Part 1 – Katja Reidenburg
'Now you may see within the glass
The whole estate of mortal man;
How they from seven to seven do pass,
Until they are three score and ten,
And, when their glass is fully run,
They must leave off where they first begun.'
Chapter 1 – My life before
I glared at the Super Mario Bros clock on the opposite wall over my Marvel comic. It wasn't that far away, just a few shelves and a table of clearance merchandise, but it was just too far away for me to accurately lob anything at. I could have sworn that clock was deliberately set to be half an hour slow. I watched menacingly as the minute hand slowly converged on the twelve. I had, after weeks of pleading and begging, I had managed to get an extra half an hour off today to go and watch the meteor shower. Four minutes to go.
I folded up the comic and stuffed it unceremoniously into the plastic box of stuff I kept under the cashier's desk, along with all my other junk. It was home to a few broken novelty pens I couldn't bear to throw out, a notebook full of doodles (mostly of Tara, my boss, getting killed in creative and gory ways), my iPod and a couple of photos of my tarantula, Pinkie. The box stood on top of my shoulder bag, which I carried everywhere. It was crap, but it was my crap.
Next to my little box of horrors was Julie's. Julie was my sole colleague and occasional friend here at the Flaming Sword, a tiny comic and gaming supplies shop on the far end of the high street. Julie was probably the only reason it was still open for business and not hideously bankrupt, like most of the other small businesses along this stretch of road. She was tall and darkly beautiful, had perfect curves but still managed to look athletic, and always had perfect nails. She kept the customers coming in with her looks, and that was about the only thing me and my boss agreed on.
Three minutes to five. I shifted restlessly on my stool. There hadn't been many customers today because Julie was on holiday with her equally perfect boyfriend, Rashid. He'd just bought them tickets on a luxury cruise around the Mediterranean. How he had managed to afford them was another matter; he worked as a climbing instructor at the university in the next big city along, but his wages weren't that sweet.
I started re-arranging all the nicnacks on the top of the desk. I couldn't move the cash register; it was bolted to the table, but I did manage to shift the extremely heavy potted cactus Tara insisted we leave next to it. Tara was a cactus lady. She had the personality of a cactus, too. I took a few of the little figurines of various game characters and arranged them around the base of the pot. I left the rest in formation, doing battle on the other side of the cash register. The other side was just as boring; a tube of biros and blunt pencils stood dourly next to a display of Lord of the Rings figurines arranged in height order, who stood next to the 1980's style stereo system. The sound from the stereo was so awful I just used my iPod on speaker mode most of the time. The hulking old sound system (nicknamed Ken) rarely worked, but it had become a permanent fixture, thanks to Tara.
Two minutes left. I hopped off the stool and wandered between the shelves, straightening comics and magazines. I was a little bit OCD with the shop. Julie was pretty and drew in the customers, but she didn't really know how to do anything else but attend the till and flirt until someone bought something. Tara just didn't care how the shop looked as long as she got money out of it. I, however, did care, and I'm pretty sure the shop's continued existence is down to my cleaning habits. I even petitioned for a new coat of paint on the outside sign. Tara agreed, as long as I painted it myself. Which I then did, ruining several t-shirts and pairs of jeans in the process.
I walked through the 'Staff Only' door and took out a handful of new figurines for the window display. A few new big-breasted anime girls and men with massive swords really did draw in potential customers, albeit teenage boys.
"Katja." A sickly sweet female voice chimed to my left.
"Yes, Tara?" I answered as politely as possible, trying to look busy.
"What did I tell you about leaving the cash register unmanned?" I stood up. Tara stood there, hands on hips, with a very cross look on her face. I almost laughed at the teacherliness of it all. Tara was in her early thirties and had inherited the shop from her older (and much nicer) brother, who had moved to Australia about three years ago (probably to get away from her, but no one mentioned that). Her red hair was cut in a slick bob that clung to her cheekbones, and made her look sharper than a knife. She was the same height as me, but she insisted on wearing spike heels that made her look like a stripper from behind and a dominatrix from the front, which was almost certainly the intended effect. She had the personality and compassion of a rattlesnake. No one messed with Tara.
"Don't. I think." I tried to disengage.
"Anyone could walk in the front door and open the drawer, take out whatever you've managed to sell today, and walk straight out again! Not that it's going to be as much as what Julie earns, but it's still money. And it's still your pay on the line if anything - and I mean anything - goes missing!" You could have thrown a match on her and she would have ignited like a bonfire at the rate she was fuming.
"I'll get right back, then. Nice talking to you, Tara," I said sarcastically. She just glared.
