Nemue, 9 years old.
Nemue tried to focus on the page of math problems in front of her. The noise of the playground at lunch made it difficult to finish her homework, but she didn't want to take it home to work on over the weekend. Tonight was movie night with the family, so the less school was on her mind, the better. The noise reached another peak when screams of pain caused her to look up.
"Damn it." The playground in any public California school is a chilling battleground of shame and pain. Teachers rarely noticed fights before the damage was done, and in many cases were afraid to break up a fight because the children might claim the teacher touched them inappropriately. Nemue didn't understand the bizarre rituals and chanting held by the bloodthirsty children. She did her best to avoid them, and Lance knew better than to get caught. Lance didn't deserve the punishment they were about to mete out, but that didn't stop them. She folded her work and books into her backpack and hurried to the scene.
"Lance, Lance, pees his pants, all the way to Paris, France!" They screamed.
Nemue knew she was to blame for this. She felt no connection to most of the students at the school. They were mindless idiots. She wondered if they ever thought about anything but farting, burping, and fighting. They picked on the small and the weak like a flock of chickens pecking the lowest hen until it died. Bestial and merciless human children. She didn't feel like one of them, couldn't connect with them, and rarely made friends. Lance was one member of the small group she chose to spend time with.
Her friends usually played tag during lunch, off by themselves at the far end of the playground. The hot California sun and a large, empty grass field separated them from the crowd of other children. Not only could they see bullies coming long before they were a threat, but the constant training of running, dodging, and hiding made her friends very difficult to catch. For nerds, they were fast. The jerks must have ambushed Lance on the way out of the lunchroom.
Nemue swung her book bag and elbows with bruising force to clear a path to Lance. All around her, she saw their mouths moving. Their faces snarled, but she heard nothing but the rage in her ears. Light dropped out of her vision, the sun dimmed to twilight, and the nightmares found her. The bullies transformed into black, life sucking beasts. Lance groaned under her feet. His fear pulsed at the edge of her awareness, but her senses were drowning. She knew there was light, but she couldn't see it. She knew there was noise, but she didn't hear it. She knew there were children, but she only saw and heard the demons in her head. To the bullies that fell back under her furious glare, she became an avenging angel. Something in her eyes chilled them right down to the bone. They ran. The rest of the day, no one spoke to her. They jumped when she came near, moved when she sat down. Even Lance looked haunted.
That was the last day Nemue attended public school. Her teacher, Mr. Uphold, insisted that she belonged in a school for gifted children where she could learn to connect with students on her own level. None of the witnesses could point to exactly what the little girl had done. Mr. Uphold was first on the scene. He saw her, standing over her friend, her tiny face twisted with hate. She clawed blindly at the air, hitting nothing. Then the crowd scattered.
Her adoptive mother wanted the best for Nemue. In a week she walked through the doors of her new school, to meet her new friends. The nightmares, waking and sleeping, never left her alone.
Nemue, 11 years old.
Dr. Villareal was the kind of man that made kids want to talk. He made a name for himself in children's psychiatric care before Nemue could walk. Her adoptive parents wanted her to have the best of everything. She had the best ballet instructor, the best piano teacher, and top notch voice lessons. Now she had the best headshrinker.
Nemue didn't care about the awards on his wall. Dr. Villareal had a nice round, bald head the color of cinnamon toast. She thought he must shave it on purpose, because a head that looked like the perfect sopapilla should never hide under hair. His friendly eyes and wide smile reminded her of a Mr. Potato Head set with all the sad parts removed. No matter how many ways you mixed and matched Dr. Villareal's expressions, they exuded calm, friendly interest in everything an eleven year old could possibly say. He pulled a shining silver pen from his front pocket and poised the tip over his notepad. She knew he didn't need the notes, he already told her about the recorder, but he liked having something to do with his hands.
"So, Nemue. Can you tell me about why your parents brought you here today?" She shook her blond head. So many things came to mind. She thought about monster in the closet, the one that stalked close to the bed and breathed on her sheets at night when she hid under them. She knew it was still there, but she'd given up telling Mom why she tried to sleep with the light on. Was it the tentacles under the bed that grabbed her ankles in the dark, or the tiny woman in red that made a mess of her pretend makeover set and left her to clean it up in the morning, using all the glitter on herself until the supplies were gone? No, Nemue hadn't talked about her 'imaginary friends' in months. It might have been the nightmares that stole hours of her sleep and woke her, soaked with sweat, every morning, but Mom had a different doctor lined up for that.
