When I first saw Zachary, he was shredding love letters down the library stairs.
I was a freshman, barely eighteen and younger inside. At my suburban high school, I'd been enough of a rebel to think myself worldly, and enough of a grind to expect my classes to be easy. My roommate, Miranda, was a witty, handsome girl, and I was sure we'd be best friends. I had my campus map and my parents' phone card. I had been assigned my first real paper, and I was in the library to do research. I was feeling very collegiate, very competent.
Then I walked into a snow of perfumed paper, and became aware of the sunlight oozing down the stairs. Thought the scraps of paper hesitated when they touched its beams. I put out my hand and a piece shaped like Ohio fell into it. I read the fragments on it:
ne thing, it wou
an't even be sure yo
ust once? Once? Fo
Only then did I look up. Leaning over the rail of the landing above was a boy with hair the color of varnished pine and eyes like mirrors, ripping a page to tiny shreds with an expression of contented absorption.
"What are you doing?" I said, medium-loud.
He carefully finished reducing his current page to bits and withdrew another pink envelope from his coat pocket before he answered me.
"Spring cleaning," he said. "Want to help?"
"Sure," I said automatically. Curiosity drew me up the stairs.
He was wearing clothes that would have gotten him pegged as a loser at any high school in the country: stained jeans that sagged at the seat, shiny old-fashioned dress shoes, a too-small t-shirt in an ugly shade of cheese-orange, a blue corduroy jacket that must have been thirty years old. His hair was raggedly chopped in the vicinity of his shoulders. He looked like he ought to fit with the stoner crowd, except for the clarity of his eyes and the regal way he held his chin. He knew he was beautiful. He wore those ugly clothes as contrast.
"Are those letters?" I asked stupidly.
"Fetters," he answered.
I tried to muster something from my brain besides cheerleader-level babbling. "Best strike them off, then."
"Here. You try." He put an envelope into my hand. It was pastel blue, with stickers of moons and stars all over it, addressed in a feminine hand. It had been torn open, and its contents were grubby and crumpled. This letter had been read many times. Pulling the sheets of blue paper out, I read:
_Zachary my delirium,
Have you got any idea what you're doing to me? Was it your intention all along to tear my heart out of my chest, or was that an afterthought?_
He snatched it out of my hand.
"Don't read. Just rip."
"These are love letters."
"Yes. They're precious. Irreplaceable. No one will ever write these words again, to me or anyone." He tore the sheaf of pages down the middle and handed me half. "Destroy them."
I gave a half-hearted rip. Then another less tentative. I began to hear the sound of the ripping, saw the way the paper feathered at the torn edges, the prose reduced to experimental poetry by the motion of my hands. I leaned out and released a cloud of blue pieces like a flock of birds.
"It feels good, doesn't it?" he said.
"I think..." I didn't have words for what I wanted to say. It dawned on me that people didn't do this sort of thing.
"I'm Cynthia. You must be Zachary."
He didn't answer. Didn't even look at me.
"I have to go study now. I've got a paper due."
He disposed of the blue envelope and pulled out another pink one from the voluminous pockets of his ugly coat.
"Whatever," I said at last, feeling snubbed. "I'll see you later."
"A prophesy," he said in an absent tone. Not to me.
Immersed in research, I forgot to wonder about Zachary. When I remembered later, I'd put him into a box. He was one of those eccentric people you find around the edges of any novel about college life; he was there to add color. I'd just had a brush with the College Character. I'd tell Miranda and we'd laugh.
Miranda didn't laugh.
"Him," she said in hushed tones. "God, I'm so in love with him."
"He's cute," I agreed.
"He's crazy. Fantabulously rich, gets his clothes out of dumpsters. Lives off campus. In a church."
I nodded wisely. The College Character in a nutshell. "Cool."
"Yeah. He won't talk to us, though. You have to have some kind of art grant before he'll allow you the privilege of failing to date him."
"Well, he's either a snob or a headcase."
Miranda searched the ceiling for words. "I guess it's not really a snob thing, just a boy thing, but taken to an extreme. I mean, these were love letters he was shredding, right? Think about it."
"Maybe." She sounded skeptical.
"How do you hear all this stuff, anyway? You haven't been here any longer than me."
"Mojo Kitty," she said. At least, that was what it sounded like.
"This great coffee shop over by the bookstore on the north end of campus. I went over there to study one day and it was love at first mocha. All the incurable gossips hang out there."
I didn't return to the subject of Zachary. The impact of his presence had faded, and the gossip fit him neatly into the pigeonhole I'd prepared.
The last effects of summer wore off. The leaves turned. I spent some time at the Mojo Kitty Cafe with Miranda, but her chatty friends kept me from studying.
Came a day at the beginning of October when one of my afternoon classes was canceled. I considered returning to the dorm, but it was such a classic kind of day I would have felt like Emily Dickinson if I'd spent it hiding in my room. I wandered around campus until I found myself at the cafe. Miranda's crowd wasn't around. I ordered mango soda, found a table in a sunny corner, and settled down to read.
I was so deep in my book that I jumped and screeched like a cat when something hit my table. As I pressed my hand to my chest, I saw a hardcover book that Zachary had thrown down.
"Ouch," I said which wasn't the right thing but as close as I could get.
"Tell me what you think of this."
Presumably he meant the book, so I opened it. Ornate verse stared me in the face, the words looking like a foreign language after my startlement. Deliberately taking deep breaths, I calmed myself to read. It was English after all, but English warped and twisted to fit a meter it didn't like.
"You want my opinion," I said tentatively.
"If you wouldn't mind."
I closed the book, looked into his face to guess what he wanted; his eyes were the pale blue-gray of an overcast morning, and about as informative. Then I noticed that I was trying to tell him what he wanted to hear, which was a high school thing. It couldn't help to adopt his opinions; even if he were hitting on me. I didn't think I wanted to date the College Character. So I told the truth.
"Honestly? I don't like Byron. I don't like Romantic poetry in general."
"Why?" I shoved the book back at him, "It's a lie. Like... flowers in a mall. It's too polite. It's afraid to say what it means. I hate the Romantics. They couldn't see what was right in front of their noses. Here's Keats beating us to death with poor old Hyperion and his damned inaccessible blonde, and William Carlos Williams got ten times as much romance into a few lines about some plums. Why are you standing there like this is a job interview? Sit down."
He sat, as if he'd been waiting for permission.
"And what do you think of me?"
I'd heard that line before, and it was an insecure boy's pickup standard. I was getting annoyed.
"I think you're a space alien. And your species can't have been in contact with Earth that long, because you're doing it all wrong."
He smiled carefully. "What should I be doing differently?"
"Well, for starters, you never introduced yourself."
"And -- why are you talking to me in the first place? What exactly are you after?"
"A girl who hates Byron."
I raised an eyebrow and said, "What good would that do you?"
"It would spare me a lot of drama."
I took a moment to chew on that. It offended me. I had several options. I could go along with it; that one got a few votes, on the basis of his delicious face, but his manner vetoed the bill. I could try to bring all this down to ordinary polite conversation -- a huge and delicate undertaking if it were even possible. Or I could teach him what his medicine tasted like.