I walked back out and stood behind the desk again, and glared at the clock. I'd just done two minutes extra. Damn.
I snatched the shoulder bag out from under the desk and stuffed the box into it.
"I'm going now! See you tomorrow!" I yelled at the 'Staff Only' door, in Tara's general direction. Not that I cared if she didn't hear. I stalked out of the door, shooting a dirty look at the chime that tinkled obnoxiously as I opened it.
I felt a damp splash on the top of my head, and held out my hand. A few heavy drops of rain landed squarely on my palm. I realized I'd forgotten my raincoat. Again. I swore and started jogging out to the car park at the end of the street. A few years ago the council had pedestrianised the main high street, but it did nothing for the constant influx of people traffic. I dodged and weaved between commuters and shoppers who clung to the edges of the shops like iron filings to a magnet. Rain water soaked the canvas of my Converse as I splashed through puddles. I silently cursed English Junes. Wasn't it supposed to be warm at this time of year?
I raced past the other shops, watching as other shop assistants or cashiers undertook the monotonous task of locking up. A couple of wealthier shops had electronic metal shutters that wound down slowly. Riot-proof, robbery-proof metal shutters weren't really necessary in this part of town. Clockford wasn't exactly the crime centre of the UK. We didn't get any more crime than the next commuter town, despite the wealth of many of the inhabitants. Or maybe that was what kept the crime rate normal; rich people with super-powered security systems.
I rounded a corner and sprinted the final few meters up to my moped. Lennie the moped had served me well these last couple of years. He didn't cost me too much in the way of repairs, and he looked pretty cool. I bought him from a somewhat eccentric friend of my sister's, so it was lime green and covered in bright yellow stars. The paintwork was chipped and scuffed and one of the lights didn't work when I'd first brought him home, but we became fast friends as I painted over the scratches and replaced the lights. I'd had the sense and foresight this morning to stick the tarpaulin over Lennie in case of rain. Thank the gods I'd done that now.
I unchained Lennie and hopped on. I didn't bother with a helmet. It wasn't exactly the safest method of transport, but I stuck to back roads and alleys, and of course, it really annoyed my parents. There were a lot of wiggly back roads in this town; most of them flanked with elegant, up market housing that most people could only dream of affording. They were all generically Victorian style, with gardens that stretched on for miles backwards and immaculately groomed front lawns. A few wealthy residents had ponds or shrubberies, but almost all the gardens were surrounded by either picket fence or waist height box hedges.
I slowed down a little to take in the smell of money. Of course, they were all new money families or couples around here. If you wanted to see real old money houses, you had to drive out to the outskirts of town to the incredibly exclusive Waterest Oval. Some of those houses were worth millions. Sellers were almost as picky about buyers as buyers were about the houses. Most of the time the houses in Waterest Oval would be passed down through generations, and a couple of the houses hadn't been lived in for years. It was a pity, really. They were very nice houses, considering how much people were willing to pay for them.
I dreamed for a moment what it would be like to live up in Waterest Oval with all the money and luxuries the residents there had. I wouldn't have to work for bitchy Tara, or put up with my family's whining about my life, or ever have to worry about hiding Pinkie from my landlord again. I wouldn't really have to worry about anything again. I could have pretty much anything I wanted, as well as a holiday home in the Bahamas, a whole collection of spiders, and maybe even a python of my own. That would be sweet.
I shivered a little and turned Lennie towards the less prestigious part of town, and back to reality. Truth was, I did have to work for a woman who would fire me at the drop of a hat if she wasn't so paranoid about being sued for unlawful dismissal, my family did complain at me and judge me constantly because I hadn't mimicked my sister and become some kind of brain surgeon or politician, or married anyone rich and famous, and I did have to keep shoving Pinkie's tank into my wardrobe every time my landlord dropped in for a cup of tea. I would never afford a holiday, let alone a holiday home, in the Bahamas, I didn't have room in my apartment for a collection of spiders, and I think my landlord would notice if I brought home a python. Even a small one.
Mr. Dwyer, as nice as he was, had a zero-tolerance for pets of all shapes and sizes. He was great otherwise, he gave me a very reasonable rate for renting in town, my neighbors never bothered me, and he dropped in for tea every once in a while. Trouble was, he never said when he would be dropping in next. I tried to worm it out of him every time he was about to leave, but he always just gave me a cryptic "I'll be back" sort of answer and walked out. I'd nearly lost Pinkie twice because of his little habit.
