I know this with an absolute certainty, but the men and women who swarm around me pretend not to notice, jerking their children impatiently when they stop to stare. I bite my lip in an effort not to cry, turning around and around in circles until I'm nearly dizzy, desperately looking for my mother's blond head and kind eyes.
I don't see her.
"Are you lost, sweetheart?" A woman squats down in front of me, ignoring the people who are oblivious of her. I nod slightly, chewing on a lock of hair nervously. She is very pretty, with long black hair that streams down her back and strange golden, almond-shaped eyes that are the cause of my nervousness. Anyone who doesn't look distinctly plain always makes me nervous; I don't know how to distinguish between who I can talk to and who I can't. I am obviously not supposed to talk to her, but she seems kind and I can't ignore her now, for fear of repercussions. She smiles, her lips curving in a way that doesn't expose any teeth. The smile does not reach her eyes, and I suddenly feel much more anxious.
"Come with me," she coaxes, holding out a slim tanned hand. I take it, relief washing over me and replacing the unease. Maybe she really is taking me to my mother, I hope. It's better than standing in the middle of a big city alone. Anything is better than being alone.
"Your hand is cold." I say finally, watching her carefully. She glances down at me, her expression smooth and reassuring.
"It's cold outside, sweetie. Of course my hands are cold." I frown and nearly trip over myself in order to keep up with her light, fluid steps. Her hands are too cold. Even when my mother had come home after walking through the snow, her hands hadn't felt this cold, like blocks of ice. But I don't say anything, wondering why she's pretending to be a normal lady.
"Go ahead and sit down. He'll take care of you until your mummy comes." She eases me gently but firmly down and then stands up abruptly, patting my cheek. I glance at the man across from me curiously and then back in front of me. But she's gone, with her fake smile and cold hands. When I look back I realize he's also staring at me and has suddenly gotten much closer. He has a sad expression, and is so remarkably beautiful that it hurts my eyes. He's like the lady, I note distantly, but seems much more approachable.
"Why do you live here? It's big and crowded, and I don't like it very much. And it smells. And I thought you didn't like them." I gesture to the people passing by us as if to explain myself. He looks startled at my question for a moment but then relaxes, his previous expression returning.
"But we have the worst limitations of all," he whispers, tugging out one of the bright red ribbons my mother had struggled to tie in that morning. It lays crumpled and pitiful on his smooth white palm, the contrast striking.
"It's an omen, you understand?" He asks in a low, hoarse voice. I don't, too busy wondering how such an ugly voice could come out of such a beautiful person.
"Lucca!" The name is hissed, though relief and concern are evident. I turn and look up, watching my mother rush over and grasp my arm.
We leave, my ears still ringing from her admonishment. I don't realize until later that she hadn't even noticed the pretty man.
I wake up in the worst way, with my heart drumming in my ears and my breath coming out in short gasps. It's silent mostly, except for the constant, maddening buzzing of the TV. The tape ended long ago, replaced with discontented static sometime during the night, its sickly glow barely illuminating the room. I should've felt relief from it, but instead feel agitated and uneasy.
I let my hand droop over the edge of the couch, my hand shakily searching for the remote. I stop short when my fingers graze something wet and sticky, and I can't help but flinch in horror. My breath hitches and I silently berate myself for it.
I feel like there's something wrong, like there's a reason I'm acting like I've just seen a horror movie. The feeling of anxiety doesn't go away until my eyes flicker over to an empty soda can tossed on its side. Dark liquid drips out, its smooth droplets dripping leisurely into the faded, cheap carpet like broken music notes. I turn my face away, feeling stupid. I see now that the can is creepily flashy in the bleached glow, and I fumble with the power button on the remote, as if to erase the image.
Darkness spreads over the room, eating away the remaining light left by the television like a gradual poison. I nearly miss the company of it after lying awake in the heavy silence, but push it aside and tell myself I'm being ridiculous.