At eighteen, a perfect revenge, however small, is one of the great pleasures in life. I returned his bland look. Then I collected the book I'd been reading before he'd appeared and went back to reading. I did the thing properly; I didn't just pretend to read, but actually retraced the thread of my reading. I knew that would come across.
Eventually a pair of pale fingers hooked over my book and pulled it down.
"Are you still here? You have what you want: no drama."
"Come pose for me. I want to paint you."
It was a pickup after all. And he, narcissistic creature, was confident that I would delight to come to his residence and take my clothes off, because I was a freshman and not particularly pretty. Anger reared up as righteous pride.
I said: "Maybe if you give me a dollar for every time someone's told you you're beautiful."
"I'm afraid I've lost count," he said; coolly, but with a kind of respect. He left the cafe.
His book was still on the table. I flipped through it, because someone who came across like Zachary wouldn't just forget his book, but meant me to look at it. It didn't take long to find what he'd wanted me to see; a folded sheet bearing a pencil sketch of me with my hand out catching a bit of paper. His pencil strokes, choppy and confident, caught the shape and flavor of me without much detail. Zachary was a talented artist. He knew it, and wanted me to know it. I put the drawing back in the book and shoved the book to the far edge of the table. When I left, I didn't take it with me.
Miranda was shocked when I told her the story.
"I can't believe you turned him down," she told me. "I don't know whether to admire you or kick your ass. Don't you know every girl on campus is trying to get into his pants?"
"Come on," I scoffed.
"Well, not the sorority types, but you know what I mean. All the arty types. All the English majors."
"Then he should have done his research before hitting on me. I'm going for biochem. Although maybe that's what he was up to with that line about sparing him drama -- he got sick of artists and now he's going after scientists."
"I can't believe you turned him down," she said again.
We were at the Mojo, just the two of us, and it was more than a week later. I'd waited to relate the story because I didn't feel like sharing it with her little kaffe-klatch, and she was never in the dorm except to sleep. I had begun to think that we wouldn't be best friends after all; Miranda didn't like to be alone or quiet. I'd come out to the cafe in a conscious effort to get to know her better, but I was regretting it. The place was too crowded. I couldn't keep track of all the people, and that has always bothered me.
In the intervening time, I'd weighed and discarded two boys - one my own age and one a grad student of 26; the first was immature, the second dull with maturity. It had crossed my mind several times that Zachary had a certain appeal. His confidence was intriguing as well as irritating. I would rather have shaved off my eyebrows than go looking for him.
Miranda clearly cared only for his beauty. I said, "If you've got such a crush on him, why don't you ask him out?"
"I wish. He won't talk to me. I'm not interesting enough."
"And I am? You're way prettier than me, Miranda. You're smart, you're funny, you're a snappy dresser -- if he'll go after a geek like me, you've definitely got a chance."
This brought a smile -- everyone likes compliments. Yet, there was an element of bitterness.
"Yeah, I'm smart and pretty exactly like every other girl around here. I bet I know why he likes you. It's because you're unusual. I mean, you're not pretty in the ordinary way, but you're striking."
"Thanks," I said, and left it at that. I wasn't sure I wanted to know exactly what about me was unusual. "I doubt he actually likes me. I think he just wanted to get laid and figured I was an easy target. I hate guys like that. You know, the ones who go after the fat chicks and nerdy girls because they're more likely to be desperate."
"Oh, like he needs --" She broke off, looking past me at the door. I turned to follow her gaze. The gossips had come in. They'd seen us. It was too late to run. Miranda waved and they joined our table. There was Linda, a gangly redhead with a clever haircut, big front teeth, and sly little glasses; Ann, a blonde from a tiny town up north who didn't yet know that her Marilyn Monroe figure wasn't her only asset; and Jon, a sweet-tempered, baby-faced goth whom I would have given my right arm to date if he weren't queer as a seventeen-dollar bill. It was Jon who opened the conversation with his customary greeting:
"Good stuff," Miranda agreed.
Jon gestured to my mango soda and said, "Infidel."
"Sugar," I clarified.
Linda said, "Parasail. Fling. Collate. This conversation needed some verbs."
"So," said Miranda. "Guess who had a shot at Zachary and turned him down?" She aimed a thumb at me. I scowled at her for this betrayal, though I'd never actually told her not to bring it up.
"You're kidding," Linda said.
Jon said, "Good for you, honey."
"Why?" said Ann.
"Because," I explained, "I don't like the way he just assumes. I really don't get why everybody's so fascinated with him. I mean, he's not actually friends with any of you, right?"
"Jon used to date him," Linda said.
Jon looked away. "Yeah, for like a week, like a year ago. He's an asshole."
"And you're still not over him," said Miranda.
Jon didn't answer. I tried to change the subject. "I love your shirt, Jon." It was a 'Lenore' shirt, the one with the little dead girl dragging her dead cat around. "Did you get the new compilation?"
Relief crossed his face, and he opened his mouth to answer, but Miranda wasn't going to let go of Zachary. "Cynthia was saying that maybe Zachary's tired of artists and he's chasing scientists now."
Linda lifted her glass, but didn't seem inclined to leave a conversational opening by drinking from it.
"Looking for a challenge, huh? That sounds like him. It's all a game to him, and he's bored by how he keeps winning. I heard about him when I came here last year, and he'd gone through a normal-girl phase and a rich-girl phase, and then I met him through Jon when he was in his gay-boy phase, and then he went through the musicians in about five seconds and started in on the artists. You missed your chance, Cyn. Now he'll just pick a different science nerd at random."
"What a jerk," said Ann.
"Yeah," I said. "Now I'm extra glad I ignored him."
Ann said, "So what did he do, ask you on a date, or what?"
"Said he wanted to paint me. Asked me to pose for him. What's that, like the third-oldest line ever?"
"Yeah," said Jon, "Right after 'Og want fuck' and 'You look really pretty tonight.' He was a little more creative with me. He said I was the first boy he'd ever been attracted to and wanted me to show him the ropes. Oh ferchrissakes," he added when Miranda and Linda laughed, "I was a kid, okay?"
"I bet he's got diseases," said Ann.
I said, "Look, I'm getting really tired of talking about him. He's annoying, and now I find out he's a slut, and okay, I admit he's gorgeous, but so what? I don't see why everyone's so excited."
"Where to begin?" Linda settled back in her seat as if about to begin a long tale. "There's the fact that he's rich, has an amazing apartment and throws parties like you just don't see anymore, like something out of Fitzgerald. He's a brilliant artist. He's got like a 200 IQ --"
"There's no such thing," I interjected, but she didn't pause.
"-- and no one's ever seen him lose his cool. Probably it's that last thing. Everybody wants to be the one to get a reaction out of him."
"Not me," I said.
"It's not possible," Jon said bleakly.
Ann got a faraway look and said slowly, "I bet he's really lonely."
"If he is," I said, "it's his own damn fault. And we're still talking about him. Could we quit please?"
Miranda grinned. "Aww, does it bother you? Strike a nerve, maybe?"
"No! I mean, not the way you think. It bothers me that all of you are obsessed with this guy who's obviously not good for anything but keeping his clothes warm. And they're such ugly clothes!"
