The light is gray when Caroline opens her eyes in the brightness of her bedroom. The sound of water dripping from the windowsill accompanies her as she tugs a light dress over her head. Glancing out the window again, she adds a pair of stockings to her outfit and grabs her peacoat on the way out the door. The street out front is slick with water and reflected color from the paper lanterns hung inside the front window of the bakery. As she passes it, an old woman opens the door, and Caroline is enveloped by the scent of lotus seeds and star anise. Inside, orchids bloom in the warm air like drifting clouds, next to china blue pots full of snaky bamboo. Caroline almost stops in, just to feel the warmth and the color; the soft hum of the old woman as she addresses the cat napping in the window in Mandarin.
But there's Violet to think of. Violet, who will wake up in the vaulted penthouse at the very top of the drafty building, alone except for the cold and the shadows. And Collin. Caroline clutches her coat tighter, and makes for the metro station, wishing that Violet would call. The ceramic-tiled tunnels underground only serve to further her sense of unease, the eerie sound of a busker with a cracked violin displacing her thoughts. When the train arrives with a hiss and a clatter on the wake of a stale wind, Caroline slips through the electric doors, and stumbles as the train starts again. In the rush of dark beyond the dirty windows she thinks she sees faces staring back at her.
Back aboveground in Queenstown, Caroline walks two blocks to an old Gothic style apartment block. Gargoyles loom menacingly over the eaves, bound to the stone with strips of bolted iron. The doorman lets her through because he recognizes her, and seven stories later by means of the rickety elevator, she reaches the penthouse. Caroline knocks on the door. And then knocks again. And again. She sighs, and reaches her hand up for one last knock, but before she can the door swings inward.
Violet stands there, her unruly blond hair teased out into a bright halo around her face. She's decked out in her typical day get-up; a strand of tribal looking wooden beads around her neck nearly block out the graphic printed on her flimsy tee, and beat up chucks peak out from under her favorite pair of stone-washed jeans. Next to Violet's careless city street fashion, Caroline suddenly feels awkward and outdated in the dress she stitched together out of a patterned sheet and scavenged lace.
"Great! You're here," says Violet, and tugs Caroline inside, ignoring the open door. "I just ran out of conversation."
"Er, what?" Caroline asks, confused.
"Conversation," sighs Violet in exasperation. "I tried talking to Collin, but he's like a fucking wall. It's so boring. And anyways, I'm hungry, and I need a smoke. You stay here – I'm going to Bennett's for coffee. Try and make him talk." Before Caroline can even say anything in response, Violet is already out the door, but not before poking her head in again.
"Oh! Almost forgot; want anything from Bennett's?" Caroline's stomach growls, and she realizes that she is in fact very hungry.
"Bran muffin. And um, Chai?"
"Right-o," says Violet, and then she's gone for real.
Caroline steps all the way into the apartment and then lets out a sigh. From what she could gather from Violet's brief appearance, she assumes that Violet is her normal self-centered, energetic self. There's a noise from farther inside the apartment, and Caroline jumps, before she remembers that it's probably just Collin. The thought doesn't exactly put her at ease. Caroline's guess is confirmed when Collin pokes his head around the corner of the hall and the living room.
"Hey," he says, stepping into the hall with a relaxed smile. "Good morning."
"Morning," Caroline replies tersely.
"So, um, how are you?" Caroline thinks she detects a slight tremor in his voice.
"Fine." And then, because she is tired of stepping around the topic, states bluntly, "You're not right."
"What? What do you mean?" Collin smiles, and spreads out his hands, though Caroline thinks his smile is just a bit too wide to be comfortable.
"You're strange. You're not right," she takes a deep breath and then says,
"You're not human." Collin's smile cracks at the edges, and then vanishes rapidly. He ducks his head, and avoids Caroline's eyes.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he mumbles, entirely unconvincing.
"Yes you do," says Caroline stubbornly, "and I'm not going to leave you alone until you tell me."
"The truth is," he stops and licks his lips, finally raising his head to look at Caroline, "the truth is... I'm- well, I don't know what I am." The look in his eyes completely throws Caroline off-guard. There's so much confusion there, and a kind of pleading. Caroline realizes that Collin wants her to think well of him, that her opinion really matters to him. She feels a tension go from her shoulders, and is surprised, because she didn't know she was holding herself that stiffly.
"Thank you," she says.
"Huh?" Collin perceptibly steps back and inch, and his eyes widen. "What?"
"Thanks for being honest with me. It must be really hard for you."
"You have no idea," he says with feeling, and then looks down again, briefly. "Just um, don't, you know…" he trails off.
"Don't tell Violet? Yeah. Don't worry. I've been trying to tell her about these things for years, but she never listens or believes me."
"Oh," says Collin, and then there's silence for a few moments.
"So, what exactly are you? Are you human?" she asks.
"I was, well, I think I'm still a person, I'm just…tarnished."
"Stained, tainted, spoiled, infected, whatever."
"How did you get like that?"
"It's complicated," he says tightly, and his lips form a rigid line, before turning the conversation back around to Caroline. "How can you tell that I'm not, well, not normal?"