I turned another corner onto my road. My apartment was one of five in an old Victorian house that had been gutted and internally reconstructed to provide five ample apartments of varying size and quality. Mine was one of the crappier ones. I had no idea who rented the bottom floor, but they had the best level by far, including the whole garden. I got the top left hand corner of the house, which was essentially half an attic. It wasn't too bad or anything, just a bit dusty. It was always freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer, but it was conveniently out of my family's reach and close enough to work that the rent was worth it. I would have paid double for a cardboard box if it kept me away from my family.
I hopped off Lennie and wheeled him over to the communal garage attached to the house. I got a discount because of my lack of car. I stuck Lennie in the bike shed and walked back out into the rain around the back of the house. I never went in the front door; it meant I had to walk past my ground floor neighbor, who I wasn't too anxious to meet. The old lady who rented the apartment below me always gave me a disapproving look whenever I walked past, but the couple opposite her smiled when they saw me. We weren't all on speaking terms yet, but as long as I kept out of their way, they were happy.
I jogged up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. I was exhausted by the time I reached the second floor, and I'd left a trail of water all over the stairs to slip up whoever came up next. I made a mental note to mop that up later.
I opened the front door and walked in.
The clutter and general entropy of my apartment sprawled out before me. I surveyed the mess and started planning where I would start cleaning, when I finally found the time and the strength of will to stop procrastinating. In truth, I loved my mess. It was homely. My OCD literally only applied to the shop. My apartment was my own personal pigsty.
I kicked off my sodden Converse and picked them up by the laces, dripping forlornly. I half-sprinted, half-limped across the sitting room, trying desperately not to get water, mud or any other gunk on the cream carpet. Who decided cream was a good colour for a carpet? Unless you could afford extortionate cleaning bills, the carpet was inexplicably bound to become grey with dirt. Needless to say, my carpet had gone grey pretty much the minute I walked through the door on the day I officially moved in.
I stuck the shoes in the sink and started peeling off the rest of my clothes. Mismatched socks, check. Deliberately torn jeans, check. Flaming Sword t-shirt, check. Sports bra, check. Panties, check. My ten minute ride home had completely drenched me. I squished the clothes for good measure, and wandered into my bathroom.
The bathroom was the best room in my apartment. It was one of two rooms that had walls that separated it from the rest of the house, the other room being my bedroom. The cleaning was super easy, just going over the general dirt every Friday with a wet wipe was hardly a chore. And then there was the bath - the bath! It was the bath of queens. It was one of those space-saver corner tubs, and it was just perfect for me. It left ample room one side for the taps and my various bottles of bubble bath, and the other side was just big enough for a few books. Trashy romance novels were my weapon of choice for during bathing. The bath could be separated from the rest of the room by a very nifty shower curtain that was set on a roller, so I didn't have to worry about the curtain getting tangled or jammed or soaking my towels. A huge mirror took up almost all of the space of one wall. It wasn't set in the most flattering of places; I assume most people don't deliberately watch themselves pose while they shower. A heated towel rail stood just out of reach of the bath, which was annoying.
I turned on the bath taps and drizzled copious amounts of ylang ylang bubble bath under the running water. It filled the room with a heavenly smell of flowers. I sighed, knowing I'd get used to it and it wouldn't smell so good in about ten minutes. I grabbed a towel from the rail, wrapped it around myself and padded back into the kitchen. I took out a pineapple milkshake from the refrigerator and swigged it out of the carton. I grinned with pleasure - in my opinion, pineapple was king. Strawberry just didn't cut it anymore.
I ran a couple of fingers through my hair absentmindedly as I weighed the pros and cons of cooking a proper dinner versus ramen noodles. That was like weighing the pros and cons of hopping up Everest versus walking to the park: the answer was obvious. Ramen noodles won. I took the box out of the cupboard and set them on the counter for later.
I flipped on the radio and bustled around the kitchen, doing various kitcheny things to keep my hands busy until my bath was done. Some obscure rock number came on the radio, and I did a little jig across the short distance to the radiator, which I turned defiantly on, despite the fact it was summer. Or more precisely, it was supposed to be summer. We hadn't had any sunny weather yet. The song ended, and the annoying presenter started jabbering about the weather.
"Rain, right across the UK..." Yeah, what a surprise. "...will probably clear up nicely for tonight's light show. Yes folks, tonight is a pretty rare opportunity to get some real star-gazing done. A meteor shower is due to hit tonight around midnight, so get out there and get us some photos for our website..." The presenter ranted on with mock interest.
