps in the back corner of the gym. It provided the ample cover for talking to myself, as I acted out new scenes or puzzled over interpersonal details between my characters. Some of them had secrets of their own to lay on me, and I feared it would mean reworking the first book a little too much. But at the end of the day, I'd rather my characters live out their lives naturally without me squeezing them into boxes. Who was I to judge?
As I counted my reps and listened to my characters squabble, I watched Rand across the way, bouncing along on the treadmill, every muscle taut and every move controlled. Her hair was up in a tiny bun on top of her head, wispy escapees haloing her, and even as sweat poured down her face, her cheeks red and blowing out with excess air in concentration, she was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen.
Watching her run felt like I was reading her personal diary without permission. She looked so at peace, so elevated from her humanity, yet within her element, and as she bounced along with her thick thighs as strong as ever, it was obvious she was reveling in her post-op healing.
How was I not the luckiest in the universe?
I smiled to myself and, at the beep of the timer on my phone, happily let my knees sink to the mat.
Across the gym, Rand slowed to a halt and transitioned to her cool down.
She met my eyes and waved at me, grin on her red face. I returned the wave and scooped up all the weights I had been using. As I made my way across the gym, I saw two larger figures hone in on Rand, and I quickened my pace to hopefully intercept them. But they were faster, and as Rand hopped off the treadmill, wiping at her face with her hand towel, the two of them corralled her in.
"Lose something?" One of them leered down at her, leaning casually against the treadmill.
She frowned up at him. "Excuse me?"
"You heard what he said, freak." The other cracked his gloved knuckles with practiced ease.
"Hey, you ready?" I stepped between them. "It's time to go."
"Oh, hi, there." The first one smiled creepily at me. "I didn't realize it was dyke night at the gym."
"I'm sure you didn't." Rand glowered at him, fire in her eyes. "Guess you need some glasses for the fine print."
His grin disappeared at her sharp words. "I'd watch what you're saying, little girl."
"We run the gym around here." The second lug stepped his barrel chest into her.
"Come on." I tell her. "They don't know what they're doing."
"I don't think you know what we're doing." The first one placed his meaty hand on my shoulder, and I instantly shrugged him off.
"Don't touch me." I bellowed. "This gym is not a place for you and your bullying, so I suggest you either tone it down or get out."
The second one snorted with gross laughter. "You and what army, you fucking tranny piece of ass?"
Rand bristled in the midst of them. "Shut up." She commanded darkly, fists clenched.
"You aren't welcome here." The first meathead spat down at her. He met my gaze, giving my shoulder a squeeze. "So I suggest you either suck my dick or get out."
The sickening crunch of his nose breaking exploded against my fist, blood spray splattering across the second lug's cheek.
Rand gasped, hands covering her mouth in shock, and I stood there a moment, staring him down. The second one wiped at the blood on his face, panic overtaking his features, and the first guy folded forward, moaning at the pain.
"You don't run shit!" I hissed at the poor excuse of a man, crumpled at my feet. "This isn't your gym, malditos pendejos!"
I hovered over him, glaring daggers at his henchman. "Stay away from us, understand?"
He merely stared at me, glass-eyed, in disbelief.
Rand tugged on my arm, and I stumbled after her, back to the changing rooms.
"That was insane!" She whispered through gritted teeth at me.
I sank onto the bench, staring at my hand, knuckles busted and bloody. Where did that come from?
"Hey, you okay?"
I glanced up to see Rand, bag slung over her shoulder, keys in hand, ready to go.
"I want to get outta here." She admitted softly, kneeling before me.
"Was that okay?"
She took my hands in hers and gently pressed her soft pink lips to my bruising knuckles. "You were amazing."
"But I hit him." I searched her eyes for any hint that I had done her wrong. "Are you all right?"
She smiled tenderly. "As long as I have you, I will always be all right."
I slid my calloused hands around her jaw, cupping her beautiful red cheeks, and as I drew her near, her breath hitching in the electric space between us, my eyes slowly closed, imagining nothing but her soft lips against mine - and we kissed, her lips melting without hurrying into my own, our noses and lips aligning like the stars in the night sky.
It was the most wonderful kiss in the whole world.
I fiddled with the pin of the boutonniere in my hand. The ivory carnation was so delicate, and I feared I would damage it trying to attach it to Rand's jumpsuit. She kept instructing how to slide the pin between the layers of fabric and the green wrapping but to no avail, and after sticking myself in each of my palms, I was on the verge of giving up.
Rand sighed lightly, tapping my nose with a sort of secret fondness, and I felt my cheeks warm, my stomach knotting. "Here, let me."
She patiently guided my fingers through the motions, the flower in place once and for all, and turned to her mother expectantly. "Now, your turn."
My own mother clapped her hands in wistful delight as Rand skillfully pinned my boutonniere in the lapel of my tuxedo effortlessly. "Ay, mijo, que precioso!"
I grinned in embarrassment. "Mom."
Rand patted my cheek proudly. "No, you're adorable."
Her mother motioned for a picture, and Rand spun in my arms without warning, me flustered in trying to grasp this amazing creature.
"You two are going to steal the crowns tonight." Rand's mother sniffed joyfully, tears in her eyes.
Rand rolled her eyes. "No, it's Senior and Junior Rulers now!"
"But you'll still get it." I nuzzled my nose into her neck.
She grinned at me in unadulterated surprise and pleasantly drew me in for a kiss.
"Oy vey, child!" Rand's mother feigned dismay at the display and gestured wildly for more photos. "We are not done here!"
My mom chuckled and threw her arms around the both of us. "I'm so proud of you two. I wish you a night full of fun."
Rand's mother chimed in with well wishes, and Rand cut them both off.
"All right, we gotta go! We can't be late!"
I escorted her to her car and opened the door for her. She shook her head at me, but I only chuckled and climbed in beside her.
We watched our mothers wave us goodbye as we left, and the whole way there, Rand was uncharacteristically quiet.
I didn't mind the comfortable space between us and squeezed her hand gently, her fingers laced with mine.
"You know what makes you the most amazing person I've ever met?"
My eyebrows shot up in surprise. "What are you talking about?"
"You." She shook my hand for emphasis. "You're this incredible person in my life, and I feel like the luckiest human alive."
"Don't be ridiculous." I snorted. "You have no idea how much I love you, do you?"
She snuck a glance from the road to me, her lips puckered in a crooked grin. "You love me?"
"Undeniably." I leaned my head against the headrest. "You are the most important person I've ever met."
"I'll never have the time to explain all the ways how wrong you are." She grinned.
I watched her eyes sparkle in the night, and that was it. We had arrived.
It was a curious thing, then, climbing out the car with her, and I was struck by the oddest of thoughts: I did love her, with every fiber in my being, and rattling in every bone and blood cell was the simple truth: I would do anything for Rand. The not-girl mysterious, unlocked not by a series of questions but by an undoing so passionate and pure as my love, was the real solution to her riddle. For how can you truly know a person without loving them?
The thought was sudden and strongly overpowering.
"I think I found my name." I whispered in the night, palming her slim hand with my own.
Rand gasped and stopped me with a hand at my chest. "What? When? That's amazing!"
I drew her in, whisking her into a twirl and slow dance. "I think it was always there, but wasn't certain, until right now."
She smiled, so proudly and so softly, and it made my whole being ache with love for her.
"There you are, tranny slut."
Rand was ripped from my arms and tossed aside like a rag doll.
I stumbled backward and into a thick chest.
The first man from the gym, eyes black from the broken nose, raised his chin at me. "You think you're hot shit, huh? Slinging fists like that?"
I didn't have to look to know I was trapped against the second man. Beyond them I could hear Rand screaming - my name, for help.
"I don't want to fight you." I kept my hands low and my voice even. "There's still time for you to walk away."
"No way, faggot." I could smell the whiskey-soaked breath of the lug behind me.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. "I get that you're angry. We don't have to go to that gym."
"Good." The first one spat, his thick saliva hot on my cheek. "Beg. Beg like the scared little whore that you are."
I met his eyes. "I'm sorry I hit you. I was wrong."
He shrugged. "All the same."
His large hand hooked into my jaw, and I toppled to the asphalt.
I lost count of the blows. The kicks to my back, my kidneys, my stomach, my head. My ribs cracked, and bones crunched, and my body threatened to pass out under their unrelenting barrage, and right when I thought I couldn't bear it anymore, they stopped.
I choked and coughed and spluttered. Blood was everywhere, hot and sticky, but I couldn't see a thing, my ears trying to place the muffled howling as my own disembodied voice.
But it wasn't. It was Rand's.
No. I felt the pavement beneath me and found my orientation, forcing an eye open. There. Across the parking lot. Screaming her head off as if expecting to combust any moment into pure flames.
There were others, rushing from the building, but they would be too late.
So I steadied myself against the bumper of a car and found my footing, shaking and convulsing, my vision fading in and out of black. It was only a few short strides, I psyched myself up. Just a few quick lunges and you're there. You can do this. You can do anything.
I sucked in a painful breath, my side splitting open at the broken ribs, and launched myself.
With my one good eye, I watched the emotions kaleidoscope across Rand's face, shock at me being on my feet, relief at that same fact, realization of something behind me, terror quickly eclipsed by horror.
She shrieked a banshee's rage, arms outstretched, and the gun shot pierced my side.
I landed back on the asphalt, at Rand's feet, and never before had I disappointed myself so, failing to perform this one simple task for her.
Rand crawled toward me, tears and snot streaming down her cheeks, murmuring incoherently word after word, and she lifted my head into her lap, fervently brushing my hair from my face and rocking back and forth. I could feel her shaking beneath me and feared she'd been shot, too.
I shushed her as soothingly as I could muster, and at the wheezing sound escaping my lips, that look on her face, I surmised I wasn't being very reassuring.
"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God." She rocked. "I'm so sorry. I'm so, so, so sorry. Oh my God, A-"
I groaned terribly. "Joshua."
She paused searching my face for meaning, and I repeated myself, fearing my speech was too slurred.
"My name...is Joshua."
At last my name, spoken and final and perfect, was hers, too.
Now, I was me.
Gabrin dismounted at the edge of the village, leading Cloud Dancer by the reins as they made their final descent. The old mare was still fast and light in the open, when she was running or dodging small obstacles. Downhill had become more of a chore over the last few years.
The village had a minimal wall constructed of wood from the nearby forest. It was of a simple design; pilings dug into the earth, each pole strapped together and burned tight with pitch. The forest didn't possess the tallest trees, and the holes had to be dug deep enough that the trunks would stand firm, so the height of the wall was only eight feet, ten at its highest points where lookout platforms had been added.
There was a fat, young girl on a stool at the open gate, her face drawn and sleepy.
"Who are you?" she asked, pointing with one sausage-like finger.
Gabrin wanted to laugh at her rudeness, but held back. "Just a traveller. Are you the guard? The official sent to welcome visitors, perhaps?"
"Are you mocking me?" said the fat girl, standing up and crushing her massive bosom to her chest with folded arms.
"Trying to joke with you, not mocking you," Gabrin said.
"Wait, are you a girl?"
"You're dressed like a man. Where are your riding skirts?"
"Where I come from, we don't wear skirts," Gabrin said. She peeled back the scarf at her face, let it slide down onto her chest, flashing her tilted eyes and sharp, dark chin.
"Where are you from?"
"East," Gabrin said. "And a little south, I suppose."
"I've never, I mean, your eyes…"
"May I come inside? My horse is hungry and tired."
"You can do whatever you want," the girl said as she gestured for Gabrin to go into the village. Her tone had changed, now filled with awe and confusion.
Inside, it was nicer than Gabrin had expected. The main road was covered in black gravel, a sort of stone that sparkled at the edges. Buildings were constructed of the black stone, as well as reddish clay bricks and here and there some wood. It looked like a village in transition, and she wouldn't be surprised if over the next five or ten years, the wooden wall around the perimeter was also upgraded to brick and stone.
"Good thing we found her now," Gabrin said, patting Cloud Dancer on the rump.
The stable was easy enough to locate. Another fat little person, this one an old man, took Cloud Dancer by the halter, looking her in the eyes like he was doing an appraisal.
"Two coppers a night," he said.
"I'll give you a silver, up front, to take care of her proper. Understood?"
The man nodded, jowls wiggling, and held out a stumpy, greedy hand. Gabrin placed the sliver in his open palm.
"I'll take good care of her. What's her name?"
"Cloud Dancer," Gabrin said. She put one hand to her sword hilt as she said it.
The fat man stopped smiling. "Odd name for a horse."
"Not for my horse."
"I see. Are you here looking for someone?"
"Why would you ask me that?"
"Just saying, for a little more silver, I might know who it is you're looking for."
Gabrin considered the man for a moment. Greed was one of the few reliable things in the world, she decided, and with a nod pulled her hand away from her sword hilt, exposing the gold threading on the seashell pommel.
The man actually took a rearward step. He did it so abruptly that Cloud Dancer was forced to come along or have her neck twisted.
"Careful," Gabrin said.
"Never seen a…never seen the gold before," the man said.
"But you've seen silver?" she asked, holding up another coin.
"Silver. Yes." He reached for the money.
"Silver," she said again, pulling back.
"Of course, silly me. Julic Endarrion, on the rise. He might even be in the Duke's yard as we speak."
"Not a proper title. No one cares what we call our leaders, not this far from Brinian."
Gabrin handed him the second silver coin. "Thank you for your help. If things go sour, I may need to leave in a hurry, so after you've brushed her down, saddle her up again for me, will you?"
Not waiting for the answer, Gabrin moved on down the black stone road, soft leather shoes silent against the rough edges.
A man. She hadn't expected that. Where she was from all the best Dancers were women. It was such an accepted fact that men rarely bothered to learn the sword.
More and more, the further west she travelled, she witnessed men filling the positions of high-ranking soldiers and mercenaries. It was not odd to see them at the very heights of society, in all areas of commerce and business.
But this would be her first male swordswoman.
She smiled to herself and covered the hilt with her palm. It was forbidden to hide the gold threading from sight with any sort of permanent covering. There were ways to keep it from being announced to the world, one only had to know where to rest one's hand.
The Dancer was in the yard, it turned out. Not exercising, just leaning against a wooden fence, eating some dried, dark thing. He pulled pieces out of it with his teeth, looking more a bear with a fish than a man breaking his fast. He wasn't overly big and possessed slender muscle not dissimilar to the best fighters. He had a short beard that matched the black of his thinning hair, and a mustache that wound around his mouth and out toward his ears.
"Early for swordplay," called another man. This one, taller by far than the first, was wearing the burgundy red of royalty, with a silly, fluffy hat and matching robe. Stout boots beneath, she noticed; a man who hadn't always been accustomed to nice clothes and stations of office. This was a self-appointed Duke, not a hereditary one.
"Never too early for a Sword Dancer," replied the mustachioed man.
Gabrin frowned. A classless thing, to speak of what you were in such an open forum. Not that there were people around to hear it.
As she drew closer, the men saw her, and turned. Each one's hand flared to his hip as they realized what approached.
"Julic Endarrion?" she asked, letting her hand slip away from the gold-threaded pommel.
"Who's asking?" the man said. His eyes found the gold and didn't look away.
Gabrin felt of roil of pleasure in her stomach. She enjoyed this part. "Gabrin Gaisa of Bock Hold."
The Duke backed away, hands in front, palms out.
"How did you find me?" Julic asked.
"I bested a contemporary of yours in Audville."
Gabrin inclined her head.
"And you've come for me?"
"It would seem that way."
Julic set his jaw. "Allow me to get my elixir, and we'll begin." The man strode past the Duke, chin low and eyes on the ground.
Gabrin moved to the center of the yard, placing her own elixir upon the ground. She kept it in a simple wine goblet, made of antler and stoppered at the top. The mixture inside, a combination of acids, would be used to mark the bloodline on her blade, to make permanent the kill.
Julic returned. His elixir was strangely similar, a round-bottomed, leather goblet with a wooden stopper. He sat so they faced one another, backs straight and legs folded beneath them.
"For the Dance to continue, we must teach harsh lessons," Julic said.
Gabrin nodded, then repeated the ceremonial phrase.
As the lesser, Julic drew his sword first, laying it before him. It was a single-edged, folded blade – quite possibly a hundred layer sword – with a slight arc, the sort of natural curve achieved in the forging itself. There were three distinct marks on his blade, one high near the hilt, the other two nearly overlapping at the tip. Sometimes kills were deep and hard, sometimes just the nick of an important vein.