"How the hell old is he, anyway? It sounds like he's been around for a while."
"Forever," Linda said. "I think he started college early. At like fifteen."
Ann said, "Then he should be done by now, right?"
"He would be if he ever went to classes," Jon said. "He told me he was nineteen, but apparently --"
"He's been saying nineteen for three years," Linda said.
"That's just weird," Ann said.
"I don't care," said Miranda. "I don't care if he's fifty."
"Fifty thousand," Jon said. "He's the Devil."
"Somebody's seen The Ninth Gate too many times. I bet the devil would be a frat boy. The big, mean, manipulative kind who talks high school girls into bed and refuses to wear a condom."
Ann flinched. Miranda said, "Sounds like you're talking from personal experience."
"I wasn't the girl." I gave her a hard look. For once she seemed to get the message to drop it.
"The Devil was an angel once," Jon said.
"That clinches it," I snapped, "because an angel would have better fucking things to do than hang around a college and mess with people's heads. If I were an immortal being with true knowledge of the order of the universe, I sure wouldn't give a damn if I got laid!"
Linda and Miranda laughed. Jon looked uncomfortable. Ann just looked confused. As I finished talking, the person at the opposite table got up, collecting dishes; he or she was wearing a ratty sweatshirt with the hood up. I wasn't paying attention, only enough to notice that this person, after dumping the glass in the bus bin, walked away without coming back for the notebook he or she had been writing in.
"Hey!" I called out. "Hey, in the green sweatshirt, you forgot your notebook!"
The person didn't seem to hear. I leapt up and grabbed the notebook, meaning to give chase. The page stopped me.
It was Zachary's; I recognized his style instantly. It was a depiction of the five of us clustered around our table like vultures around a corpse; with a few strokes he'd caricatured us, making Ann look eager and stupid, Jon mopey and self-pitying, Miranda wolfish, Linda self-satisfied... and he'd drawn me with an expression of self-righteous condemnation, holding forth like a judge at a witch trial.
"Shit," I said.
"What?" everyone was demanding. "What is it?"
I didn't wait to explain. I dashed out of the cafe searching for a green sweatshirt. I saw no one wearing green. He had vanished. And as I stood there trying to remember everything I'd said about him, I realized he'd had his back turned the whole time. How could he have drawn us so well - our relative positions, what we were wearing, where on the table we had put our cups - when he couldn't have seen us?
I rushed back in, looking for a mirror, a reflective window, that he could have used to see us, but there was not even a shiny-sided napkin dispenser. Again my acquaintances assaulted me with questions. I ignored them, stuffing the notebook into my backpack before they could see it.
"Where does Zachary live?" I demanded.
It was dark by the time I found the place. It wouldn't have been far by car, but I was taking unfamiliar busses with unknown schedules, and I had to walk farther than I'd expected. The air was growing cold, the wind picking up. My legs were numb when I saw the many-colored glow in gothic-arched windows at the end of a run-down residential street. It was true. He really did live in a church.
The building was small, not much larger than the houses I'd been walking past, but the lot was three times as large. The weed-matted yard looked like it ought to have been a cemetery, but of course the contents of the graves would have been moved when the church was deconsecrated.
Ordinarily those thoughts would have sufficed. On that cold autumn night, knowing that while I had the option to leave, other thoughts began to intrude. When holy ground is deconsecrated, isn't that a little like a curse? Why was the church allowed to become an ordinary non-holy building? How had Zachary drawn me and the gossips without turning around and showing his face?
As I drew nearer, I began to think that there was something off about the windows. They were full of colors, and assumed that they were stained glass, but I noticed no black lines dividing the colors. The pictures were not the kind of pictures one would expect in a Midwestern church. There were no crosses, no Christ, no lambs or disciples. Each window contained one angel, each angel different, with wings not white but blue or purple or scarlet.
Zachary had painted them. They were all wearing modern clothing. Some were male, most female. Each held a symbolic object : a flame, a rose, a cup.
I envied the neighbors on this street; their every night illuminated by these windows.
A wide walk led up to a pair of heavy wooden doors. Straggling lilac bushes nearly blocked it. I pushed through them, to find an ordinary doorbell button beside the doorway. I pushed it, and heard a rasping buzzer sound inside. I waited. I pushed the button again. I waited some more. What if he wasn't home? What had I been thinking? Maybe I wanted to have some kind of confrontation, and a doorbell is harder to ignore than a telephone. Or maybe I just wanted to see his face again. Maybe I was a sucker just like everyone else.
I clutched my backpack and schooled my face to a scowl: that was not the reason. I'd come because I was angry, and curious. Maybe I felt obligated to apologize for the nasty gossip, give him a chance to refute it. Anyway, I'd wasted enough time. I was frozen and tired. I had better things to do. I would keep the notebook, or throw it away, or take it back to the Mojo. After leaving it out as a nasty message, he didn't deserve to have it back.
I rang the buzzer again.
A few moments later, there were unlocking sounds from the door. It opened a few inches. One silvery eye and a wing of butter-yellow hair was all I could see.
"I'm freezing my ass off out here," I said.
He opened the door wide and stood aside. It wasn't much warmer inside and, though it was brighter, the shadows were confusing. Light spilled down from what must have been the choir loft. Barely enough to show the big, empty room that had once contained pews, which now held only a few haphazard chairs and tables clustered by the walls. A good place for parties, but not a place to live.
Zachary shut the door and locked the deadbolt. He walked away toward stairs leading up to the loft, without wasting breath on obvious things like welcoming me or telling me to follow. I wished I could explore the place without him there.
The choir loft was a balcony running along both sides of the church. The arched windows I'd seen lit from outside were about ten or twelve feet tall. Zachary led me to the side away from the street, and I saw that not all the windows had angels. The two nearest the end where the altar should have been, were blank. A paint-spattered stepladder leaned nearby.
Up in the choir loft, was a futon, a broken-down couch and a large antique trunk with clothes spilling out. A chaotic mess of books littered every flat surface, including the floor. The light came from thrift-shop lamps plugged into a chain of power strips. There was no stereo, there were no CD's anywhere. Zachary didn't listen to music.
He went to a clear floor area and sat down, crosslegged, looking up at me like a cat. A desire to make him do something seized me; the same urge that makes people tap the glass of aquariums. I choked it down.
When I pulled the notebook out of my bag, he reached for it with neither thanks nor apology. That didn't excuse me from my obligation. I had to say what I'd come to say.
"I'm sorry. Obviously the things that you heard me and the others say about you bothered you. I mean, understandably, because they were mostly pretty rotten. I apologize for my part in that."
Zachary smiled so carefully I could see the process.
"So you don't really think I'm a worthless evil slut?"
"I don't have enough data to judge you."
"And when you learn enough about someone, then you judge them."
"Well, yeah. No one wants to admit it, but everyone does it."
"If everyone judges, how do you think I've judged you?"
"I don't know. You can tell me if you want to."
"You're cold. You know that?"
"Maybe. I just wanted to say that I shouldn't have taken gossip as gospel. And I wanted to give you the chance to answer."