I turned off the radio and walked back into the bathroom. The bath was just full enough, with a small mountain of bubbles perched on top. I dropped the towel and climbed in. I hadn't realized how cold I was until the hot water stung my skin. I sank a little deeper, relishing the burn. I watched as my hair floated around my shoulders. It floated in a kind of purple-ish web of seaweed. My parents hated it; I loved it. I'd dyed it purple for the sole purpose of annoying the hell out of them about five years ago, and it stuck. I briefly tried going back to my natural brown, but it didn't look as good.
I relaxed in the water for about an hour until hunger started to gnaw at my stomach. I stepped cautiously out of the bath, drenched half the floor reaching for another towel, and proceeded to dry myself. I'm quite tall, which I get from my mother. I was always part of the tall-but-not-quite-tall-enough-to-be-hot group of girls at school, which annoyed me, so I focused on sport. I was part of my school's girl's football team, hockey team and gymnastics team, even though I wasn't very good at any of them. I kept the muscle from them, even if I hadn't (god forbid) put on a leotard in years.
With the towel secured around my body, I flicked on the kettle and dumped the ramen noodles in the pan. I quickly grabbed an oversized band tee and panties from my bedroom as the kettle boiled. I poured water over the noodles, inhaling the steam.
I jumped, almost smashing my head into the pan, as the phone rang loudly. I glanced at the caller ID; I wasn't about to pick up the phone willy-nilly, the news (or caller) might ruin my evening. It was my sister, Emily. I reached across the kitchen and pulled the phone off the hook
"Yeah, Em?" I mumbled into the handset.
"Hello, honey! How are you doing?" Emily said in the most irritatingly cheerful voice possible. My fingers twitched with annoyance.
"Great. Und du?" I switched to German. It was harder to sound as peppy in German.
"I'm great, too! Luke is in America at the moment, so I'm feeling lonely. I was thinking of getting a dog..." I let Em's babble drift into the back of my mind while I tried to gain a bit of composure, and work out what it was that she really wanted.
I took a deep breath and prepared myself mentally. My family and I didn't get along, to say the least. A long story short, they pushed me one way, but I was determined to go the other. Dad threatened to cut me off while I was at university, I got a loan and cut myself off from them. Mum and I had a massive shouting match over my life choices, in which we both dug ourselves into enormous holes and stuck all the dirt we'd dug out in between the two holes so there was no going back. Emily and her husband, Luke waited happily on the sidelines, watching and waiting until we all cooled off.
It was probably a family thing. I really didn't want to hear anything about my folks, but Emily was unswayable when she was on a mission. She'd become our designated messenger. If there was something important I had to know about Mum and Dad, or if there was something they had to know about me, she would find out and pass it along. Discreetly.
"Or maybe a cat would be better for our lifestyle, what with my work and his keeping us away all the time. He never tells me when he's next going off, and my shifts at the hospital have been running wild recently-"
"Emily Miriam Richardson? This is your sister calling. Earth to Emily." I said in my most sardonic tone.
"Yes, hon?" Em was a nurse; it explained the sunny disposition.
"What do you want to tell me?"
She faltered. I knew something was wrong. Nothing - and I mean nothing - ever left Em speechless. When Luke proposed, she was on the phone to every person in her phone book (including the emergency services, much to their displeasure) about two seconds after she said yes. Which she said immediately.
"Do you want me to come over? It's not that late, and I can get through the rush hour traffic on Lennie easily. What's wrong?" I put on my good sister hat.
She said something incoherent.
"I'm pregnant," She whispered. I froze. Then a smile crept across my face. I was going to be an auntie!
"That's fantastic, Em! I didn't know you and Luke were starting a family already. Have you told Mum and Dad yet?" I said, not having to feign happiness and interest this time.
"Not yet. And we weren't. This is kind of unexpected. I mean, what do I say to Luke? What do I say to Mum? Who can cover my shifts when I'm on maternity leave? What do I do if Luke doesn't want it?" Her voice broke a little towards the end.
"I'm coming over."
"No, no, I'm okay. I dug out Mr. Shnuggles. He still smells like maple syrup." Mr. Shnuggles was her childhood teddy bear. I hadn't heard anything from him in about 20 years.
"Yeah. I'm being ridiculous, I know he'll want it." She brightened up a little, and giggled. "It's not an it, it's a him or a her!"
"Back to normal already?" She was. She was an awful actress, even over the phone.
"Mmm. Hey, Kat?"
"Could you - try - and make up with Mum and Dad before the baby's born? Please? I know it's a lot to ask, but it's been two years, and the mediation is getting a little inconvenient. I don't even want to think about trying to get you and Mum to behave at the christening, it would be easier to perform intense brain surgery on a toddler. While conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. With a ukulele." She giggled, and I let out an unladylike snort.