"Mom told me to go play in the water. We were having a clam bake on the beach." Nemue wanted Mom to have the perfect daughter. She did everything Mom asked, with one exception. Her teachers described her as driven to succeed. Her perfect marks in school didn't stop at required classes. When Mom said it was important to learn a foreign language, Nemue began studying French and Spanish because she didn't think Spanish counted as foreign enough. She fidgeted with the gold bracelet on her wrist. "Last Saturday . It was my birthday party. I told her I wasn't going to play. Then I ran away."
"And you didn't tell her where you were going." His calm, cinnamon voice simply stated the facts. He was waiting for the last piece of the puzzle.
"I ran home and hid." Nemue's voice sunk to a whisper. She heard the scratch of his pen against the paper in his hand.
"In your bedroom?"
"No. In the library." Fewer monsters in the library.
"This isn't the first time. Can you tell me what you are really afraid of?" She curled into a ball on the fluffy couch and sighed. "Jellyfish? Crabs? Clams from the Fish Market? The ocean?" Dr. Villareal changed tactics with a soft smile. "Your mom is really worried about you. Maybe if we knew what caused you to run away, she could avoid it in the future." That was a low blow.
Nemue had a lot of fears. She learned to hide them because it worried Mom. She wanted Mom to be happy, so she would never have a reason to send her back. Back to the ocean that filled her nightmares with monsters from the deep. Now it looked like Mom wanted to talk about the worst. How could she refuse? Her tiny hands balled up into pale fists with even paler knuckles. "That wasn't my birthday. Nobody knows when my birthday really is. They use the day I was found on the beach. I don't like the beach."
"That's ok. Lots of people don't like the beach. I think it would be better to tell your Mom what instead of running away. Do you think we can work on honesty together?" Nemue lifted her head up from the tight ball she was hiding in. That sounded too easy, but she acknowledged she was willing to try anything with a tight nod. She couldn't risk telling the doctor about the things she saw in the waves, under her bed, or in the closet, but she could start with something small. Something to make Mom happy and get the doctor off her back.
"I just don't want to get wet. It isn't the clams. I love eating clams. I don't like the water. Ocean." Nemue's voice was less than a whisper; it was gone.
"Good, good. That wasn't so bad, now we know, and we can work with that. Honesty makes communication better. I call it waiving to the pink elephants in the room." Dr. Villareal's brown eyes sparkled in his round head. Nemue saw strange things that nobody else saw all the time, but pink elephants weren't among them. Maybe the doctor, of all people, would understand. Nemue's eyes wandered around the room. It was designed for comfort and warmth in deep wood tones like evergreen and mahogany. Large windows let in natural sunlight on the east wall. On the west, several poison arrow frogs hid in a large glass tank filled with tropical plants. She had almost decided to tell the doctor everything, when a tiny orange frog deliberately shook its head from left to right.
The little girl snapped her eyes back to the doctor. "You like frogs?" His pen scratched the paper and his eyebrows rose over the shiny rims of his glasses. "Frogs only like some kinds of water. They live in fresh water, like small rivers and ponds. You will never see a frog in the ocean." The doctor filled a paper cup with water from the desktop cooler. "Tell me, what do you think when you see water in a cup?"
"Alright. Then you can have this one." He handed the paper cup to her, then filled another for himself. "You don't smell like a caveman, so I'm guessing bath water is fine?" She giggled.
"I like showers better, but I guess baths are ok." Nemue frowned at the frog tank. "Mom told you about the swimming pool, didn't she?" The doctor crumpled his paper cup and tossed it into the trashcan with a perfect layup shot.
"I'd like to hear it from you, if you remember it."
"I remember everything."
Therapy wasn't as bad as she thought it would be. She ended up telling the doctor about the time she tore Mom's bikini top off in mommy and me swim class when she was two years old. Deep water, specifically. Any water over two feet deep, or any salt water at all, terrified her. She reacted to swimming lessons the way birds panic in the presence of cats. The screaming, clawing, and crying was Mom's first clue that the name on Nemue's bracelet was a tragic mistake. Her little sea creature never learned to swim.