I stare vaguely in the general direction of the television, remembering the dream that is also a memory. I'm slightly bewildered, and wonder why, after twelve years, I've suddenly dreamt of it. I pull the washed out blanket higher until it creeps around my chin, so that only my face is exposed. For a moment I'm left listening to the soft rhythm of my breathing and the increasingly loud ticking of the clock, which I know by memory is the only decoration on the other wall. It's only a moment, though, because soon my thoughts invade again and I'm brought back to my previous dream, the random memory that I'd buried without even realizing it.
I blink and rub my eyes suddenly to keep my contacts from slipping out, after realizing I'd been staring into space. But I'm either too tired or lazy or scared to get up and take them out, because I'm still laying here and slipping back into memories of Chicago. Oddly enough, I haven't thought of that city or any of the memories that went with it since I was eight years old.
"It's a new start, honey."
But my mother looks uncertain and very small as she repeats herself, her hand absently stroking the top of my head and down the length of my braid. She isn't looking at me, but instead at Ian, who is positively beaming as he shifts her suitcase and places it onto the ground. I don't say anything, wondering if it'll be exactly the same where we're going. It's smaller, nicer, Ian said. I don't believe him, but I'm determined to lie if it is the same. Not that he knows the real reason why my mother wanted to move, or why I would have to lie about anything in the first place. She doesn't want him to know I could see the odd people and animals, that I could see the lean man with long nails who ate gold or the weeping woman whose shrill voice matched the timbre of the bustling crowd of Chicago. Who would want a disturbed child? She's never said it aloud, but I know that's what she's thought, just as I know what she thinks of Ian, her boyfriend. He's her hope.
"All set?" He asks, oblivious to the way my mother's shoulders sag or the way I stand there stonily, my fists clenched.
"It's going to be very different. All that pollution was bad for you, Lucca. It was poisoning your brain, and now we're going somewhere clean and quiet and…better." She whispers this, and we both know it has more to do with her not wanting Ian to overhear than with the fact that she's growing weaker. I don't reply, knowing she doesn't want one. She says it like she hasn't told me this a thousand times since Ian has asked her to move to the dumpy little town with him, and just as I know this I know she's mostly saying it to reassure herself, not me.
"The plane's leaving soon. We'd better go." He says it over his shoulder and walks out, expecting us to follow him.
I bury deeper into the couch, bringing my knees up to my chest and tightening the blanket around myself. It's cold in the house, maybe because it's clearly still early in the morning, or maybe because the heaters are out. I think of the man on the bench and wonder if the dream is fading. His face and body are getting fuzzy, and for some reason all I can think of is how sad he looked.
"It's an omen, you understand…" I mumble it to myself, closing my eyes and rolling the phrase around on my tongue as if to taste it in order to better understand it.
"I do now." I say stormily to the dark, as if it's a living, breathing thing that'll respond. But it doesn't of course, and I'm left in the quiet darkness mulling over my thoughts and wondering what he'd meant.
They're all just memories. I say it out loud again, taking another deep breath and then pushing them to the back of my mind. I sit up, my head spinning, and feel like I've swallowed a stone. My body still aches from falling asleep awkwardly on the grungy couch instead of a bed, though I doubt it'd be much better. I wonder dimly if Ian is home, and then decide I don't care. It's always better when he isn't, anyway.
I swing my legs off the couch and stand up unsteadily, my head pounding and my body suddenly chilly. Grabbing the blanket from off the floor, I wrap it around myself and swoop down to pick up the empty soda can. I make a very elegant queen, I think as I saunter into the kitchen. With my ragged blanket as a cloak and the soda can as my…scepter? I laugh nervously and flick on the light.
It's all just as well, I think mischievously as the light flickers and buzzes on. I would make a terrible queen. A terrible queen for a terrible people.
I catch my reflection in the glass back door and bow to it, seeing the image made up of harsh lines and dark eyes.
"Your Majesty," I announce.
I have a sudden urge to throw the can at the door but instead spin around and toss it into the trash, feeling idiotic. Moving over to the sink, I go to turn on the water but freeze instead, leaning over the sink to stare out the window.
For a moment I thought I'd seen movement. Wondering if someone's outside, I glance at the clock and read 3:00. No one in their right mind would be outside at this time, at least not in this secluded town.