"I'll see what I can do. Sort of. Well, if it's for you, and the baby," I relented a little. I didn't really want to see Mum or Dad, but doubted they would be champing at the bit to see me.
"Great! You remember that sweet little Chinese place near my house? The place where the waiters wear those kitsch uniforms?" I made a non-committal noise. "Dinner there, tomorrow night? Please?" Her voice leaked enthusiasm. Maybe my grasp on her was slipping, I hadn't realized how anxious she was to get me and my parents together again.
"Uh, sure." The line went dead. Sneaky, escaping before I could weasel out of it.
I shook my head and put the phone back down. I drained the noodles off and dumped them in a bowl. I had never learned how to use chopsticks; too confusing, and did practically exactly the same thing as a fork, so why bother? I fished out a fork from my mismatched array of cutlery and stabbed the noodles half-heartedly. Maybe it was time to make up. Two years on, the fighting seems stupid.
Mum and Dad were really pushy parents. I think they had visions of their children going on to do great public services, marrying and having lots of kids to leave their money too instead of us. Mum was a successful businesswoman who had somehow managed to find the time to get married and have two kids while fending off male rivals in her company. Dad was a chemist; I wasn't exactly sure what he did, but whenever he had tried to explain it I just got more and more confused.
They had wanted both me and Emily to become doctors, but Emily had ended up nursing and I had done psychology instead. This explains why Emily is the favoured child; she's older, kind, more sensible, married, and her job is at least vaguely medical. I was young, sarcastic, and too smart for my own good, worked in a comic shop, and was terminally single.
I twirled my fork around in the noodles, scooping up a big forkful and shoving it in my mouth. I had done psychology instead of medicine, and my parents refused to forgive me for 'wasting my talent', as they put it. I was really enjoying the course, when Dad had called up out of the blue telling me that if I didn't have a sit-down with him and my mother about my future, they were going to cut me off. I flew into a rage, swore violently down the phone at him, and immediately called the bank to refuse all incoming cheques or payments from a Mr. Karl Reidenburg.
Maybe after making up with them, I could show them where I was heading. I didn't plan on working in the Flaming Sword my whole life, just until a possible career opening arrived near me. I didn't mind commuting into the city, if necessary. I was young, and I had potential (or so my CV said).
Either way, it didn't really matter what they thought of me, just so we were on not-clawing-each-others-eyes-out terms for when the baby was born.
I finished the noodles and pushed the bowl and fork into the sink. I walked out of the kitchen and into the sitting room. I flung myself onto the squashy leather sofa and let myself doze. I had my digital watch alarm set for eleven tonight.
I didn't dream.
I woke up to the pinging of my watch. I slapped at it with my other hand, slightly annoyed at being disturbed. I had work in the morning, and super-late nights were not good for the work ethic.
The meteor shower was scheduled for midnight, so I had an hour to drive out to the church. I poodled around my house a bit, straightening things and slipping Pinkie a couple of extra grasshoppers as a treat. I didn't bother putting trousers or socks on, I just slid a pair of manky old flip-flops on and grabbed a windproof anorak from my wardrobe. I hoped the sky would be clear; if there were clouds, they were bound to interrupt my view of the shooting stars. It would be just my luck.
I locked the door to my apartment and slipped the key into my anorak pocket, and began the long descent down the stairs. It wasn't that far to go really, it just felt like a lot longer because I was tiptoeing, trying not to wake any of my neighbors. For once, I took the front door to exit. I fetched Lennie from the bike shed and pulled out into the road.
The drive to St. Mary's was about half an hour away. There wasn't any traffic around, but the air was thick and humid, even if it wasn't that warm. I shivered and pulled my coat around me. St. Mary's was the church on the outskirts of town; it was very nice, very picturesque and old-town quaint, but no one really attended it any more. It also had a big car park and a field right behind it, which was why I was heading there. I could sneak around the edges so I wouldn't activate the automatic lights, then watch the lightshow in the field.
I started to get a weird nagging sensation in my stomach, a bit like hunger but less gnawing and more nauseous. Like the sick feeling you get when you know you've done something very wrong but can't correct it. I shrugged it off, it was probably just anticipation. I hadn't seen a meteor shower since I was a child.
I drove past the private road that led to Waterest Oval. I gave it a quick backward glance as I sped away from it. The houses loomed eerily in the night. The abandoned ones were somehow less creepy than the inhabited ones; their windows didn't glare like eyes in the darkness, surveying the countryside like lords.