One subject led to another like a maze of hallways. The doctor gave her choices, she was in control of where a topic dead ended, or branched into another like a conversational escape hatch. Nemue shared her likes and dislikes with him as he made more scratches on the notepad. She could do without ballet, but she loved singing. He learned her favorite books and least favorite foods. Under it all was the unspoken fear. He learned from every word she spoke, as well as the words left unspoken. She shied away from talking about bad dreams or the closet. At the end of sixty minutes, he set his smooth barreled pen down with a smile.
"I really enjoyed talking with you today, but goal driven counseling is more than talk. We are here because you are suffering from fear induced stress. I'd like us to set some goals together. In a two weeks, we can talk about the results." Nemue looked at him skeptically.
"What kind of goals?" Her eyebrows came together in a tight line.
"Honesty goals. You will tell your mother how you feel about dance class and salt water. Hiding fear with lies is only for ostriches. I'm going to recommend alternative therapy to build your confidence."
"You're getting me out of dance class?" Her eyes widened as she took the bait. "How?"
"A little deal." Dr. Villareal leaned back and pushed his glasses up on his nose. "You have one week to tell your parents. If you do, I'll make it your choice. Karate, boxing, or fencing." The little girl devoured fantasy novels in her free time, reading books far beyond her age group. The doctor knew that the thought of holding her nightmares at the point of a sword would be far too good to resist. She proved him right. Her eyes sparkled, her hands gripped her knees as eagerly as they would the hilt of a foil. She almost bounced from her seat.
"Make it fencing," she begged. "Make it fencing and I will tell them right now."
Nemue admired the fit of her new fencing uniform in the long mirror of the studio. The ballet studio also had a wall of mirrors, but the costumes made her look like a skinny kid. The fencing helmet made her faceless and imposing behind the wire mesh. The uniform put a swagger in her step and straightened her spine. The only thing that gave her identity away was the glint of gold on her wrist. White canvas encased her legs and arms. A thick synthetic chest plate rested under her jacket, protecting her heart. A large instruction poster guided her through a series of simple stretches to test the fit of each piece. Mom offered to buy her a personal set, but the equipment manager urged her to wait. He had seen that glint in a new fencer's eyes before. If Nemue practiced as much as he thought she might, her shoulders were going to develop quickly. She was sure to outgrow the jacket in a matter of weeks.
Even when she twisted the bracelet around her wrist, she hardly noticed it anymore. She never took it off, even in the bath. Mom told her it was a gift from her birth parents. It was a hint to her past. As pasts go, Nemue didn't have much to go on. She was found, wrapped in an embroidered quilt, wearing a chain link bracelet with one word engraved on the oval plate in the center. That became her name. A morning patrol by the Encinitas police department found her on the beach. They rescued her from certain death in the rising tide, and delivered her to the care of foster parents. That lucky couple filed adoption papers as quickly as they were able when the state failed to find record of any newborns named Nemue in any hospital in the country. With no records, no parents, and a huge mystery that simply would not come off her fragile wrist, she entered the California legal system.
The bracelet itself was more mystery than clue. Tests revealed that it was 24k gold over titanium alloy. Engraved on the back was a simple outline of a lidless eye, round and staring. Strangest of all, no matter how she grew, the bracelet grew with her. Nemue kept that secret to herself. Here at last, with a practice foil in her hand, she felt a surge of strength. Her shrouded eyes lit with pleasure when she pulled on the stiff leather gloves for the first time. She would cower no longer alone in the dark with her secrets.
Master Strand barked an order at the assembled class. His strong, low voice carried into the dressing room and equipment stand to bring the beginners to order. The coaches wore black from head to toe, to set them apart from the students. Nemue hurried to line up in front of the Master, and let her identity vanish into the group. Here she was free, just another white bird in a flock of white birds. All of them wanted to do well. Fencing lessons were expensive, and many of the young boys realized that poor performance spelled the end of their sword swinging days. If ballet gave her an advantage, martial arts and dance, gymnastics and natural talent gave the same advantage to the rest of the class.
"Very good, class." Master Strand removed his mask and set it on a bench. After an hour of teaching footwork to ten children he had not broken a sweat. His golden hair fell in a neat ponytail down his back. He stalked the line of assembled children like a six foot tall raven. Their eyes followed him from right to left. Nemue couldn't help her feeling of disappointment. The hour was almost up and the Master had not even glanced toward the wrack of foils on the far wall. Instead, he used a quirt to direct their movements. A light slap on an over extended knee brought it quickly back to it's proper place over the toe. A tap on the back reminded slouching young boys to straighten. Some of the parents thought that the use of a riding crop in the salle was barbaric, but they knew it worked. The red tip held the attention of the entire class as the Master tapped it slowly against his leg.