Gabrin drew her weapon. Hers was a hunting sword – an elongated falchion – with a diving, double-edged, clipped point. The Eagle Sword to match her preferred technique. Along its length were more than a dozen wavy, dark lines, at least a third so dark they lost all their redness.
Repeated kills to the same depth. A sign of precision, excellence and best of all, experience.
Julic's eyes grew wide and his lips opened, nearly letting a whimper escape.
He was new to his silver thread, and badly outmatched.
"For the Dance to thrive, we must stand on each other's shoulders."
"For the Dance to thrive, we must stand on each other's shoulders."
The ceremony didn't specify that the shoulders stood upon were attached to the defeated, face down on the ground, bleeding out from a nasty wound.
Gabrin and Julic stood as one, stepping away from their elixirs.
Julic looked once toward the Duke, who'd drawn himself to the edge of the yard and no farther.
Again it was the silver thread's duty to be first. He took his stance, a typically low one with hands at the crotch, sword tilting forward and upward.
Gabrin crouched then straightened her legs, finding her center. She put her hands forward, elbows locked, sword parallel to the ground. Eagle Stance was an advanced technique, and she knew her level of mastery would determine the fight to come.
"At your leisure," Gabrin said, indicating she would not move first.
Julic, a fighter, would not prolong what was to come. He stepped in and swung at Gabrin's mid-section.
With a shuffle-step, Gabrin brought her broad blade downward, crashing it hard into the spine of Julic's sword, driving the point into the ground.
He came again, and once more she performed the heavy, downward block, once more finishing in exactly her starting position.
Sadly, there would be no variation. Julic's technique was too weak. He would continue to be battered, having to make greater and greater efforts to fight upward. Most lesser opponents tired before variation was necessary and Julic would likely be no different.
Again he charged in, aiming for the feet this time. Gabrin raised her foot above his swiping blade and returned it to the ground in the same place. If he came close enough to cut her back foot, she'd drive the point of her falchion into his skull.
He tried to rotate her, attacking first the left side, then the right. All the attacks were below her block, and she was able to chop down, briskly and firmly, to negate the efforts. In five exchanges, her activity had been minimal, while Julic had already become winded from excessive effort.
Now, the feinting began, the attempt by the victim to be creative, to draw his opponent off-balance. Gabrin had seen it all before.
She took a sip of breath through her tightly closed mouth, re-focusing. Balance was the one thing Gabrin couldn't relinquish. It was Eagle Stance's greatest strength, and other Dancers were forced to attack it.
In general swordplay philosophy, attacking a strength made little sense, save for special occasions when the strategy was a decoy, a trick before changing tack to assault an opponent's weakness.
Only, there was no obvious weakness in Eagle Stance, or at least none that was easily devised within the confines of a fight. There were philosophies that could be attempted, but once the blood began to flow, fighters inevitably reverted to their comfort.
The longer a fight progressed, and the longer she could remain stoic, the more helpless her opponents became.
Julic's comfort was a low-stance, and creative or not, a low stance fighter he would remain. No matter how many feints – already growing less convincing due to fatigue – or creative endeavors, he was going to lose.
Finally, they stood still again, six feet apart. Julic was blowing heavy, sweat running down his brow.
Gabrin remained composed. A single bead of sweat caught the edge of one thin eyebrow, hung there momentarily as a bead, then sunk across the length of the tiny, grouped hairs. She'd carved her eyebrows precisely to act this way, to wick away sweat from her eyes.
She hadn't achieved gold thread status without some effort.
Julic gathered himself for one last attempt, diving in, side-stepping, and aiming an upward attack. It was an attempt to force Gabrin to break stance, and was effective in doing so. The small victory left the man in a bad position for a counter, if Gabrin could block firmly with a short motion.
And she could. And did.
But the return stroke did not go as planned. What should have broken through the man's flailing guard did not.
"There it is," she whispered, the breath of her words spilling across the adjoined steel.
Julic had put his palm to the spine of his sword, just a hand's-breadth above the guard. He was holding Gabrin's blade away from him with the extra leverage.
With a sneer, Julic pushed with both hands and sent Gabrin shuffling backward, separating them.
"Where did you learn that?" Gabrin asked, lowering her blade in one hand.
Julic smirked. It was his first victory of the day, if a small one.
"That what you came for?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "I've been following the technique for months, now. This thing, this set of moves that makes strength more relevant to the dance."
"And you don't like that, do you?" Julic asked. "Because I'm stronger than you."
She almost laughed. "No. Because we must stand on each other's shoulders for the Dance to thrive. I must know where you learned this."
Julic glanced at the Duke. The man was now standing a few paces away from the fence, closer than before. Had he been wearing those brown gloves earlier?
"What if you let me live?" he asked her.
Gabrin straightened. "You'll tell me if I do?"
"And otherwise, if we continue – "
"You kill me and learn nothing."
"Is everything all right?" called the Duke.
"Not now," Julic shouted. "Do we have a deal?"
Gabrin sheathed her sword. There was nothing in the laws that said a duel had to end in death.
"Sheathe your weapon, and tell me what you know," she said. As she bent to scoop her elixir from the ground, she sensed motion.
It was the Duke, and it happened far too fast for her to react. He'd swept aside his burgundy robe, revealing a long, dual-edged arming sword. In a manner of three purposeful strides he closed on Julic and drove the sword through the man's neck, just below the ear.
Julic's eyes clouded, and his chin tilted forward.
The Duke had a strange expression on his face, one of surprise and grief. He looked about to let go of the sword, gloved fingers gripping and re-gripping the long hilt. "I couldn't let him tell you," he said. "It's not allowed."
Gabrin stepped away. She had to get a hold of her frustration. The man had been about to tell her the origin of the technique! "You and I have a problem. You've killed a Dancer. I am sworn to avenge him."
"No, it's not like that," the Duke said, pulling his blade free by putting a foot on the dead man's hip. "See?" He showed Gabrin the hilt of his longsword as Julic toppled to the ground. There was copper threading crowning the simple, black pommel.
Gabrin remembered those first moments when she'd come upon the yard. How both men had flinched when they'd heard her approach, hands instinctively going for their belts.
A ball of bile rose in her throat. She'd missed that, been too excited, too narrowly focused.
"You're his student?" Gabrin asked.
"You're new. Perhaps you don't yet know the laws." She gestured to the dead body of Julic Endarrion. "This sort of behaviour rarely stands."
"Laws?" said the Duke, looking at her with one eyebrow cocked. "You think your eastern laws matter here?"
"Dancers have no boundaries."
"You're only the third one I've ever met," he said. "I don't know about your rules and your boundaries."
"Not mine. All Sword Dancers."
The Duke shook his head. "Not all."
"I'm sorry you were not taught better." Gabrin wanted to ask questions of the man, to discover if he too knew of the technique. Instead, her duty won out. "I challenge you, to revenge this needless killing of a Dancer."
Gabrin stared at him, not understanding his demeanor. He was new, poorly instructed in the ways. It would not be so wrong to show pity, and she'd not come for a kill; she'd come for information.
He stared at her, eyes wide, stance unbalanced and ungainly.
She was not bound by duty to be the bloodthirsty killer of newcomers to swordplay, she decided.
Gabrin held one hand aloft to indicate there was still another possibility. "Unless you tell me where he learned the technique. Has he passed it on to you?"
"Are you foolish, woman? I just killed him for fear he'd tell you!"
"And what have you to fear?"
"The man who taught him."
The Duke nodded. "In the west, not all blades go to the women. Things are changing."
She wanted to argue, tell him the best fighters were always women, no matter where in the world they hailed from. Instead, she remained silent. This strength technique alone could be altering the old ways.
"Are you going to come at me, then?" asked the Duke. His eyes were full of fear, and yet he was managing a modicum of defiance. "I won't be telling you a thing about our master."
"Have you an elixir?"
"This is highly irregular." She wasn't sure what to do.
The Duke decided for her, coming at her with bull-like intent.
His stance was barely discernable, a cross between Fox and Wolf. She herself had blended Fox with Rose in her youth, what she now called White Fox. As Fox counters Fox best, she fell into her crouch, brought her legs tight, and spiralled up, driving his attack away with such momentum that he fell forward onto the ground.
The big man got to his knees, looking at his gloved hand. There was a smear of blood across it. He'd fallen on his sword and cut himself along the sternum.
"You filthy cat!" he screeched and came at her again. This time he swung left and right, an old form of Heron. His feet were stupid but his attack was straight and true. Gabrin had to block it with firm wrists.
The man stepped in, putting one hand to the mid-point of his blade and grabbing hold. With a grunt he pushed through Gabrin's block, bringing the point of his sword down toward her eyes.
It was too aggressive, and yet it almost worked. As the sword point dove, she stepped under, trailing her blade as she slid past, opening the man along his side.
The Duke tried to turn, to gather himself. He took a shaky step, followed by a tepid curse, and knelt.
"You're undisciplined, yet somehow your strength makes you formidable. I must learn who your master is."
"Go bury yourself."
"You must tell me, for the Dance to thrive," Gabrin pleaded. "Who is this man who brings so much strength to his technique?"
"Bear," the Duke spat. "It's called Bear."
"Who? You must tell me! Is he to live in obscurity now that his disciples are dead?"
"You think he has no others?"
Gabrin felt cold sweat between her shoulder blades. "Other men?" she asked.
"Of course. The stronger of us."
She didn't know if he meant the stronger among men, or if he was saying that men were stronger than women. "Strength has always been relevant," she said. "So has balance and speed, agility and timing; intellect and inspiration, if you're good enough."
"No," the Duke said, falling to one haunch, held up by his sword in the ground. "Only strength matters. You'll see."
"You're dying," she said. "Do you want it to matter not at all?"
He looked up at her, hatred flaring. "Brinian."
"He's in Brinian? What's his name?"
"Look for the bear," the Duke said. He expired, slumping to the ground.
Gabrin crossed her legs and sat, considering. He hadn't had an elixir. And he'd killed his teacher, another Dancer, outside of proper combat. She thought maybe those things balanced out.
And she had been anticipating a new line on her blade.
Gabrin opened her elixir and treated the blade where the bloodline ran. She waited until the acid had taken hold, then wiped along the edge with careful precision.
When she'd finished, she descended the hill. There were more people about in the village than there had been, though none seemed on any business that would take them to the Duke's training yard. She arrived at the stables once more without seeing anyone climbing the rise.
Standing with the overweight groom was the girl from the gate. Now that Gabrin saw them together, she could tell they were related.
"Everything go well?" the groom asked.
"I wouldn't classify it as such, no," Gabrin said. "I'd like my horse."
"Did you kill him?" the girl asked.
"My horse," Gabrin re-stated, bringing some authority to her tone.
The groom skittered off.
"Did you?" the girl asked again.
"Yes," Gabrin answered. "And no. I killed a man who killed a man."
"So Julic is dead." The girl smiled. "He touched me, once. At the fair. Curled his fingers around my bottom so hard it made me grunt. I'm glad he's dead."
"Death is not such a simple thing. One shouldn't be glad."
"He had no right," the girl said, crossing her arms. "Men shouldn't be allowed to do that, touch a girl's nethers whenever he chooses."
Gabrin nodded in agreement. "Where I come from, had you reported that crime, he'd have lost a hand."
"No one here believes me. Not that they'd do anything even if they did."
The girl's relative – father, most likely – returned with Cloud Dancer.
"Don't suppose you'd return one of those silvers?" Gabrin asked. She was trying to joke. The man's expression told her she'd failed. She reached into her pouch and tossed him another silver. "That's in case anyone asks questions about what happened on the hill."
"Is it?" the groom said. "And what do we know?"
"You know nothing. I don't trust you with gold and a story. Silver's enough to be ignorant."
The man looked about to argue, to make his case that he was worth a piece of gold. The girl interrupted him before he could get started.
"Where are you going?" she asked Gabrin.
"That I can't say," Gabrin said. She mounted Cloud Dancer and spun the horse away from the pair. "Good morrow to you both."
"You're going to Brinian, aren't you?" the girl asked. "I know. Because the man, the one you're after, I've seen him."
Gabrin stopped. She looked up the hill. It would be good to go, now. To get away before the bodies were discovered.
She looked back at the girl, saw the intelligence flashing in her eyes. With a curse beneath her breath, she asked her question. "Who have you seen?"
"The man from the city, the one who visits with the Duke. He wears a pin, right here," she said, pointing between her two, large breasts. "Keeps his fancy cloak on with it. The pin is a bird of some sort, wrapped 'round with a feather or a leaf. I hear it's the symbol for the Council of Thanes in Brinian."
The man and the girl looked at each other.
"I've seen," she said. "I've been in the city."
"You know it? Your way around? And you think you could point out this symbol, or maybe even this man?"
"Does she own a horse?" Gabrin asked the groom.
"Now wait a moment," he said. She thought he was about to protest her leaving. "What's the payment involved for my wife's service?"
"Wife?" Gabrin said.
"Yes. Wife," he said. "She can't just go gallivanting off without a promise of payment."
The girl looked like she believed exactly the opposite. She'd leave right now, run alongside Gabrin's horse just to be out of there. "I'll discuss payment with her as we travel."
"Saddle up Swatter," the girl said.
"Now don't you be giving me orders, girl, I – "
"Saddle up Swatter and do it fast if you ever hope to see me again," the girl said. The presence of Gabrin had empowered her. "The lady and I will discuss payment as we travel, like she said."
In half-an-hour they were riding from the town, the first signs of commotion rolling down the hill. The groom had followed for a while, shouting instructions and demands. With each step they put between him and the horses, his words became weaker and more pleading.
The girl was flushed, face and bosom red, long hair shinier now that she was atop a horse and in the sun.
"You handle her well," Gabrin said.
"Been riding all my life."
"Good. You know how far?"
"Best part of a day," she said.
"Then I'd better at least hear your name, girl."
"Elleen," she said.
"Little young to be married, aren't you Elleen?"
"Not around these parts, not that it's your business."
"He's a little old, too."
"He can still make a staff in his trousers."
"That the reason you married him? His bed prowess?"
Elleen scowled and looked over at Gabrin. Then, her face broke into a smile. "He's the richest man in the village, is the truth."
"Ambition," Gabrin said. "That I can understand."
"And he gets in there pretty good, for an old chap."
They both laughed.
Dusk was upon them when they brought their horses to a halt at Brinian's eastern portcullis. The drawbridge was down, traversing a moat that had dried to nothing from lack of rain.
"You women have business in the city?" called one of the guards. He was atop the parapet, conical helmet reflecting light from the freshly-lit torch beside him. There was another figure across the portcullis, equally obscured by the ensconced torch atop the wall.
"Yes," Gabrin said.
And that was that. They said nothing else. Elleen started her horse forward and Gabrin followed.
"That's it?" Gabrin asked once they were safely through.
"What were you expecting?"
"Questions, at least."
"Big city like Brinian gets a lot of people coming through. They don't mind much what you look like or what your business might be."
"How do they keep the ruffians out?"
Elleen laughed. "If they kept the ruffians out, Brinian would fall in on herself. They need that sort to run the parlours and the brothels and the dice games."
The first few streets within Brinian's stone walls didn't indicate any sort of lawlessness. The place was orderly, symmetrical, each and every building built from the same grey stone. Businesses showed their colors on banners hanging over identical, brown wooden doorways. Other than the individual banners, the place was uniform, with few places for shadows to gather.
"Nice city," Gabrin said.
"I'd wait before drawing that conclusion."
Gabrin didn't know what they were waiting for. Men in blue, velvet smocks appeared, shaved pates sticking out the top of their matching garments. They hurried to the sconces and began lighting the place against the encroaching darkness.
But encroach it did, despite their efforts, and nearer the center of the city, the blue-coated men disappeared. Sconces became fewer and further between, and filled with ragged torches that burned unevenly.
Here, toward the very middle of Brinian, all of the shadows had gathered.
"I can smell it," Gabrin said.
"Which smell are you referring to? Sweat? Shit? Calf's head broth?"
"Ah, that. Speaking of, we shouldn't go right to the center; it's not safe for young women."
"I want to see."
Brinian had been built so the sewers led toward its center, all the streets running downhill in that direction. The decline was fractional and hardly noticeable, yet enough to accomplish the task of keeping shit running in the right direction.