As I shivered I remembered the one time I'd ever entered one of the abandoned houses with my friend from school on a dare. I'd almost been taken down to the local police station, but the officer who caught me knew my friend, Penny. When we were about twelve and far more reckless, she'd dared me to go into any one of the old houses up there. I dared her back to come with me. We'd shook like leaves, creeping through the overgrown foliage that clustered in the garden, then freezing every time the house creaked with age. I felt like I was somehow desecrating a church or something, I felt that guilty. We didn't get much further than inside the back door. I picked the lock. A neighbor heard us, called the police, and we were escorted home. Our parents were furious. I tried hard not to remember the look on my mother's face when she found out what we did. It was almost scarier than the house. Almost.
I concentrated on my driving. I drove Lennie mindlessly, thinking only of the road ahead, the route I was taking to St. Mary's, and my final destination. That helped calm the irrational queasiness that wrestled with my stomach.
I turned the final corner and pulled Lennie to a halt. I hopped off, only to slip in the mud and end up with wet dirt all up my legs and arms. I made it worse by rubbing my hands on my leg, leaving dark streaks on my skin. I probably looked very crazy at the moment. I shoved my filthiness aside and pushed Lennie the final stretch into the dark car park. I kicked down his stand so I could wander off a bit. On a second thought, I shrugged of the anorak and draped it over my moped.
I walked out of the car park and tiptoed cautiously into the field. If the car park had been slippery, the field would probably be worse. I kept walking, slipping a bit, walked a little further, swore as I caught my toe on a rock, and walked a little more until I was about a quarter of the way into the field. The sky wasn't completely dark; you had to go to the arctic or deep underground for true dark, but it was dark enough to see the stars. The clouds were sparsely clustering in the far north, out of the way of the shooting stars.
I was overcome with a wave of tiredness. I sat down on impulse, then immediately regretted it. The mud was horrible, sticky and squishy beneath me. I giggled childishly and dug my fingers into it, leaning back to watch the sky. So what if I got a bit muddy? I'd just wash it off as soon as I got home.
Then I saw the first shooting star. It streaked across the sky, a little orb of light that suddenly flashed out of existence. Then another, a few seconds later. They flitted across the sky and disappeared suddenly, like little flash bombs going off in the atmosphere. I smiled, recalling the joy of my childhood. This was just like the first one I ever saw. It was beautiful; they were always beautiful, if they weren't obscured by cloud or the light pollution isn't too harsh, but that's England for you. It was worth the mud and the creeps. I relaxed completely. I tipped my head back and blew a few kisses into the sky.
"When you wish upon a star," I sang softly to myself. "Makes no difference who you are, something, something, something, I forget the words," It didn't make a difference, it still brought tears to my eyes. I watched for the next one, and wished.
I wished for Em's baby, I wished for Em and Luke, I wished for Pinkie, I wished for Mum and Dad, I wished for Julie and Rashid, and I even wished for Tara. I wished for Penny, wherever she was. I wished for Mr. Dwyer and all my neighbors, even the snooty lady under me, and I wished for Lennie. But most of all, I wished for me. As selfish as it was, I still wanted looking after. I might be an adult legally, but my childish self still ruled my heart, as cliché as it sounds. I wanted everything to go perfectly to my plan. I wanted a career, not just a job, in a field that I loved. I wanted the no pets policy of my apartment lifted. I wanted to reconcile with my parents. I wanted a lot more, but they weren't really relevant. I wanted life, with all the strings attached.
Which is why I was so angry when I felt hands gripping my arms and legs. It's why I felt so frustrated at my own futility when I felt the needle slide into my arm. It's why I was so devastated when whatever drugs the faceless hands had just given me didn't impair my vision. If I was going to be taken down, here and now, I wanted to be on my feet. Even if the finest, most soft and seductive string attached to life was death, I wanted to go down kicking and screaming.
That was the last coherent thought I had before my mind started fraying in and out of sanity and consciousness. I still watched the sky as the hands hauled me up and carried me away. Except it wasn't the sky that it was, just seconds ago. It was colder and darker, even in June. I saw the emptiness of space, and realized how alone I was. Not physically, but mentally, shut up in the box that was my head. I wanted to rage, to squirm and to break free, to punch whoever held me in the face, and then to run as fast as my legs would let me away from here. But I was alone. Even my sanity had run away. But maybe that was a good thing. I didn't really want to be normal in this situation. I'd spent most of my teenage and adult life straining against normality that going out in this decidedly not-normal way would certainly be different. Maybe then I'd get the attention I deserved, the attention from my parents that had always been put on Emily because she was the sweeter child who did what they wanted.
