Well. That was a learning experience. I think that’s the best way to put it.
It’s impossible to say anything about Pact without inevitable comparisons to Worm, so I’ll bite that bullet right here and right now. I suppose what I can say is that where Worm was a triumph, in many respects, Pact was a means for me to grow as a writer.
I should start off by saying that I’m immensely grateful to my readers for reading through Pact and offering their feedback and support. Pact came to 948,800 words. We can round that up to 950k words, for the sake of brevity. It took almost half the time to write that Worm did, and came to about half the word count. You guys stuck it out with me, you shared your comments, and I was able to make a living as a writer in the meantime. I appreciate that more than you know.
On its own, to be making a living as a writer, maintaining a wage and a readership, that’s a triumph of sorts. That may be hard to recognize when compared to where I stood when Worm was done, but just about anything is going to pale in comparison to Worm, so maybe that’s unfair.
Why was Pact a learning experience? In part, it was something I needed to do to test waters and see what I was capable of. I know a lot of criticism that gets leveled at the series is because of how nebulous or vague the underlying system is. Magic in Pact is a vague thing, one that can be interpreted, bent, or otherwise misappropriated. There’s a logic behind it all, but it remains what it is. The characters are different, and the story itself takes on a different form, a struggle to catch one’s footing and find a place in the world, which can seem like our protagonist is mired in a situation with no way up or forward.
But being able to write that and see the audience reactions, see my own comfort level, it’s a valuable thing, and something I can carry with me to future writings. I don’t think I want to write something quite so loose in the future. I also got more comfortable with humor and lighter characters, and that’s something I had almost no confidence with at the start of Worm. I felt like I stumbled on certain elements, and exploring simple and juvenile forms of humor in Evan and the goblins was a good thing. I’ve collected a repertoire of things I now know that I want to do or not to do.
Pact taught me some other things, though. See, I want to be a career writer. I’d like to think I have the chops, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve only been doing this for three years and three months. The things I need to learn aren’t all about sentence or narrative construction or characterization. Some are about life.
Where Worm left me feeling like publishing (probably self publishing) was something I eventually had or have to do, I don’t feel that way with Pact. Pact isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, and I feel like the road to making Pact great enough to publish is long and awkward enough that it may not be worth it. It’s hard to say for sure.
Part of the reason for this is that Pact had a shaky start, and that made for a shaky foundation to build the rest on. Just off the end of Worm, I was distracted by real life. It was fairly happy as distractions went, my brother got married. It just so happened to be a marriage that took place a two hour trip from my place into the woods of Quebec. The married couple lived a five hour flight away, and I was close, so stuff fell on my shoulders (and on my mom’s, though she had recently been hospitalized for back problems; another distraction). There was a lot of peripheral stuff to do or get involved with, I was stressed in typical wedding-involved ways and I was interacting with people who were stressed in typical wedding-involved ways, and it made writing hard when it would have been really nice to focus on the story and make it more what I wanted it to be.
The wedding wasn’t the only thing going on, and I maintained my schedule while I moved out of Ottawa and found myself a little bit more elbow room in a smaller town with lower rent. Moving is a bit of a hassle, as it turns out, and moving to a nearby town when you don’t drive is even more so.
I was also trying to figure out a way forward with the editing of Worm, which proves tricky when it is the easiest thing to drop when real life gets hard or irritating. I know from experience that the way I operate best is to work hard one day, rest the next. It was the same when I studied and went to school, it was the same when I worked in the produce depot of grocery stores, and when I did some reno work or house painting. Wedging the editing in there is a tricky thing, and I’ve gradually adopted it, halting as it may be. It’s been a lot easier since I’ve moved, I can say that much.
In the midst of all of the above, I fell back on some old standbys and patterns and didn’t move the story forward, leading one storyline in particular to drag on. I didn’t sell the story as it should’ve been, and as much as my audience might have become frustrated at points, I felt that same frustration myself. In dragging everything to Toronto and sending Blake to the Abyss, there might have been a little bit of a desire on my end to change things up and get some fresh air.
It may never be clearly apparent to readers, but I’ve learned some valuable lessons about time management and balancing different aspects of my life. I’m hopeful that this will be evidenced by my being more consistent, wiser, and mature as a writer, because I intend to write until I physically can’t write anymore, and those are really good things to give evidence to.
All that said, I’m thrilled that the audience came to be as fond of Green Eyes and Evan (or just Evan, in some cases) as I was. It’s gratifying that my readers seemed to voice support for many of the same individual elements of Pact that I enjoyed writing, be it incidents with the goblins, aspects of the Abyss, or some of the better scenes.
I’m rather happy to be here, writing this, and I admit I’m relieved to be putting Pact to rest. It was a good thing, but I’m excited to be moving on. I think, much like Worm, it’s a setting I’ll have to revisit in the future. I’ve left some elements still to be resolved, and both Vista and Alexandria referenced the Maggie Holt series in Worm, so… that’s a possibility. Maybe something shorter and tighter, and in the spirit of the learning experience that Pact proved to be, something where I hold on to only the better things.
As suggested above, Worm’s editing process is underway, though it’s proving about as slow as I anticipated it being. In the interest of giving myself more structure with the editing process, I’m suspicious I may start asking Reddit for arc-by-arc feedback, revisiting the story one arc at a time and raising some of the issues or questions I have in regard to the editing, so stay tuned for that.
Pact was defined by threes. Worm is the past, Pact is the present (for now) and that only leaves the future. Story three.
The site won’t be open to the public until Tuesday, at the usual time. I’m not doing the sample thing, because I’m fairly certain I know what I want to write, and the samples have a way of breaking hearts one way or another. On a similar note, I’d rather avoid dropping any hints about genre or anything else, because many will hear ‘sci-fi’ or ‘fantasy’ and they go in with preconceived notions and expectations.
To find out what niche it fits in, you’ll have to check it out. With that in mind, and on that note, I hope to see you guys for serial number three.
Thank you, and I really do mean that. You guys are great, and I wouldn’t be where I am without you.
Moving on with Pact. It’s the story I’m moving forward with. I’m putting the fourth chapter here while I work on making the story’s site look good & maybe do a bit of tidying up for the chapters I’ve already done.
I’ll be aiming to get the new site, Pact 1.5 and a bit of polish for this Saturday.
I finished toweling myself dry and wrapped the towel around my waist before I opened the shower curtain. I used my fingers to comb my damp hair away from my face before approaching the mirror.
I could see Rose’s reflection, her hair pressed flat where the back of her head pressed against the other side of the mirror, looking the other way. The mirror in the upstairs bathroom was a part of the pedestal sink, surrounded by florets.
It was an uncomfortable setting, with unfamiliar things in unfamiliar places. Having someone, something like Rose nearby. Strange smells and tastes, with even the water having a taste to it. It was drawn from a local well, according to Rose. I had been forced to use the only shampoo available, and the smell of it was thick and cloying in the humid air of the bathroom.
All of this was helping me to get a sense of why Molly had been so driven to empty shelves and remove pictures from the walls. My grandmother had a presence here, and it was a presence that felt like it could override my own.
Especially when my own presence seemed somewhat limited. When I looked in the mirror, I saw only the bathroom, and I saw Rose, her back turned.
No reflection, using different soaps and shampoo that made me smell different, no longer having the little trinkets and touches I’d surrounded myself with over the past year or two, it all made me feel less like me.
Each of those things had a flip side, seeing a reminder of our grandmother’s work in the mirror, smelling our grandmother’s lavender-scented shampoo and soap, seeing her trinkets and small touches wherever I looked, I felt like she hadn’t quite left. Her presence was still here.
Which it was, kind of. We had stumbled onto one lingering threat. The books my grandmother had written, left untouched, still waited in that study.
How deep did that particular danger run?
“Hey,” I said. “Did you ever share scary stories with Molly and Paige?”
“A little,” Rose answered, without turning around.
“You remember the stories we told about the house? Some made up, some real?”
“Kind of,” she said. “We weren’t all that close. I mean, we were the same ages, give or take a year, but we weren’t friends.”
“Really?” I asked, and there was a note of surprise in my voice that seemed to startle her. She half-turned, caught a glimpse of me, naked but for a towel around my waist, and turned away just as quickly.
I hiked up the towel to be sure I was safe, made sure it was secure, and then said, “It’s fine. I’m decent, and it’s not like we’re not related, right?”
“Right,” she said, but she took her time. I caught her giving me a glance, bottom to top and back again, before she frowned a little.
“Was it that you weren’t friends after grandmother announced the whole ‘granddaughter only’ thing, or-“
“Before,” Rose said.
“Before,” I said, considering the idea. “I considered them good friends. We exchanged emails, we looked forward to seeing each other…”
I trailed off. Rose was already shaking her head. A strand of blond hair had come loose of the pin behind her head.
Rose said, “I know Molly about as well as I knew Callan or Roxanne, which isn’t much at all. Then the ‘granddaughter only’ thing came up, and that was that. We were rivals.”
“It doesn’t upset you that she’s dead?”
“It does!” she said, “Really, it does. But… if you told me Mrs. Niles died, I’d be about as upset. Someone who was a small, peripheral part my life is now gone. It’s sad, it’s a reminder that we’re all very mortal, and there’s obviously a lot more going on besides that, with you as the heir for the property and me as… this.”
“But Molly doesn’t rate much higher than an elderly neighbor who you say hi to if you happen to see her,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Rose said. “There are nice memories, but there are bad memories too. Over and over, stuff would come up. If we weren’t dealing with a situation, we were reeling from the last one. Ways to weaken me, to take me out of the running, mom and dad sort of keeping it going. It kind of soured all the rest of it.”
“Soured it?,” I said.
She gave me a funny look. “Aunt Irene pulled strings to screw up Paige’s chances of getting into University, and she almost succeeded. Uncle Paul went crazy, Paige went crazy, and we had four straight months where I was genuinely afraid. My car got vandalized, and they emptied a can of orange juice concentrate under a seat. The frozen pulp you mix with two cans of water. By the time I realized what was going on, the smell was so bad I couldn’t drive the car, and no amount of cleaning would make it any better.”
“Doesn’t sound like Paige.”
“That one was Ellie, I’m pretty sure. She made a comment, then alluded to my brake lines, and I basically stopped driving after that. When I think of family, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.”
I couldn’t imagine giving up that independence. The apparent distance between myself and Rose was growing, hearing all this.
She continued, oblivious, “Those are the memories I have, which didn’t really happen, apparently. But they’re part of what make me me, whatever I am, and so I don’t have any lingering fondness for the extended family, real memories or fake.”
I nodded. “I remember sharing the stories about the house, even seeking them out, so I had tidbits to share on future visits. We’d laugh, be suitably horrified, and whatever else. Paige and Molly had it easier, because they had siblings to tap for stories. But it’s like… I could tell them how our great grandfather was a robber baron, kind of?”
There was no recognition on Rose’s face.
“He ruthlessly cut out the competition, scared people, beat them, stole from them, up until the day he hired a few goons to go beat someone up and they got caught. He ran and came to Canada, where was approached by a widow, our great grandmother. Grandmother Rose’s parents.”
“I didn’t hear that one.”
“The letter she wrote us told us that bastards tend to do better as husbands in this family than the gentlemen do. So I can’t help but think… how far back does this business with the demons and devils go? There’s a bit of bloody history tied to this family and this house. Was grandmother the first to go down that road, or has it been at play from the beginning?”
“I don’t know,” Rose said. “I don’t want it to be a big thing, because our bloodline is apparently in a kind of debt, and I don’t want to be in debt to anything like that.”
No longer comfortable with the topic, I bent down and rummaged in the cabinet beneath the sink for basic toiletries. One drawer revealed a narrow can of shaving cream with a woman’s silhouette on it. It had been there for so long it refused to budge when I tried to lift it. Further back was a plastic packet of the cheapest disposable razors around, pink.
I opted to shave anyways, tearing the can off the bottom of the drawer. Sure enough, the razor nicked me no less than five times. They had been there for so long that temperature had bent the blades.
I preferred to bleed and be clean-shaven over the alternative. Without a reflection to go by, I had to be meticulous.
It was disconcerting to see Rose standing there, studying me, when I tried to look to see if I’d missed a spot. I ran my hand over my face, searching for the roughness of scruff, then washed my face to get rid of the remainder.
“Bit of shaving cream at the back there,” Rose said, pointing to the nape of her neck.
I fixed it.
“Putting the more dangerous stuff aside, we should get to studying,” she said.
“Know what we’re up against,” I said, while drying my face. I tended to the small cuts, but it didn’t make much of a difference, with the cut already on my cheekbone.
“Exactly. Having information can’t do any harm, can it? How were you as a student?”
“Horrible,” I said. I could see her face fall.
“But I can do this. I have a good memory. I struggled at school because I don’t have a lot of patience.”
“How far did you get in Essentials?”
“The introduction,” I said, preparing my toothbrush. I’d managed some before fatigue caught up with me, and I’d napped. I’d woken, mid-afternoon, and decided to shower to clear my head. I didn’t function that well when I was grimy and unshaven.
“Only? I’m nearly done,” she replied.
I looked up at her in surprise.
“Apparently I don’t sleep,” she said, and she sounded somewhat distant, even disconnected. “I don’t get hungry. I don’t really breathe. I barely have a heartbeat.”
“You were up all night reading?”
“More or less. My focus sucks right now, because I still feel drained from earlier, but I read where I could, then wandered, looked over the library, trying to get a sense of what books are there. Or at least the books the mirror’s facing.”
I nodded, toothbrush in my mouth. On a level, I was glad I had an excuse to stay silent. I was bothered, that she was ahead of me, that she would likely stay ahead of me, without a need for sleep.
How could I even articulate that? On a level, I wanted us to be on the same page, so we could cooperate, play ideas off each other.
On another level, well… All of the most foolish and brutish Others have been captured, slain, consumed, driven off, or tricked away. Recognize all Others for what they are, and know that they, by a process of elimination two thousand and six hundred years in the making, are cunning by nature, they are slave to those who are, or they were made to be cunning to better serve in their duties. Wit is the greatest defense and the sharpest weapon, on battlefields such as these.
Essentials, chapter one, the introduction, on Others. Laying down the ground rules, the most basic stuff we needed to know. Others were liars.
What was Rose, if not an Other? New enough she wasn’t bound by the old rules that forbade lying and mandated oaths, but still an Other. Not of mortals or the mortal’s world.
“I’m glad you’re up,” she said. “Three hours alone in this house was too much. I don’t know how I’m going to get through a whole night. Dealing with being what I am.”
For all that time had done to heal her weariness, it had made her emotions more pronounced.
In my case… well, it would have been easier to say if any emotion was showing if I could see myself.
“I really like your tattoos,” she said. She fumbled for words for a second, which caught me off guard. “I’m… actually envious. I couldn’t pull that off, but it’s the sort of thing I’d get if I could.”
I looked down. Small birds perched on tree branches, in pale grays, whites and yellows, against a backdrop of reds, in watercolor hues. “Thank you.”
Were we similar in some respects? In tastes?
Or was this a manipulation from a cunning Other? What was there to guarantee that she was really me, with one not-so-small change?
I left the bathroom, making my way down to the living room.
“I take it you didn’t get to chapter eight,” she said, reflected in one of the glass picture frames along the stairwell.
“Take a look,” she said. Or it was all she could say, before there weren’t any surfaces for her to communicate through. I made my way into the living room, and saw her there, waiting for me, in the mirror I’d taken from the bathroom. The book lay on the coffee table.
Essentials, chapter eight. Dangers a practitioner faces.
I pulled on pants under the towel as I leaned over the book, reading the headings aloud. “Being forsworn, betrayal within the coven, betrayal by familiars, covens, crusades, death, demesnes, execution, exquirere…”
I did, picking up the book to better flip through it. “Lords, loss of implements, loss of sight, loss of soul…”
“Towards the end.”
“I’m not patient enough for that. Give me a letter? Or, better yet, point me to the section you want to talk about?”
“W. Witch hunters.”
I flipped through until I found it. “‘Witch hunters are markedly different from inquisitors. Where an inquisitor is organized by an outside party, the witch hunter is in the employ of practitioners or Others. Oft used to guard a Lord’s power, maintain a balance or hunt down rogue parties. Witch Hunters do not use faith or innocence as tools, but use gifts provided by those they serve, alongside the protections the uninitiated enjoy, as well as the ability to circumvent defenses that would ward off practitioners and Others.'”
Rose was looking at me, expectantly.
“I’m not sure I follow your line of thought.”
“I want to see if you reach the same conclusion I do,” she said.
“You’re thinking of that pair of siblings we saw. The ones who were getting all geared up to come after us.”
“I’m less focused on them than on the path.” she said.
I thought for a minute. “Yeah, I’m not reaching the same conclusion as you, I don’t think.”
She looked a little agitated, nervous. “I think we can go this route. Avoid getting into the ugliest stuff, the books on demons and whatever else. If witch hunters and inquisitors can survive this sort of thing, maybe we can too.”
“Borrowing power instead of using it?”
She nodded, too much, too quickly. She was talking faster. “Kind of. Not getting in the thick of this. We learn what we need to learn in order to survive. We circumvent this whole situation.”
“While meeting her demands? Getting a familiar, getting a tool, carving out a little world for ourselves? Rose, I get what you’re going for, I almost get why, but that’s not going to work.”
With that, I seemed to have upset her.
Rose leaned closer to the mirror, “Why not? We can do it, while avoiding everything else. We need workarounds.”
“I get that, but the most basic, number one step? The one I’m supposed to use to awaken myself… there’s a cost associated with it. I give up the ability to lie. What that one guy said in the vision? There’s always a price. Become a Witch Hunter, and you face obligations.”
Rose was getting more into it as she argued. “We can minimize the effect. Follow the letter of the law, instead of the spirit. We get a familiar, but we go with the smallest, weakest spirit possible, something small, that won’t demand anything of consequence or challenge us. We pick an inoffensive tool. Carve out the smallest possible piece of land for our demesnes. That only leaves us the problem of some reading, which is a good idea anyways, and getting married.”
“And the debt? We’re supposed to clear the debt. How do we do that if we handicap ourselves?”
“If that’s the one problem we have, I think we can find a way around it with some research.”
No, I wouldn’t convince her that way. Better to get to the root of this problem, first. “Where does the witch hunting factor in?”
“We figure out how they protect themselves, and we do the same things. They have sponsors, sources of energy and tools. So do we. Kind of. It’s what we inherited.”
“I don’t want to shoot you down…” I started.
“You don’t need to.”
“I know what you’re feeling. I felt a bit of it, when I saw the escape clause in the contract, if we wanted to back out of this. That there was a way out. Except I think this is a trap too, in a different way.”
“No, Blake. We can do this, we just need to do it safely.”
“I don’t think this is a situation where we can do things in half measures. We can’t be half-heir and half-witch hunter.”
“What’s the alternative? You really want to do this? Follow the path grandmother set before us, making infernal bargains to deal with our enemies, while somehow trying to get out of debt with whoever our ancestors got in debt with?”
I stood, making my way to the kitchen. “I’m not saying I want to deal with devils or any of that. I’m saying I don’t want to pay a price like the one we pay for ‘awakening’, if we’re not going to use what we paid for.”
She spoke to me from the toaster. “I get a say in this, you know.”
I moved through the kitchen, looking for something easy to make foodwise. Bonus points if it didn’t leave me feeling like crap afterward. In the heat of the conversation, I was making more noise than necessary with the cupboards and drawers. “You get a say, but it’s ultimately me making the decision and paying the consequences, isn’t it?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of attached to you, metaphysically. You die, I’m going to be a goner too.”
“You think. Either way, I’m the one who got injured,” I said. “I’m the one who has stitches in my hand and a cut on my face.”
“At least you’re alive,” she retorted.
We were interrupted by a pounding series of knocks on the door. Rose turned her head so quickly that the loose strands of hair flew out to either side.
I remained where I was, staring at the door.
The knocking repeated.
“Whatever this is,” I said, “I might need help.”
She took her time responding.
A third set of knocks, harder than last two others.
“Like I said,” Rose told me, “We’re attached to each other. I’ll back you up. Go.”
I grabbed a t-shirt from the backpack and pulled it on as I approached the door, stopping to peek out through the glass at the side.
Relief hit me in a wave, even in the moment my heart sank.
As the door opened, I saw two men in uniform.
One of them was very familiar. I’d glimpsed him in the odd dream I’d seen, just before meeting Rose.
The other man spoke first. “I’m RCMP officer Pat Macguin. This is Chief of Police Laird Behaim.”
“Hi,” I said, guarded.
“Would you give me your name, please?” Laird Behaim asked me. He had an intense gaze. Pale blue eyes to go with very dark, straight hair, just starting to gray at the sideburns.
I’d seen him in the vision. The man with the pocketwatch at the table with all of the blonde women. I needed a moment to get my mental footing. I searched for a response “Um.”
“It’s not a hard answer to give,” the RCMP officer said.
“I just woke up from a nap, a little bit ago,” I said. “Sorry. I’m a little muddled.”
“Your name?” he asked.
There was no dodging the question. “Blake Rosine.”
Laird Demill raised his eyebrows. “Paul’s son? No, wait, that would be…”
“Peter. He’s my cousin. My dad is-“
“Bradley Rosine, by process of elimination. Yes.”
The RCMP gave Laird a look.
“I’m fairly familiar with his family,” Laird said.
“You’re alone, Mr. Rosine?”
“Only person in the house,” I said.
“You’re injured,” the RCMP officer said, to me, “A cut on your cheek? Can I ask what happened?”
The sudden change of direction caught me off guard. It didn’t help that this Laird guy was staring at me, studying me while the officer quizzed me. He would be weighing my answers.
There was a danger here. I felt a chill, and it wasn’t just the cold air from outside.
I couldn’t get arrested, or I’d get dragged out of the house, far from any protection it afforded.
But this man, here, Laird Behaim, was an enemy. Would I be worse off if he realized I wasn’t yet ‘awakened’?
I couldn’t get caught in a lie, and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to look like I was trying to word things too carefully.
“Car broke down by the side of the highway. I tried to take a shortcut through the woods, because I could have been hit in the highway. Something cut me.”
“Where were you at four o’clock this morning?”
“Sleeping, I think. I kind of woke up early, so I’m not sure. Can I ask what this is about?”
“In a minute. Can anyone or anything confirm your location?”
“Joel Monte, my landlord and friend. I woke him up to borrow his car, maybe around five. He’s going to be upset, the car broke down and I had to leave it behind. I haven’t even had time to think about getting a tow, if it hasn’t been towed already.”
“You said. His number?”
I gave it. The RCMP officer glanced at the chief of police, who walked down the stairs, phone up to his ear.
“That’s a different area code than the one in Jacob’s Bell. You woke up early, borrowed a car from your landlord at an unholy hour, and decided to drive to another town to visit…”
Laird was nearby, in earshot. I wasn’t sure the RCMP officer was safe, either. “My cousin Molly inherited this place. She isn’t here. I’m not sure where she is.”
“You can understand where I’m a little confused about this sequence of events,” he said. He sounded unimpressed. “Why?”
There was no good answer to give. “Can I ask what this is about?”
“Answer my question, first.” He wasn’t playing ball.
Damn it. What was I supposed to say? I didn’t have time to think.
When in doubt… honesty.
“The car broke down, and coming here seemed like it was less hassle overall. Molly wasn’t here. I thought I should stick around.”
“Which doesn’t explain why you were driving in the first place.”
“It sounds stupid. I had a bad dream. I decided to go for a drive, get away.”
He gave me a look that conveyed a whole idea. ‘That does sound stupid‘. But he was too polite to say it out loud. The inconsistency of my actions, he must have thought I was on drugs.
Laird returned to the porch. The look he gave me, too calm, too casual, made me shiver.
“Landlord confirms the time,” he said. “And a car was found on the side of the highway.”
I jammed my hands in the pockets, where the cold was starting to numb my fingers. “If you visit the sandwich shop at the rest stop, just a little up the road from where the car was picked up, the manager and a middle aged blonde woman can confirm. She gave me a ride here.”
“We’ll check,” the RCMP officer said.
“What’s this about?” I asked. I knew, but I wasn’t supposed to know.
“Can we step inside?” Laird asked. “You look cold.”
“Not without a warrant,” I said. Better to seem unfriendly and overly emotional than risk letting an enemy inside safe territory. “What’s this about?”
The RCMP officer answered, “Molly Walker, the owner of this house, was found mauled in the woods.”
If I’d harbored any concerns about seeming too blasé, they were gone in the instant I heard those words. “M-mauled?”
“Brutally attacked by a human, if the tracks are any indication,” the officer said. “We’re not offering any particular details at this point.”
“I- uh,” I said. I stopped, then tried to start again, but the words didn’t escape my mouth. It didn’t help that I didn’t know what to say.
I’d known, but to hear it like this, from very human sources, minus all of the mystic crap?
“You what?” the RCMP officer asked me.
“She has family in town. They moved to be closer to our grandmother.”
“We know. We’ve spoken with them,” the officer said. “They pointed us here. We’d like to come inside and see if there’s anything that could explain the attack.”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Irene Walker gave us permission to investigate the premises.”
Which meant letting this Laird Behaim person into the house.
“It- no. It’s not her call,” I said. “I’m sorry. I can give you the number of the lawyer. The way I understand it, the house would pass on to me, if Molly was dead. It’s my property, it’s my say. Not without a warrant.”
“This isn’t reflecting well on you, Mr. Rosine,” the RCMP officer said.
“I know,” I said. My mouth was dry, and my eyes were tearing up from the cold and the recent announcement. “Yeah. I- I’m sorry. I need time to process the news, and I’m not going to make good calls, as tired and confused as I am. It’s better if you talk to the lawyer.”
“Mr. Beasley?” Laird asked.
“Mr. Beasley, right,” I said.
“I’m familiar with him,” he said. When the RCMP officer looked in his direction, he said, “There’s a great deal of concern over this house, in local circles. The town is booming with the addition of the train station and the proximity to Toronto, property prices are soaring, and the amount of good land that can be bought is somewhat limited, due to certain geographical concerns rooted in this property. The last time I paid any attention to the money, this property was worth twenty million dollars.”
“It’s worth more now,” I said.
“I imagine. A great many locals are very interested,” Laird said, his eyes fixed on me. “Mr. Beasley has been handling the bulk of the disputes for the family. I know him. With your permission, I’ll talk to him and see what we can’t figure out.”
“Please do” the RCMP officer said.
“I’d like to have a moment to talk to Mr. Rosine here, if that’s alright. If he’s telling the truth and he has inherited the property, I wouldn’t mind the chance to talk this through with him.”
The RCMP officer didn’t seem happy with that. “You’re aware of the time constraints?”
“Of course. I’ll talk to Mr. Rosine, then the lawyer, and we can meet for dinner? I’ll fill you in.”
The RCMP officer took that in. “Alright. I need to make some calls. Call me when you’re done.”
Together, we watched the RCMP officer trudge away through the snow, his boots squeaking. When he was gone, Laird withdrew a pocketwatch from his coat. He popped it open, looked, and then closed it, holding it in one hand.
“I admit, thought it was a girl, here.”
“No,” I responded. “I’m just as surprised to be here as you are to see me here.”
“Well, if it helps, I think you’re innocent,” he said.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Here’s the honest truth; I wasn’t lying when I said I wanted to discuss things with you.”
“You’re a pretty honest guy, huh?” I asked.
Stupid. Stupid question.
“I suspect you and I both know why,” he said. “Can we do away with pretense?”
I sighed. “Sure.”
“I believe you’re innocent because I know who killed Molly Walker.”
“Who?” I asked. I was getting colder, now.
He only shook his head. “I can’t say. It will probably go unsolved, the media will report it, but it won’t be sensationalized. Good officers will most likely put in a genuine, honest effort and find nothing.”
“Doesn’t this kind of conflict with the oath you swore, when entering office? Or are you faking the police thing?”
He smiled. “Rest assured, I studied for my position, I earned it, and I’ve maintained it in good conscience. I’d rather talk about you. Would you be up for a walk?”
“A walk?” I asked.
“If you’re worried, I can promise you my protection for as long as you’re in my company, I’ll take you somewhere where we can talk, then bring you back, as safe as I can manage it.”
“Which is how safe?” I asked. “I don’t know what your protection is worth.”
“You’re thinking I’ve limited myself somehow?” he asked, clearly amused.
“I’m thinking anything is possible.”
“Knowing what I know, if positions were reversed, I would trust my own daughters, who I care about deeply, to the care of someone of equivalent power.”
“This isn’t a trick?” I asked.
His smile faltered a little. “This line of questioning is getting a touch grating.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“This is not a trick,” he said. “My primary aim here is to find out who you are. You’re an unknown quantity in a very delicate ecosystem. But we can talk about that more after. I suspect you’ll gain more information than you give up.”
“Right this minute, with everything that’s happening, I’d rather be safe and warm than have information,” I said. “A bit of time to grieve might be nice.”
“What if I offered to help streamline matters on the legal front? You’ll be safer and warmer here than in a prison cell, awaiting a trial,” he said.
I considered the idea.
“I’d find that a little more tempting,” I admitted.
“If you’re interested, I’ll wait while you get your coat and whatever else you deem necessary.”
“Give me a minute,” I said. I shut the door.
I made my way to the living room.
“Don’t,” Rose said.
“It’s answers,” I said.
“It’s dangerous,” she responded. “We can go the safe route. Like I was saying before. There’s too much we don’t know.”
I found my jacket. “We’ve skimmed the little black book. Behaim… they’re one of the covens.”
“There’s a better word than coven, but sure. They’re a local institution, maybe the oldest here. All the more reason to stay.”
“He’ll fix the legal situation, which is maybe the biggest concern right now. I don’t know if we can do anything against ordinary people, if the cops decide to kick down the door.”