Gabrin stopped her horse near a widening runnel, the stench of its contents making her gag. "Why?" she asked.
"There was a natural feature here, a deep crevice. The town was built around it, and they decided to make use of the place. Only problem was, the water runs underground and comes out on the west side, into the moat. The place began to stink so much they sealed the moat, and have been letting all the filth sit beneath the city. Some claim it's going to be full before much longer."
"Aren't they going to do something about it?" Gabrin asked, covering her mouth and nose for a moment of relief.
"You'd have to talk to the Thanes. They're the biggest landowners outside the walls and so they dictate much of what goes on in the city."
At the center of Brinian was a fountain. It was made of a different sort of stone, maybe marble, black with yellow striations of color. The figure at its center was a large bird, an albatross, holding a fig tree branch in its long beak. Around the outside, to hold the water, was a simple, stone wall that came halfway up Cloud Dancer's legs.
"Where's the water?"
"Water made the shit smell worse. And it fills the hole too quickly."
"It's sad, this in the center of…of this."
"I've always found it all rather dull," Elleen said.
Two children skipped past, one holding a hoop of rope. The contrast of seeing them run past the fountain, laughing amidst the darkness and the smell of refuse and fecal matter made Gabrin frown.
"You need something?"
She spun Cloud Dancer, sending the man stumbling back. He had a companion, who was also forced to retreat or get bowled over.
"Hold that torch up," Gabrin said, not liking the look of either man. They were both filthy and their clothes smelled badly enough that she could detect the scent of sweat beneath the other layers of garbage and shit.
The man, surprised, did as he was told.
Gabrin tilted her sword, to let the hilt reflect the gold threading on her pommel.
"Not a chance," said the second man. "Not all the way out here."
"You know the mark, yet you still stand near me," Gabrin said. "Were you not educated?"
"Come," Elleen said. "We should go."
Gabrin almost told her to relax. They were in no danger.
Then she saw two other men, equally ratty and caked in dirt.
And two more, across the way.
Gabrin chuckled. "This really happens in the west? They attack innocent people?"
"They might not attack if you give them some money," Elleen said.
"I don't have any money."
"What? You gave – "
Gabrin cut the woman off with a gesture, driving the flat of her hand through the air between them.
Elleen wasn't discouraged. "You're going to get me killed," she whispered. There was enough harshness and volume in her tone that the whisper was rendered unnecessary.
"You've got coin?" asked the man with the torch. "That's good, because there's a toll for riding horses this near the albatross."
"And what's that toll?" Gabrin said, already bored with their idiocy. "Am I to watch you bathe each other? Maybe touch each other's pricks?"
Elleen gasped. "What are you doing?" A real whisper this time.
Gabrin leapt from her horse, handing the reins to her young companion. "Stay still, don't get involved. Which one of you wants the sort of trouble I bring?"
"She's bluffing," said one of the men from the dark. "Take her now, Willace."
"Yeah, get her. The fat one says she's got coin."
"No need," said Willace. He eased the torch closer to Gabrin. "You can afford gold thread on your little sword, girly, you maybe got some more. I think three will do. Three gold coins of the King's weight, good and proper."
"Thank the gods," Elleen said.
"I don't have that," Gabrin said.
"You do!" spat Willace.
Gabrin put her hand to her hilt. "You're right. I have it. It's just not expendable. It's mine and I need it. You, however, are expendable.
"She talks real nice," said the man next to Willace. "Maybe she really is a Sword Dancer."
"Stupid," said Willace. "Don't you know your gold thread don't mean nothing, not anymore?"
Gabrin spread her legs.
"Kill her, take her fucking gold."
"Get the fat one."
"Let's get out of here, Willace."
Gabrin held up a hand, silencing them all. "You've obviously never met a true Sword Dancer. I'll teach you a lesson on behalf of our kind."
"I've met more than one," said Willace. "And men, too, not whatever you think you're doing. You call yourself Dancers? You going to prance all around me and poke me in the bum with that? Can you even manage to break the skin with your puny girl arms?"
Gabrin looked down at her arm. She disagreed with his assessment. She was a good height and a good build, as stout and lithe as any swordswoman.
"Puny?" she said. "Elleen? What's the law in Brinian when it comes to killing? Can I kill them because they threatened me?"
"Aye. Self-defence is the law."
"Good." Gabrin drew and stepped-in, bringing the tip of her sword across Willace's throat. Blood erupted, his clutching hands incapable of keeping it all inside. He collapsed in a soaked, sobbing mess and died.
Gabrin caught the eye of the other man. "Lucky me. I managed to get through the skin with only these puny girl arms."
The man fled into the night.
Elleen leaned over and vomited from her saddle.
Gabrin spun in a slow circle, looking into the darkness. She'd killed the man holding the torch, so now she was in the circle of light alone, a visible target for the rest of them.
"You killed him," Elleen said.
"You sound surprised."
"I've never seen anyone killed before."
"What do you think happened to the Duke?"
"I know, but I didn't see it!"
"I don't have all night," Gabrin said into the dark.
"I think they're gone," Elleen said. She wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. "I can't see them anymore. Let's go."
"They're just thieves," Elleen said. "They don't want to die."
"Why'd they make me kill one, then?" Gabrin asked, lowering her sword. "I showed them my threading."
"I guess they had to see it for themselves," Elleen said.
"So it was spectacle that stopped the attack. Interesting."
"Can we go? Before someone else decides to accost us?"
"As I've travelled, I've noticed an increasing lack of confirmation when it comes to my status as a Sword Dancer. This, however, I did not expect."
"Lack of memory? Lack of comprehension? I'm not sure what. Has the city of Brinian fallen so far?"
Elleen sighed. "Get on your horse. We can talk on the way to the inn."
Gabrin obliged. She cleaned the blood from her blade; you didn't etch a kill from a non-Dancer. She replaced the hunting sword in its scabbard and climbed atop the horse, snatching up the torch as she went.
"Perhaps compared to what you're used to, Brinian seems a lesser place," Elleen said. "I think thriving cities like this create their own rules; their own legends and fears and lifestyles. They may know of Dancers, but they don't see them. What they do see, they react to. Like two women in a part of town they shouldn't be in. Maybe in the east flashing that gold of yours makes everyone lick your boots. Not here. Here people have their own agendas, their own needs. If they need to eat, to feed their families, your legend becomes dimmer."
Gabrin shook her head. "It is still the same problem. This far from civilization, they've forgotten what's important."
"You think being a duelist is important because you're a duelist. Why would that matter to someone here?"
Gabrin straightened. "I am no mere duelist."
"Don't get pissy with me," Elleen said. "I'm just trying to help you understand."
"I don't get pissy. That wouldn't be productive. Here," the Dancer said, tossing the torch to Elleen. The woman caught it with a little shriek. "If the magic users ever return, if they ever come across the wide seas again, places like this, like Brinian, will be sorry they ever forgot about the importance of Sword Dancers."
"The what? From where?"
Gabrin looked at her, eyes wide. "I think you've made my point with your ignorance. These lands truly are lost if you don't remember."
"Is there no library here, even?"
"What's a library?"
Gabrin made an awful noise in her throat. "Let's just get to the inn."
The inn Elleen led them to was called The Trawler, and the placard above the main doors showed a man being hung by his boots over the side of a low, thin sea vessel by two other men. It was a marvelous piece of craftsmanship.
They left their horses with the inn's groom, Gabrin giving him a silver piece to take extra care, and entered beneath the hanging man.
The room was half-filled. Gabrin took note of the men who bothered to look up when they entered. None of their gazes lingered long.
The inn was long and thin, not unlike the boat on its sign, and had two hearths near the far wall. One was lit, and a few men sat around it, lazing on the ground atop fresh straw. There were two benched tables at the center of the room and half-a-dozen two-man tables against either wall. The floor was old stone, the walls wood with some greenish brick. At the front of the room was a short bar covered in playing cards. Two old women were seated behind the bar, only one of them bothering to look up as Gabrin and Elleen approached.
"Fancy a real game?" Elleen asked the woman.
She nodded. "I'd have better from you than Marta, that's for true."
Marta didn't respond. She leaned forward and with a creaky hand laid a Fool atop the pile of cards.
Elleen turned to Gabrin. "This is Arri and Marta. They own the place, took it over from their father when he died."
"Had it dropped into our laps," Arri said. "And who might you be? Awful pretty face for a man. Or are you a man?
"I am not," Gabrin said. She was beginning to grow weary of the confusion. At home, it was clear to all what she had – or didn't have – between her legs. Movement alone indicated that, if one bothered to notice. One couldn't be graceful with something dangling around down there.
Arri squinted. "Foreigner?"
"I am that."
"What are you bringing her in here for?" Arri asked Elleen.
"This is an inn," Gabrin said.
"You could get rooms anywhere," Arri said, laying a Queen atop the pile.
"I thought I'd show you a kindness," Elleen said. "This one tends to pay well."
Arri frowned over at Marta. "You're going to take all night on that Queen, now, aren't you?"
Marta moved only her fingers, splaying out her handful of cards.
Arri returned her attention to Elleen and Gabrin. "Pay well? We've got a set rate."
Gabrin produced a gold coin and placed it atop the pile of cards, covering the face of the sneering Queen. "I like to be well taken care of."
Arri stood up, putting her hand of cards down. "I see. I don't know that we have enough to take care of you that well."
"A decent bed and some anonymity is all I ask for," Gabrin said.
At that, Marta's head came slowly up from her cards. Her eyes settled somewhere on Gabrin's belt, and the old woman got up even faster than her sister. She started to speak, a loud croak, then covered her mouth with one, withered hand. She shrunk down, spreading her fingers to talk.
"That what I think it is, m'lady?" Marta asked, her voice shaky.
"M'lady?" Arri said. She snatched the coin up and looked at it. "I suppose you can earn a title by paying over well."
Gabrin pulled her coat back a little further, revealing her hilt to the light. "I was beginning to think no one in Brinian remembered."
Arri's eyes found the gold threading on Gabrin's pommel. "Ah." She looked at the coin again, then back to Gabrin. "Anonymity might be difficult, you wearing that."
Elleen laughed. "Not the way it's been so far. Seems like nobody cares."
"Fools," Marta said. "Fools not to remember."
Gabrin nodded. "My thoughts exactly."
"Why have you come so far west?" Arri asked.
Gabrin glanced back across the expanse of the room. No one was watching.
"It's okay. You can thrust these old hags," Elleen said.
"I'm searching out a technique. Something new that's been spreading east. I've tracked it all this way."
"Hope you weren't planning on finding it here," Arri said. "Duels aren't even legal in Brinian."
Gabrin had to take a moment. "Have you fallen so far?"
"Farther," Marta said. "Women, younger women, are being discouraged from following the old ways."
"Explain," Gabrin said.
"In our day," Marta went on, "the best of us were recruited. The most agile, the most athletic. I nearly made it. Now, most don't even know about sword dancing."
"Discouraged may be a strong word," Arri said. "It's just the way things are, now."
"No," Marta said, her wiry fist hitting the bar. "There's a movement, a plot, something. I can feel it in my bones."
"What about you?" Gabrin asked Elleen. "You're young. What is your experience with this?"
"I've always been a fat girl," she said with a shrug. "What would I know of such things?"
"Your size is not relevant," Gabrin said. "Working the sword changes a body anyway, turns it into what it needs to be to wield the blade in the best possible way. Some get smaller, some bigger, some grow more plump, some more muscled. You should've been given the chance. I've seen you ride; you're not without grace."
"Nice of you to say," Elleen said. She almost reached sarcasm, trying to keep the flattery from affecting her.
"If there is some suppression, some active quashing of the old ways, I must root out its source," Gabrin said.
"And men," Marta said, her voice lowering to a whisper. "I've seen men about with blades. Not just soldiers and guards; I've seen threading."
"Once or twice," Arri said. "A rarity."
"There are men in the east who are given the opportunity, who are trained in the dance," Gabrin said, again checking over her shoulder to make sure no one was paying attention. "That is not so uncommon. Are you sure they are really Dancers and not just sporting the threading falsely?"
"Why bother?" Elleen said. "Why pretend the status if there's no one to acknowledge it?"
Marta nodded. Arri had begun to look worried.
"Perhaps it's an indication that their numbers are in fact growing," Gabrin said. "Can you recall any of the men you've seen wearing threading on their pommels?"
Marta nodded. "I've seen four, and only four. There is one I've seen more than once, and the only one who wears the gold."
Gabrin swallowed a lump. The thought of a western man earning gold threading…it was not something she'd been prepared for.
"Where are you seeing all of this?" Arri asked.
"I don't spend my time yammering with slapping lips," Marta said, her voice suddenly harsh. "You think I can't see because I don't speak incessantly like you do?"
Arri leaned away.
"Tell me," Gabrin said. "Who is this man?"
"I know not his name," Marta said. "He wears the symbol of a Thane, here, on his cape."
"This must be the same man," Gabrin said, putting a hand to Elleen's shoulder. "Where can I find him? Where is this Council of Thanes?"
"It doesn't meet openly," Arri said. "And no one is sure just how many there are at any given time."
"Thirteen large holdings," Marta said. "Near about that many Thanes, I gather."
"We just need a look," Gabrin said. "Elleen saw this man in her village. He's the one behind the training of these men. Where is it that you've seen him, Marta?"
"Here," she said. She smiled, showing a mouthful of old, broken teeth. "He likes our mead."
Gabrin and Elleen waited in The Trawler for three days. They drank, ate, played cards with the sisters and talked idly of unimportant things.
At times they would take turns venturing out into the city, never far for fear the man would show up.
He never did.
"I'm going to have to return at some point," Elleen said on the third night. "If I stay away for too long they're going to start saying I killed those men in the yard."
"That's preposterous," Gabrin said. "Your husband knows very well I was the one."
"If he wants me back home, he could say all sorts of stupid things," Elleen said.
Gabrin stood up from the bar. Marta had already gone to bed, and Arri had been dozing, hands under her breasts, leaning back in her stool. Gabrin's sudden motion woke the older woman.
"What?" she said, her voice loud enough to draw the eyes of all ten patrons.
"He's not coming," Gabrin said. "He knows by now what's happened to his students. He's known for days. I'm a fool!"
"Calm down," Elleen said, tugging at Gabrin's tunic.
"I am calm. I've just seen the truth of it. I'll bet this man of yours hasn't been out of doors since I killed the Duke," Gabrin said. "He's in hiding. He won't show up here ever again."
"Why would he hide?" Arri asked.
"From me," Gabrin said. "A true Dancer in his midst; a real swordswoman, not some facsimile."
"Maybe he's just been busy."
"No. We're done waiting." Gabrin turned to Elleen. "I need you to guide me through the city."
"This is madness," Arri said. "Where are you going to go?"
"I don't know yet. My mind has grown too idle. I must start the hunt anew and see where it takes me."
"Avoid the center of the city," Arri said. "There's been a lot of city guards down there. Rumour is they're investigating something. The sort they send into that mess don't treat people all that well. They'll be ornery and looking to lay down some beatings."
Gabrin's mouth fell open. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"Tell you what?"
The Sword Dancer slapped her hand on the bar. "They're looking for me. They're looking for the woman who killed the ruffian. He's trying to find me!"
"We don't know that for sure," Elleen said as Gabrin tugged her from her seat.
"It's something. Let's go!"
Gabrin tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for the grooms to retrieve their horses. She'd been still for too long and her body was begging to move, to be about something, to dance.
Elleen looked tired and worried, older than when Gabrin had first laid eyes on her. Adventure didn't sit well with some people.
"Must we go back? Of all the places we could go," Elleen said once they were on their way to the center of Brinian.
"If you're so sour about it, you can leave me once I'm close."
"I'm not sour. I just don't want to get attacked again."
"The more it happens, the more you'll grow accustomed to it."
"You're a hard person to talk to sometimes."
At the edge of the central hub, just in view of the great, shit fountain, Elleen reined in. "Maybe I should turn back."
There were three people near the fountain. All wore the garb of the city guard, red and white stripes above black trousers, matching black cordons at the shoulders.
One of the three was slightly different. His stripes were odd; not equal in size and more white than red. On his shoulders were braided epaulettes in bright gold.
"My word," he said, his voice carrying through the silence as he noticed the newcomers.