I watched the fire streak across the sky, and fizzle out. It was a little blurry at the edges, but it was worth it just to watch the lights. I watched them to wherever the hands were taking me. If I looked around to see where we were going, I didn't remember it.
I stopped. We stopped. A voice emanated from behind me. I tried to turn to see who it came from, but I couldn't move. I didn't understand what the voice was saying anyway. It wasn't English or German or even Latin or Greek. I doubted it was French. The other set of hands, the ones in front of me, replied in the same weird language.
The back one shifted nervously and they walked again.
I don't know how long they walked, carrying me every step of the way.
I do remember the change in temperature as we entered a building. I don't remember much else, besides another sting in my arm. Then I blacked out.
Chapter 2 – Army of Little Girls
I woke up again to a strange smell. I didn't open my eyes; fear held them tightly shut. Although I had no idea what the future held for me, I was instinctively afraid. The place where I was smelled like China rose and old. Not the kind of old you get in an old folks home, but the lovely, rich antique smell you get in used book shops and stately homes. The kind of old that tells tales through your nose. I would have loved the smell in any other circumstance, but wherever I was scared me more than ever before, so I didn't relish in it. I didn't breathe too deeply; something was restricting my breathing. I assumed it was the drugs.
I wiggled my fingers a little. It was hard; they were still numb with whatever anaesthetic the hands had given me, but I got a little bit of sensation out of them. I realised I was lying down. It should have been obvious, but the drugs seemed to have knocked out everything logical about my brain. My fingers felt the soft and cushy thing I was lying on. Above it was silky and smooth, below it was rougher but more comforting. I came to the conclusion it was probably a bed, since that was the most logical place to put a sleeping person. Even a captive sleeping person.
I could hear a fire crackling, the building creaking, and my heart pounding in my ears. My pulse raced loudly in my head, an irregular drum beat that made everything seem super fast or super slow. The fire should have been a homely sound, but I didn't know where it was so I couldn't be sure. The building creaking meant it was old, just like it smelled. Only old buildings have that characteristic creak; the house I grew up in creaked.
It struck me that I would never see that house again. My parents still lived there. I would never see them or the house again. Pain flashed through my mind at the thought of losing them, drawing me out of my physical reverie. I sat up and forced my eyes open.
The room smelled of China rose for a reason; it looked like the kind of place where people would use liberal amounts of the perfume on a daily basis. Dark wood furniture was contrasted with pale pink drapery and upholstery; even the ceiling matched. I was lying on a four poster bed with the curtains drawn back. In the room there was an armoire, a wardrobe, a dressing table, a writing desk, a full-length mirror, the bed and two bedside tables, all made out of identical wood. A tiny rose motif graced the front of every piece, maybe the craftsman's signature. The room was well lit with old-style lighting. I couldn't tell if it was electric or genuine gas lights.
It was all beautiful. It was all foreign. And I didn't like it. The thought of waking up in an old, possibly haunted house scared me to death. It was the kind of thing a serial killer would do, wouldn't it? Take the poor, helpless victim back to his lair and kill her slowly, but not before lulling her into a false sense of security by making the lair pretty.
Well, I refused to be poor, helpless, or lulled into a false sense of security. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, and looked down.
My first thought was, where have all my clothes gone? My second thought was, how do I escape in this? I was dressed in a Victorian gown. God knows where it came from, but I was willing to bet it was authentic, like everything else in this room probably was. It starkly contrasted with the delicate pink of the room; the dress was green. I bustled (bustled – ha!) over to the mirror. The gown was enormous. I'd seen things like this before in museums and on the internet, but never thought I'd ever have the chance to wear one. I decided I never wanted to wear one again, the way the corset was cutting off my breathing. My hair was tied up too, in some weird and elaborate up-do. I looked so out of place, and very odd. My purple hair looked deranged next to the emerald gown. It was almost a shame to spoil the effect.
Then I snapped back to reality. I'd been kidnapped, drugged, and now I was wearing some archaic dress. Although I'd pick the latter over the two former, it was still freaky. This was more serial killer-style behaviour; maybe I was being prepared for some kind of fetishistic murder? Or being dolled up to be sacrificed in an occult ritual? I severely hoped not. I would definitely never be able to run away in this.
I tried the door first, though I don't know why I bothered. Some small part of me really hoped that the door to the bedroom would be unlocked, and outside would be my clothes in a nice folded pile with a little note that said, 'sorry for kidnapping you!'. When I turned the handle and discovered it was locked, firmly, from the outside, that part of me shot itself in the head.