Unless… I eye the window again. Three is considered the "witching hour", or at least by my dear departed mother. I sigh and rub my finger against the chipped paint on the frame of the window, stubbornly not looking back out the window.
This was ridiculous. I know there's no such thing as the Fae or any other made-up race; stories had been made up about them just to scare rotten children. I was being jumpy because a few unwanted memories had come back unwelcome. It was just nonsense.
Sometimes, if I chant the word enough, I almost believe myself. Almost.
I pull my hand away and watch the white paint chips fall from the frame like snowflakes. Like dreams and ghosts and all things imaginary.
Feeling foolishly brave, I push open the window and look out, as if to show myself that there really was nothing there.
I'm completely, utterly wrong.
A cloaked, dark man stands some yards away, half-hidden in the dark and away from the bright kitchen light. He's carrying a dark umbrella, which is tilted to hide his face. His arm darts out with his palm upwards, as if he's testing for rain. Or as if he knows he has my attention.
My throat tightens and I bite back a curse once I see his hand. It's startlingly white, and so bright that it catches the light. Long nails that look to be made of ice curl over his hand as a flame burst alive on his palm. Tiny bells are attached to thin white threads, which in turn are tied around each of his long, spindly fingers.
His hand begins to tilt, and I know I should look away and cover my ears, but it's too late. The bells clink slowly into each other, each time producing a high, ringing sound. I suddenly feel as if a heavy, wet cloth has settled over me, dulling my senses, but then the feeling is gone, taking with it my fear and leaving me restless.
He fades back into the darkness, leaving nothing behind for me to remember him by.
Not that I want him to.
I step back and push the window down, straining a little when it doesn't go down as easily. More paint chips flutter down, but I don't notice. When had everything gotten so hazy?
I shake my head as if to clear it and stop the odd stirring of impatience and wanting.
Sliding down onto the floor, I take a deep breath and lean against the cracked, yellowed counter. Cold seeps up from the bare tiles, and I can't help but shiver from pleasure. It feels good, even steadying while I sort out my thoughts.
Should I not have opened the window? The Fae are known for their tricks and enchantments, and that had surely been one. Just because I could see them didn't make me immune to them, I reminded myself. And I hadn't been carried off yet to whatever lair they dwelled. Besides, when has the Fae ever existed on the east coast? From what I heard, they live in Europe, namely Ireland. I laugh shakily in reassurance. Of course, there's always another option, one that sticks to my tongue like thorns but that I'm too afraid to admit, especially to myself.
That I'm just as crazy and terrible as everyone thinks I am. That the Fae and everything I see don't actually exist.
Pulling my knees to my chest, I wrap my arms around my legs and lean my forehead against my legs. I don't want to think, or feel, anymore.
Clutching the counter top, I pull myself up, nearly stumbling as I do. Chimes peal softly in the distance, their music carrying softly in the distance as a loaded reminder. I balance myself against the doorframe as I fight against dizziness and the foul taste of metal, but then I'm racked by a series of coughs, and being driven to my knees anyway. I feel like my head is splitting in two.
The sound stops, its echo struggling to stay behind as a persistent memory. I shake my head, nearly banging it into the doorframe as I try to rid myself of the ringing in my ears. The pain stops as well as the fit, but the ringing in them stays behind.
I should've been more careful. I shouldn't have opened the window.
I wipe my mouth, bringing away a smear of red as I do. Blood? The dizziness returns, but this time it's from shock. Is this the metallic flavor I'd tasted in my mouth earlier? I stumble to the sink and spit out more blood, its vividness a bright clarity against the gray dullness of the sink. I pause, huffing slightly, and turn on the water so that it drains away, leaving bits of red glass behind. Curious, and suddenly afraid, I pick up a piece of glass but instantly drop it. It's not glass; it's a piece of jagged ice.
Long nails that look to be made of ice…
I throw myself away from the sink, not even noticing when I bang my shoulder into the refrigerator. I stare wildly at the sink, watching the water drain away the blood.
But the message remains, even if the blood doesn't.