“Blake! I don’t get a say?”
“You do,” I said. “But… you were saying how you were going kind of crazy, alone? I’m going to lose it if I’m cooped up. I have to keep moving. I had to before I left home, and it only got reinforced after. If there’s an opportunity to stretch my legs and get answers, while preserving my sanity, I’m going to take it.”
“Yes,” I said. “Come with, as much as you can. I wouldn’t mind the backup.”
I pulled on my coat, then rummaged in the closet to get a new scarf and hat. There were two that were plain enough to wear. The nurse’s?
I stepped across the threshold, half-convinced I’d get shot or something equivalent. When I didn’t, I carefully locked the door. I stood there, hand still on the handle.
“You promise to smooth over the legal issues?”
“I’ll make this as stress free for you as I can. Nobody will enter the house, if I can help it, which I can. I promise you this.”
“The house is safe?” I asked.
He sighed. “You don’t know very much, do you?”
“I’m a fast learner, but not as much as I’d like to know.”
“I assure you, the house is safe. I don’t know of anyone who could or would damage the house or property. If it was that easy, we would have removed it already.”
I turned, joining him in walking down the long, snow-covered driveway.
“Let me cut to the chase. I’d like to talk about a hypothetical scenario with you,” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
“Global politics, if you don’t mind?”
“I don’t really mind.”
“In this scenario, we’ve got a situation involving a number of countries. If you will, there’s America. I’m rather interested in America for the purpose of this discussion, but that’s just me. Powerful, perhaps overly proud, large, keepers of the peace.”
I glanced at his uniform. “Sure.”
“Then a European country. I would say they are very traditional, seductive, beautiful, very prone to holding grudges. More history, more set in their ways.”
I thought of the blonde women I’d seen at the table with him. “I can picture it.”
“There are others. Imagine a small, very old, and somewhat backwards nation. We’d then have a broad swathe of nature with very few settlements, as well as a very vibrant country that has just come into an inexplicable amount of wealth, which is liable to burn out quickly on its excess. As well as other bit players who shouldn’t be ignored, but who aren’t of import in our discussion, here.”
I tried to put faces to the descriptions, but it wasn’t easy. Perhaps the man in the twisted tower, with the talking dog, for the latter? The girl with the checkered scarf… If I went by process of elimination…
“I’m picturing an aboriginal woman,” I said.
“I can imagine such a woman leading this very old nation, yes.”
“A young woman, in heavy clothing, with a rabbit, in the middle of the uninhabited, natural setting?”
“Mm. Quite right.”
“And… a long haired young man, for the wealthy country.”
“If I were to add to this scenario, where would you fit a teenaged girl with a checkered scarf?”
He frowned, “I’m at a loss.”
“So am I,” I said. The girl who had been talking to the Other, with the face that stretched.
He thought for a second, nodding and smiling a greeting at someone who apparently recognized him in passing. When we were clear, he said, “Ah. Someone who intruded on important meetings, perhaps. A new arrival to the scene.”
“Is that so?”
“Too new and too small to be a serious threat. Self deluding, even, dealing in things she doesn’t fully understand. A complicated situation. I’d call her a terrorist before I called her a local power.”
“Fair enough. Can we call her Maggie, or is that mucking up the metaphor?”
“We could call her that. Maggie Holt, I believe.”
He took in a deep breath, opened his watch, then closed it, without looking at it. “In this imagined scenario, we have a country in, say, our equivalent of South America. This hypothetical country is unpredictable, has a history of being aggressive, and it just so happens they are the only one in this imagined scenario who have nuclear weapons at their disposal.”
Nuclear weapons. It seemed an apt descriptor for the books I’d seen. Dangerous to handle, dangerous to use. Once they were brought to the table, everyone would lose.
“In this little story, the dictator died, and a successor was assassinated in short order, let’s say. Now another one has taken the helm, and nobody is entirely sure what type of person the young man is… which is very concerning, considering the weapons he has at his fingertips. He could be reckless, he could be mild mannered, he could be a merchant, a politician, or a student, but he’s an unknown quality, and appearances can be deceiving.”
“I can picture that,” I said.
“Should this small southern nation cease to be a concern, everyone else profits, and the nukes being removed from the picture is only a small part of that. The other countries would be elevated to a new age… and the country who is most powerful will take the helm, quite possibly forever.”
If Hillsglade House was the small country… Jacob’s Bell the region…
“Is it so important?” I asked. “The… resources or whatever you’d gain? A few acres?”
“When things develop to a certain point, it takes on a different tone. Population, wealth, whatever else, they attract attention from everyone. With the current status quo, our little world here is small enough to be left alone. Understand, our little metaphor here falls apart when we cease talking about the area that falls within, say, a thousand kilometers around us. I could start talking about other planets with their own drama and politics, if I really wanted to maintain the narrative, but those thing really aren’t our focus.”
“I understand,” I said. I also understood that the ‘metaphor’ was making it very easy for him to outright lie, but that was a given.
“When our little world here grows, everyone with an established power base can ride the cresting wave. Prestige, fortune, status, with others visiting, or attempting to get in while the going is good, and paying a good price to do so.”
“Alright,” I said. “I’m starting to get a sense of this.”
“The trouble is, when the road block,” he half-turned to gesture back at the house, “Is removed, and when things start developing, there will be a very small window of opportunity in which one of the local powers I just described might take the helm. If one doesn’t, it’s liable to be a more distant entity, and it’s likely to be someone we couldn’t hope to stand up to.”
Halfway across the world… in this analogy… someone from outside Jacob’s Bell? Another, greater power.
The families here were small in the grand scheme of it all, and before the city grew and drew attention, they wanted to solidify their positions.
He opened his pocketwatch, then closed it without looking down, like a nervous tic, then continued. “America rather likes the status quo, and if we were to see this small hypothetical country fall right now, it would be bad for America. America wouldn’t take power, nor would the European country. It would be left to the newcomer, with all of his wealth, excess, and arrogance.”
I thought of what I’d read. The warning to stay out of the north end. “This hypothetical wealthy country wouldn’t happen to be to the north?”
“Yes, to the north, Mr. Rosine. I would like to see the small southern entity with the proverbial nukes be a very stable, calm, country for the time being. America would protect it, and things would be very calm and very peaceful for long enough that the wealthy newcomer might fade in his glory.”
“So it isn’t really friendship, is it? It’s… buying time. Then there’s nothing to stop America from crushing the little country.”
“It would be a temporary alliance, I’m afraid. I don’t believe there’s a way around it.”
“What if the nukes were… given up to greater authorities?”
“Who would you trust to handle such things? The southern country and any country that received these goods would, in this scenario, become immediate targets, because nukes that are changing hands are far, far more dangerous than nukes that are sitting idle in one place.”
“What if the nukes were destroyed? In exchange for certain concessions, to protect the southern country?”
“Impossible. In this scenario, I’d describe it as radiation. Ugly elements would be let loose. Elements that are contained so long as the nukes are intact, you understand. If it’s even possible to destroy those things. The person who put the things together was very, very conscientious.”
“They can’t be given away, because they’re too dangerous. They can’t be destroyed, because they’re too dangerous,” I said.
“In the best case scenario for our hypothetical little world,” he said, “our little southern country remains dormant for some time, and is cleanly, quickly wiped out of existence, in a matter of weeks, months or years. I’m sorry.”
Analogy aside, he wasn’t sugarcoating it. Somehow that made me feel better. I had my hands jammed in my coat pockets, and I kept them there, but I pressed my arms tighter against my body. “The nukes?”
“The nukes are left where they are and everything is paved over, with numerous measures taken to ensure it remains that way.”
I felt cold, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was the fact that I’d stood in the open doorway for long enough to let it soak into me, and how much was emotion and physical reaction.
We walked on for a bit. People greeted ‘Chief Behaim’ as they passed him on the sidewalk. He greeted them warmly in turn.
“No consideration to the poor bastard who didn’t even want to take over?” I asked.
“I suspect the poor bastard is as good as dead already,” Laird Behaim said. “I am sorry. If it helps, I don’t think I’ll enjoy the part I play in it.”
He sounded sorry.
“Would you like a coffee, Mr. Rosine?” Chief Behaim offered.
I looked for a mirror and found one, meeting Rose’s gaze. I still felt numb, cold, a little less like a complete person than before. Slowly, surely, this situation was chipping away at me. A little warmth in the form of good coffee would go a long way.
“Sure. Please,” I said.
Author’s Note: I’ve decided on the story I’m going ahead with, and need to take some time to set up the site and rewrite the first chapter. There isn’t much use in continuing with samples, so… something else!
I started to write ‘An Über and Leet Christmas’, and it wasn’t fun, funny or Christmassy. It wasn’t enjoyable, even.
So I was left to think about what other things might be of interest… and I consider this idea kind of a penance. It’s penance because it’s awful and it’s embarrassing to put it out there. A lot of it is really awful. But I think it’s interesting to see where things came from. I’m picking out the strongest or most noteworthy story from a given set of years.
Presenting: the (terrible) stuff I wrote in the superhero genre before settling on Worm. Be warned, these stories don’t have endings (Worm was the first thing that did), so they sort of cut off.
There’s actually a lot of words here. Don’t feel you have to read all of them in one sitting – you’ll hurt yourself. For a sense of what other stories were written, and my (off the top of my head) framing for many of them, see this comment and the follow-up comments on Worm, a while back.
A bit of history, and an insight into how things evolve over the course of building a world through multiple stories.
Runechild (2002) – The first superhero story I really wrote, back in 2002. After the bit I posted, it went onto a tangent with Faultline and never got back on track with a main story.
I personally find it interesting to note the elements that are present. Narwhal, contrary to what I remembered, was the first canon character who was introduced and who stayed with the setting. Runechild, the protagonist, was supposed to be a novice Doctor Strange, but wound up being a telekinetic with a few gimmicks. There was more at play with the ‘is it magic or something else?’ question. In the end, she was the only real character I wrote who didn’t really make it into Worm in one form or another. I would return to it once or twice (the second story featuring her helping Dragon vs. the Dragonslayers, to help circumvent the AI limitations) before deciding that magic didn’t work, and that Ottawa was a crappy place to set a superhero story.
TELUTT (2004) – AKA, ‘the events leading up to that Thursday’.
Not the first draft of TELUTT, the story switched between Faultline, the Triumvirate and Guts & Glory. It was an attempt at tying everything in together. I like that there’s one scene in there (At the end) that was pretty much copied exactly and inserted into Worm, even though I haven’t opened these documents in a long, long time. The nature of Faultline’s meeting with her ‘crew’ is essentially what happened in canon. That said, wow, are my protagonists a pain in the ass to read this early on (arrogant/annoying). At this juncture, I was still figuring out a way to make powers interesting. I was bored with many of them, and I was lapsing into some of the ‘standby’ powers, like tinkers without anything interesting to them.
Guts & Glory (2006ish) – Panacea and Glory Girl. This could count as canon, almost.
Some names have changed since. I recall that Amy would have been Annie if I hadn’t changed my mind a few minutes before Interlude 2 went live, in Worm. The nature of the story would have involved a stronger relationship between Amy/Annie and Brett/Gallant, her finding her way, and ultimately led up to her incarceration. It was too dark, though, and there wasn’t anything to salvage it. All those people who talked about what would happen if Amy had gone to the wrong prison? The other drafts (which are unfortunately handwritten) went into that, and it was ugly, with her basically going full-on Class-S threat.
The Travelers (2007ish) – See the Migration arc.
Basically any drafts I linked would be worse versions of Worm’s arc 17. I wrote them for a while after a friend suggested I was too fond of the ‘crummy powers being used well’ trope.
Circus vs. Elite (2008ish) – Circus was a character I wrote for a while, but she doesn’t feel like she has a lot of personality, looking back.
Hey, Bitch is there, in her first incarnation! And a variant on Bonesaw (who made it into every elite team before settling in the Slaughterhouse Nine)! Chuckles features in a fight as well. This was around the time that I started to conceptualize what I was looking for in a protagonist. I started to write Grue as a protagonist for a short bit before I finally stumbled on Taylor’s character.
Myriad (2010) – Worm, second or third draft.
Oh, man, did I ever write a lot of drafts of Worm, covering a lot of bases. Oh man, do they not feel right, rereading them. This is going to feel really redundant, but hey. I’ve alluded to this before, but I started off trying to emulate other serials, and I was writing too little (600-900 word entries), and it really hurts the flow. I was still finding a voice and an identity for characters at this point. Eight or nine drafts followed this over the months, as I searched for those voices, tried to figure out where to start my story, and struggled to find my stride. Then I started Worm.
It was hard to sum up my feelings as the van drove up the long driveway to Hillsglade House. It was supposed to be sanctuary, but it felt like the opposite. Layered in snow, branches of the overlarge trees bent with snow and ice, the house was pale against a dark gray background. The light siding only accented the effect. If I closed my eyes enough to let my eyelashes blur the view, it looked almost like the windows were floating there.
It was ominous, and it was a symbol of everything messed-up that had just happened to me. Maybe all the bad things that had happened to me from the start.
“You going to be alright?” the woman in the driver’s seat asked me. She had a weariness to her that made me suspect she’d been getting up too early for the majority of her life, but she had been kind and exceedingly gentle, and her idle questions and conversation had helped ground me, distracting me from the possibility that the bird things could catch up and stop this car like they had mine. With the snow, it looked to be a slow day at the rest stop, and she’d asked her boss if she could give me a ride.
“I don’t know. Probably not,” I said, honestly. I felt indescribably weary, and it had little to do with the exhausting run or the fact that I’d woken up four hours after I’d turned in. Rose, in the rear-view mirror, didn’t look any better than I felt. I fished for my wallet. “But that doesn’t have much to do with my getting lost in the woods, or a few scratches.”
“No money, it’s not necessary,” she said, as I pulled a twenty out of the wallet.
“For the cost of gas,” I said.
“I did it to get out of the prep work, that’s enough for me.”
“Then buy yourself and your boss a few beers after you’re done for the day, tell him thank you for letting you drive me,” I said. I tucked the bill into the cluttered space in the dash, by receipts, crackers and kleenex packages. Before she could give it back or argue, I opened the door and grabbed my bag.
I was closing the door when she said something. I had to open it and poke my head down. “Sorry?”
“Do you want me to wait, make sure you make it inside okay?”
Could I make it inside? I didn’t have a key, and there was the possibility that something could happen to me in the distance between here and the house.
“Yes please,” I said.
I closed the car door, making my way up to the front of the house. There was something like a bike lock attached, with a container built into it. Four digit combination.
I kicked at the doormat until I found a plastic bag with a thick manilla envelope attached, a pad of paper within.
The first sheet had only a simple message, penned in a curling script I almost envied. ‘Birth date’.
I tried the year I’d been born. It didn’t work.
Day, month? One-eight-oh-one.
The container opened. Two keys rattled within. One was older, the other a standard door key.
I opened the door with the usual key, then waved at the good Samaritan.
I stood inside the house, watching her pull down the long driveway. When she was gone, I closed and locked the door.
It didn’t feel like enough of a barrier.
“Molly!” I hollered, loud enough I should have been audible throughout the house. “Anyone!?”
No response. Somewhere, in my general confusion and the mess of stuff I didn’t know or understand, I’d hoped that Molly being alive would be one of those things that caught me off guard.
When I had first visited, the house had been my grandmother’s. She’d marked every surface with some token of her particular tastes and personality. Molly, it seemed, had been systematically dismantling those touches. Boxes sat by bookshelves, filled with books, paper-wrapped knick-knacks stowed away in the spaces between the books. Pictures were gone from the walls, neatly packed into more boxes, some stacked and shoved into the spaces beneath the few bookshelves that weren’t built into the house.
It wasn’t yet done, and it wasn’t an organized process, either. Some books here, some books there. A few shelves on one bookcase, another shelf across the room. Most seemed to be centered around the living room.
Near the center of the living room, Molly had set up blankets and pillows on one couch.
“Blake,” I heard, so quiet it was barely even a whisper.
I looked up. In this quiet, mundane setting, free of the delirium of sleep, I was a little unnerved to see Rose’s vague shape reflected in the black screen, instead of my own.
“There’s a mirror in the bathroom at the end of the hall,” she said.
I let my bag drop to the floor, then tossed the pad of papers and envelope onto the coffee table. I pulled off my hat too, running my fingers through sweat-soaked, unwashed hair. A rub of my chin suggested a light scruff.
I hated being unshaven and unwashed.
I hated the feeling of being overwhelmed. Of feeling like I was out of the loop. There was too much to take in, here. I felt more than a little confused as I made my way back to the hallway and figured out the direction I needed to go. I moved slowly, taking everything in. The things of my grandmother’s that Molly hadn’t put away, the things that Molly had left behind. There were clues here, stories, and I didn’t want to miss any details.
The layout of the books made me think of a ruin. The layout of the books that remained were like the weathered remains of a brick wall that only partially stood. Patches. There were only traces of the personality that had once infused the place, like any ruin might hint at the people, culture and purpose that it once held.
I found the bathroom, but I left the mirror where it was, above the sink. I could see Rose there as I dug through the medicine cabinet and found a few things I needed to take care of the cuts.
“Is it bad?” she asked.
“Been hurt worse,” I said.
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
I slowly opened and closed my hand. The cut throbbed in the wake of the movement. “I can move my fingers. It’s not the injury that’s spooking me, here. Those things were dirty, their fingernails especially, and they got me a few times.”
“What can I do?” she asked.
I began unbinding the setup that was supposed to keep the bandages in place. I got the needle and thread out of the kit and set them aside. “I don’t know. You helped, didn’t you? With the ice?”
“I tried. I’m not sure it mattered. I wish I could help more.”
“Do me a favor, then. Keep an eye on me. If I get a fever, or if I start to look ill, let me know. Make me go to a hospital.”
“It didn’t hit me until I saw you back there,” Rose said. “How different we are. I wasn’t even in any direct danger, and I couldn’t think of what to do.”
“If I learned to deal with bad situations, you will too.”
She didn’t respond right away. I opened the packages.
“You know how to do sutures?” She asked.
“I’ve done it once.”
“When did you need stitches?”
I didn’t feel like answering that one. “They weren’t for me. It was for a friend. This’ll be the first time stitching myself up.”
My good hand shook so much I couldn’t get the thread through the hole. I swore under my breath on the fifth failure.
“Shh. One second,” I said, and my frustration made my response more curt than I’d intended.
I ended up having to rest the sides of both hands against the edge of the sink to have something concrete to rest against, minimizing how much the thread and needle shook.
Once I had it threaded, I took my time disinfecting the area and the needle both. I was rough with myself, all things considered, searching the wound for any fragments. I didn’t want any trace of those things in or on my body. When my hand throbbed and involuntarily jumped at the pain, I grimly assured myself I was at least getting the infection out.
I had told Rose ‘one second’, but she remained silent while I worked, and I didn’t break the silence, except to swear. I used pretty much every curse word I knew, almost every step of the way. It helped.
I raised my hand. “How’s that look?”
“Better than I could ever do.”
“That doesn’t answer the question,” I said.
“Ha ha,” she said, humorless. “It looks good.”
“Good,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
I slowly patrolled the house. The ground floor consisted of an expansive living room, a generous dining room, a smaller kitchen with only the basics, the hallway and a half-bathroom the size of my regular bathroom.
One floor up, I found my grandmother’s bedroom, the same as I’d seen it, though the bed was stripped bare, a small bathroom, a little tea room that might have been a bedroom at one point, and a narrow guest bedroom. Molly had barely touched anything on the second floor, by the looks of it. She’d used this bathroom, with a handful of items littering the counter, but that would be because it was the only bath and shower.
She’d been cooped up in this house, and she’d barely touched anything? The living room, kitchen and this bathroom suggested she’d spent some time here, but how had she managed without losing it? It had been four months.
The third floor had only three smallish rooms, though ‘small’ was something of a misnomer, with a house of this scale. Two bedrooms on the right side, with little more than beds and a dresser each, and a small sewing room that was apparently assigned to storage.
A staircase took up the rest of the space, curving up and around to the fourth floor, but the door was locked.
I fished in my pocket, found the old key, and weighed it in my hand. I hadn’t found a single locked door in the house. The key was of the old ‘skeleton key’ variety, a round bar as thick around as any of my fingers, with an ornate head and a tab on the end with the teeth.
I knew just by looking at it that it didn’t fit the keyhole. I tried anyways.
No such luck. I hadn’t seen anything that needed opening, which raised one big question. Why was it important for me to get the key, without any lock to go with it?
I made my way back to the ground floor, stopping by the bathroom to lift the mirror free of the wall, then carried it back to the living room, for Rose.
I fiddled until I found I could use the mounts to hang it off the bookcase. It was just tall enough that it fell between eye level when I was standing and eye level when I sat. I pulled a cushion from the armchair and placed it beneath, in case it fell.
When I’d finished, I did another look around the ground floor, peering out the windows to see if there was any sign of trouble. The town was starting to come to life, with cars and a few kids with backpacks on the road, heading to school.
Though a sidewalk ran alongside the outer wall below the house, it seemed to be habit for people to walk on the other side of the street.
No bird masks, no crooked men. I moved back to the living room to look out a different window for a different angle.
“Well?” Rose asked.
“It’s too ordinary,” I replied. I rubbed at my face. “God damn, I’m tired.”
“It’s a house. A boring, ordinary house that my grandmother lived in for her entire life.”
“Our grandmother,” she replied.
“It’s soulless, sorta. Our dad and aunt Irene and Uncle Paul were raised here, but there are no toys or mementos left around for the memories. Even my mother and father left some of my stuff around.”
“I really don’t want to be pedantic,” Rose said, “But they’re our mother and father.”
“Are they?” I asked. I leaned back, propping one foot up on the corner of the coffee table, looking over at the mirror. “Because I think the dad you got was very different from the dad I got.”
“Same person, different circumstance,” Rose said, her voice firm.
“Sure. Fine, let’s go with that,” I said. I dropped my foot and abruptly leaned forward, grabbing the envelope with the pad of paper. I took a look.
“What is it?” Rose asked. “I don’t have a copy, here.”
“Legal documents. Let’s see… forty-one pages. The transfer of Rosalyn D. Rosine’s estate from custodian Molly Walker, grandchild, to custodian Blake Rosine, grandchild. The first page outlines the terms of the contract. The property is mine in a general sense only. The lawyer manages it until I’m twenty-five, at which point the custodian label is removed and the heir is appointed.”
“Rosalyn D. Rosine senior,” Rose said. “I remember him saying something like that at the gathering.”
“I do too. The second page… is going out of its way to outline that the notes accompanying the text ‘aren’t binding nor are they intended to be read as such’… looks like the rest is about a fifty fifty split between legalese and explanations for the legalese, for us plebs.”
“No answers? About the monsters?”
“Not on the surface,” I said. I paged through the papers, noting the headings “Times of effect, terms, stipulations…”
I went back a page.
“Taking care of the house, paying upkeep from the account accorded to the custodian of the property to ensure the driveway, lawn and gardens are looked after, attending meetings with the firm, ummm,” I paused to look over the next bit. “Right at the end, a note saying possession of the property can be revoked if the custodian doesn’t meet the requirements noted by the client, Mrs. Rosine.”
I shook my head. “No clue. Something to keep in mind. After stipulations, there’s a section on stipend, with a regular allowance, notes on how often the lawyers can be called without incurring a debt. Oh, right here. A mention of the bird-skull monsters.”
“What?” I could see Rose move, standing from her seat.
“I’m joking,” I said, with zero humor in my voice. “There’s nothing. A few pages with pictures of the property and the boundaries, some stuff on the adjacent woodland and marsh, a blurb on council meetings, nonsense on contacting the lawyers, and-” I stopped.
“A means of opting out. Not joking this time.”
“Somehow I don’t imagine it would be that easy,” Rose said.
“It’s pretty easy. Phone or email the lawyer, and custodianship transfers to the next available candidate.” I reread the legalese and the plain-text to be sure.
“That’s not what I meant,” Rose said. “This whole situation is a trap, right? She’s got some goal in mind, she basically, what, let the world know that she picked Molly as her heir, so all of her enemies come crawling out of the woodwork… and then she does the same for you, even going so far as to set up me for some kind of loophole. She used the situation to force us into this.”
“Right,” I said.
“Does it make more sense that we’re really truly free to walk away, or that there’s a trap waiting for us if we try?”
“A trap,” I said, sighing a little. If I’d let myself hope just a little, that hope was dashed.
“Just off the top of my head, maybe she announced that she picked her heir, but she doesn’t let everyone know that the heir has stepped down. Meaning we’d lose all of the protections and resources we’d have, but we’d still be in just as much trouble.”
“It’s a way to weed out anyone too stupid to consider the ramifications.”
“Or anyone too weak to face the situation,” Rose said. “Knowing her, it fits.”
“You do know her, huh?” I asked. “All this while, you were immersed in this.”
“All this while,” Rose said. “Except I didn’t know this part. Um. Give me a minute. I’m wearing pyjamas, and I feel grungy. I’m going to change, if I can figure out how.”
With that said, she disappeared from the frame.
I remained where I was. Big key, legal pad…
I rifled through Molly’s things. She had kept a duffel bag with her things in it, but it was only clothes and a few cables and a set of headphones for a smartphone.
I felt guilty and more than a little creepy going through her clothes, so I stopped there.
Was I damning myself, with fingerprints and the like? Would the police find her dead and then find that I’d moved myself in, already aware that she was dead?
It was a daunting thought. Another trap? Was grandmother testing me?
It raised another question. Why? Why had she pit us against one another, picking through us for some candidate that could meet some specific, crazy standard? Why was she testing us by putting us through this gauntlet, where we were unprepared and ignorant when these monsters came after us?
“You look pensive,” Rose said.
I looked up. I saw her in the mirror. Wearing a decidedly old fashioned women’s blouse with pearly buttons up the front and a bit of lace on the collar, and a pleated skirt. Her hair was mostly straight, with two lengths from the sides drawn back and pinned with something.
I raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t say a word. There are only so many places with mirrors in the house. What were you thinking about?”
“Traps. Tests. Somehow, I imagine this is about more than looking after a house. You don’t get enemies from property alone. Well, you do, but not really in this era.”
“No, you don’t, but this is a world we don’t fully understand.”
I nodded. “We’re left in the dark. Let’s assume this is a test… you said the lawyers were picking up books?”
“I only glimpsed it, because the light was hitting the windows at the right angles. There were books piled on the table.”
“Old books. Like those on the bottom shelf, below me.”
I got up and picked up the book. It had a hard cloth cover, and the spine had been abused by wear and age, cracking and fraying.
“The ones I saw looked like they were in better shape,” Rose said. “I think. It was hard to make out, but he saw me looking, and he approached, and I did get a look at one. There’s a lot of books in the house. We’d be talking about needles in a haystack, here.”
“Why would he clean them up if he was going to put them on the shelves?” I asked. “They deserved his time and attention. Let’s go back to the idea that this is a test. Grandmother’s not holding our hands here. She never did, I don’t think. I mean, mother and father never really got that whole ‘support your kids’ thing either.”
When Rose replied, her voice was quiet. “I have to disagree with you there. They support me. Supported me, past tense, I guess.”
“Okay, fine,” I said, pushing that idea out of my head. “Point is, she’s not coddling us. There are books, they’re important, and the only two options are that the lawyers have them, and the test is as simple as ‘figuring out how to get in contact, or they’re hidden.”
I held up the big key. “Took a look around, no idea where it goes. Except I’m not even sure where to begin looking.”
“She’s harsh, cold, but I wouldn’t say she’s unfair,” Rose said. “If she expects us to figure it out, then we have the information we need. Information Molly would have available to her too.”
I looked up at the mirror, but Rose was looking down.
“The documents,” I said, as I realized what she was looking at. “You think Molly got a copy too, along with the key? Or a key?”
“It’s possible,” Rose said.
I picked up the document. This time I flipped through to the image of the property boundaries. Square footage, notes on utilities, restrictions on renovations…
In the midst of the briefs and warnings regarding renovations, I saw a floor plan. Room layout.
I hopped out of my seat, the map in hand. “One second. Can’t take the map and the mirror with my hand like it is.”
“Okay,” she said, but she didn’t look happy.
I got to the third floor and stopped. I held the map up.
Map: Three rooms on the left, one room and the stairwell on the right.
What I saw: Two rooms on the left, one room and the stairwell on the right.
I looked at the floor plan, then made several very deliberate paces down the length of the hall.
I stopped. About twenty-one.
My friends were artists and artistic types. I had the unfortunate distinction of being a less than stellar artist. But I’d owed them for the help and support they’d given me, and in helping them with their jobs, I’d stumbled onto a bit of work. Setting up their work, installations, as well as all the other grunt jobs. Sure, they could go to a carpenter to get something put together in the way of a display stand, but that carpenter wouldn’t necessarily know what was at play with the art.
Along the way, I’d settled into being a go-to handyman and delivery guy in the local art community. I knew the gallery owners, I knew who was who, and if I couldn’t do a job myself, I knew who to call.
Not so glamorous or fancy, not exactly stellar pay, but I had stupid little skills that I could use here. In a pinch, I could use my stride or my arm length to help me figure out measurements, thirty three and a half and thirty-two and a half inches, respectively.
Mostly, I tended to eyeball things, and maybe that was a factor in what had kicked my instincts into motion in the first place, when the rooms had felt small, despite all evidence to the contrary.
From one outer wall to the next, the map said the house measured thirty-seven feet in length. My estimate put it at twenty-one feet in length.
I tried again, going in the other direction, and I got the same estimate. Houses were supposed to expand and contract with temperature and the like, but not that much.
To experiment, I crossed the hallway and tried once more.
One hallway, with right angles at each corner, twenty-one feet in length down the north side, thirty-seven down the south side. The ends were each an equal six feet across.