"You…" Caroline pauses, trying to grasp the right words. "You just…feel strange I guess. The city feels one way, like, cold and stiff. You feel, I don't know…malleable and slightly warmer. And the shadows. Shadows don't move the right way around you. They kind of…well, squirm." She blushes, well aware of how odd she must sound, and wonders if she is making any kind of sense. Caroline's never had to explain any of this in so much detail to anyone before.
"Huh," says Collin. "I wonder why no one else I've met so far in this city has noticed?"
"I don't know," says Caroline. "It's just always been something I've been able to do. See the weird things that creep in the alleys, the strange people with extra body parts and animal eyes. One time I saw a boy spit up fire. You feel like them, but you don't look like them."
Just then, Violet bursts back through the door, one hand full witha cardboard tray of paper cups, the other with a bulging brown paper sack. "I'm back! Care, they were out of bran muffins, so I got you some weird scone." She drops her canvas tote carelessly on the floor, and then exclaims, "Why the fuck are you standing out here? I've been gone, like, fifteen minutes and you haven't even gone all the way inside. C'mon!"
Caroline and Collin look at each other, and share a private smile as Violet sweeps into the living room. It feels good on Caroline's face, and she likes the way Collin's eyes crinkle into half-moons. It feels good to share a smile with someone other than Violet.
The next time Collin and Caroline get a chance to talk alone, they meet at the Bennett's on the corner of Eighth and Langley after Caroline gets out of school. Caroline buys him a blended vanilla ice, and they sit near the window and watch as a man tries to sell overpriced lilies and irises to the people who pass him on the sidewalk.
"You aren't wearing a uniform," Collin observes, breaking the silence.
"Hmm?" Caroline murmurs, distracted by the scene through the window.
"Violet put on a uniform this morning to go to school. You guys don't go to the same place?"
"Oh! Yeah. We used to, when we were in junior high, but then my older sister got into art school and my mom couldn't pay tuition anymore. Violet still goes to St. Sebastian's, but I go to PS 115 now. "
"You have a sister?"
"Yeah. She's four years older than me. She's not really around much anymore though, she's always at school or work or staying with friends. It's just me for the most part."
"Where's your mother?"
"She works two jobs."
"Oh. What about Violet? When she was talking with me, she only ever mentioned her father. Are her parents divorced, then?"
"Not exactly. Her mom was a fashion model, but she ran away with a photographer, when Violet was really little. She's never bothered to try and contact Violet; she just sends checks for her birthday. Her dad doesn't talk about her ever, and Violet doesn't really remember anything. She was too small.
"What about you?" Caroline tries to twist the conversation around, feeling that she's talking too much. With Violet, she's always the one who listens, but when she's with Collin, the conversation is more even. She can feel the pull- the give and take, and it feels comfortable and right, the way conversing with another person is supposed to be. It's something to do with his eyes, she thinks. They're a milky blue, and when he looks at her, she feels like he really is paying her his full attention. When Violet looks at her, she often feels as if Violet is not staring at her, but right through her, to the empty space behind.
Collin's smile fades and his hand clenches where it rests on the table.
"It's okay, Collin. Whatever it is. You're going to have to tell me sometime."
Collin lets out a breath, and his hand uncurls under Caroline's, but he doesn't move it away.
"I know, I know. I was just- well, hoping that I could postpone it for as long as possible, I guess. I haven't talked about it to anyone since it happened. It feels like if I talk about it, somehow it will become real." He pauses, and they both look out the window again.
"Lets go to Trinity Park," he says, finally.
"And you'll tell me?"
"Yes. I'll tell you. The whole story."
"I haven't always lived in Wallis. Before that, my father, my mother, and I lived out in the country, because my mother wasn't really in very good health. We lived upstate, almost on the border. It's…different there. The people in this city don't realize that New Amsterdam really is a bubble." Caroline and Collin walk, shoulders even, but not quite touching, along the shore of the pond at the center of the park. The clouds today are nearly the size of sailing ships, gently curving into heavy gray on the underside.
"Things change out on the border."
"But things change in the city all the time. New buildings are built and the metro bridges are always under construction."
"Not like the border. Overnight signposts are switched and the roads change direction. Trees that were just a foot high grow three stories during the night. One time a man's house disappeared for an entire month, and when it reappeared it was a wreck and they had to condemn it."
"It's risky to drive anywhere upstate, because maps aren't any help. Tourists always blame them, and just figure that they're out of date. When you get far enough out, it can get dangerous because you can get really lost. And no one goes out after dark. A few years ago, this one little kid stayed out later than he should have."
"Did you know him?" A cloud passes over the sun, and casts Collin's face in shadow.
"No. It was just some dumb little kid. He would have been okay, but it was almost winter, and dark came earlier than he was expecting. By the time he looked up and realized that he should probably go back, it was too late and as he began to cross the fields between the woods and his house, the sun sank behind the hills. He was almost home, and just when he thought he was safe, he came to the strange mound on the edge of the last field. It was too small to be natural, and it was very old, because it was covered in a grass, and there was a tree growing from the top that even his dad couldn't wrap his arms around. His mom always said it had to be at least five or six hundred years old. There were earthworks like it, scattered all over the country upstate."
