T.R. NORTH - PAST-LIFE CRISIS
T.R. North was born and raised in Florida, which has been scientifically demonstrated to ruin a person for any other state. Other works of short fiction can be found in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, PseudoPod, and the chapbook "Of Witches and Wolves" from Sword & Kettle Press. Follow @northonthegulf on Twitter for news.
“How’ve your parents been?” I asked. I focused on Heather’s serene, toothy smile instead of her oversized sunglasses with their two tiny, distorted versions of myself thrown back at me like an insult. At the table behind me, a woman was droning on about how her nephew’s legal problems were the result of bad luck, and I tried to tune her out and focus on Heather’s response.
“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.
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