"Mostly it's true, except that it's not a game. It's a quest." He gestured to the paintings on the windows. "For something more real than anything you've ever known. So real you don't even have a frame of reference. Why are you standing there as if this is a job interview? Sit down."
I smiled despite myself. I sat. I didn't want to sit too close, but the patch of clear floor was small; I had to be within arm's reach unless I wanted to sit on a pile of books.
"So what's this quest of yours that's worth breaking poor Jon's heart?"
Zachary made an expression of disapproval.
"I never promised him anything. He assumed. Judged without adequate data, as you'd say. I only ever told the truth."
"What truth did you tell him?" I sounded as scornful as I could.
"That he's lovely and charming. He assumed that this meant I was his lover and that we would continue until it ultimately became untenable and necessitated a breakup, perhaps years in the future. When I told him that I had learned all I could from him, he assumed that he had done something wrong, or that I intended to hurt him. He broke his own heart."
"And you think I'm cold," I said.
"That's why I want you to pose for me. I need another angel. Just one more. I think you're more likely to be the one than any of the others."
"The one what?"
"The one that works."
A shiver went across my skin, as if he were hinting at some romantic intensity. I wanted, suddenly, to believe -- wanted badly for someone who had never even touched my hand to decide that I was The One. Except I knew that sort of assumption caused people to break themselves against Zachary's lonely shore. He meant something entirely different.
"You have two windows left," I said.
"The last one's for me."
"I see. I suppose I could keep chipping away until you explain, but frankly I don't see what I'd get out of the deal except jerked around. So there's no point. I'd appreciate it if you'd let me use your phone to call a cab."
"I'll explain. You can stay for a while. Are you hungry?"
Once he'd said it, I was ravenous. I nodded.
"You can look at the books," he offered as he left.
I looked up at the windows. He needed another angel, did he? That implied that the windows were portraits of his conquests. I walked along the balcony, careful not to step on any books. Halfway along, I found Jon.
Jon's hair had been longer a year ago, and dyed blue, unless that was artistic license. Zachary had painted him wearing a classic goth club outfit - tight leather pants, a fishnet shirt, a silver collar, black-rimmed eyes and lush red lips. In black-nailed hands he cradled a dead bird; his face was full of helpless sorrow, begging: Make it alive again! It was a brilliant portrait. The aggressive sexuality of Jon's clothing contrasted with breaking innocence. The blue-green peacock-feathered wings were extraneous.
I gave more attention to the other angels. A frail-necked black girl in the stiff pose of an Egyptian queen, held a saw-toothed gear, and challenged me to ask her its purpose; a muscular woman in her late twenties, with serene and hopeful smile, pouring out a double handful of seeds. A tall, angular boy cupped bleeding hands full of broken glass. His dark green eyes were full of such layers -- hope buried under pain buried under cynicism buried under calm. I wanted to bring the stepladder over and examine the paint with a magnifying glass.
And he wanted to paint me onto the second-to-last window? Paint me with such skill? I was refusing simply because I disliked his attitude? Confronted with genius, I was changing my mind.
Zachary came back just as I was about to go to the other side to look at the rest of the paintings, and I met him on the stairs. He offered it spaghetti-o's in a gorgeous porcelain bowl, two rice balls on a steel plate, a silver spoon, and a can of mango soda.
I thanked him, but that was all; complimenting the meal or the dishes wasn't worth the breath. So I just went back to the place and ate in silence. He'd noticed that I liked mango. He could have been very romantic if he'd cared to be. Zachary sat watching me eat. When I was half finished, he said, "What I'm doing is magic, though not the way everyone else does. Not with incantations and crystals. The real thing."
I gave him a skeptical stare, then returned to my meal.
"You've heard legends about magicians able to separate themselves from their shadows; or to harm and control other shadows. The apocryphal story of the natives who thought the camera would steal their soul comes from an intimation about the nature of pictures. Where everyone has it wrong is supposing that the outward trappings are magic; you don't need to wear funny clothes or use symbols. Symbols. Everything we see is a symbol. We are symbols. I'm trying to find what we symbolize."
I swallowed the last of the rice.
"That's a quest, all right."
"And now you think I'm insane."
I set the tray aside.
"Now? I figured out you're nuts as soon as I saw you don't listen to music. So basically you want to paint my soul and use it to fuck with my head."
Zachary actually looked distressed.
"No. No. It's not about control, Cynthia. I want you to understand that."
"Then what the hell is it about?"
"I told you. Truth. The hidden core of a person, the shadow side. I only want to find it, not manipulate it. I think I've come very close with a few." He gestured toward the recent windows that contained Jon's portrait.
"Why are you doing it this way? Why use people? The usual method of seeking inner truth or whatever is by experimenting on yourself. Meditation, drugs, whatever."
"You're studying science of some kind. Tell me. When the researcher is the variable, what's that experiment worth?"
"Do you brief all your test subjects before you start your experiment?"
He looked away, and his pale cheeks flushed a little.
"Sometimes I don't get the chance," he admitted.
"What does that mean?"
"Sometimes people don't want to talk. Just fuck."
His eyes dared me to say something. Suddenly my perspective snapped around. I'd seen him as using his perfect face to get what he wanted. It occurred to me that beauty might be a liability as well as a tool. The ease it brings becomes addictive, until someone like Zachary forgets how not to use it.
"I'm going to do you a favor," I told him.
"Are you." His voice was dry.
"Yeah, I am. I'm going to pose for you, and I'm not going to sleep with you. It must have crossed your mind that the reason you haven't succeeded at -- at whatever the hell you're trying to do -- is because you always paint your lovers."
"They're not --"
"All right, people who love you, who you don't give a good goddamn about. Maybe that's your problem. Isn't that why you approached me? Because you could tell I wouldn't fall for your shit? So, yeah, I'll do it, but only because you're a fucking brilliant painter."
Zachary's face opened up into a world-illuminating smile.
"No problem. Now about that cab."
"I'll drive you home."
He had a nice sedan, plain gray and a bit scratched up. He buried its backseat in compacted books and papers. On the way to my dorm, he said only one thing: "I'll pick you up tomorrow at five. We can get some takeout before we start."
"If you're paying," I said.
"Where the hell have you been?" Miranda said when I came in. She sounded genuinely angry, so I looked at the clock, expecting it to be very late. It was only nine. "You've been at Zacchary's, haven't you?"
"So after all that talk about how useless and annoying --"
"I was wrong. He's not --"
"I knew it! You hypocrite!"
"Would you let me finish, Miranda? What I was trying to say is that he's not sane enough to have the motives everyone ascribes to him. If he didn't have so much money, he'd be institutionalized. He probably will anyway before too long. That kind of thing is progressive."
She was staring at me with her arms crossed. Her every line was tense to vibrating; she was furious.
"But you fucked him anyway."
"I did not!"
I threw my backpack in a corner.
"God, Miranda, what is your problem with this guy? You want him, he's yours. I'm not jumping your claim, not that you have one."
"Yeah, but maybe I would've if you hadn't come along with your -- oh, I'm a supergenius, you can't have me -- now he's going to chase you until he gets you, and you stand there telling me it's no big deal?"