Her eyes strayed from the quirt to his ice blue irises. They gave her the feeling that Master Strand should remind her of somebody she once knew.
"Step. Thrust. Step. Thrust. Crab walk back." Master Strand's pale blue eyes missed none of their movements. The class was ready for the next lesson. "Stand at attention." The children dressed in full uniform for every class because the Master knew that a fencer should learn to move easily in the armor. If they learned wearing jogging suits, he shuddered to think what the first time he allowed them to hold a foil would look like. Three weeks into lessons, not one of them laid a finger on a foil in his presence. He had no tolerance for sloppy form. It was dangerous in the salle. A wildly swinging blade in the hands of a novice often did more damage than a controlled arm.
"Chose a partner. I will be assigning you weapons." A collective groan ran through his audience when he picked up a bundle of red leather quirts. "Discipline, my little soldiers. If I told you to spar with peacock feathers, pop-sicle sticks, and carrots you should say...?"
"Yes, Master Strand." Ten little voices shouted agreement, but Nemue really hoped he wouldn't ask them to fight with carrots. An orange stain across her perfect whites might never come out. They paired up by height. The only other beginner as small as Nemue was Mark, who wanted to learn fencing so he could be in the movies.
Nemue held the quirt lightly and waited for her opponent to issue the challenge. She knew why it was red. The bright color made it easier to see when the riding crops sped through the air. Her gloves disguised the feel of it in her hand, but she knew the braided handle would feel smooth from wear. It smelled like aged leather and mink oil. She imagined it to be a strong, flexible length of steel that she held at a perfect salute. Mark attacked without saluting.
She would have allowed a sneer to show on her face, but her instincts told her there was no time. The boy pressed forward with moves from a bad action film while she tried to perform correct footwork. The tip of his quirt slapped the back of her hand over and over as he tried to disarm her with a stupid looking swish and flourish. The powdered red chalk on the end of the quirt rubbed off on wherever it struck. Nemue ignored the blows. Protected as she was by gloves, her hand might be bruised. Most likely he would not leave a real mark on her. However, his disrespect for the rules of the salle tightened her gut with rage. It was a distant, cold feeling that built higher with every poorly executed move. She felt the anger course through her limbs and wash over her face.
Mark's quirt no longer found her an easy target. Her hands, head, and entire body melted away from his sloppy technique. Step forward. Thrust. Step back. She left a spot of chalk behind.
"You've lost that arm. Put it behind your back."
"Didn't feel it so it doesn't count." Mark shook his head at the chalk and refused to put his arm behind his back. The quirt flicked toward her hand again.
"This is your last warning. Hands are not a valid target for the foil."
"It was an accident." Mark lied.
Nemue saluted and attacked.
"Hold!" Master Strand's cool voice stopped all motion in the room. The noisy chatter of mock battle ceased, so everyone heard Mark's quirt slap the mirror and fall to the wood floor. "Mark, John, and Luke have just been auditioning for a bad remake of Erol Flynn. Take note, class. Those fancy Hollywood moves will not get you very far in the world of fencing. Film now relies on realism. Only discipline and practice of technique will get any of you in the Olympics." His stern face glared at the three boys. "Or the movies. Did any of you see what his opponent did?"
Five little hands raised. "Excellent. Nemue's move, while a little advanced if executed all at once, was a series of simple moves you already know. She over extended her reach on the final thrust, and her left side was completely unprotected. Even when you think your opponent is unarmed, there is no excuse for sloppiness on the salle. Follow me." Master Strand demonstrated the move as a thrust, retreat, side step, thrust, disarming parry, and a final lunge. He didn't comment on her series of slashes. Nemue 'stabbed' straight through the main artery in both of Mark's arms before hitting him directly over the heart. A wreath of colorful spots decorated his face mask, proof that she rained punishing slaps across his temples after she 'killed' him.
"One more thing before you go, class." Master Strand waived toward the equipment manager. "You may each pick up your kits today. Dismissed." Nemue wanted to run to the equipment desk with all the others, but she held herself back. First, she made certain the quirts were all put away. Then she went to the girls dressing room to change out of the rental uniform. She packed the padded jacket, gloves, and canvas pants all back in the mesh bag they originally came in. As well treated as it was, it was still not her own. Every new fencer ordered a kit on the first week of class. The next time she dressed, it would be her very own uniform. The first time she held a foil, it would belong to her.