I narrowed my eyes, looking down the length of the hallway. There was no distortion in the floorboards, and every bookshelf on one side somehow had a bookshelf opposite, of matching dimensions.
I began moving books aside on the shelves down the ‘short’ hallway.
It took me two tries to find the keyhole. Tucked in the corner just beneath one shelf, at bellybutton level.
The key required a fair bit of effort to turn, and rewarded me with an audible, heavy click.
The bookcase swung inward. Oversized hinges managed the heavy burden as it swung all the way around and sat flush against the wall.
“Fuck me,” I muttered.
The room was a study. A library. There were two parts to the room, suggesting it took up two floors in the house. The upper half was a ring, looking down through an opening, bordered with bookcases on the four exterior walls, with a wrought iron railing keeping people from falling through the hole in the middle. Soft, mottled light shone down from a dust-caked window in the ceiling, lighting both halves of the library better than lightbulbs lit the rest of the house.
I slowly circled around, taking it in. Each wall had ornate stepladders on wheels, which could coast along rails that had been inset in floor and ceiling. Another stepladder led from a gap in the railing on the far end to the floor below.
I looked at the books, noting the differences from the ones in the rest of the house. They were better taken care of, for one thing, and they tended to be narrow.
Draoidh. The book had a little ivory mask inset in the spine, with round staring eyes and a very curly beard.
Shamanism: ‘Animus’, volumes one through six, and Shamanism: ‘Umbra’, volumes seven through ten.
Vestige: Glimmers and Gasps.
Wū zhěn: Eastern Vodun Practices.
I finished reading spines along the one wall. I traced spines with my fingertips as I passed on to the next wall.
Jokes from the Faerie Folk.
Observations on Bacchae interacting in Modern Society.
On Others. Editions from 1964 through 2012 were lined up on the shelf. Thicker texts.
Pitiable: Transcriptions from informal dialogues with Vampir.
The next shelf seemed to be a continuation from O to Z, in the same theme. The bookshelf adjacent to that one seemed to be in a variety of different languages. French, German, and a language with characters formed out of triangles.
The barrier to understanding was a reason to stop, where I might have kept walking and reading indefinitely.
Here, in this library, were the explanations and the rules. It was, theoretically, a way to make it all make sense. Except there was so much here, I couldn’t begin to take it in. Where did I even start, when it came to trying to look up bird-skull undead things? I’d gone from having no answers to having too many.
I felt a little cold, despite the general warmth of the room. I rubbed my hands against my sleeves.
Feeling restless, I reached the ladder that led down to the first floor and climbed down.
A desk and chair, a cozy armchair, a leather psychiatrist’s couch, a book stand with a book on it, and cabinets. There were more bookshelves, but many were smaller, squat, set on top or beneath the cabinets. More private, with personal books. A blackboard on wheels that could be flipped over to write on either side.
A blanket was thrown over one piece of furniture. I had any number of reasons not to touch it, but there was a shape to it, tall, narrow, and flatter than the blackboard. I could see the metal feet…
I walked around to the side, then lifted up a corner of the blanket, where it wasn’t facing me.
Because in this fucked up situation, with all this, I wasn’t going to trust anything.
“Rose?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Sense anything funny?”
“No. Except for light appearing from nowhere.”
“Covered mirror,” I said, as I threw off the blanket.
I sat back while I watched her take it all in. In the frame of the mirror, she turned and walked over to a bookcase, picking up a book.
No effect on my end, I noted.
I turned my attention to the desk. The wood had brown leather inlaid into it with big brass buttons. I saw pens and inkwells, regular pens, pencils, a calculator, a brush and scalpel and other tools in jars and cases in the corners. A mug held what might have been tea or coffee, though it had sat for long enough that the milk had congealed into a cloud of white on the surface. There were books and papers, too.
The papers included one pile of legal documents, virtually identical to the ones I’d left downstairs, only they were addressed to Molly, with some changes in wording here and there.
What caught my eye, however, was the letter.
“Rose,” I said.
I grabbed the pages of the letter, then walked around until we could see each other. I stood by the mirror, holding it up so we could both read it.
Molly et al,
Please accept my graceless apology. At this juncture, you’ll likely be frightened and confused. Chances are good you’ll see outside parties at work, if you haven’t already, helping you to conclude that this isn’t nonsense. That helps us move on to business. If you find yourself here and are already injured in body, mind, heart, spirit or other more esoteric departments, you may need to jump straight to instruction number one in the list below, sacrifice sleep to see it through, and then move on to a great deal of research. The Index is a catalogue of all things found in my library, which I penned myself, and will help direct you to solutions to whatever ails you.
I could explain, justify, and make excuses, but that is very much not my manner or style. You have a library of explanations sitting around you. With study, perhaps, you’ll see how I justified what I did. We can do without the excuses entirely.
I’ll be succinct. The family line is a long one, and we have had some involvement in more anagogic sciences since the early 1800’s. We have resources touching on the craft, the arcane, or whatever you wish to call it. Magic. However, all things have a price, and it is impossible to become rich, powerful, wise or strong without paying in some form. For this reason, among others, practitioners rarely ascend to any great status and remain there. But our predecessors tried, they accrued a karmic debt, and they have passed it on to their children, and their children’s children, and so on down the line.
“You caught up?”
“Yeah,” Rose said.
I turned the page.
Perhaps this seems unfair, but modern standards of fair and unfair are just that: modern. In this world I’ve imposed on you, there are very old things, and there are very old traditions. Here, the sins of the father are visited upon the son. Or mother and daughter, rather. Beings as long-lived as powerful Others have trouble telling us apart, when we live and die so quickly and when we often look the same, and it helps to establish a pedigree or pattern. Some have ornaments of office, others carry on with seventh sons. We use daughters, and we keep to a smaller community. If they call you Rose, Elizabet, Frances, Esther, Ruth, I recommend you take it in stride. You are, as of now, simply one piece of a long thread.
My diaries can be found on the shelf behind the desk. I welcome you to read them if they might shed light on matters. Perhaps my own realizations will help you find a way to your own.
Now, I charge you with tasks. To demonstrate the gravity of this, know that you may lose custody of the property if you do not address these tasks. On a graver level, you may well doom yourselves and the bloodline with your failure, depending on how it plays out.
1. Read Essentials. It sits on the book stand. A novice’s guide to the most basic things, it outlines the steps to awakening yourself. Be warned, these steps open the door to becoming Other, in a respect. The oldest of them made agreements in times well beyond us, to guarantee safety and maintain a kind of peace. Foremost among these agreements is truth. Should you lie, you may well forfeit your power for a time. Break a promise or an oath, and you will be forsworn, and you will be stripped of every protection afforded to even the common, ignorant people that decorate this Earth. On finishing Essentials, awaken yourself.
“Oh fuck me,” I said.
“Oh hell,” Rose echoed me.
Conduct the remainder of these steps in any order. Monumental as these steps are, you must be suitably armed against your enemies. You will be asked about your progress with some frequency, and failure to make sufficient progress in the next five years will see your rights and access to this house terminated.
2. Study and enact the ritual noted in Famulus. The familiar is your greatest ally, and will serve as a tool, a wellspring of power, an ambassador to dealing with more abstract things, and will be a lifelong companion. Make this choice with the same respect you would with undertaking marriage, only know there is no form of divorce. The Familiar is to be a part of you for life. You gain their services, and they gain a chance to be mortal, even if it is a small mortalhood, in addition to whatever other terms you negotiate. Do not allow your familiar to take the form of a rat or dog.
3. Study and enact the ritual noted in Implementum. Your choice of tool will shape how you interact with this world, your craft, and will be your badge in the eyes of many. The book is dreary, page on page of examples, but study it thoroughly, for there are many meanings, and a poor choice of tool may well cripple you.
4. Study and enact the ritual found in Demesnes. Baba Yaga had her hut, I have my room. Unfortunately, the rest of the house has been claimed by our predecessors, and while it is a haven, you will need to find your own place to make your own, where the rules bend as you need them to, and where your power is greatest. The three rituals noted here are fundamental in determining how you access, hoard and focus power. Note, however, that your real power will be in how you act with others and Others.
5. Find a good man to marry. By this, I don’t mean that he should be decent and kind. Such may be a detriment. You will need an ally in this, and a man who can support you in more mundane matters will give you strength in this world. I reckon many of the best partnerships in the recent past came about when our family married bastards rather than gentlemen.
6. Attend the council meetings. Second Saturday of every month, at the park, in the twilight hours. In a five year term, there will be two hundred and sixty such meetings. Miss thirteen in total, and your rights to the property will be forfeit.
“I think I’m faced with an issue, here,” I said.
“You can’t sit through meetings?” Rose asked.
I shot her a look.
She giggled a little, and it was an uncharacteristic, unfitting, nervous sound. “I… I don’t know how to react to this. I tried to make a joke. It’s laugh or cry, right? And I was awfully close to crying before I read any of this.”
“I’m supposed to marry a guy. I’m getting the impression this isn’t the first obstacle I’m going to run into.”
“Gay marriage is legal,” she said.
“I’m not gay.” I said. “I wonder if the lawyers will allow me any leeway, here.”
“The lawyers?” she asked. She gave me a look, eyebrow arched. “Think about it.”
I sighed, and then I did.
“They’re involved in this,” I thought aloud. “Cleaning up after Molly, they know enough to move the books… they’re setting all this up, so things are prepared for each heir-to-be.”
My voice took a more serious tone as I finished “…and the legal documents made less than specific references to debts.”
“They’re not friends, Blake. Resources, maybe, but not friends. We should think long and hard about when and why we contact them.”
I fidgeted, biting my lip as I thought. Unwilling to dwell on it, I turned the page.
7. Finish three out of four of the books in this library. You will need some assistance with foreign languages. Making a bargain with an Other to learn Sumerian may be novel, I know, but it is easier to ask for it to be translated aloud by a servant or summoning.
8. See our bloodline to the end of the fifth year with less of a debt than we had at the start of your custodianship. I’m hoping you can see this through until the end of your lifetime, but I can only focus on these next five years and hope you are on the right road.
Remain out of the north end of Jacob’s Bell until you have completed two rituals and developed a foundation. Stay out, perhaps, even if you have. Some individuals are not to be trifled with.
Make no major deals or bargains. Until the end of the custodianship, you’ll need to run any major deals past Mr. Beasley (including the three major rituals. He will protect you from other decisions, or lend his aid if he can’t, but he will exact a price.
Mr. Beasley, as well as individuals you’ll find in Jacob’s Bell and the surrounding area, is described in a little black book I playfully dubbed Dramatis Personae, when I was younger.
Our family has made enemies, and I confess that I have turned allies into more enemies. I will not compel you to read this book, but I impel you to. It may well be a deciding factor in your survival. Use all tools I’ve bestowed on you. We are powerful, we hold a noteworthy position, and this is much of the reason we have the enemies we do. Chances are good you will need to use everything at your disposal to survive them.
As the sins of the mother pass to the daughter, I’ve passed my enemies and the debt on to you. I won’t ask forgiveness or understanding. I suspect you may find those things when the time comes for you to bear an heir and visit these wrongs on them.
I was never good at sitting still when stressed. Now that there were no more pages to go through, I found myself pacing.
“We have answers,” Rose said, as if reassuring me.
“I don’t like these answers,” I said, raising my voice a little. “That old bitch.”
“It doesn’t sound like she had a lot of choice,” Rose said.
I spun around to stare at her. “You’re awfully sympathetic to the old woman who has your name,” I said. “Can we verify, again, that you’re really a female me?”
Her face settled into a serious expression, as cold as mine was heated. I was breathing hard, and my sutures were hurting where I clenched my hand.
“Ask me anything,” she said. “Anything about growing up with mother and father.”
I didn’t respond, scowling and looking away instead. I was fidgeting with my good hand. She was right.
“We’re allies, Blake. Allies, understand? Look, the letter said a magic user can’t lie, right? I’m a unicorn from outer space, and I can’t speak English. See?”
I broke from my pace, crossing the room to the bookstand, where I snatched up the book that was open on it. I tossed it down on the desk. Essentials.
Another series of books, in a stack in the corner, where the lawyers had left them. Famulus, Implementum, Demesnes. Orange, purple and green cloth covers, respectively, they all matched otherwise, in size and the script on the spines. I glanced each one over, then tossed them onto the desk, where they rewarded me with a series of satisfying impacts.
I found Dramatis Personae. I flipped through it. There were tabs. One for ‘allies’, which was virtually empty, with only the lawyer’s number.
Enemies… they took up almost all of the remainder.
It didn’t make a sound, much less a satisfying thud, when I added it to the pile. I was left without anything more to throw. Nothing I wanted to risk, in any event.
“Are you mad at me?” Rose asked. “We’re supposed to be allies, Blake.”
“I’m not… no, I’m mad at this,” I said. “Look at this. How many books do we need to read, here? How many books do we need to read a day, just to keep up?”
“Maybe that’s the cheat? If we’re both the same person, technically, can we argue that the eldest child of Brad and Christina Rosine has read half the books?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“There are answers. See? Look…”
She turned away from the mirror, heading to the nearest bookshelf.
I saw her stop. She remained where she was.
“Rose?” I asked.
She didn’t move.
I felt a bit of anxiety, and turned away, walking over to that same shelf, on my side of the mirror.
The Worst of the Others.
Devils and Details.
Classifying Others: Fiends and Darker Beings.
Pacts and Prices
I tried to swallow, but my mouth was too dry. I didn’t know much, but I knew this was a bad idea of the worst kind.
These were the books that held a place of prominence on grandmother’s bookshelf. These were the tools she expected us to employ.
No small wonder she’d made the enemies she had.
These books? They each had the same set of initials on the spine. R.D.R.
She’d written them.
I was dressed and heading out the door in less than a minute, a plain black toque pulled over my hair. I had to fumble around for a moment to manage the coat I was getting on, the backpack I’d stuffed with spare shirts, sweaters and underwear, and the keys I needed to lock my apartment.
I reached the stairwell and took the stairs three at a time, descending each half-flight of stairs in two steps.
Mirror people, visions of talking dogs and stretched faces, vampire hunters or witch hunters or whatever they were. It was unbelievable, impossible to wrap my head around. So I didn’t believe it, didn’t try to understand it. I didn’t disbelieve it either. I was processing it, really, filing it all away for future consideration.
It was stupid, maybe, crazy, to dismiss it. By all right, my worldview should have been turned upside down by this.
Except other things were taking a kind of priority, demanding consideration, turning my life upside down.
Molly was dead. I’d heard it, and I believed it. Taken alone, the statement might have meant little, but I’d had an ominous feeling since leaving the inheritance gathering. Right here, right now, I felt like it fit. I didn’t want it to, but it fit.
The gathering had been the first time I had seen Molly since we were kids. I could barely guess what she was like now, as a near-adult.
What she had been like, as an almost adult. I felt a twist of worry, and a fair bit of anger. Why hadn’t she called me?
For all the impact my family had had on my life, there were very few people I had ever had a connection with. I had never been mistreated, exactly, but there hadn’t been a lot of love to go around either. Molly and Paige had been the ones to greet me with smiles on their faces, to hug me instead of offering an informal handshake. We’d played together, laughed, and bridged the gap between being family to being friends.
When I thought of Molly, I thought of the child she had been ten years ago, not the young woman I’d briefly met at the end of the summer. When I reminded myself that she could well be dead, I felt like I’d lost something from a relatively small pool of happy family memories.
I reached the bottom of the stairwell, and as I hurried down the length of the hallway, past the elevators that would have taken too long to use, I was still trying to frame it all in my head.
Molly’s death wouldn’t have been random. There had been a reason, and that reason had driven my grandmother to do what she’d done. All of the fallout from that, the divide in the family, the animosity that had driven me from home to a cold, hostile, unfriendly world, shared that same root cause. It was hard to pin how much of my haste was self preservation and how much was my desire to get answers.
Molly was dead. I believed it. I could figure it out, I could get the world in alignment again, so things made sense.
If it was even possible for things to make sense with talking animals and twisted mirror-cities.
I stopped at the doors at the end of the lobby, paused, then knocked.
It took time for the door to open. I worked on getting my scarf on and making sure my backpack was buckled shut, keys stowed away.
The door opened, and my bear of a landlord stood in the way, leveling a stare at me. He wore an undershirt that strained across his stomach, and pyjama pants with pink and magenta stripes, with thick-frame glasses and thick caterpillar eyebrows on an otherwise hairless, unadorned head.
“Blake? It’s five in the morning.” He had a trace of a Quebecois accent.
“Joel. It’s an emergency. I need your car.”
“Yeah?” He switched from annoyance to concern in an instant. “Need a ride?”
“Out of town emergency. I’ve got to steal your car for a bit. Please.”
“How long?” he asked, turning away from the door.
I could see the mirror that was opposite the front door, wide and tall, with an ostentatious frame. The mirror girl was on the other side, staring at me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
He turned back to me, holding keys firmly in his fist. His bulk blocked my view of the girl in the mirror. “Work with me here, Blake. I need something, if I’m loaning you my car.”
“I don’t know,” I repeated myself. “But I’ve got to go, I can’t ride my bike in this weather, and there isn’t any other way to get there. I’m stuck, and I don’t know how to handle this.”
“Slow down. What happened?”
“I think my cousin died. It’s two hours away, so if you needed the car, I could bring it back in a pinch, figure a way to get back, or-”
“Shhh,” he interrupted me. I made myself stop. Very calm, soothing, he said, “It’s fine. I’m so sorry about your cousin, baby.”
I shrugged, breaking eye contact. I wasn’t good with people being kind to me. Not without some warning. “I’m not sure it’s true. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Go, do what you need to do,” he said. He extended his hand, keys dangling from the ring that was now around his middle finger.
I took the keys, then fumbled with my own. I held my bike key for a moment, weighing it in my hand, then handed it over.
“You don’t need to,” Joel said.
“I do,” I said. “For me, as much as for you. I’m- it’ll make sure I don’t forget your car back to you soon, because I’ll miss it, and that’ll remind me.”
He nodded, then took my key. “I got you.”
“Thank you, Joel,” I said.
“You have my number, if you need it.”
I nodded. “You’re a good friend.”
“Speaking of… weren’t you going to set things up for Goosh’s show?”
I winced. My job. “I didn’t think. I don’t- shit.”
“It’s fine. I’ll explain to the others. We’ll use the Sisters.”
“Goosh told me she wanted to kill them, the last time she hired them.”
“She’ll find a way to cope, after I explain what’s up. Don’t worry. You focus on what you need to, and trust us to have your back. Okay?”
“There’s a hug here if you want or need it.”
I hesitated, but he knew that I would.
The lights went out. We were plunged into darkness, the hallway and lobby lit only by the moonlight that reflected off the snow.
I could see movement behind Joel. The girl in the mirror, moving her arms.
“Power outage?” he asked, stepping further into the hallway to look around.
“Looks like,” I said. My eyes were on the mirror. If he turned around, would he see her?
“I should go make sure everything’s okay,” he said. “Might be the breaker.”
The girl in the mirror raised her arms. Forearms crossed against one another, forming an ‘x’.
“Do me another huge favor?” I asked.
“What’s that?” Joel replied.
When he looked at me, I had trouble meeting his eyes. I wasn’t used to omitting the truth when dealing with friends. “Go back to bed. Sleep. I’ve got a bad feeling, and I’m not sure if it’s just because I feel like you’ll never get back to bed if you go now or if it’s something else. But I’ve got to go, and I feel like I’d be a lot happier if I knew you were in bed, instead of wandering around a dark building alone.”
“Gut feeling?” he asked. “That’s not like you.”
“Gut feeling,” I said. “Instincts.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Sure. For your instincts, I’ll be lazy this morning. Until I get the first irate phone call.”
I nodded. Then I accepted his offer for a hug, reaching out. He folded his arms around me, warm.
The girl in the mirror looked nervous, pacing back and forth, occasionally peering around, as if she could get a different perspective. A moment later, she strode out of view, stepping beyond the boundaries of the frame.
I took that as my cue to go. As I broke the hug, Joel rubbed his hand over the toque and then gave me a little push, an urging to get going.
I got going.
His car was in the garage, a few steps away, through a heavy door. I hit the button to raise the big garage door, and watched as the wall of snow that the wind had driven against the door tipped over, breaking into chunks as it hit the damp pavement.
I unlocked Joel’s Corolla, a car old enough that the only way to open the door was to actually put the key in the lock, and then stopped.
I moved the rear-view mirror until I had a view of the girl in the back seat.
“Answers,” I said.
“Go, and I’ll give you answers,” she responded. She sounded even fainter and more muffled than before. “You think the lights went out by coincidence?”
If I went, I’d get answers from her. I’d get answers from the house, about Molly…
Answers were good. I took a second to familiarize myself with both the car and with cars in general, where things were and how to operate the things.
In moments, both me and the car were traveling down the near-empty streets.
“Okay,” she said.
“Rose… who are you supposed to be? My grandmother?”
“No. I think I’m you. Your- our parents named me after her.”
I was silent, taking that in.
“I know I’m supposed to say something witty here, make a quip, but I’m barely thinking straight,” I said.
“I’m you, with one fundamental difference,” Rose elaborated. “I’m a girl. I think grandmother is trying to game the system somehow. A failsafe or trap or something, that kicks in when Molly dies and the inheritance turns over.”
The reminder of Molly’s death was a slap in the face. “How did you know, that Molly’s dead?”
“Two hour drive, Rose. We have time for a complicated explanation.”
“Not the time consuming kind of complicated. This stuff was explained to me. I crashed into existence, with only a few places I could go. I’ve got a lifetime of memories, but I get that I’m a fake. If I were real, I wouldn’t be sitting here, surrounded by an awful lot of darkness. I’d have a proper heartbeat, instead of this slow motion thump every few seconds, staying the same even when I’m freaked out. I see a bit of a glimmer of an outline here or there, where the light’s really strong on your end. But there aren’t many places I can go, Blake. Patches of light, where light passes through the mirrors. Only the mirrors in the house, and the mirrors around you count.”
I glanced up at the rear view mirror. She looked upset, her knees drawn up to her chin, feet on the seat in front of her. Was she cold, sitting there in pyjama pants and a camisole, barefoot in a car where my breath fogged up? Or were the lack of breath and response to the temperature the same as her heartbeat? Something false or simplified?
I couldn’t look at her for too long, given the need to focus on the road. I pulled onto the highway, double and then triple checking there weren’t any cars coming.
Rose kept talking. “The lawyer, Beasley, he was cleaning up. Picking up books and stuff that Molly left lying around. When I asked what was going on, he said you were next in line, for custody of the house. After you, it’s Kathy, then Ellie, then Roxanne, then Ivy, then Paige.”
“Paige is last?” I asked. Okay, I got that maybe Kathryn would fit. She was a mom, a professional. A serious personality. Maybe a bit cutthroat, but I could get that.
“Paige is last,” she said.
Placing the two and twelve year old in the list before Paige? Placing me in the running?
“Doesn’t make sense,” I said.
“Yeah. I don’t know. I didn’t stay for explanations. Depending on how things went, he said, we could run down that list really quickly. He said it depends on how fast people can get to the house, and how fast they can get to grips with all this. He said I should find you, and I found you.”
Far less in the way of answers than I’d hoped for.
I drove in silence for a few minutes.
The answers only raised more questions. How did Paige fit into this. How did I fit into it? Most confusing at all… Rose.
“What I’m wondering is… you,” I said.
“I’m wondering about me too,” she said. “Trust me, if you’re wondering if I’m suspicious, if there’s a catch here, I’m wondering too.”
“How do your memories line up? Molly got picked, but… you were at the house?”
“I was home, with mom and dad. They’re mad, you know, obviously, because I didn’t get Hillsglade House, and they thought it was as close to a given as you could get. Mad at me, especially. I was in bed, mostly asleep, and then I was at the house. I remember everything about my life, but I don’t feel like I experienced any of it. You know?”
“Not really,” I said. I watched the tail lights of a truck ahead of me disappearing into the snowy fog, further down the arrow-straight highway. I was driving slower, because I didn’t have much winter driving experience, and I didn’t want to total Joel’s car. Noting a silence that had followed my response, I tried to keep the discussion going. “You still live with mom and dad?”
“While I’m going to school,” she said.
“You didn’t leave?”
“No. Why? When did you move out?”
Move out. She didn’t know about me leaving home.
“A bit ago,” I said, noncommittal. No use volunteering unnecessary information.
What’s the magic loophole?
If Rose was a failsafe, who or what was it trying to work around? If it was a trap, then who was the supposed victim? Was there an enemy? Or was it a trap aimed at me?
Was there a chance this was all a lie?
I could wonder if I was losing my mind, but… I felt lucid.
Which that wasn’t a guarantee I was sane, I knew, but I felt lucid, and it was hard to sell myself the idea that I was insane, if there weren’t any clear symptoms.
I was seeing things, but having two points of reference would have made it a lot easier, giving me a kind of perspective on it all.
My hands were clutching the wheel so hard that it was painful. I had to consciously will myself to relax.
“Rose, talk to me,” I said. “There isn’t nearly enough information to piece things together, and I’m not going to make it through this drive if I’ve only got my own worries and paranoia to fill the time.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“You seemed to know something was up, with the power going out.”
“There was a presence. Like… almost as if there was a patch of something lighter in the darkness, or a sound I could barely hear, or a movement of the air, here, where the air doesn’t move at all. Something was there.”
“This isn’t helping the paranoia,” I said.
“I’m not any happier,” she said. “If something chases us, you can run. Where can I run? There isn’t much room, on this side.”
“Yet you broke the mirror. Speaking of, how did you know you could break it?”
“I didn’t. That was an accident, and I wish I hadn’t done it. It hurt, and I feel drained, and I feel tired. It took something out of me, doing that, and I’m not sure I have that much to give.”
“Rose, are you understanding what I’m getting at? There’s a few things here that aren’t making sense. Crazy hallucinations or whatever else.”
“You had the visions too?”
“Rose,” I said, speaking a little firmer, to keep her on track. “The more time I have to think about all this, the less I feel like I can trust you. How did you know how to get from the light at the house to me? Considering that this all supposedly started less than an hour ago, you’re picking it up pretty damn fast.”
“It’s not- no. Blake, the lawyer told me to go. He pointed in a direction, and told me to take a leap of faith if I wanted to help you. I did what he said, and now I’m here. I’m jumping from mirror to mirror, and I’m worried I’m going to jump and I’ll miss, and I’m not sure what happens when I do.”
“You left out that part,” I said. “About him telling you how to jump. That’s context I could have used.”
“I’m not your enemy, here,” she said, and her voice was harder, angrier.
If I was planning to press the subject, the plan had to go on hold.
I saw a figure standing in the middle of the highway, in the distance.
I slowed the car.
“What is it?” Rose asked.
It was a person, tall, dressed in a long cloak or layered garment of some sort. Right in the middle of the road. The cloth had been white to begin with, it looked like, but it was badly stained. He –or she– wore a mask or a helmet shaped like an overlarge bird’s skull, with a pair of antlers.
I didn’t have a lot of time to take it in. Even though I was driving slowly, even though I was slowing down, I was closing the distance. I didn’t want to stop, but…
I turned to go around, giving the white thing as much clearance as I could. It stayed where it was, standing in place. There were no other cars on the highway, coming or going. Woods on one side, field on the other. Not that I could see all that far. Snow flurries made vision past a point a little difficult.
“I can feel it,” Rose said. When I glanced up, she was looking over one shoulder. “I can see it, almost, standing between the patches of light.”
We flew past it. I could see its head turn to follow us. The drape it wore had no sleeves. It wore hides, almost white, except where the slush and dirt had marred it.
I had to move the rearview mirror to get a better view of it as we left it behind.
A sign of things to come? A harbinger?
My heart was pounding.
“What was that?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Something wearing a bird skull mask and tanned skins.”
“What are we going to do?” she asked, with a note of panic in her voice.
What am I going to do, you mean, I thought. You’re on the other side of a mirror.
“It’s gone,” I said.
“What? No. No it isn’t,” she answered. Panic was now highlighted by confusion, incredulity. “It’s close.”
I looked back, but the figure was nearly impossible to make out against the backdrop of falling snow.
“We left it behind,” I said, firmer.
“You got close, and it latched on,” Rose said. “Believe me on this.”
Again, I turned around, trying to see where it might have done so. Nothing outside the windows, nothing in the mirrors.
When I returned my attention to the road, my eyes darting up to the mirror, she insisted, “It did. It still feels like it’s here.”
I set my jaw. What was I supposed to do if it was? If it could reach out and grab the car with some invisible hand, or if there was something screwed up going on, then what options did I really have?
I didn’t have weapons. I didn’t have much of anything. Even information was scarce. How was I supposed to label the bird skull thing?
It was only when I settled down, returning my attention to the drive ahead of me, that I saw the trouble.
The fuel gauge was dropping steadily.
It had been three quarters of the way full when I’d started driving. Now it was at the twenty percent mark.
The orange needle dropped faster with every passing second.
It had latched on, but not physically. Something else.
“The car’s dying,” I said.
“Gas station?” Rose asked.
“There’s a rest stop,” I said. “Restaurants, gas, bathrooms, stores. I think that’s what the sign said it was two kilometers away. Might be a bit further.”
“Can you make it?”
“No,” I said. “Not with the car.”
I watched as the needle stopped descending. No further to go.
The car shuddered, and the gas pedal quit on me. I saw the lights on the dash and the radio dim, then go out entirely.
I switched to neutral, hoping to coast, but there was nothing. I pulled over, instead. I tried to activate the hazard lights. No luck.
When I got my cell phone, a cheap non-smart phone, I found it dark.
I saw one car zip by on the other side of the divider. I hopped out, flailing my arms, but it was useless. Too little, too late.