I'd been getting puffed up and ready to yell back at her, but she looked too distressed. It wasn't me she was mad at. She was mad at herself for not being what Zachary wanted. My anger deflated; I flopped down on my bed.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know you had it that bad. Listen, here's the deal. I told him I'd pose -- let me talk! -- but only because I saw the art. I couldn't turn down the chance to be painted that well. I have no intention of dating him, or whatever. And I think you should forget about him. You're not going to break through the shell to inner true sweet kind Zachary, because there isn't one."
"You were over there for like two hours and now you're an expert."
"Miranda, he's nuts! If he wasn't an artist he'd be a serial killer. Whatever everybody's trying to get out of him, it isn't there! I'm going to pose until the painting's done, and then I'll never talk to him again because, except for the art he basically is a waste of skin."
She stared at me a while longer, but she wasn't angry anymore, just sulky.
"And I'm posing with my clothes on," I added.
Miranda gave an explosive sigh and sat down hard on the edge of her bed.
"God, I'm such a fucking moron."
There had to be a correct response to that, but I didn't know it. I hadn't been part of enough female drama to know what to say to a girlfriend with a bad crush when she hit the self-loathing stage. I did know better than to try to be logical. Since everything I could think to say was a logical refutation of something she'd said, I kept my mouth shut.
After a while, Miranda said, "Can we pretend this conversation never happened?"
"Don't tell Zachary I like him. That would completely blow my chances."
"Sure. I don't plan to talk to him more than I have to."
"So is it true about the windows?"
"The windows? They've got pictures on them, if that's what you're asking."
"Of real people?"
"Well, I saw Jon. I didn't know anyone else."
I rolled my eyes up, remembering.
"About twenty, I think. Well, that would be eighteen, because there are two blank ones left."
"That many broken hearts," Miranda mused. "I hope he's proud of himself."
I didn't think he was, but I didn't say that. It was good that she was mad at him. She was exactly the sort of person who'd be hurt the worst by Zachary's indifference.
And me? Was I so sure I'd be safe? I told myself I was.
That night, I dreamed torrid dreams of him -- biting, scratching, howling sex on the roof of the church, performed for an audience of furious spirits who wailed in impotent rage. In the dream, I enjoyed their despair.
He was waiting outside my dorm building at precisely five. Miranda was with me, and she embarrassed herself trying to involve him in conversation. She complimented his car and began to talk about how she wished she had one, about how annoying it was to take the bus all the time. He nodded solemnly and unlocked the door for me.
As soon as I was inside, he said, "Goodbye, Miranda," and drove away.
If it had been anyone else, I would have taken him to task for rudeness, but Zachary hadn't meant any such thing. If anything, I suspected he thought himself assiduously polite for remembering her name.
"What sort of food would you like?" he asked me.
"It's your treat, you get to pick. I have a cafeteria pass and a bus card, so my parents figure they don't have to send me any extra money."
"Did you expect me to pay for your taxi last night?"
"No, I was going to use my book money. Probably not smart, but it was cold. The bus stop is like a mile from your house."
We drove in silence to a Vietnamese restaurant on the east side, spoke only to order, and continued unspeaking to the church.
At night, it had seemed a forbidding and magical place; in the twilight, it looked shabby. I could just make out a light inside. I later learned that he left the lights on twenty-four hours a day. He'd cleared a place for me to pose. Not near the window, but in the middle of his living space. Books were piled high along the walls. He grubbed a sketchbook out of a pile, fished a pencil from his pocket, and gave me an appraising look.
"I don't know what to have you hold. Usually I learn people better before I begin to paint them."
"There's not that much to know about me," I told him, "What you see is what you get. Here --" I grabbed an empty mug off a book pile. "To get my hands in the right place. Does that work?"
"We'll see. Stand straight. Like that. If you start to get dizzy, bend your knees a little."
He looked from me to the page a few times, then gave me a wry smile.
"Don't you want to fix your hair?"
"Is something wrong with it?"
"No. But everyone always wants to look in a mirror first."
I shook my head. "I know it has nothing to do with being pretty. Go ahead."
The wryness went out of his smile; he looked pleasantly surprised. Then he bent over his page and started.
At first, I looked at him while I stood still. He really was gorgeous. I would have thought permission to rest my eyes on that beauty would pass the time indefinitely. After a while, though, I surprised myself by growing tired of watching him. When gazing at a pretty face, or any face, the expressions fascinate; the hints of thoughts crossing under the surface. Zachary didn't have any of those. I amused myself thinking that he was a robot, or a space alien like I'd accused him of being. His face was no more interesting than a sculpture.
So I looked at other things: the windows, the paintings and the clutter. The books were largely college-student crap – philosophy, famous literature and cheap genre-fiction paperbacks - but a few titles that were neither escapism nor coursework. Several occult books, heavily bookmarked and dogeared. He treated them rare old books, their leather spines ornately gilded - with no more respect than the horror paperbacks. A book of prints by Pre-Raphaelite painters, lay crumpled in a corner as if it had angered him.
I checked my watch twice. The first time, only half an hour had passed. The second time, it was quarter to ten. I felt as rested as if I'd slept. Zachary was still scribbling at a furious speed. He'd used at least a dozen pages of the sketchbook.
"Okay," I said. He jumped and flung his pencil over his shoulder. I laughed a little. He glared at me.
"Damn it," he snapped, "don't interrupt me!"
He dived after his pencil.
"It's time for me to go."
He flung a hand out without looking up.
"You're driving me home, remember?"
"I didn't say that."
"It was implied. Learn the rules, Zachary. You can't coast on pretty with me. Drive me home, or I'm staying here. In which case you get the couch."
He took a long breath and let it out slowly, the anger draining from his eyes until he spoke in the coolly reasonable tone he usually used.
"All right. I'm sorry. I'm frustrated. You're going to have to come back again. The same time tomorrow, if that's all right."
I thought, then shook my head.
He looked at his sketchbook, then flung it down.
"Thursday then. Come on."
I posed Thursday. He still wasn't satisfied, so I gave him my Saturday afternoon. I started to get annoyed with him when he wanted me there again the next day. I told him my Sundays were mine and accused him of dawdling. He stared me down. I shrugged and said Monday would be all right. This kept happening.
He filled an entire sketchbook with me and started another one. He set aside the final pose to sketch me doing normal things. Once he even came to my dorm room and sketched me playing video games. Miranda got mad when he wouldn't talk, and stormed out; she didn't come back until three in the morning. I felt bad for her, but not too bad. It was better if she didn't spend much time near Zachary. I felt terribly powerful for ignoring him the way I did, but he was starting to get to me. If he'd put down the sketchbook, come over to play my kung fu game with me, if he'd laugh when my character beat up his, or if he'd told me a story about dumb games he'd liked as a child, he could have had anything he wanted. I was safe because he was too nuts to counterfeit normality. He didn't realize that all normality is counterfeit.
We never talked. Not about things, anyway. It was a work relationship. It was too easy to fall into his silence, speaking only to convey information, to sit so still and to look at nothing. We discussed schedules. I asked what exactly the hell was wrong with his sketches that he had to keep doing them. He only explained that he didn't know me well enough. The sketches were no better than photographs, capturing only surface. I told him again that there was nothing else. Though I no longer came close to believing myself. I knew there was something going on. I caught glimpses from time to time, saw its wake on the surface and deduced that something moving in the depths.