Gabrin leapt from her horse and strode toward the man. Elleen hopped down to grab the mount's reins and follow closely behind, leading the horses with only a small amount of struggle.
"I'm surprised. I told him you wouldn't come back," said the man who'd spoken, straightening with one hand on his sword hilt.
"You were wrong," said Gabrin.
"So you admit you killed the man? Here?"
"I did. He accosted me."
"I gathered as much."
Gabrin stopped a yard before the man.
"It's real, then," he said, looking at the gold threading on her pommel. "You killed the others as well? In that village?"
"Who's asking?" Gabrin said.
"I'm Kayl Ossen. Head of the city guard in Brinian."
"I need none but the gold on my sword."
"So did you do it?" asked Kayl. "Did you kill his brother?"
"Brother?" Elleen said.
Kayl looked between them. "You didn't know? Could it be some accident, then? You didn't come for him?"
Gabrin shook her head, not understanding the man. "I followed a technique. It has led me to a Thane here in Brinian."
"A thane," Kayl laughed. "The Thane. Thane Julin Endarrion, the most powerful landowner in three cities."
"Julin Endarrion?" Gabrin said. They were brothers. No wonder the man was looking for her.
Kayl gestured to his men. They closed on his position, hands on hilts in mimicry of their commander. "We've got some wet-ears, here, gentleman. In deep beyond their capacity."
"Who are you calling a wet-ear?" Elleen said. She folded her hands across her breasts, reins in each fist. Gabrin was impressed how annoyed she managed to look.
"There's been no crime," Gabrin explained as the men drew nearer. "The Duke killed the brother. I killed the Duke. It was a fair duel. The words were said, the rituals followed." That wasn't quite the truth, but she knew not to complicate things further. Not when men with swords were closing on her.
"We don't care for your eastern witchery here," said one of the city guards.
"Witchery?" Gabrin said. "Do you not have educators in Brinian? Is it all sheep fuckers with no sense of the world outside their barnyards?"
"Who are you calling –?"
Gabrin drew, placing the tip of her sword at the man's chin to halt his advance.
The third guard leapt for Elleen.
She punched him in the face, reins still in her hand. The horse bucked and reared, clubbing the man across the face as he stumbled. There was a sickening crunch and they all turned to watch the dead man crumple to the ground.
Elleen looked at Gabrin apologetically and shrugged.
Gabrin sighed and plunged her blade into the guard's neck.
"You're mad!" Kayl said, stepping back.
"The law is self-defence," Gabrin said, getting an affirming nod from Elleen.
Kayl took another rearward step, eyes darting between the women though he was the only one in motion.
"Are you going to reveal it or not," Gabrin said, gesturing with her naked blade.
Kayl looked down at his hand, still locked – palm down – across the hilt of his sword. "Reveal what? I'm a guard, nothing more."
"Show me," Gabrin said. "Or give me the name of the third man Julin's been training."
That caught him off guard. He hadn't expected her to know anything. He had no idea it was a gamble, a guess based on Marta's claim she'd seen four different men bearing thread.
"I don't want to fight you," Kayl said.
"You have more sense than the ruffians who attacked me here," Gabrin said.
"He's highborn," Elleen said. "You can hear it in his accent."
"You all have accents to me," Gabrin said. "Do I have to remove your hand at the wrist to see your threading, sir?" It was an idle threat, something a Dancer would never do. But they hadn't been properly taught, and it felt right to exploit that weakness.
Kayl backed into the fountain, nearly sitting down on the rim when his heels touched. "He wants to meet you. I can take you to him."
"I'll not go to him as a prisoner."
"No. He'll fight. It's him you want to duel with, not me."
"Wrong. I want to duel with everyone," Gabrin said. She flashed her sword, showing the myriad streaks along its length. "You know why I killed this one? Because once one was dead, there was no point leaving any witnesses. What makes you think you're not a witness?"
"I can vouch for you! Prove that you were attacked."
"By the city guard?" Elleen said. "Sounds preposterous."
"You have to die," Gabrin said. "I'd rather do it the right way."
"No, I won't," Kayl said. "Look, if you want, I can – "
His hand moved with wretched speed, throwing something into Gabrin's face. Elleen stumbled back with a yelp and one of the horses joined her in surprised song.
Gabrin swept her blade across the intervening space, trying to keep Kayl at bay. The dirt or powder, whatever it had been, had clouded her vision with great speed and efficacy.
He came on, hacking at her. She saw the shape of the glinting steel at the last moment, one, two, three times, barely getting a block in place.
The fourth cut took her high on the shoulder. The blade cut through and dug into the bone along her collar.
Kayl tried to tug away and couldn't.
It was simple a task to put together his position from where the blade had landed. Gabrin didn't need sight for that. As she promised, she took his hand at the wrist. It hit the ground with a thud and Kayl bawled like a pregnant cow.
She stabbed toward the sound of the idiot's mewling, driving her blade along the side of his face, catching the tip in the crook of his open jaw. His song changed to something even more terrible. She brought the blade across his face, then drove it hard through the back of his skull.
The song stopped for good.
"You have water on your saddle?" Gabrin asked.
Elleen helped get the dirt from her eyes. The mess on the ground was considerably worse than she'd imagined.
"You didn't throw up this time," Gabrin said.
"Don't talk about it." Elleen had retrieved the man's sword. There was no threading on the hilt.
"Guess he wasn't a student after all," Gabrin said. "You ever used one?"
Elleen turned the blade in her hand, examining it like it was an insect she'd never before seen. "A little, when I was younger. My father said I swung it too hard. I whooped my brothers in the practise yard but I was told I wasn't doing it fairly."
"You like it?" It was a simple blade, straight with a broad base and twin-runnels, a frowning crosspiece tipped with bronze spirals for a guard. The pommel was a half-moon with a decorative crescent inside.
"I do," Elleen said. "Seems like a good idea to keep one around, if I'm to be near you."
"Now what?" Elleen said.
"Now we have a name. Time to find Julin Endarrion, Thane of Brinian."
It didn't take long, once they had the name.
Julin Endarrion lived in the place one might expect; the largest house on the west side of Brinian.
Gabrin wanted to walk right in. Elleen convinced her to wait, at least until nightfall, and suggested they camp out atop the inn across the way. Arri and Marta knew all the innkeepers in the city, and the women – old and accomplished as they were – were well-respected in that community. It took only a word from them and Master Enlard of The Nesting Goose allowed them access to his roof.
They watched while nothing happened. No one came or went, no guards were visible. Endarrion's house was a mausoleum. It even looked like the sort of place that might house the dead with its harsh angles and plinths of corded stone near the front archway.
After Gabrin's fifth or sixth exhalation of boredom, Elleen held up the sword she'd gathered from the city guardsman.
"Show me," she said.
They backed away from the edge, so as not to be seen, and Gabrin gave Elleen her first instruction. The simplest parts of swordplay: the basic tenants of blocking.
"One, here, blade horizontal, tip to the sky; two, here, blade horizontal tip to the sky; three, here, blade horizontal, tip to the earth; four, here, blade horizontal, tip to the earth."
Elleen tried it. Her blocks were too far-reaching, her blade arced and imprecise.
"Again," Gabrin said, keeping one eye on the archway across the road.
Elleen tried again, and was terrible.
"I have questions," Elleen said.
"No. Just do it."
"Why can't I ask questions?"
"That's a question. Do this," Gabrin said, showing her once more.
Elleen watched, eyes focused and licking her lips. "Once more. Show me again."
This time, Elleen was better. In half-an-hour, her blocks were firm, her blade erect and precise.
When she stopped, she was sweating from exhaustion. "I've never used those muscles," she panted.
"If you keep that up, the muscles will learn, and when you need to keep a blade from your flesh, the muscles will bring your sword up for you and put it where it needs to be."
"What of attacking?" Elleen asked.
"Take a break. We don't want you dying of exertion."
They watched the Endarrion residence for another hour. Once a man walked down the street, though he never once looked in any direction but forward and didn't slow as he passed the house.
"All right," Gabrin said. "Attacking."
She put Elleen through the paces of some of the basic forms of the sword. Fox at first, to teach Elleen to move swiftly from a low stance, then Kestrel, to show her arms how to sweep her sword high and long, and Heron, to teach her to lunge and recover.
Elleen responded in a similar fashion. Confused and stumbling at first, like an uncoordinated child, then quickly improving once she watched Gabrin go through the motions herself.
"Still nothing," Gabrin said, looking over the edge.
Elleen was on her bottom, legs out, feet lolling back and forth. She was smiling from ear to ear. "I don't think you should go in at all. He may be waiting for you."
"When the sun sets, this ends," Gabrin said. "I've waited long enough."
"Show me something else. We have an hour at least before the sun starts her descent."
Gabrin eyed the big woman. She was flushed and sweating so hard the neck of her dress had darkened, but she was aflame with the joy of learning.
For the first time, Gabrin let her mind clear, and realized what she was seeing.
"You're a swordswoman," she said.
Elleen chuckled. "Already?"
"Let me show you something. Something I created."
Gabrin reminded Elleen of the elements of Fox; the low stance, the upward cuts that moved your position forward, the half-retreats and the counter lunges. Then, skipping the base tutelage of Rose – a series of spiralling, twisting feints and blocks – she taught Elleen the basic tenants of her hybrid style.
"This is White Fox," she said, positioning Elleen's elbows and hands. "It takes Fox and spreads it toward the edges of a dance. One must be very solid on their feet, very strong in the haunches without being too focused on the tip of their sword. Centered, here," she said, tapping Elleen's hips, "and here," she said, smacking her on the inner thigh.
Elleen took to White Fox as quickly as Gabrin had expected. Gabrin had left the style behind as she grew greater and greater in her knowledge of swordplay. The Eagle stance made far more sense for someone as quick and advanced as she was. White Fox required a dancer's grace, not a sprinter's ability to accelerate. Gabrin had been graceful enough to create it, but not enough to make it sing.
Elleen had the potential to do just that.
With only basic comprehension, Elleen moved through the forms of White Fox with ease.
"Like a dancer," Gabrin said.
"Nothing. Keep going. Keep those thighs curved!"
It had never occurred to Gabrin to take an apprentice. She was in the prime of her fighting years and some Sword Dancers never took an apprentice at all. Only a third ever tried, and most failed to connect with their chosen students, failed to pass on their knowledge well enough for the students to earn the title of Dancer. This was accredited to the fact that to be a Sword Dancer, one had to be a certain kind of person with a distinct sort of selfishness and drive. That demeanor, that dominant ambition, made it hard for Sword Dancers to instill the right lessons in their students.
For the first time Gabrin wondered if she was a capable teacher.
Her mind wandered to her own teacher, one of those rare Sword Dancers who'd been great at mentoring, though Gabrin hadn't known it at first. It took years of improvement and reflection for her to appreciate Catalania's methods.
"I was thinking," Elleen said, again sitting upon the ground.
Gabrin had a foot on the parapet, hands on her knee, looking so hard into the archway across the street she might soon bore a hole. "Best not to."
"This technique you're after, what's it for? What does it do?"
"It's called Bear. That's what the Duke said. Said I should look for the bear."
Elleen stood up at speed. "Look for the bear? That's what he said?"
"Why didn't you tell me that?"
"I don't know. I didn't?"
"On the east side of the central hub, near the worst of the brothels and gambling houses, there's a bear."
"An actual bear?'
"Yes! He was captured. In one of the parlours, they make him dance. They taught him to walk upstairs and down, to wave his hands about at their command! Thanes frequent the place to do business off the books."
"He's there!" Gabrin said, starting across the roof.
"Wait! It's almost nightfall."
"So? He might not come back. I won't wait any longer. You can show me to this place?"
"Tell me, then. You don't have to come."
Elleen scoured her face with a look. "How dare you?"
Gabrin froze, one foot hovering over the ladder. "How dare I? I don't –"
Elleen waved her quiet. "Bear, you say? That's the name of the technique? Is it about strength, then?"
"How do you know that?" Gabrin asked, heading back toward Elleen.
"Because it's the one thing you don't have."
Elleen, quicker than she looked able, pushed Gabrin and sent her stumbling backward. "You have balance and agility, and you're strong for a woman of your size. But you have no weight. You're a precision fighter."
Gabrin suppressed her anger, made herself listen.
"You're following this bear technique because it scares you, or because you want it," Elleen continued. "Or both. Maybe you just need to understand it."
"What's the point, girl?"
"I understand strength. To do something with your weight behind it. To have the weight to do it. You need me."
"I don't need anyone."
Elleen shrugged. "I'm coming anyway."
"Fine. Do what you want," Gabrin said. She realized, as she descended the ladder, that she was glad for the woman's company.
As they rode, Gabrin stole glances at Elleen. The woman had reminded her of Catalania from the start, something in her eyes, in the set of her hips when she was seeing things clearer than those around her. Now, after the physical display, the woman seemed even more like her old mentor. On more than one occasion Catalania had imposed her physical will upon Gabrin to teach her a hard lesson. She'd been a tall woman, and thick, bigger than many men, and she'd been a masterful Sword Dancer. Perhaps Elleen's size could aid her; perhaps she could become a great swordswoman with the right teacher.
The parlour was called The Fighting Eel and the picture above the doorway was an abstract work of thrashing waves and dark, sinuous lines. They left Cloud Dancer and Swatter with a man down the street, paying him handsomely to keep the horses saddled and ready.
"We're just walking in, then?" Elleen asked.
"Straight on is the best way," Gabrin answered and swept through the door.
The place was gaudy and dark with soot from two much smoke and too many sconces. It smelled of wine and fur, an odd combination, and it took Gabrin no time at all to count thirteen golden broaches, the heron wrapped in laurel leaves, on the coats of the present Thanes.
The bear was in the corner, standing on a short, wooden set of stairs. It still had all its fur, though around the collar – an angry, steel monstrosity – skin was beginning to show from the wear. A man in a silly hood held the bear's leash, a string of chain a tad longer than the bear's reach.
Ten or so handmaidens tended to the Thanes as they drank and caroused, watching the bear wave its arms from the top of its little staircase. They were veiled in translucent green, with skirts to match. Across their chests they wore sashes of black that barely covered their breasts, nearly as transparent as the veils. The Thanes touched and caressed at their leisure as the maidens navigated through the tables.
Gabrin didn't have to decide what was next. A man on the far side of the smoky room stood. All the sound was sucked from the air, and every head looked first to him, then followed his gaze.
"You've come at last," the man said. It was Julin Endarrion, of that there was no doubt. He looked the same as his brother, though without the thinning hair or extravagant mustaches. His hair was full and coiffed, his beard the same, extending barely beyond his lips and no further. Julin was shorter than his brother and thicker through the shoulders. Not overly muscled; just enough to be able to properly perform the Dance.
"If you'd shown yourself sooner, in the city, there would have been no waiting," Gabrin said.
"Are we to have the sport you promised, Julin? At last?" one of the Thanes asked.
"I believe so. Clear the space," Julin said, waving his hands. The man who held the bear's leash nodded and began pushing the stairs away with his foot. The maidens helped the Thanes near the front of the room shove the tables away, making room for what was to come.
"You're sure this is the best way?" Elleen whispered.
"I'm sure of nothing. But this is the only way for our kind." She pulled her elixir from her pouch and walked to the center of the room.
Julin snapped his fingers and drew one of the maidens. With a whisper in her ear, she was off, returning promptly with a stoppered goblet of horn nearly identical to Gabrin's. He moved to the center of the room and joined her. They both sat, legs crossed, elixirs at their sides.
"Your students have been teaching me to grow unaccustomed to formality," Gabrin said. "That is your failure as a teacher."
"Young and foolish. They were not taught as we were."
"And what would you know of how I was taught?"
Julin raised a black eyebrow, saying the ceremonial words.
Gabrin offered her response and they stood. They were eye to eye; she was tall for a woman and he was short for a man. They were built nearly the same in all aspects, save where the soft bulges were.
She turned away and went to Elleen, handing her the elixir.
"I'll need this before long."
"Be wary," Elleen whispered. "He's far more confident than he should be."
"I've handled worse."
A maiden came running from the rear of the room, a blade in her hands. She held the scabbard as Julin Endarrion drew. It was a single-bladed sword, hooked a little near the top, clipped like her own. A falchion, a hunting sword; broad through the center and deadly at the tip.
At the engraved pommel, there was so much gold threading that no one could possibly miss it. It nearly resonated with reflected light.