“Guess I’m walking,” I said. I drummed the steering wheel for a second, thinking. In front and behind me, the snow looked a pale blue in the moonlight, broken up by the dark shapes of trees. Here and there, the street lights tinted things orange. The road was a stripe of black in the gloom.
“Bring a mirror,” Rose said. “Please.”
I looked around. Nothing. Joel kept a neat car. Aside from an abundance of paperwork in the drive compartment, and between the front and passenger seats, it was tidy, and tidy meant it was easy to see there wasn’t anything like that nearby.
“Sorry, Joel,” I said. I reached up to grab the rear view mirror. There were tabs I needed to depress. I had to pull off my gloves to get a good grip. I fumbled with it some more.
“Blake,” Rose said. “Blake!”
I moved the mirror to look at her, and saw her pointing.
Behind us, beyond a point where the snow obscured the road, I saw the dim orange of the street light flicker, then die, swallowed up by the swirl of white.
“No time to get the mirror, Rose,” I said. I made sure I had the other essentials. Hat, scarf, gloves, backpack, coat…
“Break it off?”
I reached up and pulled. It didn’t budge. I hit it with the side of my arm, with no more effect.
“I can’t,” I said.
“You cannot leave me here!” There was a note of hysteria in her voice.
I pulled out my cell phone. An older model I could slide open to get at the keyboard. The screen was scuffed badly from sitting in my pockets alongside change and my keys. “Does this work? There’s a reflection in the screen.”
“No,” she said. “Barely anything coming through”
I hesitated, then used my bag, looping the strap around the mirror. I hauled down with almost all of my weight.
It snapped off.
“Good,” I said. “With me?”
“With you,” she said.
I left the car behind, pausing one second to lock it, and then got moving. I maintained a speed that was faster than an ordinary walk, not quite a jog. Busy walking, I jammed the mirror in the front pocket of my coat, so one end stuck out. My hands went in my pockets, one end of the tire iron finding the inside pocket, the length resting against my forearm. I hunched over to help shield my face with the collar of my coat, preparing. Conserving strength, conserving heat.
I was a fast walker. Two kilometers… that was about twenty minutes?
I didn’t want to go so fast that I’d have to stop before I got to shelter. So long as I kept moving, I was warm. When I stopped, the cold would set in. Twenty minutes of brisk walking.
When I finally broke and glanced back, I saw there were less lights than before. The thing was following me. I couldn’t be sure of the speed it was moving, given how it was out of sight. I couldn’t tell, either, if it was catching up.
“Talk to me, Rose,” I mumbled, past my scarf and the collar of my coat. “Can you feel it getting closer?”
There was no reply. I drew my free hand from the pocket and pulled the mirror free.
Fat, wet flakes of snow had clustered against the surface. With one hand, I rubbed it against my thigh.
Beads of water still obscured the surface.
“Rose?” I tried.
There was no response. Already, the mirror was fogging up from the momentary warmth and the moisture.
If the cell phone hadn’t worked because it was scuffed, then this might be having the same problems. I needed a clear reflection, apparently.
I picked up the pace a little. I placed the mirror inside my coat, in the slot where I was supposed to stick my phone. Closer to my body, warmer, where my shirt and the pocket could maybe dry off the moisture. The ‘arm’ of the mirror rubbed against my chest as I marched.
The snow that had piled up at the edge of the road, before the ditch that divided the highway from the nearby fields meant I had to walk out on the road itself. Walking through the snow would slow me down, and I needed speed. I was in a dangerous position, ready to be clipped by a car in the cruising lane.
My heart thudded in my chest. A short walk, I reassured myself.
I looked back, to look for cars, and to see the thing’s progress.
It was close enough for me to make it out. It was making long, powerful strides, at a speed I couldn’t have maintained without risking collapse. The hides it wore flew out to the side as the legs moved, but I couldn’t make out the legs themselves.
I pushed myself a fraction faster, but I knew it wasn’t quite enough to make a difference.
Still, there were no cars on the road. I needed one passerby. One person to stop and offer me a lift.
Except I couldn’t be sure it would work. They might find themselves running out of gas in some inexplicable manner. Then the good Samaritan would be caught up in this.
I glanced back. It was closer, closing the distance with every step.
The wind picked up, and I had to close my eyes in the face of the headwind. There were tears in my eyes when I opened them. Totally the wind. My army surplus boots squeaked against the soft snow and crunched against the harder snow as I marched.
I heard a fluttering noise. Turning to look, I saw that one of the flaps of hide were whipping around in the wind. The footsteps, by contrast, were nearly silent. No squeaks, no crunches, no cracks of ice being broken or scuffs of salt and pavement underfoot.
It was close enough for me to hear.
Better now than never. I turned around, drawing out the tire iron.
“Fine!” I roared the words against the wind. I drew the tire iron from my pocket, gripping it with gloved hands. I could feel how cold the metal was. “You want me!?”
It closed the distance. Two feet taller than me, and I was a notch taller than average. The point of the giant bird mask came dangerously close as I swung the tire iron, bending my legs as I swung low, to strike it in the knee.
I had only a moment to register the fact that it wasn’t reacting before it drew a hand out of the layered covering of hides. A mitt of a hand, gray-skinned, with knobby knuckles, and fingernails that were just long enough they were starting to curl, almost rectangular. Dirty, uneven, frayed.
I swung again, a two-handed grip on the iron, aiming for the hand.
I might as well have struck another tire iron, for all it mattered. The weapon bounced off the hand, the hand was knocked back, and then it clawed at my face. I twisted partially away, keeping it from getting my eyes, and felt the pain in my cheek, instead. I backed away, and my scarf stayed. Caught in the ragged ends of the nails.
The wind was cold against my face as I backed up. I started to head back in the direction of the rest stop, but the thing circled around me, moving past me, until it was positioned to cut me off.
My scarf was caught by the wind, flapping mercilessly, until it tore free, disappearing over the dividing line of the highway.
I raised the tire iron again, drawing closer. It, in turn, drew one arm out from beneath the hides. I drew back a step, and it kept the hand out a moment before returning it to shelter.
“Rose,” I spoke, “Hey, Rose. You gotta help me out here.”
The mirror was silent.
I backed away, and it moved, approaching with long strides that covered the distance with surprising speed.
I stopped, and it stopped.
“Don’t want me to go to the rest stop,” I murmured. There was a hitch in my voice. “Don’t want me to go back to the car. Where am I supposed to go? This way?”
I checked the way was clear, then took a step out onto the highway. It reacted, but only barely. Tensing. When I took another step, it followed. Letting me go, but not letting me escape.
“No way,” I said. Taking a step to the side, so I was as off the road as I could get without standing in the snowbank. “I get what you’re after. You want me to get hit by a car or something.”
The thing remained silent. Waiting. The perfectly round eye sockets stared at me.
I swung, aiming for surprise, directing the iron at the skull.
It caught the iron mid-swing. I tried to wrench the weapon free and failed.
Another hand emerged from beneath the hides. I had to let go of the weapon and back away before it could claw at me.
It took a half-step forward to follow. It dropped the tire iron onto the road, where the snow muffled the sound.
Standing still, waiting for this thing to make a move, I could feel my legs getting colder. I wasn’t wearing long johns. Boxer briefs and jeans, leaving my legs as the least covered part of my body. The cold highlighted the tension in my legs, where my earlier pace had stressed muscles I tended to leave unused.
“How does this end, then?” I asked. “We wait out here by the side of the road until I freeze to death?”
I paced, watching how it followed. The knobby, long-fingered hand came out as I drew too close.
There was a hint of hysteria in my voice as I spoke, “Can’t go forward, can’t go back. I won’t go left. Will you let me go right?”
I edged towards the snowbank, to test. A ditch, then fields. The strong wind had blown the worst of the snow away. It wouldn’t be too deep.
I took another step. It moved to follow, though it let me create a bit of distance.
Slowly, I climbed over the snowbank. It continued to let me build up a bit of distance.
I hit the ditch, where some stubborn tall grass stuck up here and there, and hopped over the shallowest part, where the wind had driven snow off of the ice that had frozen in the recess.
The hop hadn’t inspired a sudden attack. Briefly turning my back, too, seemed like it was fairly safe.
That in mind, when I found flat ground under my feet again, I ran.
The field was flat, the ground hard, and the snow only ankle deep. The deep treads of my boots gave me the traction I needed to find my pace. When the spaces filled up with snow, the snow-on-snow traction was still sufficient for me to maintain a good pace.
I slipped, but my other foot was already coming forward. I felt a twang in my back as I used the leg to thrust myself back up to a fully upright position. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the feeling. I’d feel it tomorrow, if I made it that long.
A quick glance back indicated it was following with those same long, steady strides as before. Running was letting me create some distance.
Across the field, away from the highway, away from the car and the rest stop.
I was fully aware of what was going on. I knew it was intentional, and that this was as good a way of having me die in a perfectly plausible manner as keeping me in the middle of the highway, where a car could clip me.
Thing was, I’d never been able to sit still while under stress. I couldn’t bring myself to stand beside the side of the road and get cold.
Fear was taking my breathing and heartbeat up a few notches, which was hurting more than it was helping. There was a frantic note to my breathing as I panted, my legs ached, and my thoughts were a jumble.
“Rose,” I gasped out the name. I fumbled for the mirror, but my hands were frozen. I got a grip on the bar that was supposed to fix the mirror to the ceiling and pulled it out.
Her voice was faint, tiny, and muffled, cutting off as though someone had reached out to muffle her.
Not someone, but something. Fog, again, had clouded the mirror. I wiped it with my glove. I saw only a momentary glimpse of her.
Letting it get damp, then letting it get warm, both were mucking it up. I held it, letting it cool off, and tried to keep it facing down, so snow wouldn’t settle on the surface.
I kept running. I prayed for a side street, a side road, a house. Shelter. Something to indicate I wouldn’t keep running into the wilderness until I could no longer move. The snow got deeper as I approached tree cover, where the wind wasn’t as strong. My pace began to slow, with nothing of import in sight.
I could feel a sick feeling in my gut, a combination of fear, despair, and the exhaustion of running.
I saw a figure up ahead, through the tree cover.
A quick glance back showed me the other one was still following. Closing the gap.
“Hello!” I called out, and I was surprised at how hoarse my voice was, my throat made raw by the heavy breathing of frozen, dry air. “Help me!”
The figure pushed through the cover of branches.
A bird skull, a covering of overlapping hides, bleached white and stained, and a heavy wreath of branches around the neck and shoulders, like a nest.
I stopped in my tracks. When I took in my surroundings, my vision swam, struggling to make the adjustment from the narrow focus on where I was going and where my feet were landing to the broader environment.
There, in the distance, in a gap between neat rows of trees. A third, with the hides forming a hood over the bird skull. Shorter than the others.
I turned to head for the widest gap I could make out, and they all moved, not to close the distance to me, but to cut me off. The calf-deep snow didn’t slow them down. Even if it did, they had a longer stride, and they weren’t getting tired.
I pushed on, moving towards the gap, forcing myself to run. They continued to follow, but I made it between the ones with the antlers and the wreath.
Backtracking, almost. I needed to devote a second to getting my bearings, but I had to keep running.
“Rose,” I said.
I heard only a whisper of a noise. I wiped the mirror against the side of my leg, mid-run.
I came face to face with another of the bird-skulls, not looking carefully enough for the white skull and white hides against the snowy background. It clawed at me, backhanded, and dashed the mirror out of my hands. I fell, a result of the combined impact, pain and surprise, landing just beside the flecks of blood he’d clawed from my hand. My glove was cut, the skin around it exposed, and a line of blood was nestled in the center. Bewildered, I watched as the skin parted and joined together, as I opened and closed my hand.
The wind blew, and I heard the flapping of the hides moving. Others were drawing closer.
The one that had just attacked me wore cords strung between hides, each with a long, narrow bone hanging from it.
The others were approaching, with some coming from a distance. All around me, there were clusters of evergreens, branches hanging heavy with ice and snow, and there were patches of grass. One clearing, where a pond had frozen over.
Slowly, I made my way to my feet.
I tested different directions, to see how they would react.
This time, they weren’t keen on letting me move towards any open ground. Clusters of trees, the pond, and areas where the snow had piled higher.
The pond, then. I made my way over, my wounded hand pressed to my chest by my other hand.
No mirror, no Rose.
Frozen earth crunched under my boots as I made my way to the frozen pond. Every footstep hurt.
Were they wanting me to try to cross? Was that the plan?
I sat by the bank instead.
I looked at the bird masks that had gathered formed a loose three-quarter circle around me.
“This okay with you bastards?” I asked. “Can I sit? You like this?”
The hides flapped in the wind.
“Motherfuckers,” I said. I moved my hands up to my armpits, squishing them beneath my arms. I could feel the pain in my wounded hand. My cheek felt tight where I’d been scratched.
I kicked at the ice on the pond. Methodical, careful strikes delivered with the heels of my boots, to break up the surface.
It took a good fifteen hits before the cracks spread.
I used the toe of my boot to flip one large, two-inch thick piece of ice out of the way.
“Please tell me reflections in water work too.”
“Yeah,” she responded.
“You see them?”
“I went to a lot of trouble to talk to you,” I said, trying to ignore the looming individuals who were standing behind me. “I need more than one word answers.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You’re not in immediate danger. You’re not in pain, I hope. They’re after me, not you. So I’m hoping you’re thinking a little clearer than I am.”
“Not- not really.”
A minute passed. I could feel the chill creeping in.
“I don’t think they’ve got brains in those skulls,” I said. “Someone gave them orders.”
“Makes sense. Who?”
“Does it matter? I think those orders are why they’re behaving this way. Barring my path to keep me from certain areas. Driving me away from shelter, wearing me out.”
“They want plausible deaths.”
“Yeah. Newspaper runs an article on page seven about the poor idiot who broke down by the side of the highway, wandered into the middle lane and got hit, or got lost in the woods. No mention of eerily patient bird-masked antler horrors. They interview my landlord, he mentions I was acting funny, and cousin Kathryn is the one who wakes up with spooky visions, a few hours later.”
“Go for an implausible death?”
“Not sure how I’m supposed to do that,” I said. I sighed, and my teeth chattered as the air passed through my lips. “All I can figure is they don’t want to claw me to death.”
“Molly was clawed to death,” Rose said.
I closed my eyes.
“They don’t want to kill two of us the same way,” she said. “Molly was partially eaten, too, but I don’t think these guys are the type.”
“You can see them?”
“End of the pond,” she said. “There’s a reflection.”
Another one had joined the ranks at some point, where I hadn’t been looking. Taller than the others, with two more bird skulls worn on sloped shoulders. He stood on the ice.
I bowed my head again. “How many?”
“Is this where everything ends for me, Rose? Do I die here, an ignoble death, with the mantle passing to Kathryn? Do you carry on?”
“As a ghost?”
“As a whatever.”
“I don’t know. I think I’m bound to you, somehow.”
“Right,” I said.
I forced myself to my feet. I was shaking, now.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I’m not,” I said. “I just hate sitting still.”
“You need a plan.”
“Any fucking ideas?” I asked.
There was no response.
I moved, and they moved as well. Organizing, spreaing out a fraction. I backed up, and they advanced.
I sat down again, regretting it instantly. Standing would be harder.
The three-masked one slowly removed one mask from its shoulder.
It dawned on me.
That mask was going to be mine.
My mind warred with my body. Every last part of me hated to sit still, was restless in the face of stress. But my body was starting to give up.
I was so tired, I felt like I had gone two straight days without sleep.
“No glimmers of light nearby?”
“I see patches of light. I think… even regular surfaces, they reflect light to some degree.”
“Sure. Listen, what I need to know is… which direction do I run?”
“I’ll take a guess, if you have to give me one, Rose. Just lie convincingly. I’ll lose heart if I don’t buy it.”
“Your three o’clock,” she said.
Nothing more. No details. No explanation on why it was the right direction.
I needed to run, but there weren’t any meaningful gaps, now.
If I assumed these things were stupid, that they were programmed or strictly following orders… if they’d been ordered not to hurt me unless it was in retaliation or because there was no other way to get past me…
I looked back at the one that stood on the ice.
Slowly, carefully, I stepped back onto the frozen pond.
The ice cracked. I drenched one boot. It was waterproof enough that only a trace of the freezing water touched my foot.
Too close to the break I’d made to talk to Rose.
I circled around a bit further. The bird-masks at the leftmost edge began to take longer strides, to move around and cut me off.
This time, I stepped onto the ice with care, a distance from the break I’d made before.
I backed up, towards the one with three masks on the far end of the pond.
I watched as others stepped forward, maintaining a roughly even distance. I saw as the one with the wreath avoided the crack in the ice.
Each step was a careful one as I made my way towards the middle of the pond. I transferred my weight with care, doing my best to avoid putting too much weight on one point at once. The three-masked one moved to cut me off, keeping me on the ice.
I heard the faintest cracking sounds. Around me, not them.
I made a beeline straight for three-masks.
I saw the hands come out.
Woman’s hands, oddly enough, with flecks of nail polish still on one. Wizened, worn, abused, with bits of nail splintered off where they had maybe scraped violently against something.
The faint cracking sound intensified. The stress of my weight was going to break the ice right beneath me.
I ran, and the ones behind me ran to follow.
The ice didn’t break beneath them. My heart sank.
I collided head-on with three-masks, and felt her stab at my shoulders through my coat, clawing through fabric with no heed for her own well being. Frenzied, violent and noisy after the almost tranquil quiet.
I broke away, as best as I could, and she followed. I tried to find a path that would get her to back off, give me two seconds, and she refused to give it to me.
Up until I stepped onto the ice at the edge and it broke, soaking my boot. This time, it lapped around the skin at my calf, soaking my jeans. A glance back verified the others had stopped when I had started fighting.
Three-masks began stalking around, cutting off my retreat.
I didn’t care. Reaching down, I grabbed a snow-covered rock the size of my head, heaving at it. It was half-frozen into the earth. Prying it loose put it into the water, forcing me to get my uninjured hand wet to pick it up.
In one motion, full-body, I managed to heave it about three feet. I watched it bounce off the ice and slide, uselessly, towards the middle of the spread out bird-masks.
It lay there for a good ten seconds before the ice broke. I watched as the things plunged into the water.
Leaving me with only two to deal with.
I ran, fueled by desperation.
I ran, fueled by the adrenaline that pain was dumping into my body. Through shock and fear. Nothing conserved, nothing saved.
Thick trees tore at me, costing me my toque. My frozen hand and foot were throbbing, now, and my injured hand was so cold I couldn’t open my fist.
Every footstep hurt, and the only thing that kept me putting one foot in front of the other was the idea that one more of those things might appear to bar my way if I slowed down in the slightest.
I found the end of the trees. A strip of snow. A line of road.
Squat, short buildings, and a sign reading ‘truck inspection area’.
Headlights flared in my field of vision, blindingly bright.
I staggered forward, collapsing onto my hands and knees. I could hear a vehicle’s door open.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. If they came-
But there was nothing. The wind stirred swirls of snow across the road,
“Good god, man,” a deep voice said. “What the hell did you get yourself into?”
I thought about explaining, about the others. I’d sound crazy.
I thought about making an excuse, saying I was chased by some delinquent kids. It would get the police involved, and it would delay me.
“Car broke down,” I said, a little numb. “I thought I’d take a shortcut, got turned around. I- I- panicked. I started running and got hurt.”
“We’ll get you an ambulance, not to worry.”
“No. No, it’s not as bad as it looks. I’d be embarrassed,” I lied. I wasn’t sure where things stood. If they came after me while I was in the hospital, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk, let alone run.
“You look nearly dead.”
“I need to warm up. That’s all.”
I glanced over my shoulder, nervously. The things still hadn’t made an appearance. They should have caught up by now.
“If I don’t get you to a hospital, and you die-”
“I’m not going to die,” I said, not sure if I was lying. “Drop me off at the rest stop, I’ll warm up and get food. I’ll hitch a ride to where I need to be.”
“If you’re positive,” he said. “I don’t want you haunting me or anything, and I don’t want lawsuits either. I don’t make that much money.”
He nodded. “Sure, then. You need help getting up?”
“Just a bit,” I admitted.
We made our way around, and I climbed up into the passenger seat. The heating was already on, and I held my hands out to warm them.
Looking out through the windshield, I could see a trace of pink in the sky.
Was that a rule, here? No monsters after sunrise, or no monsters when others could see?
The truck pulled away, moving down the long road. I could see the rear half of the rest stop creeping into my vision.
I made eye contact with Rose, in the side-view mirror.
She looked drained, haggard. Almost worse than I did.
She’d broken the mirror, and it had taken something out of her. To look this drained… she’d broken the ice, or she’d helped it along. A bit of an extra push.
The truck driver circled the long way around, pulling into the eighteen-wheeler’s spot for the rest stop. We climbed out and made our way to the shop opening, where employees were setting up at the fast food places.
As the truck driver talked to some employees, negotiating a way to get me to my stop, I saw a man in the corner with an oddly crooked stance, leaning against the wall as if his limbs wouldn’t hold him up, the whites of his eyes too white as he tracked us with his gaze. Staying out of the way, almost out of sight.
We’d have a relatively safe way to the house, soon enough. We couldn’t get there fast enough, for the shelter or the answers we could find there.
Damn me, damn them, damn it all.
There was a car, my parent’s or my uncle’s, no doubt, parked in the middle of the gates, at the foot of a long driveway, leading up to Hillsglade House. Symbolic, really, of everything that had gone on for most of my life. Symbolic of everything I had walked away from.
My uncle… I was guessing it was my uncle, had parked the car at the entrance of the driveway to force everyone else to find a place to park.
I looked down the length of the street. The property was framed by a short stone wall, shoulder height, along with an elaborate iron fence of roughly the same height, shaped into curling vines with metal points at set intervals. It had been covered in some black paint or coating, but rust and peeling paint made for a mottled texture. ‘No parking’ signs, a good distance in every direction. I was already regretting coming. Damn me, I thought, not for the first or second time.
Pushing my motorcycle, I guided it through the gap between car and fence, pushed it onto the lawn, and rested it against the inside of the fence.
I wasn’t in a rush. I had made promises to myself. I wouldn’t get caught up in their tempo. Taking my time, I removed my helmet, wiped the sweat from my forehead and scalp. Putting my hands in my pockets to be sure I had my keys, I felt paper crumple. I went through my pockets, removed the directions I’d printed out, the receipt from Dead Tim’s, and put the leftover five in my wallet, the change in my other pants pocket.
Looking up at the namesake hill, I could see the house. Not big, but it drew attention because of the way it looked down on the two-theater podunk town. It wasn’t dark, and it wasn’t ominous. Barring a slightly overgrown garden, trees that had grown well beyond the quaint, tidy little decorations they might have been when the house was built, and the railing, it was nothing more than a nice house. I’d dated a wannabe-architect at one point, a brief-lived fling. I didn’t remember much, but I didn’t feel confident labeling the place as Victorian. Three stories, with a one-room tower standing one floor higher, off one corner. Gray-painted wood siding, decorative ‘lace’ in carved wood beneath the eaves and around the railing on the porch, tall, narrow windows with open shutters.
Somehow, I had conflated the place into being something it wasn’t. My childhood imagination had taken ideas and run loose with them, and I’d never turned my more adult mind to the subject.
I pulled off my jacket, then my sweatshirt. Unlocking and lifting the seat of the motorcycle, I retrieved the shirt I had stowed away. Leaving the other clothes behind, I buttoned up the shirt over a black t-shirt while I made my way up the driveway.
If my uncle had parked nearer to the house, he could have spared himself and his family the walk. But no, the inconvenience he could pose to everyone else was apparently the top priority. I wasn’t surprised. I would have been stunned if there hadn’t been anything like this.
My boots were heavy on the floorboards of the porch as I approached the front door. I stopped to wipe them on the doormat. No ‘welcome’ was printed on the mat. Instead, there were stencil images of roses and thorny stems, as well as the initials ‘R.D.R’.
It fit, somehow. No consideration to the guests, only self-aggrandizement.
The door was unlocked. I kicked off my boots and made my way past the front hallway and into the actual house, tucking my shirt into my jeans as I went.
My lingering impressions of the house were soon banished. Only a house. Books lined shelves in nearly every room with an available wall, some old with cracked spines, some new, recent bestsellers. It was all sorted more like a library than a home, clearly by some arrangement of age and alphabetized.
Anachronistic. That was a good word, to describe it. Old and new. A box of colorful cereal sat between the toaster and television in the kitchen, across from a small table with a crimson, lace-edged tablecloth.
A litterbox, with a toy. Not a dirty litterbox, to look at it, which struck me as odd. I couldn’t imagine my family had emptied it. It didn’t fit them.
I reached the end of the hall, and I could hear voices from upstairs. A crowd, angry, not shouting, but saying hard words, loaded words. I sighed, putting my hands in my pockets, and made my way up.
Photographs. Not a single family picture, I noticed. Instead, there were pictures of nature, blue and green to contrast the dark-lacquered cherry floorboards and furniture, the burgundy curtains. It made for a startling intensity, but it was jarring, overly saturated.
When I crested the top of the stairs, I saw them. One family, divided into four factions, all dressed in black.
“Jesus fuck,” Paige said, her eyes going wide. She was the first to recognize me. Then again, we’d been close, as cousins went.
“The prodigal son returns,” Uncle Paul said.
That was the last coherent thing I made out before it devolved into a mess of bickering.
“Ten to one he needs the money for drugs.”
“If you want to talk about that sort of thing, Steph, we could talk about Ellie.”
“Fuck you, Irene,” Ellie practically spat the response at her aunt. “You don’t know anything. Uneducated bitch.”
Hard words, drawing lines in the sand, striving to establish new ground rules, to hold on to perceived advantages, to garner new ones, or strike at weak points.
For three years, I had been gone. All of this, it had been going on when I left, and it was continuing now.
It never stopped.
Nine cousins, spread into three camps. Uncle Paul, his ex-wife, and my Aunt Irene.
My Uncle Paul had a wealth of kids, four by his first wife, two by his second. Kathryn was old enough to have a child of her own, a broad, businesslike woman, holding her child and looking as unmotherly as possible, her husband beside her, listening as she looked at me and murmured an explanation. Uncle Paul’s youngest, by contrast, was Roxanne, twelve. Six in all, with Paige and her twin brother Peter in the middle. Those two would just be partway into college, I was pretty sure.
Paige looked like she wanted to approach me, but doing so meant getting between Uncle Paul and Aunt Irene, as they pointed fingers, digging at each other.
I caught the words ‘failure’, ‘welfare mom’ and ‘slut’ thrown out there, by Uncle Paul, in clear earshot of his fourteen and twelve year old kids.
Aunt Irene retaliated with something along the lines of ‘at least I actually raised my children to be functioning members of society.’ I couldn’t make all of it out in the chaos, with people talking over one another.
She had three kids, but I only saw two. Molly was close to me in age, and I’d known her well, once upon a time, but I hardly recognized her now. She looked physically ill, her fingers twisting into one another in her lap, barely noting my existence. It seemed to be rubbing off on young Christoff, who was looking equally anxious. Both had brown hair, but Molly was paler than usual, and the black dress she wore only added to the effect.
And, finally, the fourth faction. My parents.
They approached, and I saw that my mom was holding a baby, swaddled in a blanket. I wasn’t good at judging the ages of babies… but I’d left three years ago. I felt my heart skip a beat.
“Everything alright?” my father asked.
“S’alright,” I responded, not taking my eyes off the baby.
“You’re not in trouble?” my mother asked.
“No trouble,” I said. “I try to avoid trouble.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” my dad said. I glared at him. “Nevermind. I can’t help but notice you got tattoos.”
I looked down. The shadows of my tattoos were visible through the sleeves of my dress shirt. I pressed my sleeve down so it was flat against my arm, making the tattoos, clear. “Watercolor tattoos, by an artist I owe a lot to. She offered to outline them, another friend inked them.”
I had set rules for myself, to avoid getting caught up in this energy, yet I was baiting my father. I could see him squirm, wanting to say something. Question was, would he be willing to criticize the tattoos so soon after my homecoming?
“What?” I asked.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” he said, with almost no affect. “You know I never harbored any ill will.”
“I know you didn’t. But that wasn’t ever the problem, was it?” I shrugged, my hands in my pockets, and looked at the baby. “Who’s this?”
“Ivy,” my mother said. “She’s one and a half.”
“Hi Ivy,” I said. She responded by pressing her head against our mother’s shoulder. “Busy soaking it all in, kiddo, so you have some good stories to tell your therapist, ten years down the line?”
“Blake,” my dad said, the word a warning.
Without looking away from Ivy, I kept my voice calm, the tone almost light, so the vibe wouldn’t upset her. “How hard did you look, Dad? Mom? I got in touch with some of my old friends, you know. Seeing what happened. Ben and Heather, the only ones you actually called, said you stopped asking about me after a month.”
“You were almost an adult, and the police weren’t interested or helpful. We called around, trying to figure out where you were staying, but nothing turned up. I’m not sure what we were supposed to do.”
I smiled a little as Ivy reached out for my offered hand. Her hand seized my index finger, and I wiggled it, ‘shaking’ her hand. “Besides, why devote any more attention to your son, when you could just start over? Have that beautiful baby girl you wanted, right?”
“Blake!” My father said, raising his voice.
Ivy recoiled at the sudden shout, withdrawing her hand from my finger as her face screwed up. Tears imminent.
Damn it. It was too easy, to lash out, to retaliate, to get sucked into this atmosphere.
“Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom. My bad, Ivy,” I said, my voice soft. I didn’t wait for a response. I walked past them.
I stopped in my tracks as a door opened and Callan stepped out of the nearest room. Aunt Irene’s eldest. A man in white scrubs followed him.
“Ellie?” the man asked.