There were the erotic dreams where my attitude, my feelings, my thoughts belonged to someone else. Someone who reveled in pain and destruction. Dreams full of bitter joy. In real life, I winced at roadkill; in the dreams, I buried my arms in Zachary's guts, inflamed by his screaming.
The dreams disturbed me, but not as much as they should have.
Zachary began to follow me around with his sketchbook. I didn't much care anymore. I had accepted his reasons and no longer bothered to think of his occultism as crazy thought. It no longer bothered me how he'd drawn the gossips without looking. It just seemed a Zachary thing to do.
I even thought about going back on my word and trying to get into his pants. I imagined throwing his damned sketchbook off the balcony and pinning him to his floor. There was never any tenderness in these fantasies. What I wanted to do was rape him.
From time to time I wondered if I had become him.
Winter came. Zachary was still sketching me, but I had given up all pretense of posing. Miranda was avoiding me. Sometimes I saw Jon, but he'd gotten to be a downer. I hadn't made any other friends.
One night, I was in the Mojo, working on Calculus. Zachary was drawing me. I'd once grumbled at him for sitting at my table, so he was sitting one table away. I'd mostly forgotten he was there.
Outside, the sky looked pink with reflected city lights, and snow was falling thickly. Distracted by the snow, I kept losing my train of thought until finally I gave up. I just stared out at the snow. Watched the cars slip and fishtail in the slush. I wondered whether I should learn to draw; I would have liked to paint those cars, in that weird light, throwing up dirty plumes of water onto the whitening sidewalks. I would have liked to paint the telephone wires crossing between buildings against the salmon sky. It reminded me that I'd used to write poetry, before college.
There, in the margin, I began to write. Just random words at first. Cars. Frustrated cars, engines shoving and huffing, wheels spinning, everything slipping...
Everything slipping sideways on casters, perspective lost and time rotated, not slower or faster but different, more deliberate, frustrated cars shoving through wet snow under a salmon sky.
Quietly, from his next-table-over exile, I heard Zachary whisper: "Yes."
I looked at him sharply. He met my eyes and smiled.
"Got what you wanted?" I asked.
"No. I just finally got started."
I shrugged, and went back to calculus. Time continued to slip sideways.
Dragging myself out of my notes, I found Jon hovering near my table, waiting for permission to join me. He was alone and he looked terrible.
"What's up?" I pulled a chair out for him.
He slumped into it. His eyes and cheeks were sunken, his skin pasty, his fingernails chewed to bleeding. He had a defeated look about him as if something was slowly eating him from the inside and it was just beginning to show. He was sitting with his back to Zachary, as if he hadn't seen him. Zachary was examining Jon's hunched back with close, chilly interest. Checking the progress of his experiment?
"Jon," I prompted, "What's wrong?"
He shrugged, sighed.
"Same old. No biggie. How are you?"
"Same old what? You look like you've got an intestinal parasite."
Jon laughed a little.
"Trust you to put it like that. More like a heartworm. I thought maybe since you're his friend..."
"You mean him?" I pointed.
Jon turned around, and his face went gray. "Oh God." He stood up, swaying. "Zachary."
"Jonathan." Zachary nodded coldly.
"Zachary, I have to talk to you."
"I'll go," I offered. Jon put his hand on my arm. "You can stay, Cyn. It's all right. I was going to dump all this on you since I couldn't find him. You might as well hear it."
He turned to Zachary.
"I know better than to ask if you ever think about me."
Zachary didn't say anything. He didn't even set down his pencil, but held it ready waiting for the interruption to end.
"I still think about you," Jon continued. "Constantly. I can't think about anything else. It's -- it's horrible, Zachary, I'm obsessed and I hate being that kind of person, but I swear I've tried to let it go and I can't. It's been more than a year. I should be over you. But it's getting worse. It just keeps getting worse."
His voice broke. I reached for his hand.
"No! He has to hear this. He has to know what he does to people. You're doing this on purpose, aren't you? I don't know how, but you're killing me. You stole something from me. Something I need to live."
Zachary gave a weary sigh.
"Stole it? You gave it to me, you ridiculous creature. I didn't even ask for it."
I closed my book.
"Wait a second. What are you talking about?"
They ignored me. Jon's voice was creaky with impending tears.
"It isn't right. Zachary. It's not right. I'm going insane. I can't think of one single thing besides you. Every single dream is about you. Every one. I can't stand it! You have to get rid of it! You have to stop doing this to me!"
"Yes you can! You know you can."
Zachary stood up and started putting on his coat. Jon bent his head. Closed his eyes. Tears ran down his face and beaded under his chin, until he raised his head and glared at Zachary.
"If you don't I'll have to kill myself." The way he said it, it wasn't a teen-angst manipulation tactic.
I opened my mouth to try to stop this train but Zachary rode me down.
"Go ahead. You're no further use to me."
Jon nodded bleakly.
Outrage jerked me out of my chair and across the small space to Zachary. I punched him in the face. I felt something pop in my hand. Zachary went sprawling, stumbling back into his table, knocking his chair over as he went to the floor, emitting a shocked yelp. The punch surprised me as well. It felt good. It felt really good.
The few other patrons went quiet. Zachary sat on the floor, looking up at me with total incomprehension. Had no one ever been mad at him before? Spoiled rotten child. He deserved far worse.
"Parasite," I spat. "You do what Jon told you to, or I'll come to your house and kick your ass right through your pretty windows. Fucking robot. He's worth ten of you. A hundred. You do what he wanted, and you do it tonight, and then you work on staying far away from me, because if I ever see your face again I'll wreck it."
I snatched up my books and put my arm around Jon.
"Come on. You're coming to my place."
Jon was staring helplessly at Zachary, but when I gave him a little shove he didn't resist. Zachary was dabbing at his lips as we passed, slicking blood across his chin. But his other hand was groping for his lost pencil.
His expression was one of triumph.
Jon and I walked together across campus through the hush of falling snow, hand in hand like small children. He was holding the hand I'd hit Zachary with, but I didn't want to let go for even a second; I felt like I was holding him back from a cliff. I didn't know him that well, but he needed someone, and I was there. He'd stopped crying after we'd left the cafe, and just looked lost. I was a bit lost as well. Shouldn't there be a rule? Should I have called his parents, a suicide help line, a mental hospital? What if that just pushed him over the edge?
What had Jon been telling Zachary to do? What had Zachary supposedly stolen? It was nothing tangible, no physical object. It was something he'd been trying to get from me and failing.
That look of triumph as I'd left... had he gotten it?
Memory flung a phrase: Magicians able to harm or control the shadows of others. The power of images. The painting of Jon, with the dead bird in his hands, had been the best of them.
I stopped, turned Jon to look at me. He had that same expression. His eyeliner was smeared, his face grayish-pale, and his eyes full of that same childlike anguish.
"It'll be all right, Jon," I promised. "Just hang on a little longer."
"I'm fine," he said with a wan smile. "I should go home now."
"No. I don't think you should be alone tonight."
When Miranda saw us come through the dorm room door, she sprang up right away, rushing to Jon with her hands out.