"That was earned?" Gabrin asked, still finding it hard to believe these men had been so bold as to play at dancing.
"You'll soon see."
Gabrin stood erect in Eagle Stance.
Julin copied her, then took one hand from his hilt and flattened the blade before his eyes.
She'd never seen that before.
Her moment of concern was dismissed as he attacked, dropping the formality of the stance and forging forward with a typical Fox-based series of motions.
Gabrin held her place, beginning her campaign of downward, demoralizing blocks, while seeming stoic and completely unbothered by having to participate in a swordfight.
After only the fifth block, the fight changed course.
Julin took her downward cut high on his blade and pushed it aside with great strength, sending her slightly off-balance. She moved her front foot only a half-step, but it was enough to get her into his range.
Instead of coming back over the top or through the middle with a parallel cut, the attack came from the other side.
From his hand.
His fist smashed against her temple, sending Gabrin reeling backward. One of her legs tightened – then loosened – and she almost toppled.
In that moment, for the first time since she'd sworn the oaths and earned the title of Sword Dancer, she thought she might be in trouble.
Julin Endarrion didn't come on. He raised his hands and chuckled, playing to the crowd.
"I feel for you," he said. "I do. There's no way you could've known what you were getting yourself into."
Elleen helped Gabrin to her feet.
"Don't," she said, her voice sounding a little thick in her own head.
"Quiet," Elleen said. "If that's Bear, if he's going to strike you like that, you have to watch out. There may be other non-bladed attacks in the technique."
"Preposterous," Gabrin said, barely forming the word. She pushed away. "Don't touch me again."
It didn't take long before Elleen was proved correct.
Gabrin's Eagle Stance was working as it always did, when Julin did something new. This time he allowed a downward cut to come very close, rotated swiftly with his back against the flat of Gabrin's blade and elbowed her in the face. She didn't fall back this time, instead stepping away in a flurry of feet, already reaching for her jaw. She poked once, found the culprit, reached inside and pulled out a tooth.
The crowd of Thanes cheered with delight.
"What kind of bear throws elbows?" Gabrin snarled at Elleen.
"If his strength is winning out, you have to be less predictable. Don't be where he can hit you, don't be so static," Elleen said.
"I don't need your advice on swordplay," Gabrin snapped, rubbing the side of her face.
It was nothing Gabrin wouldn't have thought of on her own, if she'd had a moment to clear her head. It was hard to fight when a person kept smacking your thoughts loose.
"This isn't supposed to be a fistfight," Gabrin said, starting back toward the center of the room.
Julin smiled. "It's within the parameters of the Dance. It's not illegal."
"How would you know?"
"I don't believe you. Who would train a man from the west?"
"So you think I figured this all out myself?"
"No," Gabrin said, feeling a fool for having nothing else to say. Of course he'd been taught. She straightened and regained Eagle Stance. "Come, then. Flash your hands and see if they don't get cut away."
He attacked again, whooping with the fun of it.
She withdrew and crossed her feet in White Fox, spiralling upward to meet his blade with all the force of her legs.
Julin didn't careen backward as expected. His blade didn't fly from his hands and his head didn't conveniently come away from his body.
He blocked and remained still, the metal of their swords grinding together in a mutual moment of stillness.
They were face to face, blades crossed to make an X. Julin put his palm to the spine of his sword. In mimicry, Gabrin did the same. She wasn't weak; if they wanted to beat her with strength, they would find out she wasn't –
He kicked her hard in the shin. She lost the point of pressure and his blade slid along the length of hers. She pulled her hand back just in time, nearly losing her fingers.
"Scoundrel!" she said.
"You can't match his strength!" Elleen said.
The men laughed. Julin shrugged. "I fear your fat friend is right."
"You're not helping," Gabrin said over her shoulder.
"You're not strong enough," Elleen reiterated.
She was right. Even before the kick, facing him head on, chest to chest, she knew she wouldn't have been able to hold for long.
"White Fox?" Julin said, circling back to get into his own, Eagle-like starting position.
Gabrin's stomach turned completely over and she nearly dropped her sword. "How do you know about that?"
"That's your technique, isn't it? The one you created? I was shown that, as a stepping stone in my teaching, an example of how to extrapolate on the old forms. Without White Fox, there would be no Bear."
There was only one way he could know. Since coming west, Gabrin had only spoken of White Fox to Elleen, and the woman had hardly been out of her sight since the moment she'd shared it. Only one other person who'd travelled this far west knew the true name of her technique.
"Not possible," Gabrin said.
Julin smiled. "You just got it? Did you see that, everyone? She just got it! You've witnessed the moment she realized she was defeated. What a rare and glorious sight."
"Say it," Gabrin said. "I want to hear you say her name."
"Catalania," Julin said, his smile akin to a snake about to strike.
Gabrin's stomach became a rock, sinking. "How?"
"She came looking. I was willing."
"No Sword Dancer takes a second student," Gabrin said.
"You didn't know her very well if you think her the type of woman who follows rules."
Gabrin shook her head. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. "This is truly her doing?"
Julin nodded. "You really think only one half of us can fight? That only women possess the ability? You think you can protect us all when our enemies return across the sea?"
A second shock. "You know of them?"
"We are not all ignorant," Julin said. "Catalania taught me the histories. She believes what your kind can do, but also that men will be needed. That all of us will one day have to pick up the sword and use it to defend our nation, our families."
"We will not win with strength," Gabrin said. "Did she forget to tell you that? That they will outnumber us at least ten to one?"
"But to ignore strength? To ignore half the population, to assume them incapable of helping?"
"It's not like that. It's just the way you are."
"Men? We are not so different, you and I. Are men, then, so different from women?"
"Men are impetuous, bullheaded, rife with violence," Gabrin said, not sure she believed it, grasping at things she'd always heard, trying to find purchase as this man tore her apart with his words.
"You are not those things?" Julin asked.
Gabrin boiled. "I am control. I am elegance. I am grace."
"Wonderful words for the stone on your grave," Julin said.
"Is it to be a play or a fight?" one of the Thanes called out.
Gabrin returned to Eagle Stance, sword high and straight. "You can't override tradition with brute force. You can't take away the power of ritual with a closed fist. It takes control and elegance and grace to overcome."
"Hard to overcome anything when your face is purple with bruises, your ears are ringing, and blood cakes the inside of your mouth," he said, and came at her once more.
Gabrin swallowed her anger, and breathing through tight lips, found her focus. Calm that had been taught to her since a young age flooded in, calm that she'd practised until it was always within her reach. Calm that allowed her to move as though she had no encumbrance, allowed her to flow and become one with the sword, with the Dance.
He met her downward strike with strength as before.
Elleen's voice flared in her head.
'You can't match his strength.'
It was truth. She couldn't compete with his strength, so she flowed aside.
He came again, and this time she didn't bother to strike down. Her skill, her precision; they did nothing to intimidate or demoralize this man. They were ineffective tools if she wished to devastate his sense of competition, to make him feel he could not win.
She flowed aside, lowering her blade, not giving herself an avenue to strike back.
He stumbled when she didn't take his contact.
With a snarl he came again, faster and harder than before.
Which made it even easier to step aside and let him careen past.
"Fight me," he said. "What is this? Use your techniques, woman!"
"You don't know this one?" Gabrin said. She flashed her most brilliant smile. It defeated him more than any precision strike could have.
With a roar he came on. This time, already enraged, he overcompensated. She was able to avoid him and still leave room for a counter.
Instead of going for the kill, instead of the risk of a full lunge, she let the very tip of her blade scrape along his cheek, opening him like a filleted fish.
He turned on her in a rage, sword at his side, one hand at his face. "You bitch!" he snapped, blood coursing along the creases of his mouth, dripping from his chin.
"What are you doing, Julin? Finish her!" cried a Thane.
"He can't," Elleen said, matching the man's volume.
Gabrin could've hugged her. She saw Elleen's ploy, to infuriate the man, to turn the room against him, to make him conscious of his own vulnerability.
"She's an undefeated Sword Dancer," Elleen continued. "Look at the etchings on her blade!"
"Shut your mouth!" Julin said.
Gabrin had always clashed with Catalania over one thing. The woman's fire. She had a temper in her, a rebellion against all that opposed her. Gabrin was not the same. She'd been able to find calm in the face of her mentor's anger, a calm that allowed her to think clearly and overcome.
In Julin Endarrion, Catalania had found a perfect student. A man who shared her fire.
Just as White Fox came from two clashing stances, sometimes the best fighters came from two clashing personalities. Catalania and Gabrin had pushed hard against each other, and Gabrin the Sword Dancer had been forced out by the pressure.
And she was a diamond.
Julin came forward with all his mentor's fire. His strokes were strong, if not controlled, fast if not elegant, effective if not graceful. She turned them aside as best she could until he bullied her into another lock, blades crossed, hands to the backs of their swords.
Gabrin smiled and gave the slightest impression that she was pushing hard against him. Then, as he gritted his teeth to overpower her, she let go of her sword and stepped to the side.
Julin Endarrion fell flat on his face.
As he turned to rise, Gabrin – with all her grace – leapt atop him and punched him hard, bursting his nose and sending crimson in all directions. He exhaled, the fight leaving him as blood covered his entire face below the eyes, bubbling and welling and spreading beneath his head.
"Bear," she said. "I think I get it." She retrieved her sword and held it to his throat.
"Finish it," he said, the fire gone from him. "What are you waiting for?"
"I found what I came for. I needed to source the technique, to absorb its lessons into the dance. We will need your Bear for the coming tide. We will need all the knowledge available to us to fight the inevitable."
She pulled her sword away and offered her hand.
"What?" he said, his eyes wide with surprise.
"And we'll need men," she said. "Male swordswomen."
He took her hand and let her lift him. She was strong for her size, after all.
"Swordsmen," he said.
"Swordsmen," she repeated, trying the word for the first time. It felt funny on her tongue.
Some of the other Thanes began to protest and Julin had to calm them. He was given a cloth which he held tightly to his face, keeping the folds together until the bleeding stopped. While the men were distracted, Gabrin and Elleen went to the bear.
Elleen punched the man who held the leash right in his stomach, bending him over. Gabrin cut the chain with an arc of her blade. She waited until the bear understood that he was free, then fled The Fighting Eel.
In the street, the man ran to them with their horses. Thanes poured out, screaming and clawing, trying to get away from the rampaging beast inside.
"Though you needed men, for fighting the enemy?" Elleen said.
"The good ones will escape. Call it selection of the fittest. By angry bear."
Elleen laughed as she took Swatter's reins.
Julin appeared among the thanes.
"Come east," Gabrin said to him. "If you want to continue."
"I may," he said. "I may do just that."
"And get that stitched," Gabrin said, gesturing to his cheek.
Julin's ire rose, but he controlled himself. With a nod, he started off down the street at a trot.
"Lesson learned?" Elleen suggested.
"He is full of vigor, like his teacher. Calmness will always be tough for that one."
"And what of you?" Gabrin said as she mounted Cloud Dancer.
Elleen climbed atop Swatter. "You know what of me. I'm coming with you."
"Thanes?" Gabrin shouted, spinning her horse with expert ease as the men drifted away from the Fighting Eel. "Have any of you the power and inclination to annul a marriage?"
Elleen laughed. "That won't be necessary. He'll wait. Who's he going to find better than me?"
"Agreed," Gabrin said.
She'd not only found the technique, she'd found a student.
It was time to head east, and consider herself lucky the journey had been so fruitful.
EVEN THE SEA WAS YELLOW
Some said it was because of the air, but, to me, it could have been more than just the air…. It seemed apparent that something was damaging my brain—that is to say, what was left of my brain. This so-called illness caused me often times to stagger and fall. It was a troubling fall through a strange semi-darkness making consciousness difficult.
The earth, as such, was not as it once had been.
For example, as I travelled past several miles of ruined--but, quite common— landscapes, I had to wonder if this wasted vision was perhaps just bad memories, reality, or both. Since, in my state, there was no way of telling, I was deeply puzzled and confused. I wanted to turn back, but there was nothing, or anyone, anywhere to turn back to, nothing that I could recognize—not even my past.
Suddenly, a mechanical noise; difficult to describe—certainly not a human voice—sounded something I distinguished as: — You are on your way. You cannot turn back.
I was not afraid, but there was a very sharp pain continuing to rampage within my brain.... When I stopped falling—if it can be called falling? —the pain was still there.
A short time later, in one way or another, I had arrived in a room I’d previously visited, but only in one reoccurring dream. It was a room on the top floor of a decrepit mansion; at one time, it had been a rather beautiful room, facing the east, it did. I entered the room feeling insecure, aware of the pain, feeling the pain—even my eye lashes felt the pain.
Oddly, the room felt like a prison without bars. It appeared, however, if escape were necessary, there was no chance or way to escape.
Off in the background—real or imagined—I head a constant chanting: — All dreams are islands.
I did not know if I were asleep or awake. It seemed to be the same.
I assume that I was there only a short time—if time can be noted as such—when I was again mysteriously pulled away by a strange magnetic force that is impossible to describe, because it deals with a physical-electronics that I do not understand. Notwithstanding, as time possibly advances and I receive additional, competent information—or specific up to the hour environmental reports—upon this matter, which could perhaps arrive from the incompetent National Environment Police Agency, via dispatches sent through a host of subterranean environmental sources, perhaps, at that point, I will be in a position to offer a more precise and educated account….
As could be expected, I awoke to find myself on a typical deserted road, located in a wretched, heavily industrial area, and this is where I was left—abandoned! This, I knew was my future.
The air smelled of burning sulfur, gasoline and wet ash.... Near and far loud mechanical noises sounded, clapping in my ears like piles being driven into rock. It could be described as overpowering. The pain in my brain was so great I fell to my knees, covering my eyes and ears as best I could, but nothing would block the loud, clapping sound, or the sight of the endless rails leading into infinity, and huge aluminum and plastic storage drums with large red numbers: 5001 5000 4999 4998 4997 4996 4995 4994 4993 4992 4991 4990 4989 ... painted upon the sides. My brain twisted and turned with pain, I felt it crack in two. For some time, I knelt there, my knees pressing into the warm asphalt....
Off in the distance, I heard the sound of threatening footsteps coming rapidly closer and closer—a blurred figure in a great hurry, I could tell that much. I was not afraid. When the figure stopped, I noted the black outfit with suspicion, and I saw that under its left arm—if that was an arm? —it carried an electronic mechanism I'd not seen before. It placed the instrument of sorts at my feet, then it pointed to it with a determined index finger—I assume that that was an index finger—as if I were to understand—I did not. Next, it opened its overcoat or cloak and pulled out an advanced form of an automatic pistol, then pointed it at the queer instrument at my feet, firing away: TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA, shattering the thing to bits--really. The pain in my brain caused me to lose consciousness. (Consciousness?)
When I came to, so to speak, I found myself in another strange room. It had the appearance of once having been quite elegant, as we used to say, but now the splendor had been totally erased. The walls were now ruined, like lines across a once striking face. The rose-colored walls were badly flaking; scarcely was there a square inch not covered by unusual graffiti. The marble fireplace, large enough for me to stand in, which I did for protection, was likewise cracked, chipped—the subject, I guessed, of countless shootings. The entire room was cold, having the feeling of ice. Soiled, black satin drapes covered the large windows, and the only light entering the room came from a doorway that lead to a large, run-down terra-cotta terrace, which I thought could well have been the east side of the house.
Though it was mid-morning, the outside artificial light cast a painfully amber hue across the room—our natural surroundings had yet to recover from the recent enormous chemical meltdown, especially the sun. I stood in the center of the enormous living area, wondering why all this had been allowed to happen? Was no one "briefed" on the consequences? Also, I was aware that I was not alone. I saw an elderly man of perhaps forty, sitting on a faded burgundy divan—the kind not seen for years--antique; it was called … antique … back than. The man was smoking a large cigar, really. He completely ignored me. I walked over to him saying: — Hello.
He nodded. I noted that there was an unusual stiffness to his movements, perhaps a symptom of the disease. What did I know?
— How long have you—? I began.
—Who cares? he shouted, shrugging his deformed shoulders, then after spitting-up a little blood on the dry-rotted floor, he added: — It doesn't matter, it's far too late.
— I think it does matter, I said.
— You won't for long, you little fool. Not after you've been here a spell.
— How did you get here?
— The same as you, only before you, and, before me, there were the others.