Ellie was Uncle Paul’s second oldest, at twenty-four, give or take. They were going down the list, from oldest cousin to youngest. I watched as Ellie stood, looking out of place and deeply uncomfortable in a dress that didn’t suit her. Her eyes had thick eyeliner, her lips had lipstick too red for her complexion. She slouched badly, with a narrow, flat-chested figure. I couldn’t help but think ‘ferret’ or ‘weasel’. She was visibly nervous, but not in the same way Molly was.
The door wasn’t the hollow plywood door that you saw in most homes. It was wooden, through and through, and it closed behind Ellie with a heavy thud.
“No kidding. Blake?” Callan asked, as I started to walk around him.
“Hey,” I responded.
“You’re wearing jeans? Paint-covered jeans? Now?”
I looked down at the jeans, the lap striped with narrow streaks in various colors, then met his eyes, shrugging. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Why the hell did you come?” he asked. “Most of us thought you were dead or something.”
“Got a call,” I said. I glanced back at my parents. “The lawyer found me, alive and well, without much trouble. I was wondering how the family was doing, and figured this was maybe the last time we’d all be together. Thought I’d check in, see how things were, say what needed to be said.”
“If you think you’re going to worm your way in-“
“If I was, do you think I’d be wearing these jeans?” I asked. “Fuck off, Callan. Save your energy for attacking the others. I’m a non-threat. Promise.”
He scowled a little, then summarily fucked off. He took a seat on the deacon’s bench, beside Molly. His hand settled over hers, and he leaned over to murmur in her ear.
I made my way out of the small crowd that had gathered around that heavy wooden door.
Paige fell into step beside me as I walked to the end of the long hallway. I stopped by the narrow window, where the dim light of the setting sun filtered between the curtains and through the sheers.
“Jesus fuck,” she said, for the second time.
She reached out, arms extended for a hug, and I flinched. I stepped back, and nearly knocked a picture off the wall behind me as I bumped into the wall.
She looked stricken. Her arms dropped to her side. Her hair was done up in a french braid, and she looked as comfortable in her clothing as her older sister hadn’t. It was how she’d always been. Prim, proper, preppy. She was almost into her twenties, now, but I could see where she could easily be at home in the world of ties and pantsuits.
“No, I just-” I said. “I… reflex.”
I made myself reach out to hug her. It was clumsy, not natural in the slightest. Her head banged against my ear hard enough to be painful, her arms squeezed me in the most careful hug-reciprocation ever.
“What happened?” she asked, quiet, as we parted.
I knew what she was asking, but I answered a different question instead. “I didn’t see any reason to stay, so I left.”
“You ran away.”
“I always think of little kids leaving with a bundle on a stick, when I think of ‘running away’. I got fed up with all of this, I went.” I shrugged. It was getting to be habitual. No more shrugs, I told myself.
“Not a word, not a call? I mean, I know we weren’t close. We’d say hi, if we met in the hallway at school. Hang out at events and stuff, maybe. You dated one of my friends. I thought maybe you’d say something, let me know you were okay.”
“I didn’t make it hard to find me. I figured if anyone bothered enough to track me down, I was wrong, and I’d go back or whatever. But they didn’t, so I didn’t.”
“Did you go someplace, or…” she trailed off, as if afraid to broach another boundary, as she’d done with the sudden hug.
“I was on the streets, just for a bit. It was bad. Awful. But I’m stubborn, and I’d set the rules for myself, that I wouldn’t go back unless someone asked me to… eventually I met people, and one of them was lucky and stubborn enough to get off the streets. She offered me a hand, and I took it. I know how lucky I am, I know how lucky I was that I found work. I’ve been doing well. A few days ago I treated myself to my first big nonessential purchase.”
I had to lean against the wall, to angle myself so I could see it, leaning against the inside of the fence. I pointed, then stepped out of the way.
“And the license and insurance. It’s about the shittiest, smallest, cheapest bike ever, and it’s used, but that doesn’t matter. I’m happy, I’m liking where I’m at. What are you up to? University?”
“Second year. Business, hopefully law a bit down the road, if I can finagle it.” She showed me her crossed fingers.
“You still keep in touch with the people from high school? Shannon? Miracle?”
“Mira. She’s finally going by a different name. No longer a testament to why immigrants shouldn’t let their kids choose their English names. She still asks about you, you know?”
“At least someone did,” I said, smiling a little.
Paige looked like she was going to punch me, then stopped short. Remembering the issue with the hug. “I did, you jackass. Fuck.”
Molly stood from the bench and approached us.
“Here we go,” Paige said. She smiled, quirking her shoulders as she showed an uncharacteristic excitement. “Us three, back together after… nine years?”
“Ten,” I said.
Paige was a year older than me, Molly a year younger. We’d always hung out, when the family had gotten together. That had been a long time.
Molly didn’t look happy, though. She hugged her arms against her body. She still looked almost ill.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I want this to be over,” Molly said. She leaned against a doorframe. A moment later, she stood, shifting position. Restless.
“Remember how we used to make up stories about this place,” Paige said. “Gruesome stories?”
“Yeah,” Molly said, hugging herself tighter. “They weren’t all made up. That bit about Great-grandpa and great-grandma being related?”
I shivered a little. “Thanks. Thank you for that reminder.”
“The duel where one of our ancestors murdered someone?” Molly asked.
“Killed,” Paige said. “I don’t think it counts as murder if it’s during a duel.”
“Semantics,” Molly said.
“I love arguing semantics,” Paige said, smiling mischievously. “Don’t get me started.”
The murmur of conversation further down the hallway dwindled. Silence, and the sound of footsteps.
Ellie, making her exit.
“Paige and Peter,” the man in scrubs said.
Paige’s eyebrows went up.
“Lumped in with the twin,” I noted.
Paige forced a smile to her face. “I’m a little terrified. Here goes. Wish me luck.”
“Paige,” Molly said.
“Don’t. I can’t explain it. It would sound dumb if I did, but don’t take the offer.”
“Paige?” the man in scrubs asked. Peter was standing next to him. Blond, like Paige, the same height and build, even the same general shape to his face. But when Uncle Paul and Aunt Steph had split up, each one had taken one of the twins. Peter was a little rougher-edged, at a glance, somehow older, and very much like Ellie, who had joined him in going to their mom, he didn’t look like he’d ever worn anything remotely formal.
He and Paige entered together.
Molly and I were left alone, at the end of the hallway. The volume of conversation in the hallway gradually rose. Whispered words to allies, barbs directed at enemies.
When I spoke, my words were closer to a whisper, a murmur. “Hey, Moll? What’s going on?”
“Don’t know if you remember, or heard, but my mom moved us here. Podunk nowhereville, so we’d be closer. Another play, a maneuver, to try to get an advantage. So Callan, me and Chris, we’ve actually been here regularly. Usually when mom invited herself over.”
“I figured it was something like that,” I said.
“I don’t think Callan really gets it, but he moved a few years in. Chris and I have gone to school here. There’s a vibe. Too many things that don’t fit. Complete strangers knowing who I am and not liking me right off the bat. Does that make sense?”
“Sure. It’s about the property.”
“More than the property. It’s about old ladies glaring at me. Kids going after Chris on the playground, and it’s too quick, too mean, too intense, for me to feel like it makes any sense. Feeling like I’m surrounded whenever I’m outside. Like a third of the people around here have decided we’re their mortal enemies.”
I could remember my nights on the streets. Finding a place to set up camp, out of anyone else’s way. Even with the city lights, it was hard not to feel like danger was lurking just out of sight, waiting until my eyes were closed. In quieter areas, where the glow of the city hadn’t been there, where deeper shadows could have hidden anything, the feeling had been all the more intense.
Twice, I’d even been right. Both times, it had been people. The worst types of people. I still had scars. Some were physical.
I could imagine how Molly might feel, facing a watered down version of the same situation. Being bullied by a whole community, being somewhere where anyone could be hostile without the slightest provocation.
“You are their mortal enemy, Molly. We are. It’s a small town, people obsess over the smallest things, and this is a big deal to people. When you’re alone, feeling vulnerable to begin with, it’s scarier. I don’t want to make it out to be less than it is-”
“That’s not what I mean,” she interrupted.
“It’s… what it is, Molly. Trust me. Small communities have done scary stuff before, with little rhyme or reason. You’re spooked, you have a reason to be spooked. It’s legit. But don’t lose sight of the issue at the root of this whole business.”
She looked so abjectly miserable, standing there, restless, nervous.
“It’s almost over,” I tried to reassure her.
“I’m-” she started, then she stopped. She glanced back. “I’m going to go sit. I need to get my head clear before my turn comes up.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m really glad you’re okay, Blake,” she said.
“Thanks,” I responded.
I watched her make her way back to her seat.
Damn them. Damn it all.
I could feel the anger stirring, again. Anger at my uncle and aunts, at my parents, at everything here.
It got worse instead of better, as I waited.
When the door opened and both Paige and Peter stepped out, the arguing started right away.
“Fuck you, Peter. Fuck you!” Paige said. Even from the far end of the hallway, there were tears in her eyes.
Peter smirked. “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”
“You don’t know anything, you asshole. Fuck you! I needed this.”
“Ellie needs it more.”
“Ellie needs it because she’s a fuckup that hasn’t worked a day in her life. I’m trying to go to school, Peter! You make up bald-faced lies, to sink me? You’re supposed to be my twin!”
Her voice went a little shrill at the end there.
“What? You thought I’d be on your side? You only need money because Paul had too many kids to take care of any of them. Isn’t that right, Dad?”
“I think you and Ellie have demonstrated you aren’t worth the effort,” Uncle Paul said, his voice low. He’d approached Paige, reaching out to put a hand on her shoulder.
She stepped away, instead. She was crying, now. “I thought you’d at least play fair, Peter. Maybe you have to be loyal to Ellie because you grew up with her, but I thought you’d be fair, with me. We’re supposed to have a connection.”
“You hear about twins eating one another in the womb,” Peter said. “Maybe I got some of your brains, huh? Because that’s fucking stupid.”
Paige stared at him, incredulous. Then she slapped him, hard.
It was the catalyst for this entire thing to become a full-on fight. Not sniping one another, not lacing casual statements with words meant to cut. Shouting, Aunt Steph trying to grab Paige, and Paige ducking out of reach, running instead.
I was already running, myself, trying to catch up.
The man in scrubs, the bystander, stepped in, getting in my way. He bellowed a single word. “Stop!”
All fell momentarily silent. There was only the sound of Paige’s feet hitting the stairs as she made her way down.
I made my way through the group, and Molly did too.
“Molly,” the man at the door said. “She’s asking for you next.”
Molly and I both stopped. She looked paler than before.
Paige was emotionally wounded, Molly deathly afraid.
All of the rest of them, too, bristling, on edge.
“It’s my turn,” I said. “I’m Blake Rosine. Go after Paige, Molly. I don’t think I’ll be long.”
“Cutting in, Blake?” Callan asked. “I think you were lying, about not wanting any of this.”
I gave him the finger. When I looked, Molly gave me a nod, before breaking into a run to chase Paige.
The man in scrubs ducked behind the door to say something, then reappeared. “She says it’s fine, Blake.”
I made my way into the bedroom, and the door slammed shut behind me, more because of the weight of the solid wood than any intention on my part.
Grandmother doesn’t look like someone who’s about to die. The room smelled of flowers and fresh air, from the windows that opened just above the garden.
She had been propped up in a sitting position in her bed, leaning against an arrangement of pillows. She was dressed in an old fashioned nightgown that extended to her broomstick-thin wrists, her hair tied back in a tight bun. Her eyes were sharp as they studied me, and her hands were steady as they raised a teacup to her lips. Her nurse stood to her left in his scrubs, her lawyer to her right was an Indian man in an immaculate suit. Her cat, maybe the largest housecat I’d ever seen, gray and well groomed, lay with its head in her lap.
She studied me, judging me, with a cool, calculating gaze.
“Well, this is refreshing,” she finally said. Her voice was clear. Not an old person’s voice. Certainly not a ninety-year old’s. “It feels like all the rest of them are dressed like they can’t wait for my funeral. Or maybe they’re too cheap to buy two outfits for the occasion.”
“With all due respect,” I said, picking my words carefully, “I don’t give a flying fuck, you disgusting, evil, rancid cunt.”
I could see the nurse tense, though the lawyer didn’t react. The feigned politeness disappeared from my grandmother’s face. Again, she raised the teacup to her mouth to sip from it. She handed it to the nurse, who turned away very reluctantly, to prepare another cup on the trolley beneath the window.
“Are you done?” she asked.
“I’m thinking both of us are very lucky you have these two men here,” I said. I put one of my feet up on the wooden chest at the foot of the bed, pointing at the trolley. “Because I’m angry enough I wouldn’t be above throwing that pitcher of water in your face.”
“I think that’s crude,” she said. “A more civilized person would use words to attack me.”
“What words are going to matter? What am I going to say that’s going to make an impact on you? Honestly, what am I going to do that’s going to make you recognize even an iota of the pain you’ve caused everyone out there?”
“And the pain I’ve caused you?” she asked. “You’re most likely right, I suppose. There’s very little that someone could say that would shake me.”
“You don’t deserve to die with dignity, you bitch,” I said. “And none of them are going to say it, because you’re playing them. Since I’m the only one that doesn’t give a fuck about the money, I figure I’m the only one that can come here and say it how it is. You’re scum, and you’re the one thing at the root of everything that’s going on out there.”
I pointed at the door. I could almost hear the shouting on the other side.
“I would argue they are at the roots of their individual problems. I didn’t make them petty, I didn’t make them greedy,” she said. She sighed a little. “This ridiculous money business.”
“You took advantage of those things, making all of this one big fucked up game. Laying down the rule, that only one person gets the property and the millions from selling it. Then you say it has to be a grandchild-“
“My children are useless,” she said. She was so dismissive and casual about it.
“-And then you drop the bomb that it has to be a girl. You broke up this family, you did it strategically. You set us tooth and nail against one another, and now you’re enjoying tearing the others down, ruining their hopes.”
She sniffed, but she smiled. I almost wanted to hit her. I wouldn’t, but I wanted to.
The nurse handed her the cup of tea. She smiled up at him. “Thank you, Rich.”
‘Rich’ turned my way. “I can offer you a cup as well, if you promise not to throw it at her.”
“Don’t offer me anything, then,” I said. I looked at my grandmother. “I don’t want anything she has to offer. Not tea, not the inheritance-“
“To clarify,” she said, “I’ve stressed repeatedly that it’s a female grandchild that will get the inheritance.”
“I’m not about to rule out the fact that you’re messing with us, Grandmother. I could see you handing something over to Callan just to see our reactions. Not to mention the trouble I’m having with the ‘I’m dying’ bit, which you’re doing a really bad job of selling.”
If anything I’d said had an impact, it was that. I could see the faint amusement drop away from her. “Are you accusing me of being a liar, Master Blake?”
I’d never heard anyone say something archly, but she pulled it off. She even said ‘Master Blake’ like it was nothing, as though she used titles as a matter of habit.
“I’m saying there isn’t anything I’d put past you.”
She sighed, a faint sound, and her cat reacted to the movement. “Close to the truth, I admit, but I consider myself honest, if nothing else.”
“Weren’t you a lawyer?”
“I am a lawyer, Master Blake, and I expect to be one until I pass on. I’m disappointed that you would make assumptions about a whole profession.”
I didn’t have a ready reply to that. I glanced at the nurse, who was shifting from foot to foot nervously. Was he uncomfortable with the friction?
“Well,” she said, “I take it you’re not going to apologize?”
“You first,” I told her. “It’s going to take you a while, so you should start sooner than later.”
She sipped her tea, winced at the heat, licking her thin lips with her tongue, and then leaned back against the arrangement of pillows.
“You remind me of my father,” she said. “He had passion, and an interest in justice.”
“He fucked his cousin, if I remember right.”
She smiled a little, “You heard of that? Yes. That would be him.”
“What are you doing, Grandmother? You want to build a rapport? Form a connection, when you’ve ignored us from the beginning?”
“I only want to understand my grandchildren before I make my decision.”
“Too bad. You’re not going to figure us out in the next day or so. What you should do is sell the property. Let the town knock down the house, level the hill, drain the marshland and expand like they need to, make them happy. Split the money between your kids and grandkids, make us happy. You want to light a fire under everyone and see them react? That’s how you do it. Then, maybe just a bit, you’ll earn a measure of forgiveness.”
“Not an option,” she said. She stroked the cat, scratching him at the lowest part of his back, just in front of his tail. “The house stands. I’m picking the young lady who I feel can look after it.”
“Then pick Paige,” I said. “She’s smart, she’s hard working, she’s independent. If you’re looking for a clone of yourself to inherit the place, to look after it, I’m betting she’ll fit the bill pretty well. She’s not a bitch, but I imagine you’ll have to make some concessions. Besides, if anyone can squeeze a few dollars out of this stone, without breaking the rules you set, it’s her. Get bribes from people, maybe, or figure out a way to keep the house while still draining the marsh, so she can go to law school.”
“Paige is out of the running,” my grandmother said. “Who else?”
I stared at her.
“You’re enjoying this. Playing us,” I finally said.
“I wouldn’t recommend jumping to conclusions, Blake. Dangerous business.”
“Look me in the eye, then, if you’re so honest, and tell me you don’t. That you don’t get some measure of glee or satisfaction out of this.”
She looked me square in the eye.
Yet she didn’t say a word.
“Thought so,” I said. “Bye, grandmother. When you do die, I hope it sucks.”
I turned to leave.
“Blake,” she said.
I stopped, my hand on the doorknob. I regretted it the moment I paused..
“When you first spoke to me, you said, ‘All due respect’. Did you mean it?”
I didn’t look at her. “All due respect, you’re a festering old cunt? One hundred percent.”
That said, I opened the door, and I slammed it behind me with enough force that pictures rattled on the walls.
My family was there, staring.
“If anyone needs me,” I said, very deliberately looking at Paige and Molly, who were standing together at the edge of the group, Molly’s arm around Paige’s shoulders. “I’m going to be outside, by the entrance.”
I made my way out of the house, down the long driveway, and settled with my back to the wall beside my bike.
I couldn’t bring myself to nap. A good night’s sleep in my place with the doors and windows firmly locked was hard enough. But I dozed, my eyes half open, a bit of a burden lifted from my shoulders.
It was well after dark when someone stepped outside to talk to me. I closed out of the puzzle game I was playing on my phone. The brightness of the screen made for a dark patch that lingered in my vision as I looked up.
Eleven-fifty at night.
“She wants us all together,” Paige said.
“Do you want to give her what she wants?” I asked, not moving.
“I’d really like some backup,” she said. All of her confidence from before was gone. “If it’s Molly that’s picked, then I can’t get the support from her, you know?”
“I know,” I said. I stood, stretching, and I was pretty sure that I’d feel stiffness in a spot or two tomorrow. “No explanation needed. I get it.”
“Thanks,” she said.
We made our way back up the driveway. I wished I had an idea of what to say, but nothing sprung to mind. Paige was too much of a stranger, in some ways. Three years was a long time.
This time, everyone had gathered in the bedroom.
Paige and I joined Molly. Paige and Molly held hands.
“I have to say, I’m painfully disappointed,” my grandmother said.
Nobody had words to reply.
“Don’t worry. The feeling is mutual,” I said.
My aunts and uncle, along with several of the older cousins, stared at me.
“Molly,” my grandmother said.
“No,” Molly responded.
“Until you’re twenty-five, the estate and all materials herein, my accounts, and all other pertinent materials enclosed in the documents,” my grandmother tapped the papers the lawyer held, “will be managed by Mr. Beasley and his firm. For that time period, you retain control over those assets, with free access to the full funds, modest as they are, and full access to all things relating to the property, excepting the ability to sell it. When you turn twenty-five, you may do with it as you wish.”
“I don’t want it,” Molly said, stepping forward.
“Molly! Don’t be rash!” Aunt Irene admonished her.
“I don’t want it,” Molly said, again. She grabbed the footboard of the bed. “No.“
“Molly, don’t be silly.”
“If you don’t want any of it, then you remain free to ignore it,” my grandmother said. “Mr. Beasley? Is everything in order? Provisos, follow-up?”
“Everything’s signed and arranged.”
My grandmother nodded. “Rich, you’ve been wonderful. I set aside some money already, to thank you.”
The nurse looked stunned. He looked at my family. “No. It’s not allowed.”
“I insist. Take it and give it to a favorite charity, if you must.”
Even then, he looked a little taken aback.
He probably thinks my family’s going to come after him if he accepts.
She probably plotted this. Hurting us by favoring the nurse over us.
“If Molly doesn’t want it, I’ll take it,” Callan said. “She can sign over the rights-“
“Fuck you,” Ellie said.
“Granny? Why didn’t you pick me?” Little Roxanne piped up.
I felt Paige clutch my hand tight.
“You okay?” I murmured.
Grim, her mouth set in a line, eyes on the floor, Paige nodded.
“Granny!” Roxanne raised her voice, more than a little shrill. “You don’t love me enough to give me anything?”
So that was her angle. Everyone was making a play, and the youngest of the grandchildren that could speak was making the ‘sweetheart’ play. Or the entitled brat play, depending on perspective. Misdirected, considering who my grandmother was, but that hardly mattered.
My grandmother hadn’t reacted. I frowned.
“Blake?” my dad asked. “Where are you staying tonight?”
“Going home,” I said.
“If you wanted to have a late dinner and stay over-“
“No,” I said. “I don’t want that.”
“Alright,” he said.
I watched as the nurse approached the bedside. He touched my grandmother’s hand.
Things went quiet very quickly.
Nurse Rich looked at his watch. “Two past twelve.”
The arguing had distracted him. The time was off by two minutes.
My grandmother and her cat were both dead.
“I need to go make a phone call,” the nurse said. He strode from the room.
Silence followed, broken only by the footsteps of the nurse in the hallway, and the shuffling of papers as the lawyer put things away in a messenger bag.
“Listen,” my uncle said, broaching the near-silence. “We should have a sit down, talk about the sale of the property, when the time comes, a division of the funds-“
Aunt Irene barked out a laugh. “Oh, now you talk about dividing up the proceeds? I seem to recall, only a few hours ago, that you told me it wouldn’t work.”
More arguing, more stupidity.
Why had I told myself it would be over?
“Get out,” Molly said, her voice hard.
“You heard my daughter,” Aunt Irene said. “Out. It’s her house and her say.”
“You too,” Molly said. “Everyone out.”
“She can’t do that,” Uncle Paul said. “We were invited here.”
“I could call the authorities, Miss Rosine,” the lawyer suggested. “For the time being, I’m at your service.”
“There wouldn’t be a point,” Uncle Paul said.
“Just go,” Molly said. “Go. You’re not going to scheme your way into any deals here. You’re not going to get some advantage or screw me out of my deal. Not tonight. I’m done talking, I’m done listening. Go, and leave me alone, and when you’ve figured out a plan of attack, run it by my lawyer first. Not me.”
Slowly, the aunts and uncles, my mother and father, and the various grandchildren filtered out of the room.
Paige squeezed my hand, and then broke contact, leaving the room.
“Molly,” I said. “Hey.”
She looked up at me. She looked spooked, even now.
“Why is the cat dead?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe it was dead all along, and she was fucking with us.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Listen, Molly, family’s supposed to support each other. I figured I’d offer some support. I don’t have anywhere to be, no obligations. If you’re worried about locals giving you a hard time, whatever you need, I can stick around.”
“Uh huh,” Callan said, from the doorway. “Clever bastard. You don’t want the property. You want to scheme your way in with whoever else gets the place.”
“Fuck off, Callan,” I said.
But I could see the expression on Molly’s face change.
Doubt. Only a little doubt.
“I don’t want to deal with any of this. With any of that. Of this.”
“Okay,” I said. “The lawyer has my number. Ask him, get in touch, anything you need. Okay?”
I was the last one to leave. Molly followed me down, and stood in awkward silence as I pulled on my boots.
“Bye,” I said. “Good seeing you.”
“Bye, Blake.” she said.
The door swung shut. My view of her and the lawyer in the background narrowing, then disappearing entirely.
I made my way down the path. My Uncle’s car pulled out, and I saw the younger kids in the windows, staring at me.
I stopped short as I saw my bike.
Tipped over in a way that had scraped it hard against the stone wall. Headlight and taillight broken.
Trying to think of whether I had seen any garages nearby, or whether they’d even be open at this hour, I started the agonizingly slow journey to downtown Jacob’s Bell.
Four months later.
There was a pause. Glances were exchanged down both lengths of the table. On one side, women and girls of varying ages, all blonde, in matching shades of green, white and blue. On the other, appearances varied. Men and women, old and young. Hair color and appearance varied, but there was little doubt they were a family.
“Huh,” the man at the one end of the table said. A member of the family. “I’d hoped she would slip in her old age. A shame, she made other arrangements.”
The blonde woman opposite him folded her hands in front of her. “That was… noteworthy in scale. Kind of her to point the way, but she was never crude. We’ll need to know what she did before we move on.”
“Agreed,” the man said. He opened a pocketwatch, glancing inside. “For now, let it be. There is enough at stake here that someone is bound to make a play.”
The blonde woman nodded. She turned her attention to the pair on either side of her, a blonde girl and a dark haired boy. reaching out for their hands. “I believe we were talk about wedding plans?”
Another scene, not too far away.
Lopsided, everything turned to a right angle. A house, messy, with pizza boxes and garbage here and there. Two twenty-something individuals, a boy and a girl, approached, getting so close their faces filled the field of vision.
A lurch, and the view was righted.
“Something big just happened,” the girl said. “Told you. Just now, I told you.”
“You’ve been ‘telling’ me for a while now. This doesn’t mean we should do anything.”
“You’ve got no balls, Andy. No balls. We should investigate, and, just to be safe, we should investigate with weapons in hand.”
“I don’t- no, Eva. This is dangerous, and-”
“And what? We should ignore it all?”
“So are we, little brother. So are we,” she said. She opened the ledge beneath the living room window, hefting a crossbow. She threw it at him.
“Fuck!” he shouted. “Eva!”
“It’s not loaded, dink,” she said. She picked up a revolver, then spun the chamber. “What should we bring? Silver bullets, inscribed bullets, incendiary bullets…”
“Cold-forged iron,” he responded, a little sullen. “Bone. Paper. Every other follows different rule. What looks like a goblin could be a demon, or a wraith, or a glamour. I mean, you remember those ‘vampires’ from out west.”
“Faerie with a thing for boring teenage virgins? Sure.”
“You’re not getting what I’m saying. If they can fool themselves into thinking they’re vampires, and believe it to the point it becomes sort of true, sparkly skin aside, then they can fool us. This is what bothers me about all this. You can’t make any guarantees, you can’t slap on convenient labels. It’s why we call them others. You can’t plot-”
“We can try. And if we can murder self-deluding faerie, we can murder whatever this is.”
“Even if it’s human?”
“You’re supposed to be the smart one in this partnership. Anything that can knock the metronome over isn’t human anymore, or it won’t be for long. Let’s assume I’m going out anyways, what do I need?”
Andy sat down, leaning back. He sighed heavily. “Bring everything? Might as well bring me.”
“Now we’re talking,” Eva said, smiling.
A third scene.
“What the drat was that?” A girl asked. She stood in the snowy field, her checkered scarf frozen hard. “It felt like something moved.”
“Someone moved,” a young man responded. “Come on, now. You know better. Everything has a price when you’re dealing with this world, Maggie. Even answers to stupid questions.”
“Right. Thanks,” she said. “I’ll figure it out myself, Padraic. I hope it’s a noob. Be nice to not be the rookie on the block.”
“Funny thing, Maggie,” Padraic said, and when he smiled, the expression extended further than it should have. The smile too wide, the eyes too long and narrow. “When something momentous occurs, it can be the equivalent of lighting up the night sky, scattering fog and clouds to the horizons. You can see more clearly… but when you look, they can look back, too.”
Maggie went stiff. “They’re watching. And listening. Darn it. Now I’m going to have to do something.”
“I’ll give you that one for free. It was worth it, to see that expression on your face.”
He reached out, to touch her face, and she slapped his hand aside, hard. The small impact banished the scene.
A girl or a woman, swaddled in winter clothes. Shouting, pointing.
The individual on the receiving end was a rabbit, sitting on a snow-covered rock.
The rabbit turned, and the girl turned to look in the same direction.
Bending down, she reached through the snow until she found a stone. She threw it right for the center of the ‘image’, breaking the ‘picture’.
A weathered aboriginal woman, brushing a young girl’s hair with a broad-toothed comb. It might have been an ordinary scene, except it was the dead of night.
She picked up a chain, then shackled the girl at the wrist. She noted the observer, then scattered the image with a wave of one hand.
A man, sitting on a throne, a tall, long-nosed, long-haired dog at his side. The room at the top of the tower was subject to strong winds, and his long hair blew as the dog’s did.
Below, the small village sprawled. Jacob’s Bell. Except things were different. A twisted reflection of the buildings, with embellishments and decorations. Arches, steepled roofs, pointed roofs that curled and bent in zig-zags. All lit up in crimson sunset.
The other visions had been at night.
The dog looked up. “Johannes.”
“Mm,” the man in the throne said. “‘Lo, stranger. Listen, I don’t think you should believe what any of them say about me. If you need help, I can offer it.”
“For a price,” the dog added.
“For a price. Resist the urge to dismiss what you just saw, you’re in a bad enough situation as it stands. Now do yourself a favor and wake up.”
I sat up in bed.
That feeling Molly had described, four months ago? Being surrounded? I could feel it.
I felt like I had when I had been homeless, sleeping under the bridge, where there weren’t any lights to break up the oppressive darkness.
Resist the urge to dismiss what you just saw.
I stood up from bed, staggering for the bathroom.
It wasn’t my face in the mirror above the sink. Nor my body. A girl looked at me, her forehead creased in worry. She was wearing a camisole and pyjama bottoms. She looked strangely familiar.