"Shit, Jon, what happened to you?"
"Saw Zachary. Cyn hit him."
"She what?" She turned to me. "You did not."
I showed her my swelling knuckle.
She grabbed the hand, making me wince.
"Jesus Christ. Why?"
"He said something unforgivable. Can we impose on your private stash, Miranda? I think Jon really needs to get legless."
She raised an eyebrow, but Jon's tear-streaked face convinced her. She went to our tiny fridge, rooted in the freezer behind the microwave mini-pizzas, and produced a bottle of vodka.
"No glasses, I'm afraid."
"I think," said Jon slowly, "that this is a swigging-from-the-bottle kind of occasion."
He took a drink and gasped, then took another.
"Share," I suggested, trying to flex my hand. "I need anesthetic."
The bottle went around with Miranda trying to make conversation. When I felt the tip of my nose go numb, I judged myself sufficiently inebriated to try fixing my hand. I grasped the finger and tugged hard. The pain made me gasp, made my eyes water.
Miranda said, "What the hell are you doing, Cyn?"
"Dislocated," I explained. I took a deep breath and a better grip and tried again. This time the pain peaked higher, but my knuckle righted itself with a nasty little click.
"Ah, ow," I said, looking at it. Pink and swelled, but fixed. "Ow."
"Ew!" Miranda looked at me with distaste. "You're cold, Cyn."
"You're not the first person to say that."
We passed the bottle around until it was empty. Miranda and I conspired to make Jon drink most of it. Around two in the morning he rewarded us by passing out on my bed. I wrapped him in my blanket and in my arms. Miranda, too drunk to be any use, laughed at me.
"You're shit outta luck, Cyn," she slurred. "He's gay as a hand grenade."
"It's not that," I said. I was pretty damn drunk myself, so I couldn't explain further. I just felt he needed it. Maybe if he hadn't been too drunk to notice, it might have helped.
When I woke, he was gone. Groaning, I disentangled myself from the blanket carefully tucked around me. My alarm clock said 9:56. Far too early to be up after a vodka binge.
My book bag had been emptied in a tidy pile beside the bed. I got up, I saw my notebook sitting out on the desk, one of my pens beside it. The page had writing on it that wasn't mine. My eyes jerked away and my stomach clenched. To make myself pick it up I had to pretend I hadn't guessed what it was.
_Dear Cyn and Miranda,
You are true friends. You did your very best and if things were normal it would have saved me but there's nothing anyone could have done. Please please please don't blame yourselves. Pretend it was an accident. Just one of those stupid things. I'm so very sorry but I just can't stand this anymore.
PS: Please send someone to the river by the bridge to get me. Do not go yourselves._
My whimpering woke Miranda. She had to pry my fingers off the notebook. Then we cried together.
Neither of us had been that close with Jon. We hadn't expected the guilt to hit us so hard. Miranda was the one who made the call; I couldn't speak without breaking down again. I wanted so badly to grab Jon and shake him and slap him and cuddle him and explain at length why he couldn't possibly do this to us. The fact that I couldn't kept hitting me in the face. Miranda pointed out that I kept messing with my swelled-up knuckle, and that reminded me of Zachary.
Eventually the police came and took the note. I didn't care that they took the whole notebook with my Calculus notes. They told us that Jon had drowned himself in water a foot and a half deep; he'd stretched out in it and let hypothermia paralyze him. They'd had to chip ice away to get the body out.
When they were gone, Miranda came over and sat on my bed with me, leaning on me.
"We did what we could," she said in a hoarse whisper.
"I know," I whispered back. If she hadn't realized how half-assed our effort had been, I wouldn't point it out. "I just keep seeing..." Jon lying down in the icy river, with the snow falling on his face, forcing himself to stay despite wracking shivers...the shivers would have stopped, and he would have felt warm...
He had made absolutely sure that no one could think his suicide had been a cry for help. He could have changed his mind at any point in the fifteen minutes it must have taken him to die. He'd have been right by the shore; even half-conscious, he could have crawled out. What had given him the force of will to stay in the water; what was worse than that death?
A great hollowness opened in me where anger should have been. The hole was even more painful than grief. I gasped with the shock. Miranda petted my hair, thinking I was crying again.
"Zachary," I said, "Zachary did this to him."
Miranda sounded skeptical.
"Last night, what he said that made me hit him... he told Jon to kill himself."
"Fuck." She considered, then said it with more force. "Fuck. That bastard! That fucker! We should tell the cops. Jon's parents can sue him for everything he's got."
"That won't bring Jon back," I said, then grimaced at the triteness. I tried to share her outrage, but all I felt was weak, wilting sorrow.
Miranda rocked me.
"I know, honey, I know."
"I'm sorry. I have to go out."
"Where?" She sounded doubtful.
"I don't know. I'm sorry. I just have to be alone."
"I understand," she said, and the thought that went through my head was: No, you don't, because no one understands anyone.
For hours I walked through the deepening snow. My thoughts went in circles, then gradually trailed down to silence. I followed my numbness along slick sidewalks, past people shoveling, children screeching in schoolyards, and cars stuck in driveways. I realized my poem about the cars was gone. The police took it with Jon's note, but it didn't matter.
Sometime in the afternoon, I found myself in Zachary's neighborhood. I must have been going there all along. It was too far from the University to reach it by chance.
Fine. I'd be the one to tell him. When Zachary reacted with indifference, maybe my anger would surface, and I'd hurt him. For what he'd done to Jon, for what he must have done to the girl who'd written the letters he'd been destroying when I met him, and everyone else on those windows. Those damned beautiful horrible paintings.
Strobing lights in red and blue lit his street. Four cop cars and an ambulance parked outside the church. The ambulance pulled out as I approached, drove past me at a sedate pace, with its flashers off. The cop cars continued to strobe silently. They'd strung yellow tape across the church's whole front yard. The snow inside the tape was well-trampled, as if every inch had been walked over. Cops were talking beside their cars. There were neighbors standing around, hunched in their coats, murmuring to each other. I joined them, and asked what had happened.
A middle-aged black man in a Chicago Cubs cap told me: "You know that weird kid that lived here? He was murdered."
"Yep. Some crazy. He had a lot of freaky people coming in and out. Old lady next door heard screaming and called the cops."
In my head, I heard those screams. I'd heard them before; I'd dreamed them. I managed to produce one syllable: "How?"
The man gave half a laugh. "I dunno, but they just spent the last two, three hours looking for the guy's heart."
"Did you see him?"
"Saw a body bag." He looked at me more closely. "You a friend of his?"
I shook my head slowly. "Not really."
Gradually, the spectators wandered off, until only I was left. I was thinking. Thinking about Jon. Thinking about my dreams, the dreams of tearing Zachary apart with teeth and nails.
At last, a woman in a suit came out of the church, followed by people in coveralls carrying equipment, a camera, and some mysterious boxes. There were red smears on one technician's knees.
As the woman went to one of the police cars, I approached. She stopped to look at me. She looked tired, older than she probably was.
"It'll be in the paper," she told me.
"Are you a detective?" I asked. "I think you should know... did you hear about a young man who drowned himself in the river this morning?"