The kits had finally arrived. Her foils were here. Mom bought her one for practice, and one to save for later. The first was a simple, plain looking thing. It was shorter than the Master's, because of her youth and size, and not as finely made as the second. They both featured the comfortably styled red pistol grip with the highly polished titanium hand guard. Both had memory foam padding on the back of the bell. "Property of Nemue Marble" was engraved on the hand guards, hidden by the foam unless she pulled it back to check. The only difference between the two was the blade itself. The practice blade was cheaper, duller, and shorter. It might be sharp enough to spread peanut butter in a pinch, but too dull to slice cheese. A hard rubber nub was firmly and permanently fixed to it's rounded end.
The second foil featured a light and flexible aluminum blade with a strong titanium core. The removable cap that guarded the sharp tip hid a deadly point. Depending on the light that fell on it, the blade looked gold one moment, but silver the next. She held it reverently in her lap, afraid to mark it with the oil in her fingerprints. Looking at the fine blade, Nemue wondered how she had the strength not to rip open the box in the parking lot of the club. Instead, she endured the car ride with her equipment in the trunk. She held off the moment until everyone was home for the evening.
Carol Marble was a beautiful woman, but an even more beautiful mother. She had just the right amount of worry lines to balance out her smile lines. She knew when to listen, and because of that, she knew when to ignore an overbearing fencing Master that insisted her daughter was not ready to own a real weapon. Because Mom knew best, but the Master was right, Nemue decided to tell Master Strand that the finer blade was safely in storage. So it was. In storage stuck between the mattress and box spring of her bed, where her small fingers wandered to the hilt in her peaceful, monster free sleep.
Nemue age 13
Nemue brushed her teeth in front of the bathroom mirror as always, but something was different about tonight. She noticed that the world, which always seemed too big, fit her better. She looked closely at her reflection and realized that the step stool that she used to grab her toothbrush was casually pushed out of her way instead of under her feet. Her pajama pants still went all the way to down to the floor, but only because she had pulled them up to her hips instead of her waist. Yesterday she was a kid, today she was a teenager. She felt the strangest sense of giddy anticipation take over. She wasn't a kid anymore. No more imaginary friends, no more silly bad dreams, no more monsters in the closet. She was too big for that. She was a teenager, and no teenager she'd ever heard of saw any of that nonsense.
She tried the word on for size. Nonsense. Nemue braided her hair before bed because her normal tossing and turning tangled it. Then she marched into her bedroom to inspect it with her new, older, wiser eyes. Nothing here. Her ankles tingled when she walked past her bed, but nothing reached. Nothing pulled. No tentacles. The little girl gritted her teeth and turned off the light like normal teenagers do. She usually spent several minutes visualizing herself slaying monsters with her foil and lovingly touching the pistol shaped hilt of it, memorizing the feel of it in her hand so that she might bring it with her in dreams for protection. Tonight she pulled her blanket up to her shoulder and fell asleep with a smile on her face. That didn't last long.
Nemue knew she was dreaming. Two years of counseling gave her tools to fight the nightmares. She learned quickly that dream control began with logic, lucidity, and location. The three 'L's. If she had never been to the fencing club in her school clothes, this meant she was dreaming. Her goal was to watch events play out in the dream, but keep them to places she felt safe and surround herself with objects from her life that made her feel in control of the situation. It was not possible to rigidly direct every detail of the dream world. No, she just had to prevent it from galloping out of control.
She looked around the salle, searching for clues that might tell her where this dream was headed. She found nothing out of place. Except...no weapons. There were no weapons here and she was helpless, unarmed if an attacker appeared. Nemue backed away from the mirrored wall and tried to calm down. Her foil always came when she had need of it, fitting to her hand like an old friend. No need to carry it around for the entire dream. She breathed deeply and summoned her fencing uniform. The real world one now needed replacing; her sudden growth spurt made sure of that. A little armor and padded jacket went a long way toward slowing her heart rate. The fact that no monsters appeared confused her. She'd never been so good at dream control that the nightmare didn't happen at all. Nemue summoned her foil and began practicing by herself, making use of the empty room.
When the tall blond came out of the dressing room in a black uniform, she knew it wasn't Master Strand before she got a good look at the intruder.