I had to touch my own chest and face to verify it wasn’t my reflection. I was shirtless, wearing different pants. Her movements didn’t follow mine.
Instead, her fist struck the other side of the mirror. When she spoke, it was only a little muffled.
“Run,” she said. “Get to the house, now.”
“Which house? Who-”
“Molly’s dead,” she said. “You’re next.”
The conviction in her voice left me with no doubt she was telling the truth.
My voice was thin as I responded. “Molly’s dead? She was supposed to call if there was trouble.”
“Blake, I get it. I do. But you’re next, understand? Grandmother made other arrangements, and those arrangements just came into play. The house is in your custody now, and so are all of Grandmother’s enemies. Understand? She has a lot. The house is sanctuary, Blake. Molly died because she panicked, and she left the safe ground. Don’t make that same mistake. Move. Run.”
“Run!” She hit the mirror, and it cracked from the point of impact. Pieces on my end fell, landing on the countertop and sink.
“Bear with me,” I spoke to my companion. I struggled to manage the bulky life-sustaining apparatus. “This is something of a puzzle. No money, they’ll be looking for us, and I’ll need a lab if I’m to fix you up.”
My hard shoes sloshed through the shallow puddles, and the water flowed in through the gaps between sole and shoe, laces and the tongue.
“First option would be to suborn myself, put myself in league to some back-alley flesh peddler. I imagine it would be someone like the man who bought your injured body and patched you into the thinking machine.”
He didn’t reply. Couldn’t. I added, “Don’t worry. That’s not an option. Too easy to wind up someone’s Igor, and I won’t speak of what happens when one is a young lady.”
It was cold, and I was wet, and I was getting colder and wetter. The rain was supposed to clean the city, but it felt more like it was stirring up the noxiousness that had been content to lay flat against the ground. A coppery smell, with traces of offal and sweat. It was thick enough in the air that I could taste it in my mouth, as if it crept down past my nasal cavities and reached the back of my tongue.
The droplets of moisture that bounced back from every raindrop formed a kind of mist that highlighted the edges and tops of roofs and lamps.
“First priority,” I said, “Is finding shelter. You won’t handle the cold very well, like that. Not with the shock to your mind and body so recent. Trust me, sir. Give me all of your faith, relax.”
The stroke of God’s hand, I thought. The original meaning of the term, dating back to the year sixteen-hundred or so. For ‘thinking machines’, the lack of stimulus and motor function would inevitably lead to a critical failure in the brain, with internal bleeding and permanent damage. Depending on how heavily the brains were crosswired, how blood supply was shared, and the complexity of the machine, the stroke could impact others, if not the entire grid.
The chances would increase with stress and fear. It wouldn’t do me any good if my one ally in this were touched by God’s hand, so to speak. I needed him calm.
Doctors had started lobotomizing the thinking machine operators, maintaining only the necessary functions for counting or theory.
It was more ethical. It wasn’t an option for me.
It was also telling, I noted, that my partner here hadn’t been treated. Was it a question of the short time he’d been in the company of the others, or had he been working on something else? It could be as innocuous as the attempted writing of a great play by machine, where any limitations in the brains would impact the piece. It could be a part of a larger project.
The question was, what did a back-alley doctor need with a thinking machine?
There were too many uncertainties, here, yet I needed help. I needed to reach out to somebody, but an honest gentleman would turn me into the authorities. A dishonest man would sell me out.
The men and women I saw in the shadows weren’t quite ordinary. The men had thick, broad chests and muscular arms, the women had wide hips and narrow waists, many well past the point of exaggeration. Here and there, someone had eyes that caught the light in a funny way, like a dog or a cat might. I couldn’t be sure if they were looking at me, noting the young woman with the head, mechanical heart and jars of blood.
Injections and surgical alterations were available for pennies if one was willing to sacrifice quality or accept a side effect or two. Those side effects might be hair that grew in thicker, a hardness in the abdomen where an organ had swelled and would remain swelled, a hunger pang for a particular food or at a particular time, to sate something that had been added or taken away.
Horror stories circulated among students in the University, of poorly done reconstructions and alterations. A mother who ate her child, a man who went too far in reconstructing himself and began dismantling people in a mindless, automatic urge to add to himself.
Maybe they were true. Probably true, I mentally revised the statement. There was bound to be some note of truth to them. Those, however, were the exceptions. If I objectively separated myself from the student’s mindset, the real horror stories were the most common ones. The things that ran rampant, in the midst of all this, with thousands of people handing over hard earned money for better bodies, only to pay a price after the fact.
There was the fact that people sought it out. The University didn’t need to manipulate or leverage anything to make it happen. They provided a path to changing one’s body, mind or overall physiology, and the people gladly took that road. All the University needed to do was leave the door open.
All of these things required maintenance. Chemicals or surgery that altered the body or the brain often needed to be touched up from time to time, issues corrected.
The question was, who required the most maintenance, while wanting the least attention from the authorities?
I made my way down the road, glad to put as much distance between myself and the station as possible. I was soaked, through and through, and my arms were aching where the life support device was digging through my sleeves. My wet stockings squished in my soaked shoes, and Dolores was clutching my upper arm tightly to leech warmth from me, until it almost hurt.
“I know where we need to go,” I said. But we need a little luck on top of that.
I took a winding path through the city. Part of my reason was to lose the trail, the other was out of a lack of familiarity with the area.
I saw some individuals that were dressed poorly, a little dirtier than most, boys and girls who might not have had homes to return to, one chimerical creation that had gotten loose at some point in the past and was now devouring trash in the ditch. I was moving in the right direction.
Cities were organisms, with a heartbeat of their own. Everything was built with some manner of chaotic logic. Almost always, a city was founded on water. The first buildings that went down went down near the nearest, clearest source of drinking water, and things unfolded from there. Roads served as the concourses by which resources were distributed, as veins carried blood, hormones and nutrients.
The most essential buildings were the first to be established. Homes, facilities, churches, essential businesses. Less essential businesses would follow, then the least essential.
It should have made sense. In an ideal world, it would have. It didn’t. Perhaps the theory didn’t apply quite so accurately as I’d hoped. Perhaps I was making a grave error in judgement, in terms of how I classified this type of business.
I knocked, and a tense moment passed.
“Play dead,” I said. “Better if they don’t think you have a brain, for the time being.”
There was no way for him to answer, so I had to trust he could hear.
Even on the outside steps, I could feel the force of the foosteps inside. The door opened with such force that the lantern that hung outside swayed. The tallow flame within cast light through the red-tinted glass, making the light around us dance briefly.
A brute of a man stood opposite me. He had an underbite, his bad teeth spaced apart, his brow heavy. He was broad shouldered, hamfisted, a caricature of a man. He was dressed neat, with a collared shirt and silk vest, his hair parted. Maybe it was meant to speak to the class of the establishment, or a way of downplaying his appearance. Instead, it seemed to draw attention to the things that were wrong.
I’d lucked out. Whether that was good or bad luck remained to be seen.
“I have a proposition,” I said.
“We don’t serve women here,” he said. He looked me up and down, unashamed. “And you’re a bother to work with. No.”
“Not that,” I said. “Not either of those things.”
“If you’re selling that, I don’t want it.”
“Not that either,” I said. “I need a room.”
“No space,” he said. “And no reason to give you a room anyways.”
“Room, board, and a few things” I said, “In exchange, you have free use of my services. I was a student at the University, a scientist in training. I have skills.”
“I know people, I can get whatever you’re offering already.”
“For free? In a timely fashion?” I asked.
“Not free,” he said, frowning. “For room, board, and whatever else you’re asking for, and no doubt my silence. On a good night, having one more room helps business plenty, and I have enough secrets to keep.”
“I understand,” I said. “You took a regimen of the Balfour formula?”
“Little lady,” he said, and his deep voice had a dangerous note to it, “I recommend you find another place to get dry.”
My voice caught, forcing me to stop and swallow the lump in my throat before I could try again. I wanted to sound confident, but I wasn’t good at it. I fell back on what I knew, instead. “Done right, the Balfour formula makes you strong, promotes masculine features, builds muscle. Just the sort of thing a… service provider like yourself needs to keep customers in check and employees in line. Done wrong, it induces gigantism and acromegaly. The pituitary dumps hormones into the body. You grow, and if it’s done very badly, you don’t stop growing. Eventually, the heart gives out. It’s not hard to figure out.”
“You know your babble. Good for you. Find another place to hide you. If I find you sleeping on my stoop, I’ll kick you. Don’t think I won’t.”
“Balfour’s formula makes you more impulsive. You’re an adolescent boy at the height of a hormone surge, all the time. You want… company, you’re always a touch drunk, you want to fight more than you did. Some people like it. At first. Few enjoy it. Not five years after the fact, when the body still hasn’t reached an equilibrium.”
“Give the girl an apple,” he said. “Three years.”
“I knew because of your teeth. When you grow too fast, and the growth plates shift to that extent, your teeth shift position. Your body can’t grow like that without getting the materials from somewhere, and your teeth are one of those places. An infected tooth leeches calcium from the bone, and a damaged bone can leech calcium from the teeth. I can look at it, and I can figure it’s been about three years.”
“Mmm hmm,” he said.
“It would have been excruciating, growing so quickly, so fast. Your posture is suffering, this late in the day, which makes me think you haven’t stopped growing. Your hands will hurt, making even holding something painful, the tissues must well. The teeth bother you more than anything, I’m sure, since you’ll be endlessly hungry but the teeth are falling apart.”
“Everyone has problems,” he said.
I continued, almost unable to help myself. “You haven’t had them fixed. You’re spending the money elsewhere. My guess? Someone offered you the Balfour regimen, there were side effects, and now you’re still going back to them for regular care, to keep your heart going, to get calcium, and to get pain relief. Anyone that works for you goes to him too, because it’s convenient.”
“And… you’re under his thumb. Maybe he’s said no other doctor would know the ins and outs of your body like he does. Or he’s said other scary things. If you were going to look for help despite that, the nature of your business means you don’t want people looking at it too hard. I’m offering you a way out.”
He folded his arms, glowering at me. “You’re saying he lied? I could go to any doctor, and the care I get would be just as good?”
“No. He’s right. Any other care, it wouldn’t be as good as the care you get from a doctor who knows the full case history. One of the best tools we have are the living ratios. Charts and scales we memorize, or try to memorize. Constants and patterns, across medicine and biology. The more he knows about you, the better he can put the pieces into place, intuitively knowing the measures and doses required to fix you… except he’s the one that broke you in the first place, isn’t he?”
“I just finished a year working on a project built on bone and enamel. Give me one month and some things to start, and I’ll give you new teeth. Give me a few months, and I’ll fix your jaw. For as long as you keep me, I can help with the pain. On demand, with no having to wait until this other doctor can make the time.”
“I am already irritated with you, little lady. You’re giving me the patter I might expect from a snake oil salesman, you woke me up early enough I won’t be able to go back to sleep. You want to overturn my unpleasant but tolerable life. The idea of spending any more time with you is making me want to hit something.”
He’s considering the idea, then? “I had a roommate. I know how to be quiet and stay out of the way. I’d prefer it, working in peace, when I’m not working for your benefit.”
He glowered at me, briefly chewing his lips, before looking away. He sighed, heavily.
When he finally spoke, he said, “Room, you eat what they cook. What do you need, for supplies?”
“Surgical implements, but I’ll make do with kitchen knives. I need a voltaic horse, alive or dead, but it’s going to die, so dead is probably more convenient, cheaper. A table with a flat surface and a chair, a bed, a hot bath and a change of clothes. Once I have that, I can manage on my own.”
“The horse will be expensive.”
“I’m suspicious you could buy a voltaic horse every two months with what you’re paying the other Doctor.”
He turned to step back into the foyer, leaving the door open. I took it as an invitation to follow.
I felt a thrill of victory. I might not be able to navigate the unfamiliar parts of a city with ease, but I knew my science.
If the streets had smelled like blood and sweat, the interior had a trace odor of other, baser things.
“Stay,” he said, as we reached the sitting room. Velvet-covered chairs and loveseats littered the area, and a small bar stood in one corner, unoccupied.
Three women, my age, reclined in the open space. I knew them, in a manner of speaking.
‘Daisy’ was blonde, conventionally attractive with a wasp waist, though she wore a bathrobe.
Both ‘Violets’, by contrast, were brunette, more slender, with a smattering of freckles on their faces. The freckles varied slightly in intensity and placement, but the shape of their faces and their bodies were the same. One might have been a year or two younger than the other.
Mass produced people, also known as centuplets, despite the fact that there were more than a hundred of each.
I found a flat space near the fireplace and set my companion down. The artificial blood pump first, then the head.
“Who’s he?” Violet asked. Coy, mischievous, but Violets were. They were also perpetually active, which might have explained why the two Violets were awake so early.
“Leave them alone,” Daisy said, before taking another puff of the cigarette. I knew Daisy was more businesslike.
“Who are you, miss?” Violet two echoed her sister, smiling a little, in a way that reached the corners of her eyes. Deliberately annoying Daisy.
“She,” the master of the house said, as he appeared in the entryway, “Has no identity. She does not exist, you do not mention her to anyone. You ignore her, unless it’s an emergency. She receives breakfast and dinner. If there is a dispute, you win, she loses. While she is here, the bedroom at the far end of the hallway is off limits.”
“Yes, sir,” the centuplets chimed, in unison. Practiced.
“I understand,” I said.
“You leave them be. I paid a pretty penny for them, and I won’t have you spoiling them. They’re trained, domesticated, know everything they need to know. Disturb my business in the slightest, and this arrangement is done.”
“I intend to stay out of your way,” I said.
“You’re dripping water on my hardwood. Come. Your room.”
I went, leaving the head behind to warm up.
He’d laid out a change of clothes, as well as sheets. As rooms went, it was smaller than my room at the University. Worse, the smell I’d noticed in the house was thicker here.
It was a place of business, after all, for those ladies of the night.
Still, I couldn’t be too picky. He had a reason to stay out of people’s way, to avoid the authorities.
“I’m Lacy, so you know,” I said, giving a false name.
“Linus Gibson,” he replied. “If there is trouble and you are discovered, I will say I thought you were a student that was renting this space and working from here, instead of the University. I will be shocked and appalled to know you are not legitimate, and I will do everything I can to ensure I get no blame. I can play stupid, and I will. You understand?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Where is your head?”
“The head? I left it by the fireplace.”
“If I’m supposed to ignore you, I won’t have your things lying about. Collect it.”
“If I could leave it, just before I get my own fire going-” I gestured at the little stove. “It’s cold, and there could be brain-”
He gave me a hard look.
“I’ll go get him,” I said. “Can I briefly collect your bellows, while I do? You’ll have them back before lunch.”
The hard look intensified. I could imagine the thoughts running through his mind.
“I expect them back in working order. I’m going to try to rest, and you’re to be silent. You’ll have the other things you need tonight or tomorrow.”
I hurried off, to grab the head. Bending down and reaching, I could feel my arms and back ache with the irritation of hauling it this far. I made my way back to the bedroom, almost tripping with the awkward burden of head, machine and bellows, and then closed the door.
Using only my hands, no tools available, I dismantled the least essential aspects of the machine, the cosmetic and the convenient things that made it so it could be carried.
The heard stared, silent, as I rigged the bellows to the series of brass gears. It was moving slower, with the extra pull. Was it too slow? Less oxygen would have a negative effect, given this was already close to a minimum.
The hardest aspect was rigging the bellows to the base of the neck, where a cap of metal had been screwed into place. There were openings, but the tube was the wrong size. I settled for a scrap of cloth from the tie at my collar, to block the difference, wadding it in.
“I’m Genevieve Fray,” I introduced myself to the head.
The heart and the attached mechanism raised the upper half of the bellows, then slowly moved them down. Air moved through his throat and mouth, a long exhalation.
“Will,” he wheezed. “Will Howell.”
I took advantage of the gear’s upswing, the slow raise of the bellow’s arm. “Do you need anything, Will? Are you hurt? Cold?”
“Thirsty,” he said. He sounded more like a little boy than a man. “I’m parched.”
Of course. There wasn’t anything hooked up to provide hydration. It was a temporary rig.
“I can put something together. I’ll need to find if there are any empty jars in the pantry.”
“No. I can wait,” he said. He sounded out of sorts.
Well, he was a disembodied head, it couldn’t have been easy.
“Putting water in your mouth wouldn’t help,” I said. “There isn’t a place for it to go. I’ll need to prepare something soon. A checklist.”
“You’re really one of them. Good god.”
“Yes, how else did you think I would give you a new body?” I asked. I waited for him to respond. With him breathing this way, it would be too easy to dominate the conversation.
“N-never understood it. I left home for three years, came back…” he paused, waiting for the bellows to come down again, he used the delay to close his eyes, hard, as if shutting out the world. “…everything was different. The academy is five times the size, people…”
I needed a working relationship with him. I was patient, giving him the voice he likely hadn’t had since he was thrown from the rooftop. I stepped over to the fire, to start it.
“…are stranger. There are monsters, people with horns, skin as white as alabaster, and people treat them as if they were commonplace.”
Everything was already in place in the fireplace, no doubt for a girl expecting a customer. I started it, then stood and approached Will. “These strange things are commonplace, now. Where did you go for those three years?”
“Detroit. Engineering, Learning to work with hard sciences. Not so…” his voice pitched high as he tried to rush the last words out before the air stopped.
I reached out, moving the arm away, raised and lowered the bellows myself. My hand ran over the rest of the machine, checking. Blood was forcibly oxygenated by natural intake and bacteria cultures, no doubt.
“Not so glamorous… as you lot. As the wet sciences… Frowned on.”
I turned the head around, and then began changing into the drier clothes.
His voice had a different tone to it as he spoke. Hollow, and not the hollowness of a lungless man speaking. “Came home with my partner, saw my father… He had been very traditional, but he had mailed me and told me he had two stitch servants.”
“Yes. He saw my hair, was upset when I… told him I had changed the color.”
I looked at his dark hair.
“He said I have someone else’s hair now.”
“Different genetics. You had someone change the color by changing your own code.”
“It was inexpensive, easier and less messy than applying bootblack. It was a lark, my friend and business partner… Hudson…”
He paused, and it wasn’t because he was waiting for air.
His voice cracked when he spoke, “N-not my friend, I suppose. Hudson pushed… me to do it. Couldn’t undo it and get home… in time. Decided to brave it. I was wrong.”
“I am no longer my father’s son… not in blood, he said… even if I changed my hair back, it wouldn’t be the same hair I was born with… someone else’s blond hair.”
“He kicked you out?”
Again, the hollowness. It was hard to listen to, enough that I felt uncomfortable, fidgety. “Yes. I went with Hudson… brought money I had saved, to help with his business and pay my way… he used the money for the business, stole the rest and pushed… pushed me from the roof.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I finished dressing and turned the head back around. “Truly.”
“One of you did this to me.”
“One of us will fix it, given a chance,” I said, my voice serious. “I will fix it.”
He’d uttered one word, for a long breath of air.
“Why fix it? I need help.”
“Why break out? Why all this? I heard them talking… They would have released you.”
“Would they? I’m not so sure. We get locked up for a time, without access to tools, while they check on us. A lot of upper class men, several upper class ladies. People from families with money. Families they cannot readily offend. But they put a lot into us. I do not think all of us go home. Letting too many go with their knowledge intact, it makes for competition.”
“What happens, then?”
“They give us drugs, to keep us going. Ox, stimulants, depressants, narcotics. Free access. If a student dies, it’s their fault, for neglecting ratios and vital numbers. The family receives condolences, and they do not speak of it to friends. An accident. Perhaps the ones that are smart enough to be problematic and too disloyal to work for the University meet accidents, perhaps they use those drugs to lure us back in, while asking if we want a different role, working for the University in a different capacity, dangling the bait of returning, continuing our work. Perhaps there are other means,” I said.
I met his eyes. They were green, framed by a brow that was furrowed in concern.
“Don’t believe it. They wouldn’t… They can’t.”
“It’s all chemicals,” I said. “They get the body used to it, then take it away, and the body suffers, the mind craves. Simple, really. Except someone like me? They wouldn’t waste drugs. If they realized my family didn’t have money or influence to spare any longer, that my father is dead, my mother in the care of her brother, they wouldn’t be kind to me. They’re vast, you understand? The united Universities have an influence so broad the government couldn’t hope to touch them. I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t become a part of a thinking machine like you were.”
I could see the fear and pain on his expression. Loss.
Again, I thought of the ‘stroke of god’s hand’. I had to be gentler, until he had a full body, a way to release the pain and stress that was building up inside him.
“Unlike you, I wouldn’t have had any chance of escape, no hope of getting a body and eventually buying a vat-grown body made from my own cells. You can regain everything you’ve lost. Help me, and I’ll help you in turn.”
“You want revenge, too?” Will asked me.
“Yes. No. I… I want to answer them.”
The restlessness was too much. I stood abruptly from the bed. I made my way to the window and threw it open. The rain made tiny droplets on my skin and the nightie I wore, but the fresh air was nice, especially with the thick atmosphere in the room. Cold, but the house was warmer. They were perhaps starting up the stoves in the kitchen.
“What did you notice when you returned to the city?” I asked. “Are they good? The changes you saw?”
“It’s… God, no,” he said. “L- look at me!”
His voice had pitched higher, but he couldn’t manage more volume.
I stayed calm, hoping the attitude would convey itself to him somehow, as I might act with a strange beast in the laboratories back at the University. I shut the window. “I know. Besides yourself?”
“We’re making ourselves into monsters, desecrating the dead… All in the name of vanity and greed.”
“And a share of desperation,” I added. “A drive to keep up and compete with others who are doing the same.”
“Yes. Everything I see, it scares me a little more… Just now, back there… the identical women.”
“The centuplets, the ladies of the gardens, whatever term you want to use. Non-people, no rights by law, as they have no mother or father.”
His voice broke a little, “They’re terrifying. God, I had no idea, the first times I saw them, but to hear them speak, out of earshot?”
“I know. I do. I didn’t like it, but I told myself that it could be better, Will. That it would find its balance. I lived by the pragmatism my parents instilled in me, weighing the options every time I thought about using chemicals to get ahead, and always deciding to play it safe, to take the slow and steady road. I chose to be the turtle, and I lost to the rabbits.”
“I’m not sure I understand… I’m confused. About everything.”
“I think I was telling myself that if I could play it safe, if I could do things the right way, without compromising, then it was acceptable, there was hope. But I was betrayed, like you were, by a roommate, possibly by others. They spoiled my project, and I can imagine any number of things where they have tricked and sabotaged me. Ox never did much for me. I wonder now if they stole it or diluted it, to set me back, or because they wanted more than their ration.”
I stopped, hearing sounds elsewhere in the house. If Linus was going to go find out if someone was looking for me, now would be a time. But the creaks of the floorboards were too soft to be Linus.
“You’re answering this?” Will asked me.
Distracted, I tried to return my mind to the thrust of my argument. “I’m.. looking at the system like I look at Linus, out there. The owner of this… establishment. Things have grown too fast, and they’re on the brink of coming apart. The growth is draining on essential resources, just to sustain itself, it’s ultimately conflicting with itself. Here, everywhere the Universities are cropping up. Something needs to respond to it. There isn’t anything to keep it in check.”
“One person, against that?”
“No. Two people,” I said. “Two people and Dolores, here.”
I worked Dolores free of my sleeve, then held her close to my body to warm her.
“Two people and a small monster.”
“And more, Will, if we can manage it. I want to raise questions, in the public’s eye, because I know they’re aware of what’s going on, that they’re getting shortchanged in this bargain. I know they’re scared. I want to rally people against the University, get people angry. To give the University a reason to slow down, to hold back.”
I could see the doubt on his face.
“There’s a lot of room for this to go wrong. I know. I’m not a fool, William Howell. But what’s the alternative? We let the University keep growing? Until it touches everything, more than it already does, and then we watch it die and take everything with it? We wait for one critical mistake to be made, and a plague takes us all?”
“They’ve assured us that there are counter….” Will said. “Measures, from the moment the first person raised the idea… Even before I left for my studies.”
“They’re lying,” I said. “Or they’re wrong. I’ve been there. I didn’t study disease, specifically, but I saw. I could describe the safeguards they use, and how a disease could spread despite them. Give me two hours, and I’ll explain it all.”
“That’s not- no,” he said. “I’m thinking maybe you’re crazy. Maybe you’re lying, to get this vendetta going.”
But I could see the note of fear on his face.
One person, with a seed of doubt. Six hundred and seventy thousand, five hundred and ninety-nine to go.
“I’m confused,” he said, again.
“You lost everything,” I said. “I understand that.”
He blinked, hard. I respected him by looking away.
“I think I need to wait…” he said. “To think about it. I’m not in…”
His voice broke, an odd sound combined with the faint whoosh of the bellows.
“…the right frame of mind,” he finished.
“We have time to discuss it, to lay plans,” I said. “I promised you a body. That’s going to take two or three weeks to put together, if not longer. It depends on how quickly we get the materials. I should unhook this from your heart, reduce strain on the device, unless you have something more to say?”
“No. I’m tired. I need to sleep. Somehow.”
“Me too. Let me get you your water, I’ll hook it up.”
I crept down the hall and begged a large mason jar from a Lily that had roused and was going about her routine. An Eastern woman, by appearance, she was American by dialect. Prim, proper, demure. I liked Lilies, I got along with them.
I collected two metal cans, mitts to hold them, boiled water for one, and a length of rubber hose. Lily was accommodating in showing me where things were, in the midst of preparing breakfast.
Accommodating on the surface.
It didn’t take long to hook up the water.
“What… would happen if you hadn’t helped me?” he asked.
“They would have interrogated you.”
“They would have no use for you. Who spends the time and money giving you a proper body again, Will? Do you truly believe a good samaritan would have stepped forward and offered a solution?”
“If we’d met in different circumstances… I don’t know.”
“What of this circumstance?” he asked.
“I don’t function well alone. I like to feel like I’m a part of something. There’s a strength in that. Humans are social creatures. I had my family, and then I had the University… and I was facing the prospect of having nobody at all.”
“So you take me? I don’t know you,” he said.
“I don’t know you either, Will Howell. But that’s okay. So long as we’re allies in this, it’s okay if you disagree with me. Having a wall to bounce ideas off of can help with brainstorming. My best project was a collaborative work.”
I indicated Dolores’ can of water.
“And you’re moving on to… convince the people to join your side? Going to war against the University?”
“Revolution, not war,” I said. “Changing perspectives about what’s going on. Stirring people to act.”
“Perspective is the only difference between revolution… and rebellion.”
“Are we allies in this, Will? Can you see where I’m coming from?”
“You’re convincing me,” he said. “But Hudson convinced me too, and I see where that led me.”
“I want a partner, Will, not a subordinate. Not a slave. Tell me how you want to approach this, I’ll respect your decision.”
“I- I have doubts, Miss… I’m tired. I’ve forgotten.”
“Miss Fray. But I’ll face my doubts on my own, and decide if they need to be shared. I think I’ll have enough time to think and do nothing else.”
“I’ll give you a body in short order, Will.”
“I know. Thank you. For now, do as you wish. Don’t…” he paused. His voice had dropped a touch in volume when he continued, “Don’t worry about me.”
“If I may do as I wish, then, can I ask how you want to sleep? May I pick you up?”
“Yes?” he made it a question.
I answered through action. I checked the fire, then retreated to the bed, careful of the cords and tubes. I moved a pillow, so he had a place to rest, and laid him down, before lying down beside him and pulling the covers up.
When we had settled, his head rested in the crook between my bosom and the pillow.
“Tell me if you object,” I murmured. “I thought perhaps a little human contact would help.”
Dolores splashed in the narrow confines of her can.
Will hadn’t responded. His eyes were closed. He looked a touch more at ease.
Not necessarily asleep, but it was hard to tell, when he didn’t breathe.
I needed information, to find this ‘Hudson’, and the man who had turned him into this.
I also needed information on other fronts. The officers would be upset, after I’d sedated their guards and fled with a witness for another crime, but I wouldn’t be a threat. Ex-students living in the periphery of the city wasn’t so unusual.
The moment I started working against the University, however, I’d have enemies. They would start looking for me in earnest.
I needed information before I could find a key point for a dramatic strike against them, or a subtle maneuver that might set them back.
What means did I have? Gossip? Too unreliable. Infiltrating the University? Suicidal. Could I go to a private investigator?
Possible. A safe, sensible route.
A route that needed funds, before anything else. I needed the information, I needed reputation, and a thumb on the pulse of the community. I needed to be in a position to deliver a grave blow in a sensitive area.
I was patient, I could wait, to let it happen, but I’d leave too much room for failure if I tried to achieve it as a sequence. If one step failed, every step that followed would fail in turn. Without funds, we’d lack information, without information we wouldn’t know where to strike, and without a successful, attention-grabbing form of attack against the established order, we wouldn’t be able to build reputation.
I needed to achieve all of these things together. I needed to help Will.
What I wouldn’t give for a dose of Ox. A diluted dose, a placebo, to help the ideas click…
Then I felt the piece fall into place. An idea, turned around.
“Hey. Will,” I murmured, half asleep. “How would you like to become a private investigator?”
I reached out with one hand, and ten needles sank into the pig’s soft flesh, eliciting murderous screams. Loud. It thrashed against its bondage.
“Mr. Bowles, if you please?” Mr. Hayworth spoke. Not a question, per se.
The young student, an attractive young man in uniform, moved the turntable that the pig was caught on. The animal’s screams continued as it continued to struggle against the arrangement of metal bars that held it in place.
The injection area now faced away from me, leaving me unable to see the progression. I was nervous, my mouth dry. My leg kept wanting to bounce up and down, which would have been unsightly.
Three men, only one of whom I knew, sat at the long table opposite me. They watched me, and they watched the pig. The thick tome of pages I had carefully typed out sat before them, untouched.