— Are we alone?
— Shut-up! Youth is so ignorant!
— And, obliviously, so is old age! I offered, looking around at the surroundings….
— You always think of yourselves as being more than social progressions, when, in fact, you're merely biologically ordered-up replacements.
— And the aged think that youth owes them something....
The gripping pain again began to carve itself into my brain. I felt that I was beginning to lose my mind. I had to move away from the old man. I started walking toward the door leading to the terra-cotta terrace but stopped when the old man warned: — Don't go out there!
— You won't like what you'll see.
— What could be worse than what I've already seen and been through? I asked as I made my way to the terrace. Once there, I was shocked. All the colors were wrong—the entire landscape was surreal, as though nothing were alive ... even the sea was yellow.... Not understanding such a clear vision of our infer-red horror and surrealistic illusion, I returned to the living area and quietly sat down next to the old man—who at this point offered me a cigar that I accepted gratefully....
“Oh, you know,” she said, waving an ethereal hand. I’d always envied her hands, the arms like swan necks they attached to, the shoulders supporting the whole impossibly fragile, graceful structure. Today bangles slid down her forearms when she propped her elbows on the table, and one strap of her dress kept threatening to fall off her perfect ivory shoulder. It made me acutely aware of the way my clothes no longer fit well and how shaggy my hair was getting. “They’re like they always are, just sort of in harmony with everything.”
Heather’s parents gardened and went to the theater and fretted over their blowsy sylph of a daughter and had never been in harmony with anything in their lives. I sometimes suspected Heather had introduced me to them as some sort of sacrifice on the altar of responsibility.
“Look,” she’d seemed to say, “I’ve made a normal friend! You can stop calling me every day to check in now! Call her instead!”
And they did, but they only ever wanted to talk about Heather, which left me asking Heather about them.
“How’ve you been, Susan?” Heather asked, raising her coffee to her lips.
I shrugged and picked at my salad, trying to put it in words she’d understand. I’d been fine, on average. Nothing about the essentials of my circumstances had really changed since the last time we’d spoken, which I always felt a bit of shame over. Like someone had been polite enough to ask, and now I owed them an interesting answer. But no—same dull job, same lack of hobbies, same lack of a boyfriend. Heather always had something new to talk about—some new diet that she was doing to cleanse her aura, some new spiritual exercise she’d discovered, some new boyfriend who knew exactly how to unlock her sexual energy, some new pilgrimage she was undertaking. I was still basically the same boring Susan she’d had lunch with three weeks ago.
“I’ve been, I don’t know, just taking stock of my life, I guess,” I said finally.
“You seem…” She waved her hand again. “I don’t know. Off. Like your chakras are out of whack or something. You haven’t been sexting with Tom again, have you? You know what he does to your chi.”
“Tom?” I asked dumbly. Oh, right. My ex. Tom. I’d spent half our last lunch moping and pining over him, hadn’t I?
I speared a cucumber—or maybe it was zucchini, so hard to tell at these fancy cafes Heather insisted on, always sneaking unexpected ingredients into normal things—and found a smear of dressing left to drag it through. It was weird what just a little bit of time could do. Only three weeks, and Tom felt like some faded high school memory, like I’d been sure he was my soulmate one summer when we were sixteen and I’d just stumbled on his picture in the yearbook now. I could feel it still, but at a remove, like ice water through a glass.
“No, I haven’t been in touch with Tom.” I locked eyes with the two mirror-Susans in Heather’s glasses. Behind us, the woman with the unlucky nephew was blaming him starting a bar fight with an off-duty cop on bad timing. “You were right—I really just needed a clean break with him. I’ve felt so much better since I used that sage you gave me.”
She practically glowed at that, the way she always did when she thought one of her oddball hippie things had helped me. “I knew it! You probably just need to do some guided meditation or something. I’ll send you a couple of my favorite mp3s tonight, once I can get at my computer.”
“Thank you,” I said, dredging up a smile. I could probably use a meditation session or two, honestly. I’d been unfocused lately. Spacey. Even my boss at the copyshop had noticed. It wasn’t really my fault, though.
It had just been weird, the past few weeks. Like I had to stop and really think about everything I used to do on autopilot. Did I really want to take out the trash? Did I really need to eat breakfast? Did I really have to go to work today?
When we were in college, Heather used to joke about my routine. She said I was like a wind-up toy, going through the same motions every day. I’d been on a merit-based scholarship, the first one in my extended and very broke family to make it into college at all. I hadn’t really been able to afford much variety in my routine—breakfast, class, library, lunch, class, class, library, dinner, work-study job keeping the drop-in center open, bedtime—compared to her idea of every day as a new adventure. I’d gotten into the habit and never gotten out of it. Only now it was like the gears had broken, like somebody had overcranked the handle and jammed something inside me.
Somebody. I felt the smile on my face turn warm and genuine. Simon Blake had come along and overcranked the handle.
It had been sheer luck that I’d been working the register the day he’d come in to pick up a box of brochures for the religious retreat his center was holding. Our eyes had met the second he walked through the door, but it wasn’t until he’d smiled at me that I’d really felt the change.
I knew right away it wasn’t some shallow physical thing, like it had been with Tom. It wasn’t even like Simon was classically handsome. There was just something so genuine about him, like I was more myself just from being so close to him. It was like I’d finally found the light switch, and now I could see all the different parts of myself I’d been missing.
“Good morning, Susan,” he’d said around that dazzling smile. I hadn’t even noticed him checking my nametag. “I got a text saying my order was ready?”
He’d let his hands brush mine when he took the box from me, and he’d looked into my eyes, and he’d smiled like he wanted to touch my soul. I hadn’t been able to sleep at all that night. It was like I’d had some huge breakthrough, like I’d finally woken up, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing any more time. Of course, just because you’ve finally found the meaning of life doesn’t mean all the little things don’t need taking care of. It just gets harder to see them, now that they’re shadowed by more important things.
“What have you been up to?” I asked Heather. It was the ultimate question, the thing that would dominate the rest of lunch. Anything else had to be gotten out of the way before it was asked, because Heather was always doing so much. The woman with the unlucky nephew got a few decibels louder while talking about her nephew’s “bitch ex,” who’d called the police on him just out of spite and claimed he hit her. Amazing, the things people would talk about in public.
Heather’s face lit up. “Well, it’s sort of hard to describe. You know about past lives, right? I feel like I’ve told you about past lives before.”
She’d gone through two separate phases in which she’d explored her past lives, or the idea of her past lives, since I’d known her. I nodded, encouraging her.
“I’ve been doing some work on that, because I felt like I’d lost a part of myself that I used to be really in touch with,” Heather continued, the hand not holding her coffee cup going subconsciously to her chest, touching the little pink crystal dangling against her sternum. It had been a birthday gift years back, just after we’d graduated. I was never sure if she really liked it or just wore it as a gesture of appreciation when she knew she’d see me, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her without it. “I felt like my creativity had just been cut off, you know?”
I nodded as if I knew. I’d never really thought of myself as a creative person, but Simon was beginning to change that. It had been nothing to pull up the master for the brochure he’d ordered and copy the contact information for his center, but it had taken more than a little ingenuity to get the billing address for the credit card he’d paid with. The funny thing was that his residential address was the center, something which never would have occurred to me without doing that. It only took a few evening strolls around the neighborhood to find the big house in the back of the property and confirm that Simon lived there with a half-dozen of his closest initiates.
“So, I got as far as I could on my own, and then I asked my reiki artist if she knew of anyone around who could take me deeper,” Heather sighed. “I told you we were sisters in a past life, right?”
I shook my head.
“Yeah, it’s the funniest thing,” Heather laughed, tossing her hair. The glittering silver discs hanging from her ears swung gently against a backdrop of pale gold hair. She can wear it loose without it getting all tangled or frizzy, a trick I’ve never managed. “We were talking about our past mothers, and then it turned out they had a lot in common, and then it turned out they were the same woman! Wild, right?”
“Small world,” I agreed.
“It felt like something out of The Parent Trap. Anyway, she recommended this guy,” she said. “He runs a whole outfit, which is, you know, not usually my thing.”
It was not, in fact, Heather’s thing. By the time someone could be described as having any sort of outfit, or organization, or imprimatur, they were probably too mainstream for Heather’s tastes. It made it hard to keep straight in my head, because there wasn’t anything to look up if I didn’t understand what she was saying, but it had always made it easy to cross my fingers when I talked to her parents. “Well, I haven’t heard anyone saying it’s a cult, so I’m sure it’s fine?” was something I’d told them more than once.
“But I guess he only just opened up a new branch here, and Melinda swears he’s the real deal, so I thought, why not?”
I nodded. Why not? was a question I’d been asking myself a lot lately. Why not just take everything I didn’t need on a daily basis and give it to a thrift shop? Why not check out a bunch of books on anatomy from the library? Why not set up a blind in the shrubs near Simon’s compound and observe them all during their evening routines?
It had all been so soothing. I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t done it sooner. I hadn’t known what I was waiting for, I suppose.
“Well, it turns out this guy’s a hundred times better than any of the other gurus I’ve ever been to,” Heather said, sounding content down to her roots. It had been a while since I’d heard her make that particular sort of noise. “He says when really great people die, like saints or conquerors or explorers—the people who just go out and leave their marks on history—that their souls are usually just so big, and so enormous, and so powerful that they can’t find one body to contain them in the next life. So they parcel themselves out into manageable chunks.”
“Like mitosis?” I asked.
“I think so?” Heather said, pursing her lips. I got the feeling she didn’t remember what mitosis was, so I didn’t press the point. “Anyway, that’s why so many people remember being Cleopatra or Joan of Arc or Galileo, when they walk backwards through themselves. Cleopatra couldn’t come back as Cleopatra. She had to divide herself dozens of times all across the world to come back without burning out the vessels she chose. So there are all these people out there who were Cleopatra, but they can only access a little bit of what made her Cleopatra in their lives here and now.”
“Interesting theory,” I said when she paused and cocked her head that way she had when she was looking for feedback.
She beamed at me. “Isn’t it just? Think about it! All the people who remember being the same person in a past life are like, soul-relatives. It’s just so amazing. I’m definitely going to his retreat next month.”
“He’s having a retreat next month?” I asked, surprised.
I don’t really know why I was surprised. Of course she was talking about Simon. It would have been more surprising if she hadn’t been talking about Simon, given how busy he’d been lately. All his hopeful part-time students had been passing out those brochures around town, the full-time students who couldn’t pay in cash had been paying in kind sprucing up the property, and his initiates had been practicing a bunch of scripts. He was pulling out all the stops for the retreat. Maybe I’d just thought Heather would be beyond Simon, with his organized flock of minions and his shiny compound.
She nodded. “It’s going to be great, just him and his inner circle leading everyone in a week of deep meditation and exploration. I want to get in all the time I can with him before he dies.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, that makes sense.”
I thought of the dream-journal Heather had given me for my twenty-fifth birthday. It had been something she’d been into at the time, and it had made her happy, so she’d naturally thought it would make me happy too. I’d tried it, but all my dreams had been so mundane that cataloging them every morning had been depressing. I hadn’t really understood what she’d been trying to do for me until I’d met Simon. After that first night, I’d started sleeping again. You can’t not sleep, after all, even if you don’t really want to, and besides, I’d more or less decided that yes, I did still need to go to work and pay rent and eat, and that meant I had to sleep too.
What I’d found, though, was glorious: every night I dreamed that I ran into Simon somewhere, and he looked into my eyes and gave me that smile, and he said “I feel as if we’ve met before,” and I said “We have.”
How I killed him after telling him that changed depending on what kind of day I’d had, it turned out. On generally peaceful, quiet days, I stabbed him. The one day since meeting him when I’d had a really, genuinely, completely rotten day, I dreamed I shot him. Normal crummy days were strangulation days. On a day where I’d done nothing and gone nowhere and just generally existed for sixteen hours until it was time to sleep again, I gave him a poisoned latte, which he drank without breaking eye contact and then keeled over right in front of me. Days that were a mix of satisfaction and frustration produced bludgeoning deaths, twice with a tire iron and once with a baseball bat.
I was pretty sure by now that what I wanted was the stabbing. I always woke up happy and fulfilled, but the dreams where I shoved a knife into his belly and severed the vena cava were the ones I woke up from feeling like everything was finally right with the world.
The only problem was that I wanted to be alone with him when I did it, and whenever he was on the compound, he had a swarm of students and initiates hovering around. He slept with a different initiate every night, so breaking into his bedroom was out. Even if he didn’t, the thought of stabbing him while he was in his pajamas or, even worse, completely naked, was off-putting. This was what I’d been waiting my entire life for; I wanted it to be as dignified as possible.
I looked up to find Heather watching me with surprised relief. “Thank you! You’re the first person I’ve told who really gets it. Even Melinda thought he was just being a drama queen about it.”
I realized my mistake, then. It had just seemed so normal, so perfectly expected, for Simon to know. If meeting him just that one time had made it so clear to me what I was supposed to do, how could it have been any different for him? Of course, as Heather had shown me over and over again for the last dozen-odd years, something like this could come along and be massively profound and life-changing and perfect and really hand you the keys to your best life while sounding like so much dangerous nonsense to anybody who didn’t understand it yet.
If you hadn’t had the experience, it was hard to make other people get it. I’d agreed too readily, when Heather had announced that Simon knew he was going to die the same way I knew I was going to kill him. Then again, I wasn’t sure I could quibble about it.
This was the first thing I’d ever had that was this pure, this perfect. Lying about it felt like cheapening it, the same way having an audience—some screaming acolyte clutching cum-stained sheets to her breasts or some soccer mom dropping her groceries and yelling into her cell about needing an ambulance—would cheapen it.
“It just seems like the sort of thing a guy like that would know,” I finally muttered. I finished my salad and pushed the plate away.
“Well, yeah! That’s almost exactly what I said,” Heather told me, smiling. “He said when he died in his last life, he made the conscious choice to keep himself intact instead of splitting up. It’s let him do all this—help so many people—but he said he knew when he did it that he’d die an early death. He said he had an enemy from a past life that he knew would be able to find him if he did it, but he couldn’t not do it, you know? Like, he had a responsibility to humanity to do everything he could, even if it meant revealing himself to The Destroyer.”
I could hear the capital letters, the way she said it: The Destroyer. That seemed like a weird thing to call me. I tried it out in my head, just to see what it felt like. Susan the Destroyer. Flattering, a little intoxicating, and completely ridiculous. It wasn’t like I was some Elliott Ness getting ready to kick down his door, shoot him in the chest, arrest all his people, burn all his glossy full-CMYK-color tri-fold pamphlets in the street, and go on tv to call him a dangerous fraud who’d been a threat to the republic.
‘Destroyer’ implied a level of commitment and effort I’d never imagined and wasn’t interested in. I mean, I wasn’t out to stamp everything I could find of him into shards and ashes. This wasn’t really about him as a person, never mind as a guru. I just knew that if I killed him, this huge weight I hadn’t even been aware of until I’d met him would slide right off my shoulders.
The world was already different. Things that had been so important had stopped meaning anything. Fences that had penned me in all my life had disappeared. I felt powerful. I didn’t have any real desire to go on a rampage with that power, though. I just wanted to keep it. Killing Simon would let me do that. I didn’t care what happened to his cult or his money or his doctrine or his wikipedia page after that.
“Isn’t that just the most selfless thing you’ve ever heard?” Heather asked, sinking back in her seat. Her skin had that same glow she used to get when she was into tantric meditation. “I don’t know if I’d have the courage to do something like that.”
“Well,” I said, slowly, like I was thinking about it, “isn’t that what great teachers do? Sacrifice themselves for their students?” I couldn’t resist the cherry on top. “He sounds kind of like Jesus, in a way.”
Heather practically melted, and her perfectly-manicured hand wrapped around the rose quartz more tightly.
I honestly didn’t know if Simon was a great teacher or not; it was more or less immaterial, from my perspective. I got the feeling that people who really were great teachers didn’t screw their best students, but from what I’d seen the initiates were solidly on board with that part of the program. His favorite—in terms of sleeping arrangements, anyway—had gotten out of doing her fair share of chores for two solid weeks on the back of the other initiates’ gratitude when she selflessly insisted they get their turn in bed with him.
But I did know that that’s how Heather wanted to think of him right now—that it made her happy to imagine him as a great man—so it didn’t hurt anything to let her.