"I think I've seen a picture of them once. On a postcard or something."
"Probably. People come to see them sometimes."
"So what happened to the kid?"
"Well, as he began to climb the mound, he saw a flickering light in the branches of the tree, like a light bulb in a faulty circuit. He blinked, and then all of the branches were lit up. The shaking light created deep shadows at the base of the roots, but when he got closer, he realized that it wasn't because of the light. There really was a hole there. He should have run away then, but he was stupid and curious, so he stepped towards the tree and looked down into the hole to see if he could see anything." Caroline puts a hand to her mouth.
"Did he fall in?"
"Yeah. It took him a long time to hit the bottom, and when he did, he thought he was dreaming. It was dimly lit, but he could tell that there was a large room, and there were a lot of strange people."
Caroline looks down. "Let me guess. They had animal eyes and bright hair and weird skin and some of them could breath fire."
"And more. Some of them were tiny, and some of them could fly."
"So they had wings?"
"Some did, but the ones who could fly didn't have any."
"What happened to the little boy? Did they hurt him?"
"In a way. They were very angry, because he wasn't supposed to be there, and they said that they didn't like him. He had started to cry, and they complained that he was too noisy, and too wet."
"So did they let him go then?"
"Yeah. But first they cursed him to bring sickness."
"They made him sick?"
"No. They cursed him to make the people around him sick."
"Really sick. After they cursed him, he fell asleep, and in the morning he woke up curled at the base of the tree. The hole was gone, and when he went back home, his mother began to cry. She said he'd been gone for a year. His father was suspicious that he had simply walked home, and questioned him about where he'd been, but the little boy wouldn't talk about where he'd been, because he knew that no one would believe him. At first, he was just happy to be back home, and he was young, so he forgot about the curse. But then his mother got very sick. The little boy would lie awake all night listening to her cough. His father became depressed, and took her to see a bunch of famous doctors in New Amsterdam, but none of them could figure out what was wrong with her. In the end she died." The last piece of saturated blue in the sky disappears as the wind picks up and the clouds begin to race together.
"I'm sorry. It was you, wasn't it? It was your mother."
"Yeah." Colin is silent for a breath, and Caroline reaches out and puts her hand on his shoulder. He smiles faintly at her, before continuing.
"We moved to Wallis after that, where the roads stay put and it's okay to go out after dark. At first I thought that it was my fault that mom died, because of the curse."
"But your dad wasn't sick."
"Yeah, that's what I thought too. My dad was just depressed, and gradually I stopped believing in the curse. I was a shy kid, and I didn't really have any friends. I spent a lot of time alone, so it took years before someone else got sick. A few months ago, my dad started coughing.'
"I finally told him about what happened to me all those years ago. At first, he didn't believe me. But then he kept getting sicker, and he remembered how my mother had been before she died."
"Did he believe you then?"
"Yes. And he realized that mom's death was my fault. He shut himself in his room, and refused to speak to me."
"Oh, Collin. It wasn't your fault."
"Yes it was. I killed my mother."
"You were little. What could you have done?"
"What I did this time. I ran away to the city."
"You were so young though. How would you have survived? And how do you even know that your father is better?"
"I don't, but at least I'm not making him any worse."
"I can't stay with Violet for very long. And after that, I can't see you very often. The more I see you, the more likely you are to get sick."
"But it took your dad a long time to get sick. Years."
"Yes, but it only took my mom months. It just depends on the person."
"Collin." Caroline says, and his name is loaded the way it leaves her lips, like the air around them is loaded with the heavy hush that precedes the rain. "I don't like thinking of you all alone in the city."
Collin laughs. "Just yesterday you didn't trust me."
Caroline flushes. "It's dangerous here, and no one even realizes. One time, late at night outside my window, I saw a girl unhinge her jaw and swallow a man's entire head. He screamed, and when she let go, his skin was white and shrunken, exactly the color of paper."
Collin grimaces. "I don't blame you then. I'm just glad you trust me with Violet, now. I'm glad I met both of you that night and not something else."
"Violet's a lot of trouble most of the time. She picked up a boy a year ago with a shadow hanging onto his back with foot long claws. It hissed at me. I don't even think that the boy was alive anymore. It took me forever to convince Violet to stop seeing him. I didn't sleep much those weeks, because I was so worried."
"Well, whenever I'm around, I promise to help."
Caroline smiles. "Thanks. Violet makes a lot of stupid choices, and sometimes I think I hate her, but I never want anything like that to happen to her."
"I'm glad." Collin returns the smile, and they stand together at the edge of the artificial lake, faces illuminating the gray city day.
() () ()
Well, I'm still looking for a title, with no hope of inspiration. Seriously. I feel like I've hit a wall.
But yeah. That was chapter two. Brought to you by me, with lots of marvelous beta assistance from Yuval. Thanks to Perdita and Livia for the reviews. Love you guys.