"Hadn't heard," she said.
All the cops were listening to this exchange. One said, "Yeah. Over by the University bridge. What about it?"
"He was Zachary's ex-boyfriend. Um. Also. If you find, if your, um, forensic people found a bruise on Zachary's face, that was from me, not the killer."
I pulled off my glove to show the detective my swelled knuckle. She looked interested.
"So you know the guy."
I didn't know why I was even bothering, except that I knew they'd find out sooner or later.
"Yeah. I'd been posing for one of his paintings, but..."
"Hey, that's you!" This was one of the forensic technicians, the guy with the camera. "I thought you looked familiar. You're in that creepy picture, the one that's still wet."
"Me?" I said stupidly. "I didn't know he'd actually done the painting."
The detective waved away this trivia.
"Somebody get her statement. I need to go figure out how the hell --" She stopped, as if she'd been about to say something that was not suitable for delicate non-cop ears. "Fax it to me as soon as you can. Ellers, you do it."
"Ma'am." The cop who'd heard about Jon's suicide motioned me into one of the cars.
My statement didn't take long. I mentioned Zachary's habit of using people and discarding them, but that was the only subjective commentary I offered. I kept it simple. The cop named Ellers took my address and phone number and dropped me at the bus stop.
I stood waiting for the bus as day faded. I kept waiting even as busses came and slowed and rolled past without stopping because I didn't come out of the shelter. It was as if I was waiting for a different kind of bus. The last of the overcast day was the color of Zachary's eyes. The color of a drowned boy's lips.
I left the bus shelter and started back toward the church.
The lights were on inside. No one had bothered to turn them off. I thought about the residents looking out of their windows and seeing the angels lit up; knowing that the boy who'd painted them was dead. I felt truly sorry for them, because it was not their story, just the ragged edges of someone else shoved into their world.
There was sticky yellow tape across the door, but it wasn't locked. Maybe the police couldn't find the keys. I broke the tape and went in.
There was a smell. A sewage smell, mixed with old meat. It was cold, colder than it should have been even with cops going in and out all afternoon.
I don't know what I expected, but nothing looked different. It looked too much the same, that place, and that bothered me. A murder site should have been more obviously changed. There was the big empty space, there were the angels looking down...
There was a big fat spatter of blood on the floor in front of my feet.
Once I'd seen it, the rest came clear. Blood had splashed all the way out to the middle of the lower floor, spatters halfway to the ceiling on the wall near the stairs. I had to walk very carefully to avoid stepping on any.
When I reached the loft, vomit rose in my throat and I had to choke it down. The spot where Zachary had died was a lake of half-dried blood. His books were soaked in it. It looked... chunky. I remembered about the missing heart. I couldn't imagine Jon ripping someone's heart out. I couldn't imagine Jon slapping anyone. The police would never believe it, but Zachary's experiment had killed him.
I edged along by the railing to get past the blood puddle without tracking in it. On the other side were footprints, leading away toward the altar end of the church; the end with no stairs, no way down from the balcony. Fat drips and spatters followed the footprints' path. I followed them as well.
The sight of Zachary's futon with the killer's footprints and splotches of his blood tracked across it made my heart constrict. For the first time since I'd heard he was dead, I felt pity for the poor, cruel, lonely boy.
The blood trail led to a puddle under the farthest window, where the chill was coming from. There were two holes broken in the glass, with streaks running down from the shattered edges, and a vaguely human-shaped smear below. Blood painted the window all the way down.
_The last window is for me,_ he'd said.
So it had been. The killer must have put Zachary's arms through the window and hung him there. To whom had he said that besides me?
Cold claws danced up my neck, across my scalp. I turned, slowly, to look at the thing I'd come to see and then avoided seeing: the second-to-last window.
My own image stared down at me, larger than life. Its eyes flared in rage; its hair was flying and full of fire; it was clothed in blood-spotted paper wrapped onto its body with spiraling chains; blood ran from its mouth, streaked its legs, spattered its white wings.
Its arms were bloody to the elbows. In its hands it cupped a torn and battered knob of meat. A human heart.
My skin was prickling with adrenaline. I wanted to run. The only thing that stopped me was the certainty that it would get me if I did. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the stepladder, leaning against the wall where Zachary had put it when he'd finished the picture. Without taking my eyes from the window, I edged over and grabbed it. It took both hands. I had to get my shoulder under it to bring it over to the painting, the evil angel that Zachary had drawn out of me.
It was the rage when I'd struck him that had made him smile in triumph. He'd made his magic out of my anger. The idiot. I braced my feet wide apart and lifted the stepladder like a battering ram.
The painting's surface rippled. Its eyes focused on me. A drop of painted blood fell from its fingers and hit the windowsill. With a yell, I heaved the ladder through the window.
In the sound of breaking glass, there may have been a scream besides my own. Shards exploded in all directions; they stung my face and arms, caught in my clothing. The ladder hit the snow with a thump, and glass pattered down around it. It took a long time to fall. Then came silence. I stood in that quiet, feeling the cold night flowing in, shaking with reaction.
And then, in a rush, all my anger returned to me. It punched me in the stomach, jerked my lungs, hauled a screech of rage out of me, made my fingernails cut into my palms. My shaking intensified until I thought I'd fall over. Fury went through me in sawtoothed waves; for Jon, for Miranda, for these nameless angels, for Zachary, for myself.
At long last, the anger faded, leaving me tired. A warm tickle on my face told me I needed a band-aid. My gut told me I needed food. My aching heart told me I needed to be alone. I turned away from the place where Zachary had evoked my shadow, and went home.
The police questioned me three times. They told me that Jon couldn't have done it because Zachary had been killed at around ten in the morning, after Jon was already dead. I was their next best suspect, but I'd been in my room to give the cops Jon's suicide note at eleven. That didn't give me time to do the murder, clean up, and get back. Miranda vouched that I'd been with her all along anyway.
It was during questioning that I learned that two of his female models had committed suicide over the past two years. The only male besides Jon, the green-eyed angel with the broken glass, was in federal lockup for the murder of his parents. The detective didn't come across as too enthusiastic about solving the case. Zachary had apparently alienated his family a long time ago, no one was pushing it very hard. The unspoken consensus was that he'd brought it on himself.
I never told anyone what I suspected. But I haven't forgotten that the murder occurred at ten o'clock, the same time that I found Jon's note. I have never forgotten the sensation of looking into my own face, and seeing pure merciless rage. I refuse to take responsibility; Zachary forged the weapon that killed him, and he did it not caring who was hurt. Nevertheless, in a way, I murdered him, and it isn't nice to know that sort of thing about myself. I've swallowed down that bloody angel; I don't think anyone has anything to fear from her. But I know she's there.
When it came time to choose my major, I decided on abnormal psychology. I got my bachelor's and left college. I studied parapsychology on the side. I haven't made a career of it; you can't, really, no matter what the movies say. I took an office job. I live quietly. I live alone.
Yesterday, I went to look at the church again. The for-sale sign is weathered, tilted, buried in hip-deep weeds. There's garbage in the yard. There's a faded bit of yellow paper stapled to the door, certifying it vacant.
There's plywood where the windows were.
I'm thinking of buying it.