The waiter dropped off the check, and I reached for it. Heather swatted my hand away, like she always did, and I pulled out money for tip instead, just like I always did.
“So true,” she breathed, fanning herself. She took off her sunglasses and wiped a dainty smudge of moisture from below each eye, careful not to smear her makeup. “You know, I think you’d really like him. Are you doing anything Friday? There’s this like… it’s kind of like a drum circle, but there’s no drums? We just imagine the drums happening while our chakras resonate? But he’s going to be there. I want you to meet him, before he dies. Say you’ll come, please?”
“Of course.” I said it without meaning to. It’s hard to say no to Heather, even when she’s proposing something I really don’t want to do, but this was something I did want to do, kind of.
I mean, I desperately wanted to see Simon again; I could feel the pressure building behind my eyes whenever I thought of my dreams and sliding a knife into his flesh. It was like being so hungry you could feel your stomach melting and then walking past a barbeque. But I also didn’t want to ruin anything by killing him around other people.
My dreams had helped cultivate this ideal scenario, and I was unwilling to let reality intrude on the ideation. Of course, it wasn’t like I had to kill him, just because I saw him. I could pretend to be a normal person, couldn’t I? He hadn’t seemed to recognize me when we’d met at work, he’d just said, “Oh, Susan, I’m here for my brochures, here’s my credit card, bye.”
I could pretend for a few hours like that whole thing hadn’t completely changed my life, if it let me do things the way I wanted. I could just be Susan the woman from the copyshop, or Susan the friend that Heather brought, couldn’t I? Susan the Destroyer didn’t need to make an appearance until the time was right. Then again, maybe I should at least take a few steps to prepare myself. I’d been caught by surprise the first time I’d met him. I should try not to let that happen again, just as a precaution.
“Do you have any of those guided meditation tapes for past lives?” I asked. “I mean, if I’m going to meet the expert, I feel like it would be a waste of his time not to at least know what he’s talking about?”
Heather straightened up in her chair and gave me a smile that told me that’s all she’d ever wanted to hear from me, this entire time we’d known each other. When she got up to pay, I got to my feet and smoothed my dress. The woman behind us was still talking about her nephew, and I leaned into her field of vision and waved. She blinked at me, clearly trying to remember if we knew each other. I got that a lot, but usually it was someone I’d met a few times.
“Hi,” I said, trying to smile like Heather, reassuring and sympathetic. “Your nephew is an addict. That’s why it seems like the world’s out to get him. That’s what happens when you drink too much all the time and then drive home, or hit your girlfriend, or yell at your boss. If he doesn’t quit drinking, he’s going to keep getting DUIs. Your friends are too kind to tell you, but he’s not persecuted, he’s just a mean drunk who won’t put the bottle down. Maybe because he’s got people like you believing his excuses and bailing him out all the time.”
She looked at me like I’d just dropped a dead roach onto her plate. “You’re crazy. You’re a crazy person.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “I’m just not kind.”
I turned and walked away, headed to Heather’s car, and tried not to laugh when the woman called me a crazy bitch loud enough that the whole cafe turned to stare at her like she’d lost her mind. All shall fall before Susan the Destroyer, I thought.
# # #
“Do I look okay?” I asked, eyeing myself in the mirror.
Heather had instantly vetoed my original outfit—a long flowing skirt and a peasant blouse, the two most earth-mother things I still owned—and scoured her closet for more acceptable clothes that would fit me. The problem with borrowing Heather’s things was that she could put on a pillowcase and still look like a very fashionable gazelle, while I had a hard time clocking better than ‘lunch-lady trying her best’ without half a department store to pick through. At least tonight, according to Heather, the fabric and color would be more important than the aesthetic appeal of garment on body.
“Simon needs to avoid any unnecessary aural contamination, with his death so close,” Heather had explained apologetically as she’d thrown clothes on the bed for me to try. “He needs his energy as concentrated and pure as possible, if he’s going to make it into the next life intact. He says that, however his end comes, he’s sure he wants to do the same in his next life. If possible, he wants to start even earlier, and that means, you know, keeping all his memories uncorrupted and close to the surface.”
“Sure,” I’d said, gracious. It wasn’t really my business what he did in the next life. He could go trade stocks or fumigate houses or panhandle, for all I cared.
The dun and taupe of the skirt, blouse, and wrap all blended into each other and made me look like I was on break from a haunted house’s mummy squad. Even with Heather’s preference for things that draped and flowed over things that clung, there was only so much extra room in any given shirt.
“Oh, you look great!” Heather lied. “Let’s just fix a few things…”
She proceeded to pick and pluck and rearrange everything I had on until it all hung a little better, then gave me an accidentally honest look of disappointment.
“Sorry, you’re just so much curvier than I am. I guess it doesn’t really matter, anyway,” she said, blushing. “So long as it’s undyed cotton, nobody will care. Simon’s students are all so enlightened, they know better than to judge based on appearances.”
She chattered happily on the drive there, mostly about how intimate it must be to have a relationship like Simon surely had with his nemesis, and how romantic it all was, this beautiful soul trapped in this doomed man, giving his all for humanity. I made the right noises whenever she paused and looked over at me, but mostly I stared out the window and chewed on my thumbnail, my handbag in my lap. The knife—the salesman at the mall had called it a wakizashi—hardly weighed it down at all, and I had to keep stopping myself from reaching in to make sure it was still there.
It was weird how all the places that sold hunting knives had gotten squirrelly when I’d asked which one was best for self-defense, but then there was an entire shop selling swords and daggers and throwing stars and that was all apparently perfectly normal. The one I’d settled on had felt cheap in my hands. It was sharp, though, and it had a broad handguard at the base of the blade so I was less likely to slip when I used it. All I really needed it for was one good thrust; at the end of the day it didn’t much matter if it was shoddy or not.
And that was if I even went through with the whole thing. I’d spent a lot of time in the past few days using the mp3s Heather had given me, trying to figure out what it was that had turned Simon into someone I’d home in on, someone I’d be sleepwalking through my life until I killed. I hadn’t thought it would change anything, if it even worked.
I’d given some of Heather’s more reasonable-sounding ideas a try, back when we were younger. Nothing had ever worked for me like it all worked for her, but I thought now, with my eyes all the way open, finally, something might click. It had been both surprising and perfectly natural when it had turned out to be easy, like a hot knife through butter, melting and cauterizing in its wake.
Simon and I had been friends. Fairly close friends, as these things went, but not as close as Heather and I were, and I couldn’t see Heather doing anything that could make me hunt her down across multiple lifetimes. Maybe I’d just been a more passionate person in that previous life, and I couldn’t see it through the clouded lens of my current self. Maybe I’d wasted all that potential on one grudge thousands of years ago.
We’d fallen out over a ridiculously small amount of money—I’d loaned it to him, he hadn’t paid it back—and that had been that. I felt like it had been more the principle of the thing than the little pile of coins, the idea that he’d just skate on a loan like that when we were supposed to be friends. We’d been bitter enemies afterwards, and I’d promised to cut his throat if I ever found him again.
It was the sort of thing I wanted to go back and pretend I’d never discovered. I hadn’t been able to get back the thrill of that early feeling about Simon since then, and my dream-journal had turned into a litany of stabbings preceded by demands for the—maybe—fifty bucks he owed me. It all seemed so mercenary, so tawdry.
I’d been a little in love with the mysteriousness of it, like it was just fated and predestined that I could set myself free by killing Simon, and now I had to admit it. I almost didn’t want to go through with it at all, but I couldn’t stand to go back to how I’d been: Susan the wind-up toy, Susan the good employee, Susan the boring. I definitely couldn’t stay how I was, though; I’d burn myself to a crisp with all this.
Plus I wasn’t sure if I could really spend the rest of my life dreaming about killing the same man every night without it getting to me. It was probably better to just go through with it and get it out of the way, really sink my teeth into how sweet life could be without the suffocating blanket of Simon’s existence blotting everything out.
Heather glanced at me as she made the last turn before the compound. “I’m so glad you said yes to this. Your energy’s just so great tonight. Really focused? I think you’re really going to love Simon. You’ll see, he’s going to change your life.”
“I hope so,” I said, and I meant it.
It was strange, seeing the compound from a moving car. I’d been on foot during most of my own approaches. I’d parked and watched a few times at first, when I’d still been getting a sense of everyone’s routines, of the place’s rhythms. Now everything was all lit up and crawling with activity, everything displaced for the silent drum circle. I still didn’t know how seriously to take it, but this wouldn’t be the first time I’d bobbed along in Heather’s wake, letting her poise and prettiness and receptivity charm everyone into glossing over my presence.
Some of the students greeted us at the door, their broad, friendly smiles hanging below anxious eyes. They weren’t new enough to be so nervous, I thought. They’d both been working at the center since before I’d started my surveillance. One of them traded fake cheek-kisses with Heather, his face never touching hers, and gave her a too-firm hug. He turned to me, and his smile got even stiffer, turning from a plasticy fake into a rictus.
“This is Susan,” Heather said, touching my elbow. “I told Simon about her, and he said it was fine to bring a friend? It’s fine, isn’t it? He seemed sure it would be.”
“Oh, Simon said you could?” the student echoed, giggling a little. He swallowed and coughed, trying to cover it. “Well, if Simon told you it was okay, I’m sure it’s fine, he just didn’t say anything to us, and you know...” He trailed off before throwing his hands up and laughing again. The name tag dangling from the lanyard around his neck twisted back around, and I tried not to grimace. He even looked like a Brayden. “There are only so many seats in the circle.”
“It’s okay. I’m just observing,” I volunteered. “I don’t know how to, uh, resonate yet.”
He dropped his hands, and I grabbed the one without a clipboard in it and shook it just in case he didn’t get the memo. The Destroyer walks among you, Brayden. The Destroyer didn’t have time to eat dinner before she came, and the tofu puffs on the snack table actually look edible. The Destroyer’s not going to go sit in the car all night with a bag of trail mix just because you ran out of statement yoga mats to throw on the floor.
Though I guess if it came down to it, I could circle around and scope out the initiates’ house while it was empty. I’d figured out the basics of picking locks in the past few days, just because it seemed like it could come in handy before I was done with all this.
Brayden stared at me like he could tell there was a knife in my purse and giggled again.
“Great,” he said, “great. Great. Um. Well, I guess, just have fun? The circle doesn’t start for another forty-five minutes, Simon wanted everyone to have plenty of time to get comfortable and get on the same wavelength and everything.”
He shied away when Heather tried to give him another hug, seizing the opportunity of a newly-arrived guest to slink away from us. I angled us at the food, and Heather followed me, frowning.
“I am, right?” I asked, suddenly realizing Heather’d never said. “Just observing?”
“Well.” She looked a little chagrined. “I suppose so, with no extra spots. But I’d hoped you could participate. Wouldn’t it be fun? Just spend the whole night harmonizing with each other?”
“I mean, in theory, yeah,” I chuckled, loading up a plate with puffs. Brayden shot me a helpless, disapproving glare, and I stared him down. I am the Destroyer, and I will not be denied. “But I’ve never done this before. It seems like I should probably get a look at it before I barge in with my off-key soul-kazoo or something.”
Heather laughed, then covered her mouth like she did when she hadn’t meant to laugh. “Your soul couldn’t sound like a kazoo if you tried. Oh! There’s Simon!”
She nudged me with her elbow, positively giddy. I hadn’t seen her this pleased in a long time, and I was suddenly glad I’d come for reasons that had nothing at all to do with Simon or a chance to snoop around the compound. He looked tired, like he hadn’t been sleeping well, but his face lit up when he saw her. Of course it did. I wanted to roll my eyes. Whose didn’t?
“Heather!” he said, that megawatt smile emerging as he clasped her hand. “So glad you could make it! This event is going to be so affirming. I can just feel it. Can’t you?”
“Simon, so glad to be here,” Heather told him. She threw an arm around my shoulders and squeezed me close. “This is Susan. You remember how I told you all about her?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said, his eyes not budging from hers. “Susan, so wonderful to meet you.”
The Destroyer is pleased to make your acquaintance. I pictured myself cackling maniacally and running off with the tray of mushrooms-in-a-blanket. Who would stop me? Brayden? The second-favorite initiate sulking in the doorway to the next room? Simon? I was here to kill their leader and tear down their little temple, they should be grateful if all I did was pillage the hors d’oeuvres.
“I feel as if we’ve met before.” I couldn’t help it. I mean, I know guys tend to go a little blind around Heather—who doesn’t?—but really, I could have pulled out the knife while Heather was trying to introduce us, stabbed him in the belly, wiggled it around a little to make sure I’d gotten the job done, and then been in the bathroom cleaning off the blood before he registered my existence.
This was why he was going to die so soon, I thought. He was completely oblivious. If it wasn’t me, it’d be oncoming traffic or a can of tuna fish three years past its sell-by date and bulging at the seams.
He blinked at me, his dark brows furrowing, and I ate a tofu puff while I waited for him to either remember me or give up. He chuckled, glancing at Heather like she was going to help him out, and I snapped my fingers as soon as I finished the puff.
“I know!” I said, like it had just come to me. “I work at that copyshop down on Main and Second. You were in picking up a big batch of promotional materials, gosh, almost a month ago? No wonder I couldn’t place you right away. Were those for,” I waved a hand around at the rapidly-filling hall, “this?”
“Oh.” He still couldn’t remember me, and it was obvious. Simon was off his game; if you wanted to be a guru, I was pretty sure you had to at least pretend everybody always had your undivided attention. “Right. Ah, no, those were for an upcoming event. Tonight is by special invitation only.”
“Well, I’m so glad to be here,” I said, smiling at him. He looked at me a little more closely, then back at Heather, before drifting on to the next clot of guests behind us. I glanced at Heather, who looked perplexed. “It really is a small world, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” She tugged at the pink quartz under her shirt. “That’s really. Hmm. Serendipitous? Is that the word I’m thinking of?”
The Destroyer is not a dictionary.
“Probably,” I said. It sounded right, anyway. “Who’s leading the circle tonight? Him?”
“Oh, no, I don’t think so. Usually one of his, uh, disciples? He doesn’t call them that, you know, but that’s basically what they are? One of them tends to lead activities.” Heather rolled onto the balls of her feet and scanned the room. “Probably Kristine. She looks a little more dressed up than usual.”
I followed her line of sight to a young woman in a white shift-dress and sandals wheeling a big beverage dispenser up to the snack table. It had cucumber and lemon slices and what looked like basil or mint sprigs floating in it, and a younger student was following practically on her heels with a sheaf of little plastic cups. I wondered who’d be stuck putting out the pillows or mats or whatever we’d all be sitting on. Probably Brayden. He seemed like the sort of guy who’d get saddled with it, then get told off because the circle was too circular.
“So his students can keep up his work in his absence?” I asked. It wasn’t a bad idea, especially if Simon thought he could really just slide back into his spot in eighteen or nineteen years as the guru resurrected. Keep the transition of power smooth and the doors open and the coffers full. I hadn’t missed the price tag on the brochures for the retreat—it was hefty, and all the guests filing in after us had that same subtle waft of old money that Heather did.
“Oh, yes,” Heather said, brightening. “I’m sure that’s why. He’s so conscientious, you know? Charlie—have I ever introduced you to Charlie?” I shook my head. “He’s not here tonight, or I would now. He actually joked that it’s because Simon’s a little lazy and just wants them to do all the work.”
That seemed like a more plausible explanation. I looked back to see Simon standing too close to someone who looked like Heather, if Heather had hair extensions and had somehow laid hands on an undyed 100% cotton push-up bra. Maybe Simon had no intention of coming back to his old digs once he had a new life, a new identity. Maybe he was planning on finding a more profitable hole to slither into once nobody had any further expectations of him. He had a damn good life now, but there was something lurking at the corners of his eyes that told me he wasn’t entirely pleased with it, that he’d bitten off more than he could chew and knew he was about to choke.
“If he’s sure he’s going to die soon, it would be dumb not to make sure everyone can keep his teachings alive,” I pointed out. “What’s he going to do, drop out of kindergarten to come back and do regression sessions?”
“Water bottles for aspirants and a juice box for him, with a break between sessions for nap time.” She laughed and leaned on me a little. “No, of course you’re right, he’s just being responsible.”
Heather spotted someone she knew in the next round of guests and waved. I raised my eyebrows.