"En garde!" She challenged him, her piping girl's voice ringing like foil against foil. The thing chuckled, low in his chest. He wasn't that much taller than her, she realized. He might walk like a master but the set of his shoulders and a closer look at his face made him more of an older student. It appeared maybe sixteen or seventeen, just a normal boy with vertical black pupils. He smiled slowly and raised the buttoned point of his foil.
"A challenge may be seen as an invitation, little one. You have much to learn. I wasn't expecting you to make this so easy." A shiver went down her spine at the sight of his pointed teeth. The little things made it clear that no human stood before her. His hands ended in claws instead of fingernails. He wore no gloves to protect his pale fingers, and she suspected he did not need protection. "That said, I accept your invitation." His smooth voice was the right combination of ice water and disinterest. He might be asking her to take him to a movie he didn't want to see, not holding her at sword point. Monsters never spoke. They had no power and no voices anymore in her dreams. This was a mystery holding a foil, standing in the center of her control zone. Nemue fell back in retreat and tried to banish him with logic.
"You are not here because you are not real. Dreams are not real, so you are not here." She swallowed. Her sword arm wavered uncertainly.
"Pret. Allez." He hissed and lunged forward, forcing her to accept the reality of his foil on hers. His movements were lovely, like a fencing manual come to life. Every stance was perfectly executed. Each turn of his wrist controlled the blade with breathtaking precision. He flowed from one position to the next, keeping his head so level when he advanced that Nemue wanted to balance a book on it. He paused arrogantly just long enough at each move to allow her to study his technique. Perhaps, because they were not wearing masks, it was a sign of courtesy between a master and student. Even as she fought to the best of her ability, and she was the best fighter of her age in the club, she saw him holding back. Not even winded after five minutes of herding her into a corner, he landed a direct blow to her heart.
"Arret. The lesson is over. I win." She rubbed the chalk mark on her jacket and stared at him. A blow like that should have hurt, even through padding. It should have knocked her backwards. It would have, had he done it with a foil instead of a riding crop. He was a better instructor than Master Strand. If she crossed blades with him every nightmare for the rest of her life, she might not mind the lack of sleep.
"I don't need to bruise you up for you to know I'm real when you awaken." He tossed aside the crop and grinned. "Shall we discuss the terms of your surrender?"
Nemue rubbed her hand across her eyes and blinked in the change of scenery. She was not in control of the dream, not at all, because Moonlight Beach was not safe in her dream world. Even in the middle of a sunny day, Nemue expected monsters to appear in the water. The warm sun traced a halo in the stranger's soft curls. Her home, and safety, lay across the street and a world away. Being plainly outside of shelter and out of control made her hands shake on the scarred wood of the D street stairs.
"What are you?"
"Really?" He chuckled. "That's rich. You are asking me what I am." He blinked slowly at her, causing a second set of transparent eyelids to slide into place like natural sunglasses. "Do any of us know what we are?"
"I can't just call you 'hey you'. You have a name?" She felt strange meeting his eyes through the clear lids. Nemue looked anywhere but at him. The famous D street stairs were rock solid in construction. Built to last out of thick wood beams and massive metal bolts, they extended from a small scenic overlook to the soft sand below. The unstable cliff was covered with man's attempts to keep it from crumbling like soft cheese. People used everything from brick retaining walls to wire mats to hold the dirt in place. The real job was done by the roots of native plants. Environmental protection allowed the flowers to transform Moonlight Beach into a hanging garden of blossoms, birds, and butterflies. Tourists loved to park along the residential streets, unpack binoculars and cameras, and have lunch on the sea facing benches.
Nemue never sat on them. She thought they were sad. Each one was a memorial, with "In loving memory of..." stamped boldly in the stone supports. She could never relax on the last monument to another person's loss. They may have lived long years or short, happy or sad lives, but the silent benches offering comfort to travelers from around the world said only that they had been loved. The dead had not been thrown away, and someone oiled and stained the wooden seats to protect them from the salty mist that ate memories away to nothing.
Was there a bench dedicated to the lost baby Nemue, waiting on a cliff for her return? She often read the names and wondered if her bench would rot. Unpolished. Forgotten on the beach. The little girl followed wave after wave with her eyes. They crested and crashed endlessly. From a safe distance, she found the motion soothing. How peaceful it seemed to rock on the surface of the glass swells, waiting for the perfect wave. How nice it would be to join her father when he photographed crabs for her in the tide pools. If only she could paddle out to where the dolphins jumped for the sheer joy of swimming.