An older man without a wrinkle on his face gestured at my hand. I held it up. Each finger nail had two spurs of bone extending from the sides. He nodded, then looked down at a piece of paper, frowning as he scribbled something down.
The pig’s squealing abruptly died down. It would be dead now. More frowns from the table across me. They didn’t look impressed.
Had it taken too long?
Had one of the injection sites failed to take? If I’d succeeded, then there should be five patches of flesh turning color. This would indicate the injections had been delivered successfully. Most settled for one injection site and a dye. For drama, and to show the full breadth of what I was doing, I had gone for practical application. De-oxygenization, extracellular distortion with high biliruben levels, enzymes to rebind the hemoglobin and break up the capillaries, bacteria to hyperoxidize, as well as a hemorrhagic.
I had set the bar high for myself, in this. I put my odds at one in forty. I’d doubled down on each dose, but even so…
Still with my hand raised, I retracted the spurs. I clasped my hands in front of me before they could start shaking.
“You have three colors,” Professor Hayworth finally said. He was the only one I knew on this committee. Unfortunately. He had light blond hair and he hadn’t even taken off his coat before sitting down, and he toyed with his fountain pen as though distracted or bored. “Blanched blue flesh, orange with boils, purple bruising… and I believe more bruising.”
“If you’ll please wait?” I asked, even as I felt a cold hand close around my heart. No, no, no.
“Ah. I think I see another,” another professor said. The youngest of the three, he looked no older than thirty. Not that looks indicated much. “Green, a touch faint, but distinct.”
Faint? I’d tested the hyperoxidizer and hemorrhagic any number of times. Was it the pig’s fault? Was it from a different farm? Did it have thicker skin?
“With the demonstration over, we can begin the questioning,” the older professor said. There wasn’t a waver in his voice. He didn’t sound old. Only his hair and a poor posture betrayed his real age.
“Yes, professor,” I said.
“What was your source material?” the youngest professor asked.
An easy question. Something to help me get my bearings. “Shelley’s third codex.”
“What is the mechanism?” the old professor again.
“Telescoping series of bone, forming taps, drawn out of the body by synovial fluids in a hydraulic mechanism. When the bone is fully extended and pressure is placed on the taps, the channel is opened to force the fluids out.”
“You showed mechanical work last year as well,” Professor Hayworth said. “In fact, there was a great deal that was similar to this. Telescoping.”
“I did, professor.”
“Professor Pruitt was on that committee, if I recall. He had a car he was fancying. He was in a phase of fetishizing machinery, which may be the only reason that project passed muster.”
“You could be right, professor,” I said. I was being rude, suggesting he might be wrong, but I wasn’t sure how else to respond, and I couldn’t be silent. I wasn’t about to agree.
“Shelf life?” the young professor asked.
I was maybe falling a touch in love with him. He was making this easier, asking the questions I wanted them to ask. “Lifetime. Nothing should need replacing, barring a needle breaking in a struggle, and even then it should be easy enough. The cartridges can be refilled by use of a syringe.”
“Where are the cartridges?” the old professor again.
“Within the proximal phalanx of the respective finger,” I said, tapping the longest bone of my middle finger.
“Show me? The fingers, not the cartridges.”
I did, extending my hand with fingers down. He gestured, and I turned my hand around, fanning out my fingers, then closing them.
“No scars,” the young professor said, approving.
Some young ladies were wooed by poems and flowers. He had inadvertently targeted my weak point, my science. I smiled a little, curtsying just a bit before I remembered where I was. “No, professor. I’d like to say it’s because I’m talented in that respect, but the cartridges are easy to install.”
“I imagine you still have the blemishes on your arms?” Hayworth asked, almost casual. As if it were a non-sequitur.
Joy squashed. Dash it all. “Yes, professor. I’ve treated them. You would have to look carefully to see.”
“Roll up your sleeve, please?” he asked.
Not the subject of this particular discussion, but I couldn’t exactly refuse. I unbuttoned my shirt at the wrist, then rolled it up. Stretch marks ran across my skin, only really visible in the wrong light.
The young professor looked too, of course. I wanted to hide. There was no need to keep my arm up this long, I’d done as I was asked. Yet I held firm. I had made mistakes and I would face them.
Even with everything on the line.
“I don’t have to look carefully to see,” Hayworth said. “Don’t lie to us, Miss Fray.”
“Yes, professor,” I responded, more offended than chastised.
“This student,” Hayworth went on, for the benefit of the others at the table, “chose to demonstrate her first year project using augmentations to her own body, as she’s doing today. There are a wealth of individuals in the lower class who will gladly serve as a test subject in exchange for some free care. Something looked at, something removed, or perhaps some cosmetic attention. To demonstrate a project using yourself indicates confidence. Being wrong in the face of that confidence indicates exceedingly poor judgement. The scars suggest your last project was poorly thought out.”
I momentarily wished Hayworth and the pig could have traded places before this started.
“Hayworth isn’t entirely wrong, we have a great many facilities at our disposal,” the older professor agreed. “Something to keep in mind. Let me ask, with such small cartridges, the doses must be small?”
“I used a high concentration,” I said. “I could do the same to twenty pigs.”
The old professor’s eyebrows raised. Wrinkles appeared in places that shouldn’t have them, with the uncharacteristic change in his appearance.
“With only four out of five doses working?” Hayworth asked.
“My tests showed all five doses working reliably,” I said. True, but it felt like an excuse, given the situation.
“A correspondingly high chance of self-contamination, then, with this high concentration dose, and the risk of breakage?”
Could I stab myself? Or would I infect myself with the poisons or drugs I’d loaded into the cartridges?
“The telescope structure is strong enough I wouldn’t fuss, Professor.” I said. “The only sort of impact that would put me at risk would be the sort that broke every bone in my hand.”
“A risk, nonetheless,” Hayworth said.
“I know many students who carry volatile chemicals and pathogens on their person. Any impact that could break a hand could break a bottle they carry.”
The older professor frowned. “I recommend that you do not let the carelessness of other students lower your own standards, Miss Fray.”
I bit my tongue instead, taking a second.
“Yes, professor,” I finally said. I even managed to sound proper.
“Market?” the young one asked me.
Another question I was glad to answer. “Upper class women. Even lower class women would find it appealing, and the turnaround to produce components is short. It’s discreet, convenient, easily added once and then forgotten, with no maintenance. It serves as a means of self defense when out and unaccompanied. If accosted, they can scratch or inject their assailant. Our nation’s spies could use them as well, if the situation warranted.”
“Interesting thought, and not a traditional direction,” the young professor said.
“Because it’s a poor direction to take,” Hayworth said. “Proper young ladies put a priority on appearance. What message does it send, if a young lady conceals hooks and barbs all over her person?”
“If you would allow me to speak from the perspective of a young lady…” I said.
“I would rather answer your other point. Please. Remember you are in a university setting, Miss Fray, and we cannot speak out of turn, or this will devolve into chaos. You think spies should use these devices to poison America’s enemies? When the world is on guard against this very thing, in this burgeoning new age? An actual syringe can be destroyed or discarded after use. If a spy was searched thoroughly, someone would surely notice the holes in their fingertips.”
An actual syringe can be found readily before use. “The holes are miniscule, professor.”
“Miniscule holes can still be detected. My biggest problem, Miss Fray, is the scope of this project,” Hayworth went on. “Many of your fellow students make a term project out of something more grandiose. Developing a new lifeform to a certain life stage, a new manner of voltaic life, a pathogen. What you demonstrate here would be an interesting feature, a detail in another, grander project.”
“I seem to recall you stating that small things can be the most dangerous. I believe it was in my second class ever, you were one of the professors who spoke.”
“Are you giving me lip, Miss Fray?”
“No, professor,” I said, my voice tense. “I’m trying to argue the merit of my work. This is the point of the annual dissertation?”
“If you’re going to be disrespectful, you can step out of the room, and we’ll conclude this without you.”
I pursed my lips. I can’t afford to fail here. “Yes, professor. I’m sorry.”
“Many of our students are here from a young age. Some exceptional students join us at a later date. Some less exceptional students join us at a later date, by virtue of luck or happenstance. I believe you’re one of the latter cases.”
“I only joined two years ago, professor.”
“Sometimes this happens,” Hayworth said, and he sounded unnervingly soft spoken. “A clever student has an idea, but it’s not one they can prepare in the span of a year. They take one small aspect of the project, then try to build a dissertation around it. Sometimes this works. They scrape by, some geniuses pass with flying colors, and then they stun the committee with their results the following year. More often, it doesn’t do well because it’s a mere three months of work, when we’re expecting the sum of ten.”
The younger professor wasn’t speaking up. He hadn’t, not since he saw my arm.
Hayworth continued. “Tell me, Ms. Fray. Do you have a hidden project in the wings?”
“I have three other projects that were near completion.”
“Any unifying theme? Can you tie them together?”
“There are no extracurricular activities in your record, as I understand it. Have I been misinformed? Have you been working in the libraries, with sales, military, sticks, or the clean up details?”
No time. “No, professor.”
“Is there anything to add? Something to add, justifying your use of University resources?”
I paid tuition. In a roundabout way. I earned my scholarship, and that money went to you. Money in exchange for resources.
Very reluctantly, I said, “No, professor. Nothing to add.”
“I see. Thank you, Ms. Fray. If you would return to your residence, someone will be along shortly to inform you about our decision.”
“Thank you,” I responded, not feeling grateful at all. I headed to the door, giving the table a sidelong glance.
The rumor among the students was that if at least two of the committee members went straight to the paperwork when the meeting ended, then you were in the clear.
None of them even glanced at it.
Sorry, pig, that you had to die for the sake of that.
Other students glanced at me as I strode down the hallway. The students ranged from ten to twenty-five. Five boys to every girl. Dozens. The vast majority of them had a weariness about them. Most would be getting a minimum of sleep, trying to wrap up their projects and type out an outline that covered every base. Some were in the company of voltaic creations or their dissertation projects. Animals with augmentations and a handful of people with augmentations as well.
I was done. Career over before it started. Four and a half years of intensive tutoring with ex-students, preparing my admissions project, six months in-school bringing the idea I had conceptualized to life, two years spent here.
I couldn’t help but feel a kind of resentment over the youngest students that were milling in the hallways. The ones with families that could afford to send them here from an early age. They would inject themselves with ox, a way of keeping their brains flexible, free associating easily. They had been dosing themselves with other substances to stave off the need for sleep for days, to make the most of their time. By the time I had stepped through the front doors and faced the option of doing the same, they had been dosing themselves for so long they were immune or used to the side effects.
I had started out behind and I had never caught up.
Or, better to say, they had started out ahead.
I loved the building, with the gleaming tile floors and the brown stone walls. It was warm and just a little disorganized in layout, like a living thing should be. Crawling with ivy. The residential buildings that sprawled around the foot of the University were more like the roots of the superstructure than anything else.
It was big, somehow overbearing and every few years, the work done here would touch the world beyond.
It would have been easy to use a human test subject. I could have gone overboard, taken more risks with safety and the cosmetics of it. It would have hurt me in terms of marketing, perhaps been a bit of a gamble, but I could have been more dramatic. It was, I suspected, what many other students had done.
I could have, but I hadn’t. I had seen a few too many of those test subjects coming through the University. There was a small but noticeable discrepancy between the number who were brought in for the experiments and the number that left. Small, only a handful each year, but still enough to note.
There was also another concern that nagged at me, but it was more abstract. The idea that we were so eager to take risks for the sake of a successful, attention-getting dissertation and then summarily hurrying to rush our ideas out the door to potential buyers… I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of that.
In more ways than one, I had been safe. The self-experimentation was the smallest risk I could have taken.
I returned to my residence room, and my eyes roved over the other projects. In a tank, Dolores swam, undulating periodically. Somewhere between an octopus and a jellyfish, she had an open ring for a head. Smarter than most would consider. model hands sat on another dresser, carved of wood, with various components arranged on or around them. The one in front had sections carved and cut off to hold the other spurs I’d made. Another had the ink reservoir in the palm, as I did in my left hand.
I rolled up my left sleeve and put my arm in Dolores’ tank.
The ring encircled my upper arm. I withdrew both my arm and Dolores from the tank, letting her four arms wrap around my arm, wrist and hand. My roommate, still ensconced in her bedcovers, grumbled, annoyed, at the slight splash I’d made. She would be sleeping off the cocktails of cocaine and other substances she had used to get through her dissertation. She had passed.
I gave both Dolores and my arm a patdown with a handtowel to dry them, then adjusted Dolores so that one of her oblong eyes were visible.
I pointed, and she reached out with a prehensile limb, seized the book, and pulled it back to me. It wasn’t strong, and there was a floppiness to the arm that I had hoped to have corrected by now. Not enough cartilage.
I picked a sugar cube out of a bowl and stroked it along her skin. I pointed again.
Wrong target. I splayed out my fingers to stop her, then tried again. When she was right, I rewarded her with more sugar. By the time we had a rhythm going, I didn’t need the sugar anymore. Only an occasional stroke of her head.
If I had four more months here, I could have made a second Dolores, learning from the mistakes of the first. Or I might have tried something more basic, surgery to restructure her internal makeup. Shorter, stronger limbs?
I began picking up the various pieces of my room, with Dolores’ help.
“You’re back already, Genie?” Claire, my roommate, mumbled. She was still bundled up in her covers, with them over her head and tucked under her legs, but she’d at least turned over to face me.
She was able to read things from my body language and tone. Her voice was a little hoarse as she said, “I’m sorry.”
“I won’t hold my scholarship unless they all pass me, and they won’t all pass me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “You could reach out to your parents? One year of tuition, do better next year?”
I wasn’t sure I would, and that wasn’t an option anyways. How nice, that she could suggest it in so cavalier a fashion.
She groaned a little. It wasn’t for my sake, but for hers.
“Would you like anything?” I asked. “Water? Food?”
“Yes. But you should ignore me. Be selfish, Genie. If you’re right about them not passing you, they’ll come and ask you to leave, and you’ll only be able to bring what you can pack in two minutes. Hurry and get yourself set.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
She was being nice, even while under the weather. She had always been nice.
Why did I feel uneasy, thinking that?
She spoke, but her eyes were screwed shut, and she tugged the blanket over her head. “People are going to ask what happened. There are a few of them who like you. They will think I had something to do with it.”
“They have no reason to blame you.”
“What should I tell them?”
“That I love this. The work. The learning. The creation. It’s everything else that I hate. The people, for one thing. I like new ideas too much to stick to one for the dissertation. That’s where I went wrong.”
There was more, but complaining about the elite students and the advantages they had from attending at a young age wouldn’t go over well with Claire. She was one of them.
“I guess you’re going home?”
I nodded, but it was a lie.
No home to go to. Not really. My family’s fortunes weren’t doing so well. I had hoped to finish over three more years and then work for the academy, taking my cut from selling research and projects to support my family.
“Can I give you a tip?” she asked. “A big tip that you positively cannot tell anyone I gave you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Keep Dolores. Hide her. They’ll confiscate anything they can find, but they won’t dare touch you.”
I stared down at the little lifeform, with her pink and gray blotches. Not my work, not entirely. I had made it with an upperclassman who had dropped out, just as I was about to.
“Alright,” I said.
I gathered my clothes from the drawers, folding them and placing them with my luggage.
When the knock at the door came, I was nearly done. Only my library books remained, along with some of the booklets that I’d been given when I arrived.
My uniform, too. I had worked too hard for too long to take it off now. Dolores lightly squeezed my arm beneath my uniform shirt.
It was the young professor. I invited him in.
“It is entirely too late in the day for a young lady to be abed,” he said, his voice stern. “You would do well to study at the library, if you want to maintain your standing.”
Lethargic, tense, doing a poor job of hiding her scowl, Claire rose from bed, brushed her skirt and hair into a semblance of tidiness, standing awkwardly by her bedside.
My heart pounded.
“Genevieve Fray. I’m sorry,” he said.
I nodded, wholly unsurprised.
There was a kind of relief, mingled with frustration and anger. I was out from under a pressure that had weighed on me since my second week in the University, but I didn’t want to be.
I had spent a full third of my life working towards this, and now I was done?
“You will need to turn in your uniform, keys, and you must leave everything behind in your workshop, to be cleaned up by other parties. With no notes in the pathogens or invasive species files, I understand there’s nothing you need to oversee?”
“You’ve read and understand the procedures for exit?”
“I’ll take you to the sticks now. You will need to remove your uniform.”
“Alright,” I said, feeling a lump swelling in my chest.
I collected the change of clothes from my belongings and stepped into the washroom.
The professor and Claire were talking in low tones. He was stern, she was quiet. I heard his voice drop in volume by one notch.
Confiding something? I felt a twist in my stomach.
I took my time getting dressed, thinking. A white calf-length dress, a thick red belt around the waist, a blouse with a froth of lace as the sleeves and neck, and a red tie for my short black hair.
I turned my attention to Dolores, who I had placed in the sink’s basin. I jabbed her with one of my ‘spurs’, and watched as she slowly stopped moving.
My only real friend, here.
By the time I stepped out, the professor was looking somewhat impatient. I handed him my folded uniform. As he took the folded garment, he could see my bandaged fingertips, a little blood marking the cloth.
I held out my other hand, showing him the little horns of bone.
“In the wastebin,” he said.
I did as he asked.
“Thank you,” he said. “We should be going.”
Before we could get on our way, Claire hugged me.
I could feel her tense.
When she broke away, I was smiling. Her eyes dropped to my arm. I could see her brow momentarily furrow in confusion, her gaze darting to the washroom.
I smiled a little wider. “You’ve been ever so kind. Somewhere down the line, I’ll owe you one.”
The professor was kind enough to take the biggest piece of luggage for me, leaving me to carry two small bags.
The residences were on the street level, and exit was too quick, too soon.
We passed the military building on our way through the gardens. The color was startling, the birds garish, the flowers so bright and varied they looked like something artificial, especially with the overcast sky and light rain that fell around us.
I had always preferred English style gardens, where things ran wild, more than a little messy, but in a good way.
An distinguished building like the University deserved something more natural. Which was ironic, given the focus.
We entered the city. There was nothing natural about it. A stark contrast, dingy and gray, with roads that were brown and gouged with wet tracks and holes disguised by puddles. Shit piled in the street, here and there.
There were crowds of ordinary people, with the uncommon oddity among them. For every thirty people, there was a voltaic man or woman. I could safely assume that there were probably more than twice that number, given how well the more recent ones were made, with their stitches and scars hidden by hairline and clothing.
I saw a single voltaic horse, pulling a wagon, alongside the other ordinary horses and wagons on the street, and two cars. A beast of burden that outlast even the doped horses on the streets. The voltaic beast had flesh sown together patchwork from two different horses, at a glance, with metal studs where it might be plugged into a wall during a lightning storm.
Three ‘Roses’, two ‘Lilies’ and a ‘Violet’, alongside a ‘Hawk’ and two ‘Colts’. The women were dressed well, considering the climate and surroundings, their immodest dresses in colors that matched their names. Red, pink and violet. They smiled and flirted with passerbys with painted lips while the narrow ‘Hawk’ and two hulking ‘Colts’ unloaded boxes and luggage from a wagon.
A Rose, utterly identical to her sister just as the two Lilies and two Colts matched, cooed at the young professor as we passed them. Her sister echoed her.
The professor’s neck and shoulders were rigid as we passed. I clasped my hands behind my back, and he glanced down at me. “Hands in sight, Ms. Fray.”
More oddities. Men too muscled to be natural. People who didn’t quite look right, their faces too smooth, their hair colors one step beyond the ordinary, too red or blond. Uncanny, more than anything.
I counted myself lucky that there were no corpse collectors. The smell was always atrocious, and the rare scene where someone decided to sell their bodies – a dime for a pound of flesh – was grisly. I had worked in every type of lab, but it was typically animals that screamed, not people.
“Many students start working in the periphery of the University when they fail to graduate. Some are too ashamed to return home,” the professor said. He gave me a pointed look.
“I can’t imagine working in some back alley laboratory,” I admitted.
“I have escorted many students to the sticks in my time as a professor, and virtually every student said similar things. Yet the number of people performing illegal, clumsy science and medicine in the area continues to increase.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
He led me to a building I had only seen in passing, on my brief trips through town. The station.
Officers glanced at me as I was led through the building, but I didn’t warrant more than a second look.
“That way,” the chief said, looking up from his desk. A bulldog of a man, to look at him. “They’re all full on this end.”
The cells. A final indignity.
Brilliance took only the right person, the right time and place, and diligence. Two such individuals had made places like the University a possibility.
To take that brilliance and catalyze it, stirring all of society, there was a need for war. War to unite. War to demand the very best.
We’d finished one war, bringing us to this point. Rumors stirred of another, on the horizon. Nobody spoke openly of it, but the professors told the complete story with grim silences and the odd intensity that caught them in certain areas. The dissertations were only one such area. Certain classes, certain departments…
An arms race, and we students were the means. We knew it, even if we did not speak of it.
In a way, my disappointment at my failure was a disappointment that I would not be able to serve my country. I had wanted to do what I loved, to support my mother, support my country… it had felt right.
To be locked in a cell because I knew too many dangerous details to be allowed to find my own way home was wrong.
Still, I didn’t complain as the door slid shut.
My father had always counseled pragmatism.
My father, I couldn’t help but note, had failed, gone bankrupt, and hanged himself. There was only my mother, living with family.
“Best of luck,” the professor said.
“I never got your name,” I said.
“Professor Newall. Thank you for answering.”
“I hope I never see you in front of the court, Fray. It would be a crying shame if you were caught up in something dodgy. We’ve had too many go down that road already.”
“I know,” I said. I wasn’t sure what else was appropriate.
With that said, he left. The rain was falling harder outside.
I rested my head against the bars, eyes closed, listening.
He had stopped to exchange brief words with the chief.
My suspicions were right.
As cells went, these special quarters were cozy. Inoffensive. Proper beds, dressers, sinks and a stall for the toilet. It was eerily quiet, with only the occasional set of footsteps or the scribbling of a hard pen nib to disturb the peace. None of the prisoners talked.
Everything and everyone was docile and quiet. I remained still, ignoring my slowly churning stomach, and I trained my hearing on the footsteps, listening.
When the captain approached, I knew it was him, from the volume and the way the sound approached.
He held a syringe.
Keeping me quiet, like all of the others. Just like the University provided the ox, the materials for tweaking our doses, so we could stay up and keep working. Keep feeding them ideas that they could sell, feed them ideas that would give them a critical edge in the war, as the voltaic people had helped decide the first.
“For your information, you’ll be searched while you’re under. My wife will do the deed. I’ve run her through it enough times she knows what to look for.”
“Alright,” I said, still feeling a little uncomfortable.
Pragmatism above all else.
If I was going to rebel or argue, this wasn’t the place to do it.
“You should know the drill, if you read your material. You step out of line once, you get dosed with something that slows you down,” he said, tapping his head. “If they don’t outright take something out of that skull of yours. You do something criminal or practice your work without approval from your University, same deal.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Best you remove anything offending, or tell me now, so we might take measures.”
“Okay,” I said. “Just the ink bladder. My left palm, here. I couldn’t remove it before I had to go.”
The lies came easily.
He nodded, following my instructions to drain the bladder of the ink. He took my offered arm to jab me with the syringe.
I didn’t sleep, but time and reality became decidedly fuzzy instead.
He eased me down onto the bed, and I reclined.
The scenes that played out were incoherent. The captain’s wife visited, and sure enough, a screen was erected at the cell door, and I was patted down. What made it weird was that in my dazed state, I couldn’t help but see her as the captain, dressed in drag. Jowls.
No Dolores, and they didn’t find the spurs in my left hand, even as they stretched and bent each finger until I mumbled in pain.
They removed the bandages on the other hand, and noted the incisions beside and beneath each fingernail. He tried a few more times to eject the spurs.
When I was dressed once more, I couldn’t help but smile wanly a bit in my dazed state.
I’d been right. Miniscule. Ten sets of spurs in place.
I was not leaving without something to mark my time at the University.
It was dark when the next person was brought in.
His mouth opened like a fish on dry land. I only caught a glimpse, dreamlike, as two officers walked by the door, carrying him. A head with thick black hair and a standard life support rig, complete with a heart that could beat outside the body, and two jars of blood, each with a filter. Brass gears spun in jerking starts and stops as the heart beat.
“Found him in a basement. He matches the description you gave us earlier.”
“The tourist?” The captain’s voice.
“Yeah. Him. What’s the story?”
The chief explained, “Guy was visiting home after a few years away, business partner in tow. His family kicked him out. We get witnesses showing up, telling us a guy hit the pavement with a spatter. Would think it’s him taking the easy way out, but it was the Scarfellow’s place.”
“Business partner has shady connections, you think?”
The chief said, “Apparently everyone thinks, but he was gone, and so was the body.”
“Damn collectors. We found him hooked up to a thinking machine. They were probably signaled, because they took everything they could with them. I thought we’d get him to the University, see if we can’t get him speaking before we tried questioning him here, but they’re too busy, they say. He’ll keep for a while.”
“Put him at the end of the row. He can share a cell with anyone that’s not a damn student,” the chief said.
I blinked slowly, and I counted footsteps, tracking who was coming and when.
The lights went out.
I could move a little by the late evening, though without much strength. One of the officers on duty visited me, jabbing me with another needle, his other hand holding a dozen more.
By early morning, I could move a little once more. This time, I jabbed myself with one set of spurs on my left hand.
The remainder of the symptoms cleared. I retracted the spurs, waiting to hear the sound of footsteps.
I made my way to the washroom stall of my cell, crawling inside, and knelt before the toilet.
I drew in a deep breath, I used my finger to provoke my gag reflex.
It took three tries to produce anything. Already, I was feeling short on breath.
One tentacle. My throat caught, and I gagged for real.
“Ma’am?” one guard asked.
Don’t come in.
“They test that shit on themselves. Changes the entire brain or body, but mostly they do it to get sleep,” a guard said. “But there’s always going to be something ugly that follows.”
I pulled that ‘something ugly’ from my mouth and throat, using both hands. Dolores landed in my lap. I bent over the toilet and threw up for real, simultaneously trying to gasp for breath.
“We drugged ’em. How’s she up?”
“‘Bout time we re-drug them. It will be wearing off.”
I was damp with sweat, my back drenched, where I’d been lying in the same position too long. I had Dolores, and I had the spurs. I had telescoping arms, but they weren’t in working order. I’d stopped using them when a misfire had stretched the skin of my arms.
Hiding Dolores in my shirt, I crawled across the floor, then lay down on the cool tile.
Disabling the guards was easy. A poke with a fingernail, an injection of tranquilizer. When the second approached, I caught his leg with Dolores’ limb, then jabbed him with one of their own needles. He shouted and fought, standing and kicking me in the stomach, but the drug took hold.
I’d counted footsteps. But one could be sleeping. I waited to hear a response.
Nobody was awake enough to hear.
Using the keys, I opened the door. I staggered across the prison. Making my way down the hall.
My roommate had sabotaged me. I had little doubt. She’d told me to keep Dolores and then told the professor I had her. It had clicked the moment I’d heard her whispering.
I supposed she didn’t feel the need to be as subtle as before when I was on my way out.
I stopped by the head. I could see his eyes, frantic, confused.
“You want revenge?” I asked. “Blink once for yes.”
“Good. I help you first, then you help me with my thing. Something a little bigger.”
“Two blinks for no. What’s three?”
His eyes moved down, slowly roved over the machine that gave him life.
“I’ll get you a body, too. Might be a bit crude, but it’s better than anyone else can give you. Sound like a deal?”
He blinked once.
I hefted the life support machine under one arm, his head dangling from cords over the back of my shoulder.
Free for the first time in my life, I stepped out into the rain and the darkness.
The text on the screen changed.
One night without festivities, a prelude.
Fifteen days. Fifteen nights.
Each night, a game.
A festival, a lark.
Prizes and favors to be won by the clever.
Punishment meted out to the dullest.
I struggled to focus, and wound up shutting one eye to clarify my view.
The numbers didn’t add up. Twelve contestants… one removed each night, for fifteen nights? With more than one contestant potentially being removed?
“Hey, dumbfucks! You can’t have twelve contestants and fifteen rounds!,” another voice echoed my thoughts.
“Hey! I don’t want prizes, I just want to go home!” Someone else. “Please take this mask off and let me go home!”
“What do you mean by punishment?” a woman called out. “We die?”
“No,” I said. I climbed to my feet, using the bars for support. I ignored how my hands trembled as I tried to find a grip on the bars at chest-level and fumbled. I willed it to go away. I paused for a moment, making sure I had a grip on myself, and then very calmly stated, “That doesn’t make sense. Unless they plan to bring in others.”
Wolf was standing by the bars, her arms sticking out straight through. Her mask tapped repeatedly against the bars, as if she could vent that way. She said, her voice eerily calm, “They intend to kill the losers after the winner is decided.”
That’s not impossible.
The text changed.
We anticipate the evening’s entertainment.
Don your masks at day’s end, merry beasts,
to be whisked away to gardens and fields.
The cleverest creature will earn a favor.
To break a rule, or make a rule.
The whimsical nature of the words was at stark odds with our dingy surroundings, imprisonment, and the masks we wore. I felt a little uneasy. Maybe that was the point.
My one open eye fixated on the screen. In the periphery of my vision, I could see others approaching the bars of their cell.
Monkey. He was wearing a glove with metal on it. Almost a gauntlet. His brown hair straight was slicked back from the edges of his mask.
A person wearing a fox mask was wearing some kind of shirt that hung well past his hands. The eyes of his red mask were crescents, with the points facing downward.
Wolf, Rabbit, Fox, Monkey, Spider, and… me. I touched my mask again. The short spike was positioned somewhere between where my nose touched the surface of the mask and my mouth, centered.