“Who’s the hunk?” I asked. He reminded me vaguely of Tom, with his general build and the way he carried himself.
“Oh, just a friend. I should go say hi,” she said, frowning. Her hand moved to the crystal pendant, and she checked herself before she started twisting it again. “The garden is really pretty, especially this time of day, with the sun setting? Why don’t we meet up out there in like ten minutes and clear our minds before the circle starts?”
Heather made a beeline for her friend as soon as I opened my mouth to say okay, and I grimaced. The guy was cute enough, in a generic way, but she could pull better. She definitely didn’t need to worry about me trying to cut in--the Destroyer is not here to get laid—though I suppose we’re not all as sensible and secure in ourselves as we could be when we’re nursing a crush.
It was just a little odd that she hadn’t mentioned being stuck on anyone. She was usually pretty open about her exploits or intentions, and I’d lost track of the number of times she’d told me about her ‘yonic recalibration’ sessions in the past few years. She’d stopped just short of inviting me along a few times, I thought. Heather wasn’t a great respecter of boundaries, so it got pretty easy to tell when she was afraid something would cross a line: she’d go right up to it, look at it from a few different angles, pace back and forth for a little, and then back off without fully articulating whatever it was she wanted.
Kristine offered me half a glass of the infused water when I walked past her, and I shook my head. Someone else took it off her hands, and she quickly poured another one and tried to flag me down.
“It’s part of the prep?” she said. “For the ceremony? Proper hydration’s really important.”
“I’ll hit you on the way back,” I promised. “Right now I just need to, uh, clear my leylines.”
I gestured in the general direction of the garden and refused to acknowledge her politely frustrated insistence, then ducked into a hallway once she and her over-enthusiastic assistant had more people to deal with. I could hear her laughing nervously and telling him not to overfill the cups, like she thought maybe the vibrations were going to get too intense with everybody hopped up on cucumber water or something.
The garden Heather had mentioned was pretty, especially at sunset. I’d gotten familiar with it during that first week, since you could access it from the street without doing something obviously nefarious like jumping a fence or crawling through a hedge, and I wanted to have a fallback position in case it looked like I might get caught. What I hadn’t been able to do yet was case the center’s back rooms and offices, and it didn’t look like there was anyone back there now.
Nothing was roped off, and none of the doors seemed to be locked. They were trusting the lights being out and that wing being empty to let everybody know it was off-limits. I imagined it was normally pretty effective with a crowd like this—enthusiastic supplicants too worried about getting cast from the garden to go around stealing office pens—but considering I’d stuffed a knife in my purse just in case I got a chance to kill their messiah, I wasn’t too worried about a little embarrassment at having to lie about looking for a restroom.
All in all, it was about what I’d expected from the administrative side of a center like this. They seemed more organized than a lot of the places Heather had looked into over the years, probably because they’d been around longer than the fringey fly-by-nights Heather preferred.
Everything was neat and spacious and orderly, in locked filing cabinets or carefully-labeled racks and slots. Everything was done in the same soothing pastels, and personal touches in the offices had been kept to a minimum. Everybody even had the same inspirational calendars on their walls, though a few people had torn out the pictures from past months to keep tacked on bulletin boards or taped to walls.
The Destroyer approves of your interior decorating.
The breakroom was of a piece with everything else, except that its soothing pastel furniture and tidy countertops and tables were so much background scenery for Simon having a small but very pronounced moment. I stared at him. His head was in his hands, and he was sort of hunched over, angled back to lean against the countertop with his elbows pressed against his ribs. He had to have heard me come in, but at the same time I understood why he’d automatically assume I was one of his underlings. Why would anyone else be back here and not out in the meeting room, resonating at each other?
My ten minutes were almost up, assuming Heather wasn’t so enthralled with her boytoy that she’d forget to come looking for me. I licked my lips, shocked to realize that my hand was already in my bag, clutching the knife’s hilt. I’d probably just meant to check that it was there, make sure I had it with me, just in case. Well. It was ready to go whenever I was. We were alone, just me and Simon. This is what I’d wanted, almost, kind of, close enough. I was suddenly irritated that he couldn’t sense my presence, that he could mistake me for one of the initiates.
I was here to kill him, to snuff him out over an honor-debt older than the papacy. Did I even sound like one of the obsequious infants he had running this circus, with their hemming and their shoe-scuffing and their complete inability to defend him from me?
After a few long seconds, he finally realized I wasn’t leaving or clearing my throat or asking if he needed anything and looked up. His lips thinned, and then his face puckered up in a collision of petulance and confusion.
“Um, this is more of a staff-and-students only area,” he said after a second, straightening. He pushed off the counter to stand there awkwardly, like he might have to guide me back to the door I’d just walked through.
“It’s me,” I announced, like maybe he’d get it, even though I knew he wouldn’t. How could one man possibly be such a phenomenal disappointment? How could one man possibly be such a stumbling block to anything worth doing, anything worth feeling? How could he have gone through his life making that sort of face at people without anyone else deciding to stab him?
“Right. Suzanne?” Simon asked, the sort of pained smile that said some bottom-rung acolyte would be catching hell over this later stretching his mouth. “Sophie?”
“The Destroyer,” I said. He got the chance to look slightly more confused than petulant, and then I had the knife sunk into his gut up to the hilt.
He made a noise like a sharp laugh, just that hard exhalation of breath, a “Ha!” right in my ear, and then there was the fleshy thunk of his back hitting the cabinets. I’d put my legs and back into it, the time at the gym paying off just like I’d expected it to, but his hands found mine, locked around them and the hilt with more strength than I’d expected.
Severing the big vein feeding his heart should have left him weak and passing out from the sudden drop in blood pressure, but that didn’t seem to be happening. He was just staring at me with huge, bulging eyes, hands holding mine so hard my knuckles cracked. I tried pivoting the knife horizontally in the wound, probing for the spot that would end this, but he held on harder and tried to wrench away from me. That worked about as well as I could have told him it would, if he’d stopped to ask, since he still had that death-grip on the knife around my hands. Or maybe he realized that if he let go, I’d just stab him again.
“It was just,” he panted, words almost lost in our mingled breath, the sharp smell of the fresh blood slopping out of the wound billowing between us as we fought, “it was just money. Just a little bit of money.”
“Then why didn’t you just fucking pay it?” I snarled, putting my full body into shoving the blade deeper into him, angling for his spine. I hadn’t gotten the biggest one the shop had, but it was still a foot long, and he wasn’t a particularly large man. Unfortunately there was enough blood now on the linoleum under our feet that the shift led to us slipping, toppling, landing in a tangled heap on the floor.
The door behind us opened, and I heard a tentative “Susan?” right before the most godawful shriek I’ve ever heard Heather make—including the time she took up therapeutic screaming, where she tried to cleanse traumatic memories by releasing the death cries of her past selves—was shocking both me and Simon into momentary inactivity.
“Call—” Simon stared at Heather, pleading, somehow back to ignoring me even though I was on the verge of killing him. This was exactly why I’d been trying to kill him over three hours’ worth of wages since the Iron Age, I was sure. “Call 911. Call 911. Please. I need—I need an ambulance.”
“Susan?” Heather asked, giving me a chance to explain, like there could be a sensible reason I was straddling her latest messiah and doing my level best to tie-dye her clothes with his blood. “What’s going on?”
The Destroyer is really fucking this whole thing up.
“I’m the Destroyer,” I grunted, trying to twist the knife back to where I needed it to go. Nothing about Simon fighting me felt like I’d struck a mortal blow yet. If the paramedics showed up soon, he’d probably live, the bastard.
“You’re the what?” she asked. I could hear her breathing through her hands, like she did when she was about to go into hysterics over something. I’d always found the gesture a little theatrical, a little over-the-top, but she’d finally found the perfect moment to trot it out.
“I’m the Destroyer,” I repeated, trying to leverage my weight onto his wrists and break his grip on the knife. “You know, how you said he’s got a nemesis, someone who’s going to kill him? Well, it’s me.”
“You’re the Destroyer?”
“Please,” Simon breathed, “please call 911. Please.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“Uh.” I really didn’t know what reaction I’d expected, though the screaming and the hyperventilating had seemed pretty solidly within the realm of reason. Her being mad that I hadn’t confided in her about my plan to murder her new guru was farther down on the list. “There didn’t really seem to be a good time?”
“A good time?” Heather’s voice was reaching a pitch I hadn’t heard since the Caspian Sea megaliths hit the news. “I specifically asked you if anything was going on with you, and you said nothing!”
“Please,” Simon croaked. “I need… a doctor…”
I risked a look back at her. She was standing there with her hands balled into fists at her sides, tears running down her face, pupils obviously dilated even from where I was still fighting with Simon.
“Are you high right now?” I asked.
She’d seemed perfectly fine when we’d split up, and she hadn’t mentioned planning to take anything. She was generally good about that, even if it was almost always preceded by her handing me the car keys and saying, “So, you might possibly have to drive us home, unless you want some too and we could just take a cab?”.
“No!” Heather seemed startled by the question, then confused. “No? I don’t know? I mean, I wasn’t, but now that you mention it I kind of feel a little funny?” She focused on me, and her anger came surging back into life like a flash fire. “Don’t change the subject! It’s not like you get to be mad even if I am high, which I haven’t decided yet, because it’s not like you bothered informing me that you might need a getaway driver or, or, or a cleaning… person.”
She ran her tongue slowly over her lips and then smacked them together a few times.
“Okay, so I think I might be a little high. Like my lips are numb, and it smells like something burning? But I’m still mad at you for not telling me.”
It hit me like a box of high-gloss cardstock coming off the top shelf: the little glass of flavored water I’d upset Kristine so much by turning down, Simon making such a big deal out of his imminent demise, Brayden being flustered by unexpected guests. I turned back to Simon, who was panting and sweating and finally starting to look pale the way the emergency medicine textbooks I’d read said was a sign of significant blood loss.
“What did you put in the water cooler?” I demanded. He stared at me, glassy-eyed, and I jerked my hand off the knife and slapped him across the face, hard. It left a bright red smear across his fish-belly cheek. “Is this some kind of Jonestown thing? What did you give them?”
I hit him again, and this time the slap jolted him out of whatever daze he’d fallen into. He jerked at the knife and kicked me at the same time. My arms were starting to cramp up, and I was getting winded. I definitely should have gone harder on the cardio instead of focusing all my energy on the strength training, but I really hadn’t expected this to drag out so long. Him suddenly flaring to life caught me by surprise.
I fell backwards, and Simon yanked the knife out of his belly, and the arterial spray—it was practically a geyser—from the now-undammed wound caught me square across the face. I spat, tasted his blood, and spat again. Simon stared in horror at the cartoonish gush coming from the hole in his stomach, looked at the knife that had been serving as a plug, and tried to put it back.
I almost reached out to stop him, but I was too fascinated by the spectacle to say anything.
“Okay, I am definitely super-high right now,” Heather breathed, “and you would not believe what I’m seeing.”
I snapped out of it and grabbed Simon by the shoulders, shaking him like I was trying to break his neck. “What did you put in the fucking water?”
“It was just… some psilo…” He wasn’t having any luck with the knife, and I pried it out of his fingers and shoved him against the wall. “Some psychedelics… Jesus. Why do you have to… overreact to fucking… everything?”
He went limp, finally, and the steady, pulsing fountain from his belly subsided into a slow spurt. I staggered to my feet, wiped my hands on my borrowed skirt, and looked at Heather. She was watching Simon bleed out with the same approximate expression I’d seen her bring to an uncooperative tarot spread.
“What’s Jonestown?” she asked after a second.
“You remember when I told you about being careful, because there were guys out there like the one that ran Heaven’s Gate?” I asked. She nodded, her eyes wide. “He was like the first guy to pull a Heaven’s Gate. It was huge.”
“Oh. Um.” She frowned and tasted her lips again. “Simon—did Simon poison us? Am I going to die?”
“He said it was just, like, acid or something. Shrooms.” I took a deep breath and smelled smoke. No, not smoke. Something melting. An electrical fire? Heather had said she’d smelled something burning a few minutes ago, hadn’t she? All I’d been able to smell right then was blood and Simon’s breath.
I thought of a room full of people who didn’t know that what they were seeing wasn’t real, with only a half-dozen college students to keep them from flipping out. And that was if I believed Simon, if I assumed this wasn’t some attempt to take it all with him.
“We should call an ambulance,” Heather said slowly, twisting her necklace around her fingers. “They didn’t tell anyone. What if someone’s allergic? Like, to mushrooms or acid or whatever. They could go into that thing where your throat closes up and you can’t breathe.” Her eyes settled on Simon. “Oh! We could tell them he Jonestowned himself.” She looked at my clothes. “I mean, everyone’s heard him talk about how he’s not long for this world. And you tried to stop him! That way you can’t get in trouble.”
It actually was kind of brilliant, after I thought about it for a minute. If Simon had been running his mouth about his ascent into his next life, and then he doped an exclusive invite-only gathering and retreated to a private room to kill himself, the only outsider not high as a kite following him and trying to stop him made sense, as a scenario. And both our prints were on the knife, assuming they could pull any around the blood. I grabbed the sheath out of my purse, wiped the prints off on his slacks, and tossed it into the table.
“Okay, I’m going to call 911,” I said. “I need you to wait for me in the garden, okay? Just in case.”
Just in case there was a fire, just in case an orgy had broken out in the middle of everything, just in case I needed to hit Brayden with a tray of tofu puffs.
I fumbled my way through a call to the emergency dispatcher, half genuinely patchy on the precise details and order of events and half stopping every ten seconds to yell that it wasn’t real, that what everyone was seeing was just the mushrooms.
The guy Heather had ditched me for was staring at a wall with three other people and just saying “Om” over and over, and the burning-plastic smell was coming from a pile of yoga mats that a meditation candle had been placed on top of and then fallen over onto. They were only smoldering, but that hardly meant anything was safe. I started shouting for people to get out, then gave up on that and tried recruiting Simon’s students, except it turned out they’d all dosed themselves after making sure everybody got their own cup.
“Isn’t this so great?” Brayden asked, when I shook him and asked what they’d put in the water. “Everybody’s so free now? Their spirits are just free.”
Kristine wasn’t much more help. She looked into my eyes and earnestly informed me that nothing was real. “Don’t you understand? Our bodies are just limits that we place on ourselves. Everybody here tonight, when they go home? They’re going to be immune to gravity. They’re not going to have to reincarnate, because they’ll never have to die. We’ve solved death.”
It took Heather coming back for me to finally get everyone out of the building. She was amazing, like some sort of pied piper, telling everyone we should go solve death outside, under the stars, and then use the satellites to beam the information to every living being on earth. It wasn’t something I’d have thought of, that was for damn sure. Turns out the Destroyer wasn’t so great at exit strategies or contingency plans.
I hadn’t been able to find a fire extinguisher, and I saw the first evidence of flames from the yoga mats just after Kristine’s assistant did a final headcount with me and insisted everyone was out. I wasn’t sure if I believed him, especially since he seemed completely oblivious to his glorious teacher’s absence, but I could hear sirens and figured I’d done all I could one way or another. I sat down on one of the stone benches facing the center and watched smoke curl out the windows.
Heather sat down beside me.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you, earlier,” she said quietly. “I’m sure you had a good reason, you know, for not telling me.”
“I didn’t,” I said. “I should have told you. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
She leaned her head on my shoulder, and I let my head rest on hers. She let go of the pink crystal and reached for my hand, and I laced my fingers in hers, grimacing at the blood crusting my nails. Somewhere on the other side of the center, we could hear glass breaking. The columns of smoke rising from the building got thicker, and the lights from the fire engines were like fireflies in the distance.
“I’m really glad you came with me tonight,” Heather said. “I’m just… so glad we got to finally take one of these journeys together.”
“I’m really glad I came with you, too,” I told her.
Behind us, Kristine led everyone in a garbled mantra and then started howling at the satellites. Heather and I lapsed into silence and watched flames creep along the roofline, and I finally felt the peace and clarity I’d been looking for steal over me. It was such a beautiful night. Everything was perfect.
I squeezed Heather’s hand, and she squeezed back. The Destroyer had had a pretty good run.
BRUCE J. BERGER
JANICE R. TORRES
J. B. TONER
J. DAVID THAYER
MAX WILLI FISCHER
THOMAS M. MCDADE
TIFFANY RENEE HARMON