If she dared descend the stairs, the roar of the sea sounded like the darkness in her head when she blacked out. The sound of panic, of terror, and mindless monsters pushed her away from the water. She once tried to run blindly into the water, eyes closed, hands over her ears. That ended with her at the top of the stairs with no idea how she got there.
"You're trembling." His hand brushed the top of her head like a kiss from a butterfly. "Do not fear me." He stepped back, clenching his hand as if it tingled. "Some of us do not need names. Our power is our name. What we are. I will give you a hint. In modern terms I am a creature of action. I make things happen that are supposed to be happening. I operate behind the scenes. A computer programmer might call me..."
"A program?" She interrupted brightly. He drew something quickly in the air and smiled fondly at her.
"No," he drawled. "A daemon."
Nemue took a hard look at the stranger. How could this be a daemon? She felt the lightness of his being, where the sense of power held in check glowed under his skin. He wasn't ugly like the monster in the closet, or hairy like the thing under the bed. He looked nothing like the lost garbage bags that attacked her legs at night. He didn't threaten to grab her ankles.
"I don't think our ideas of what daemon means are at all the same, Mr.?" She held out her hand timidly.
"Leareth. I am named for the darkness in you, and my name means darkness." He took her hand in his warm fingers for an instant. "I am here because without a teacher there is no way you can prepare to meet your destiny. Things will go unlearned. Undone. I can say little more. I have bested you in a match of swords and wits. I am your master now."
"A terrible question." He flicked his tinted eyelids back up, hiding them beneath the first set. "Why does anyone do anything? It is simple. Rain falls, flowers grow. I am yours because it is my purpose to love you."
"What is my purpose?" She looked back at her house, a modest little home with a million dollar view. She didn't know what to think when he said he loved her. Could she believe him? She allowed his words to drop into the box of buried feelings in the depths of her young heart, where so many things she was too young to deal with churned and bled and gasped for air.
"It is time for you to learn to use your natural talents. I can teach you to call that foil of yours to hand while you are awake. You should not be helpless against the lesser creatures that torment you. Fear of the dark fae is ridiculous. They should fear you."
"Don't talk about them! It wakes them up," she whispered. Leareth laughed, a strangely friendly sound, coming from a daemon.
"I would destroy them if they dared come near. I can't stand seeing you this weak." The daemon tsked at her like a disappointed teacher.
"I'm doing everything I can." She eyed the waves nervously. "Fencing helps. I'm way to old to be seeing monsters. Why do I have to see them at all? I think it's just awful. Can you show me how to make it all go away?
"Not at all," Leareth hissed. "You hang on the edge of two worlds, belonging nowhere until you choose. You have power inside you that begs to be used, and the inborn talent to direct that power. You are a rare and amazing creature, Nemue."
"What if I don't want it anymore?"
"Seeing them, seeing me, is a part of you. Your only options include learning to deal with it, or letting it kill you. Let it own you. Let the darkness terrify you forever." His shape faded as he talked, rippling like a mirage. She could see the bushes through him, and his voice sounded like a sigh.
"Wait! I'll learn. But you have to promise. I can't be your friend if you don't promise. You won't just vanish on me!"
"My name is in you, child. For many years, whenever you so much as think it, I will be at your right hand. You will walk with me into the dark. You will be fearless. Dangerous. Bold." Something between a warm flush of pleasure and a wave of fear coursed through her. She now had a friend. A daemon friend that scared the pants off all the little monsters in Encinitas. He touched her right hand and dug in his claws until she gasped. "So you will not forget."
Nemue woke up with bloody scratches on the back of her hand. The demon had left them as proof that he existed. As if she could forget him. She had always known she was different. Her first memories of other children separated them from her the same way she knew she wasn't a cat or a dog. She never felt like one of them. An eternal outsider, watching them laugh, scream, and cry like wild animals. Nemue never cried. Her emotions felt weak and pale compared to the wild mood swings of regular children. She often wondered if she was a poorly programmed robot, some scientific experiment. Her best friend was a deamon who said she was special. She went to therapy twice a month. It was almost a relief knowing the truth. Maybe being crazy wasn't so bad. She might end up wearing pajamas all day, talking to the wind, and demanding pudding cups in a different flavor for each of her imaginary friends.
The girl giggled until her sides hurt. She wouldn't push Leareth away. What was the point? He promised to help. He might even be her own mind trying to fix things.