Was it a beak?
“Break rules?” Monkey called out. “What do you mean?”
But the screen changed, and it didn’t answer the question.
Beasts slumber in daylight and twilight hours.
A safe place to sleep, to exercise talents,
to set the stage for the night’s events.
An image was displayed below the text. An overhead view of the city. Bold lines were drawn along the edges, the area beyond the outlined area shaded dark and blurred. The sharper, lighter section of the image was a square, three city blocks by three city blocks. It included stores and a small mall, apartment buildings and a tract of houses.
I recognized the area. I could spot my apartment, in the corner at the bottom of the image. My heart was pounding, even as I remained very still.
None of the others spoke, but I could see some of them react. Tells, as it were. Monkey shifted his hands, gripping the bars of his cell door a fraction tighter Rabbit, now kneeling on the floor behind her cell was apparently pretty high strung, almost jumping as she recognized the area. The little boy with the snake mask leaned to one side of his cell, hugging his arms against his body, stopping, then jamming hands in his pockets. Different manifestations of nervousness.
I’d bet good money on the idea that we were all from the same general area.
“Th- they’re a-actually letting us go?” Rabbit asked, breaking the silence.
And they expect we’ll be willing to come back, I thought to myself.
Clever creatures obey the laws of the land,
The cleverest don’t get caught.
The stupidest beasts are reprimanded at dawn,
and shan’t be invited back.
Those that lose the games or tell tales are dumb beasts,
The ones who don’t play stupider still.
But no beast is so foolish as a dead one.
The nature of this little exercise was becoming clearer. Over and over, an emphasis on wit. Two phases. Night to force our hands, to use us for sport or entertainment. Bloody, apparently, so violence was in the cards. Then a day phase to let us rest, sleep or…
I looked around me.
We couldn’t get caught. That wasn’t to say we weren’t allowed to sabotage each other. If we needed our masks to enter into the Night phase, then a mask could be taken away.
There was a chance that one of these people might be capable of murder.
The day phase was when we’d search for each other, sabotaging one another to take someone out of the running and remove any need to play in the game that night. Or, if anyone out there was crazy or desperate enough, the phase where they’d try to kill others.
Thus ends our introduction.
A question from each.
A mask floated on the screen, rotating around so that the backside of it was shown, blank and featureless, then slowly turned to face us. An owl. The eyes were overlarge, the beak hooked, and the ‘feathers’ crested into points at the edges of the forehead.
There was a series of bangs as the locks for the barred doors came loose. My eyes traveled over the rest of the crowd. I could see everyone I’d missed.
I looked for the wearer of the mask, and I found a heavyset man with a large belly. He wore a blue jumpsuit that wasn’t flattering to look at.
The others I hadn’t yet seen included a tall man, broad shouldered, with light brown skin wore a cat mask, orange-brown with white and black stripes.
A sheep, apparently, a girl, crossed the open space to Spider’s side.
And, finally, a woman, pale, with startlingly vivid tattoos of flowers up her arms. Her mask was supposed to be a deer or a gazelle, at a glance, but had only stubs for horns.
As near as I could figure it, it was Owl, Wolf, Rabbit, Rat, Spider, Sheep, Fox, Monkey, Cat, Snake and Doe. And me.
“Hey,” I said, greeting the group to my left. Rat, Doe and Monkey. “What mask am I wearing?”
“Does it matter?” Rat asked. “Damn it. I just want to get out of this getup and go home and let this stop.”
“I don’t think it’s going to stop that easily,” I said. “The more information we have, the better.”
“Like the Wolf said, we’re not your allies,” Monkey told me. “Figure it out for yourself.”
“Right,” I said. Suspicion. I could try to find leverage, to coax and wheedle, but I wasn’t sure it was worth it at this juncture.
“Alright, I’m ready to ask,” Owl called out. “Why the masks?”
Question: Why masks?
Answer: To allow Clever beasts to hide in the day.
“Why attach them like this?” Owl asked, but there was no response. The mask on the screen wasn’t his.
It wasn’t a good answer. Or, more to the point, it wasn’t a good question.
“I guess you’re going to tell everyone the answer, which eliminates a bunch of options. Fine, let’s get it out of the way. Who are these ‘handlers’?”
Question: Who are the handlers?
Answer: Seventy individuals from twelve enterprises, to assist you and reap fame and fortune from your successes.
The screen flickered, and it showed the series of our masks, one second to each, with a series of symbols beneath, one per sponsor. It was almost over by the time that I saw my mask, my eye traveling to the list of sponsors, recognizing Sunny, Ascent and Heart, then darting back up to only glimpse the mask itself.
A bird, after all. A soft brown at the edges and forehead, white elsewhere, with a yellow beak.
A differing number of sponsors to each of us. Cat had none. Spider had fifteen. Most had four to six.
Rabbit asked, “Why do you need such clever people?”
Question: Why do we need clever beasts?
Answer: To find a worthy winner.
“Fuck,” Wolf said, at the same time the word crossed my mind.
We have to be careful what we ask. It’s going to be as vague as possible, I thought.
“Think about what you ask,” Wolf said.
“It wasn’t a bad question.”
“Phrase it better.”
“Tell me all the rules,” Rat ordered.
“It has to be a question,” Wolf said.
“What are the rules?” Rat asked.
“No,” I said. But it was too late.
Question: What are the rules?
Answer: The rules are guidelines,
made to moderate the Day/Night cycles,
and to keep the process manageable.
“I think I’ve figured it out,” Wolf said. “They do want us to kill each other. Putting me in here with idiots, so I have to listen to you fuck up.”
“Fuck you,” Rat said.
Monkey spoke, “Hey, buddy. Pick your question carefully. We can’t keep wasting them.”
“I don’t need help,” Snake said. “Hey, terminal. What were the locations of everyone but me, at the time you picked them up?”
The overhead map again, with blinking lights.
It stayed there, on the screen. I could see my blinking dot.
“Hey, kid. Why the fuck do you need to know that?” Wolf asked. “This doesn’t help our situation.”
But Snake didn’t take his eyes off the screen. He waited a few moments, then said, “Thank you.”
“You little fuck,” Wolf said. “You’re going to try something?”
“I wanted to see if there was any pattern,” Snake replied.
A lie, probably.
The next question was Spider’s. The sheep was kneeling beside his limp form, holding his hands as his fingers and legs periodically twitched and jerked. They made a stark comparison, with her overdone dress covered in ruffles and lace, young, her hair a white-blonde, curly, cut to a boyish length.
He was half-dressed, elderly, with longer hair, shirtless and wearing pyjama pants. His mask was the only one with red eyes.
Sheep’s hand swept over his hair, pushing it away from his ‘face’. “They want you to ask a question.”
“Leave me alone,” he said, his voice weak, but it carried.
When I looked up at the monitor to see, I saw that the next face up there was Fox’s. There were angry and stunned mutters.
“Damn it,” I muttered, along with them. He’d passed, likely unintentionally, and we needed answers.
Fox was trying to adjust the sleeves, avoiding eye contact with the people that were warily observing him… Observing her. I realized it was a woman, with straight black hair. The shirt with overlong sleeves was a straightjacket.
“For the record,” Fox said, “The straightjacket is a joke. Not everyday wear for me.”
“Nobody asked,” the heavyset Owl said.
“Fifteen rounds,” Fox said, “Twelve contestants. Why?”
Answer: Too vague.
Full answer would exceed scope of this window.
Cannot supply a response. Please rephrase.
“Why are there more rounds than contestants?”
Question: Why are there more rounds than contestants?
Answer: There aren’t.
“Can we use the rule-breaking to drop out early without you coming after us to fuck us over?”
Question: Can a favor be used to drop out
Yes? I was suspecting a catch. Too easy. We win the game in one round and we get to live?
It didn’t fit. It was one aspect of a lot of things here that didn’t fit.
The Doe. Deer or gazelle, I was going with the neutral label.
“Okay,” Doe said. She rubbed her hands together. “You bastards. Let’s see… Nine hundred and ninety-nine rounds before this batch, who won?”
“The hell?” Rat asked, but the words were already appearing on the screen.
Question. Who won 999 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won five hundred games before this one?”
Question. Who won 500 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won two hundred games before this?”
Question. Who won 200 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won fifty games before this?”
Question. Who won 50 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won fifteen games before this?”
Question. Who won 15 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won seven games before this?”
Question. Who won 7 games prior to this?
Answer: Bat. Sodusco.
“Shit,” Wolf muttered.
“I’m good at getting mileage,” Doe said. “I think that tells us an awful lot, for a two word response.”
The mask that rotated on the screen was mine. Looking at it in more detail, I still couldn’t guess what kind of bird it was.
Chickadee? Sparrow? A hawk would have a hooked beak.
“I’m not much for following orders,” I said. “Not big on having people decide how I should live.”
“We’re birds of a feather,” Cat said.
“I know I should follow up Doe’s question with something along the same lines, weasel out information, but I’m not really up to playing along. So here’s my question. What course of action can we take that’s most beneficial to us and most inconvenient or damning to you?”
Question: What path would most benefit the beasts while setting us back?
Answer: Too vague. Please rephrase.
“Yeah,” I said. I felt a measure of satisfaction. The damn thing wasn’t as easy to manipulate as my handlers were, but there were weak points. “I bet it was too vague.”
“Just ask,” Fox said. “Some of us want to get home.”
There was restlessness all around. As one of the last to be asked, I was in a bad spot. It would be all too easy for them to settle on a target to vent their frustrations at, and this was a bad, bad place to be the designated target. Especially if this really was something that would extend two weeks.
“What’s the biggest mistake we’ve collectively made so far?”
Question: What is the biggest mistake made by the beasts?
Answer: Assuming that dropping out would be beneficial.
“What?” Cat asked. “I said… fuck, I can’t remember how I phrased it.”
“You asked if they’d come after you,” Snake said. “Which they won’t, necessarily.”
“Damn it,” Cat said. “Hey, Monkey, ask it-”
But Monkey was already speaking. “To come out of this ahead, what course of action should we take in the next bit?”
Question: Best course of action for the beasts.
You should already know your natural-born talents.
Discover the ones we’ve granted.
Know that talents vary from night to day.
Find the hints already provided to you.
“There’s a running theme, here,” Wolf said. “But saying they’ve already provided hints? When? There’s been the introduction where my handlers said hi, and there was this. That’s it.”
The last mask rotated on the screen.
“Hey. Idiot. Ask a question,” Wolf said. “I’m done with this.”
“I know. I’m thinking,” Sheep said, her voice small, as passive as Wolf was aggressive. “I don’t see a time limit, and this might be our only chance.”
A minute passed.
Some of the others were very blatantly studying each other. Studying me. Trying to memorize body types and features. Doe’s tattoos would be a dead giveaway, for one thing.
And others were less subtle. Rabbit spoke up, “We can meet. Right? We all live in the same area. If we go to the Rivermouth tea shop on Yonge, noon tomorrow, we could have a signal-“
“And you poison us?” Owl asked. He was fidgeting, nervous.
“Idiotic idea,” Wolf said. She was more angry than anything. Like Marlene, in a way, channeling stress into a kind of anger. She was more casually abrasive, though.
“We’re not friendly,” Monkey said. “I wouldn’t mind finding a way to make it through this with everyone intact, but that doesn’t mean I trust any of you. If anything, the fact that you’re here makes me wonder if you aren’t less trustworthy the average people.”
“That’s called projection,” Owl said.
The debate and discussion continued. In the midst of it, I withdrew my pocket watch from the vest pocket and held it out, catching the light of the spotlight above me. The light found the lens of Rabbit’s mask.
I saw her head turn a fraction. I ‘dropped’ the pocketwatch, catching it by the chain, and let it swing for a moment before I caught it.
Would she get the message?
She nodded a little. When Rat looked her way, she said, “Fine. I get it. No meeting.”
A potential ally. I knew it could be a trap, but I was good at reading people, and Rabbit didn’t seem that cunning to me. The biggest danger was that someone had caught what I was doing, or that they’d stake out the tea shop.
The sheep had apparently decided what to ask. “How can we get through this without anyone dying?”
Question: How to reach the end of Night 15 without any deaths.
Answer: Don’t kill.
“So it’s possible,” she said. She sounded genuinely relieved.
But Cat had seemingly found a solution, and it apparently wasn’t so simple.
Owl was reacting. The eyelids of his mask had flipped shut. He was blinded.
One by one, the eyes of the other masks closed, all the way around the circle.
The eyelids of my yet-undefined bird mask flipped shut, leaving me in absolute darkness.
Then I smelled that cloying medicinal smell, and perhaps because of drugs lingering in my system, or because the darkness was so deep I couldn’t tell when my eyes were open or shut, I succumbed faster than before.
Back in my apartment, feeling like I hadn’t slept a wink.
I stumbled, making my way out of bed. I was wearing only boxer briefs, my usual sleeping attire, but I was ninety percent sure they weren’t the clothes I’d worn to bed last night.
Disorientation nearly overwhelmed me. My recollection of the scene in that odd little prison was so fresh in my mind I was still adjusting from the warped vision. It all felt surreal, in retrospect.
I had my regular eyes back. They were the same. No surgical alterations.
I examined myself in the mirror. Eyes normal. Hair a touch greasier from sweating than normal, but…
My fingertips found the points at my hairline where the mask had attached.
Caps, skin tone, were plugged into the holes. Impossible to see without close investigation. The spots felt more numb than tender.
I returned to my bedside and opened the drawer. Sitting there, as though I’d put it away before turning in, was the mask. Now complete with beak and the transition from white to brown, with tiny feathers painted onto the surface.
I tossed it back into the drawer and then pulled on slacks and an undershirt.
The names and faces were all a jumble. Too many people at once, too many things to keep track of.
This was reality. Quiet, still, with only two grieving children to worry about. I made my way through the apartment, checking windows and doors. The things I’d unplugged were still unplugged, and everything was locked.
Too many aspects of this didn’t fit. Something told me it wasn’t necessarily them messing with our heads. There was a bigger picture at work.
Desperate for a kind of normalcy, I set about preparing breakfast, with a tall mug of coffee, orange juice, and pancakes made from scratch. I was chopping up fresh fruit when Marlene emerged from the bedroom.
“One minute,” I said.
“I didn’t say I wanted any.”
“Not the time for this, Marlene.”
“I said I don’t want any. I don’t.”
“Then go back to your room and sleep in.”
“Petulance, anger, grieving, whatever else, it’s fine. I understand,” I said. “But it’s going to have to wait until I’ve had my coffee.”
It had to be two different things, all at once. They mingled in an ugly way. What happened to the kids if I got dragged away at an inopportune time? What happened if they were used for this nebulous ‘punishment’?
Except there was nowhere for me to send them. Even if I did send them away, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t be found.
I studied her, the glower, lower in intensity so early in the day. She was a stranger to me, a face I only knew through a few photos. I was a stranger to her, had been until only a few days ago. Still, I felt a kind of fondness. She was family.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ve never really had someone push me to the limit.”
“Never?” she challenged me.
“Not in recent memory. I’m not saying I’ve never been stressed. I have. Believe me, I have. But I adapt, I’d like to think I go with the flow, that I’m a willow that bends in the wind where an oak would break. After I’ve had coffee.”
“If that’s true, you’re nothing like dad. Or mom or me or Leo. None of us adapt or flow in the wind or whatever. Kind of the opposite.”
“It’s been a while since I was around family. Things were ugly when I left, so I made a deliberate effort to change myself. To put distance between myself and everything I left behind.”
“And now you’re back,” she said.
“Now I’m back,” I answered. “Maybe at a bad time for you, and apparently at a bad time for me. But I can face the worst the world has to offer if I move forward with confidence.”
I said the words proudly, clearly, but the memories of those men breaking into my room were crystal clear.
Just the thought made my heart do a quick double-beat.
I managed to keep the doubt off my face, my smile unflinching. I added, “After I’ve had coffee.”
“I’ve had coffee before. It tastes like ass,” she said.
“You can be here and be either quiet or pleasant,” I said. “Or you can go to your room to be negative. Those are my rules.”
She nodded, but she took a seat at the counter. She twisted around on her stool to look at the cracked television and blinked twice in succession. Nothing. She did the blink again. “It doesn’t work.”
No comment on the fact that she’d been the one to crack the screen.
“It’s not you” I said. “One sec.”
I checked that things were okay on the stove, and then crossed the room to plug it in.
It was on a moment later, and I could see the three symbols flash across the screen. Heart, arrow, sun.
Then it returned to a regular channel. Marlene changed it to a kid’s show.
My ‘handlers’ were there, watching.
I didn’t habitually put my lenses in when I woke up, which made me different from ninety-nine percent of the population in the first world. I liked to shower early and then put the things in, rather than go back and forth. I went back and got them.
I wasn’t adverse to technology, but I liked old things and simplicity more than needless complication. Wearing the lenses often felt like a complication. Still, I could pry my eyes open and slip them in, watching the little details I’d placed around the apartment coming to life.
Leo was sitting on a stool by the time I got back. I greeted him, served up the breakfast, then gestured, bringing up a menu for my phone. Anyone who was wearing lenses that looked at me would see the phone icon near my head.
At a loss for what to dial, I brought up a menu of symbols and selected three close approximations.
How closely were they looking? How far did this extend, penetrating my day to day life?
“Hello, Wes. Heart here.”
“Ah, so you are there,” I said. I smiled a little at the kids as I topped off my orange juice. “I got your message late last night. I take it you were upset?”
“We’re not your enemy, Wes. We’re on your side in this.”
“I don’t know what this is,” I said. I walked over to the living room, leaving the kids in peace, and started cleaning up more of the mess Marlene had made. “A game?”
“In a way.”
“I don’t want to play. What if I decide to sit things out tonight? Will you do the same thing?”
“If you make us, but then we’re in a bad spot. You don’t understand everything that’s going on here.”
“What’s going on, then? Clarify for me.”
“You’re not the contestant, Wes. There’s a dynamic, there are rules you play by, we get that, but we’re the ones at the helm. If you cooperate, we both benefit. If you throw this, then, well, it’s thrown. You wind up with the worst possible outcome all the same.”
I lowered my voice. “Or I cooperate and I wind up in the midst of a screwed up situation where people are trying to stab me in the back.”
“We can mitigate that,” she said. “You reached out to Rabbit, somewhere along the line. Making alliances with the right people can help you weed out the dangerous ones. Safety in numbers”
“You’re testing us,” I said. “All of this, you’re testing us because you want us to meet a certain criteria. Or because the people running this thing do. Moving it all towards a singular purpose. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Except you’re also making us your enemies. There are too many things here that don’t make sense. I need explanations. Answers.“
“Damn it,” I heard her mutter, on the other end.
“I can’t give you answers, Wes.”
I can get answers out of you, I thought.
But not now, while her guard was up.
I worked in silence, leaving the line open.
“Wes. Are you meeting with Rabbit?”
“With the interest of covering all possible bases, yeah. But I’m still not sure I’m putting on the mask tonight.”
“You’re proving fairly inflexible, for someone who supposedly goes with the flow, bends in the wind,” Heart said. Her digitized voice was grating to listen to for any length of time.
“Polite of you to let me know you’re eavesdropping,” I said. “Kidnapping, vague threats, unsolicited surgery, and nebulous promises of possible murder, or setting me up to be murdered… I think I’m allowed to be less flexible than normal.”
“If you force our hand, we’ll do the same thing we did before.”
“Well, that’s good to know. Thank you for being honest,” I said.
A bit of anger had slipped into my voice. I saw the kids’ heads turn. I flashed a bit of a smile at them to put them at ease.
Heart continued, “I hope you don’t make us. You’ll try to be clever and stop the men that come to take you in, and it still won’t work. In the worst case scenario, you get injured in the process, and it slows you down enough that you get hurt or killed.”
“Ah, a vote of confidence from the people who picked me. Remind me again about how you’re my best friend in all of this?”
“Even if you don’t get hurt, our hands will be tied. We get only a few chances to manipulate things here. We have three moves, at the start, to help you out, and we’ve used two of them. I’m genuinely afraid for you if you strip us of any ability to help you.”
I weighed her words. I was usually pretty good at telling whether people were being honest or not, and I wasn’t getting a dishonest vibe from her.
Then again, voice modulation, and there was the whole kidnapping thing, the invasion of privacy, and the whole laundry list of everything they had pulled me into.
“I can’t figure you out,” I said.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Heart said. “I’ve been studying you for months, alongside a few others. I thought I knew you, and… I don’t. There’s some part of you I’m not getting.”
“That does make me feel better,” I replied.
“You need our help, Wes. Once people start figuring out how this really works, it’s going to get messy.”
“That so? I can manage messy. Sorry, but I’m not really seeing what you can offer me. Explain the mask thing?”
“At least ring me up when trouble’s brewing and someone’s coming my way?”
“We can’t do that either,” Heart said.
In negotiating with people, a good tactic was to ask them questions, already aware of the answer. I was already fairly sure she wouldn’t be able to follow through. So I could hammer her on that front. You’re useless, you’re useless.
It was rather satisfying, in light of everything that had happened. I wasn’t one to consider myself mean spirited, just the opposite. But these were special circumstances.
“Then explain the ins and outs of this whole thing?”
“I can’t. Wes-”
Here was the moment she tried to break the pattern of attack, my cue to move forward. “You’re telling me you don’t have anything to offer me. What are you handling, as my handler?”
Every action had an equivalent reaction. What reaction would I generate, now that I was pressing her on this?
Would she bounce back, desperate to please, or would she fold? I opened the balcony door and stepped outside, then closed it.
“I- that’s complicated.”
Ah. She would deflect.
“Three hours until I need to leave for that rendezvous. I’m willing to sit down and talk it out with you. We’ll unravel that untangled mess. I’ll be in a better place, and so will you. We’ll be on the same page.”
Reasonable, calm, confident. A steady pressure to drive the point home. I rubbed my hands to help ward off the cold.
“It’s not that kind of complicated, Wes.”
Repeatedly using my name to try and build a kind of familiarity.
My eyes fell on the city below. The street was choked with cars, and my lenses showed ads on every flat surface. There were different channels,each with different focuses, from ones that would show sales in nearby stores to kids’ games that would show monsters wandering around, almost as real as anything else.
In a city this big, each channel would be choked with advertisements. People earned pennies each time they deleted one, but there were too many automated functions and paid shills who earned more putting the ads up.
One learned to deal with the visual noise, because the other features of the lenses were too convenient, otherwise. They were rooted in too many things, from access to buildings to phones and shopping. One learned to look past the ads, until they reached the safety of their homes and could relax.
Which only reminded me that I was talking with the person who had invaded that home. In more ways than one.
Could I put her off balance? I could move to the attack.
I spoke slowly, my voice firm. “Alright. Let me unravel my untangled mess, then. I’ve been thrown into a situation that isn’t sitting right, it’s vague and the pieces don’t all fit together. You picked me for that, right? You’re the one that’s throwing me into this situation. Except you’re terrible at this. You’re obviously new to it, you’re clueless, you don’t have any direction.”
All different ways of saying the same thing. Continuing along those lines…
“You’re supposed to protect me or help me somehow, but you haven’t said what you do. You haven’t inspired an iota of confidence. The screen back there, last night, it said you’re an enterprise. You’re in this for fame and fortune, but you’re doing nothing to deserve either of the two.”
She cut in. “It… could have worded that better. We’re here for research, to help people. It’s amazing stuff, but we need funds, and-”
“And throwing me to the wolves and spiders and hares is how you do that? Come on, Heart. What is this? You’re a couple of amoral twits with a gimmick startup idea, operating out of your friend’s mom’s garage, and someone tweaks you onto… this? A bunch of hackers and entrepreneurs orbiting around some screwed up kind of entertainment that’s never going to poke it’s head out of the darkest, scummiest parts of the deepweb?”
If I was completely wrong, she would have sounded more assertive than she did. She would have been able to follow it up.
Had I struck a chord? Landed my remarks somewhere in the right neighborhood?
“Let me give you a tip, Heart. You’re the one that’s supposed to look after me, right? That’s your job in this. Scouting me, keeping me in line, whatever? You want me to like you, but that battle’s already lost. Change tactics. You need to be a jerk. Be rude, be strict. Threaten me instead of convincing me that stuff’s for my own good. Act like that arrowhead guy was.”
“You mean Ascent,” she said.
“Him. Be aggressive, be assertive. Get my respect through fear and intimidation, if nothing else. Come on. Give it a shot.”
“Wes…” Her voice was soft.
“That was terrible,” I said. “If you can’t fake your way through some jerkish behavior or come up with an actual offer you can make me, you shouldn’t be on the phone right now. You need to be rude, even cold. When I call you, you shouldn’t even pick up unless you’re absolutely, completely confident you’ve got things under control, with a way to strongarm me into doing what you need me to do, or something valuable to offer me. Right? I mean, it’s common sense. You’re my handler, you need to take the reins here.”
She didn’t immediately respond.
Prodding her, I asked, “Do you have something to offer me? Bait?”
I waited, thoroughly enjoying the silence.
In recommending a plan of attack against myself, the idea was to head her off. She would inevitably realize that what she was doing wasn’t working. By cutting her off well ahead of that particular point, I could pressure her. I could leave her feeling lost and helpless. I could handle the handler.
In the wake of that, I’d either see her true colors as she found a plan that did work, or at least worked better than this, or she’d fold and I would have leverage over her. Something I could use to get information or help I otherwise wouldn’t.
“Wes, when you figure out what we set up for you, we’ll be able to work with you.”
“That’s thoroughly unconvincing,” I said, leaning back against the door to the balcony. “I think maybe you should hang up. Get your bearings, say something motivational in front of the mirror a couple times, maybe, to build up some confidence. I’d love to hear a different, bolder, useful Heart the next time we talk.”
Which I wouldn’t, most likely. Which would make her feel worse, which would apply more pressure.
I listened to a long silence.
The phone’s icon flashed and turned red. A hang-up.
If she was capable of watching and listening in on me, I couldn’t allow myself a smile. A lifetime of training allowed me to keep my expression neutral as I let myself back inside and served my breakfast.
“Who was that?” Leo asked. Guileless.
“Someone who thinks she’s in business with me,” I responded. “Now, I’m not going to make you guys go to school, given you’re still early into the grieving process, but-”
“I want to go,” Marlene said. Too quickly.
“I want to go where Marlene’s going,” Leo said.
He, at least, sounded genuine.
“You’re not going to run away on me, are you?” I asked. “This is serious, and I’ve got a lot on my plate.”
Besides, I can’t leave the ‘safe’ territory, or unspecified horrible things will happen. I can’t drive all the way to Uncle Peter’s to fetch you if you run.
“It’s been a while since I’ve gone, and it has to be better than being here.” Marlene said.
“Alright,” I said. “Go wash up and dress. I’ll call the school to see if I can’t arrange a tour or a quick class assignment.”
Hopefully with enough time for me to meet the Rabbit.
I was late. I’d dressed down, with a button-up shirt and more moderate shoes, no tie or vest, a jacket folded over one arm. Even knowing I might have missed her, I took my time, getting in line.
Being in line let me observe. Rabbit had red hair, but a wig wasn’t impossible. Nor was a hat. It was spring. The others… there were traits I could look out for. It was more a process of elimination, scanning the crowd. No kids under thirteen, which removed the possibility of a Snake. No fat men, so that meant no Owl.
Wolf and Fox were more dangerous. Too many possibilities for who they could be, but I could scan the collection of people that crowded the tables and counters, and I could eliminate those who were in groups with others, happy, clearly distracted by their own lives and their own things.
I was pretty sure that the others weren’t that good at acting, at slipping into a role.
I found a spot at a counter by the stools, once I had my bacon sandwich and coffee. The shop’s window showed a scrolling advertisement for the desserts and music. I withdrew a pocket watch and spun it around with one hand, catching it before it fell. I ate and drank with my free hand.
“You’re going to break that, if you keep abusing it,” a young woman commented.
“It’s one I keep for more rugged use,” I said. “I’ve fixed it so many times I could repair it blindfolded. Rabbit, I presume?”
Rabbit squeezed herself between my neighbor and me, leaning over the counter. Her hands were trembling, despite her apparent confidence, and the corner of her lip was folded like she was chewing on it. Her chin-length red hair was in her face, and yet she wasn’t brushing it out of the way.
“Mr. Bird?” she asked.
“It’ll have to do,” I answered.
She nodded, a tight motion. “Hi, Mr. Bird. You’re the only one who came.”
“I thought I might be.”
“Have you figured it out?” she asked.
“What they did to us?”
I turned my head, studying her. I could see the fear on her face.
“Invaded our privacy, our homes, they kidnapped us… but you’re not talking about that,” I said. My eyes fell on her hands, which were still shaking. “That’s not fear. That’s a tremor.”
“I was born with that,” she said. “I’m talking about something else. But I can’t talk about it here. They said they’ll punish us if the wrong person hears.”
I nodded. “Want to go for a walk?”
She bobbed her head, another tight, jerky motion. Under her breath, she whispered, “F- fuck.”
I took my time getting my jacket and the remains of my lunch together. We made our way to the door.
She whispered, “Why do you sound as unafraid as I feel afraid, Mr. Bird?”
“Not to worry,” I said. “I’m very good at faking it. So good I fool myself sometimes.”
She nodded as we made our way onto the sidewalk. I pointed to suggest a direction, and she turned.
“I guess that’s your particular talent?” she asked.
“A part of it,” I agreed.
“Lying so well you trick yourself. Not being afraid when you don’t want to be afraid. That’s a good talent. H- how does it hold up when you’re at gunpoint?”
An odd question, odd phrasing and timing. I glanced at her, and she glanced down, furtive.
Her hands were jammed in her pockets. The angle, the shape of the resulting bulge…
“I guess we’ll find out, Ms. Rabbit,” I told her.