I walked over to a window. The window faced a garden, albeit a very overgrown, practically jungle-like garden. I strained my eyes for some kind of landmark I recognised. I tried peering out of the sides. Then, forcing my eyes to the right, I saw the house I'd broken into when I was a kid. I was in Waterest Oval, in one of the disused houses.
I sighed; relieved I knew where I was, and how to get back to my life if I escaped. Then I froze. It would take hours to walk anywhere, and I had no clothes except the stupid Victorian thing I was wearing. It was both impractical and uncomfortable. I reached around to my back and groped for the corset ties. I didn't find any, mentally slapping myself for my stupidity, after remembering the corset would be under the outer gown. And there was no way I could remove that on my own.
I looked out of the window again. Or more precisely, at the window fittings. The window frame was wooden, and the glass was only a single sheet; it was apparently pre-eco revolution. I could potentially smash it, but with what? I felt around on the dressing table, refusing to take my eyes off my escape route. My hands closed over a sliver backed hairbrush. I was weighty and cool in my hands, but too light to do any damage. My fingers traced the settings of the mirror. If I could pry it off its stand, I might be heavy enough to go through the window if I threw it right. I pondered the possibility and looked out again.
I was on the second story of the house, which would be a painful jump in itself even if the house wasn't raised an extra three feet on a deck. There was a chance I would land on the protruding veranda, just jutting out beneath the window. If that happened, I'd probably fall straight through the wood, which would break my fall, but also break my body, and probably introduce my skin to a million splinters.
I was amazed at how calm I was being. I hadn't screamed yet. I hadn't pounded on the door, demanding to be let out immediately, threatening my kidnapper with the police. Only my steadily shaking hands portrayed how nervous my body really was. I closed my eyes and listened to my breathing. It was unsteady, like my hands.
For a minute, I let myself imagine the worst-case scenario. A man in a mask made of sacking and human skin would walk into the room, brandishing a knife. He would remove one of my fingers and I would scream and scream until I didn't have any air left to scream with. I smiled at the movie cliché-ness of that scene. That would probably make me laugh more than terrify me, and the director would shout 'Cut!' and the tape would stop rolling and the man would pull off the mask and smile at me through a tonne of cosmetic scars.
No, whoever had me wasn't about to come into the room dripping blood, advertising their serial killer status. They'd try and woo me, win my trust, or seduce me into going with them. That was what scared me. Being seduced and coerced into a situation that would ultimately get me killed. If I was going to die, I didn't want it to be my fault.
Was it my fault anyway? If I hadn't been out in that field, would I still have been taken? Would the hands have taken someone else in my place? How far would they have gone to find someone?
The questions rang through my mind like bullets, and somewhere in a quiet and secluded part of my mind, a voice whispered; it really is your fault. If you hadn't been there, someone else would be facing this right now, and you would be with your family celebrating. Someone else could have taken this, and you wouldn't have a thing to worry about.
Then I remembered my family. I was supposed to meet them tomorrow night – tonight, I corrected myself. The sun was setting, and although I didn't have a clock it must have been about dinner time. Would they think I was just late, or that I was purposely not coming? Emily would be angry with me. Then when I didn't return home for days, and after the millionth time Em called my mobile and my home phone, they'd alert the police. But by then, it would be too late, hissed the masochistic voice again.
I was so wrapped up in my thoughts I didn't hear to door click.
My internal voices argued, fiercely debating the pros and cons of jumping out of the windows, my masochistic voice always urging me to stay, my common sense pointing out all the flaws in the plans, and my cavewoman voice screaming for me to shut up and jump. Then they all went silent. I halted my breathing for a second, and I became aware of a presence behind me.
Half expecting a human-skin clad serial killer, I was surprised to see a child. Well, she was a little older than a child, but she was tiny. She stood there staring at me – no, through me. Her look made me want to shiver, but my body didn't respond. My eyes were locked to hers, like she was an anchor holding my feet to reality. They were very strange eyes, a shade of pale brown I didn't know human eyes could be, and they were enormous. There were disproportionate for her head, and they made her look imbalanced. They alone scared me. She looked more like a caricature than a person.
Her little mouth twisted into a smile. I felt the corners of my lips twitch up, mimicking hers perfectly. She looked like a portrait; I looked like an antelope staring into a leopard's mouth. I was instinctively afraid of this thing.
I tried to pull open my jaw, pull apart my lips, make a sound, to ask her the million and one questions I had; where was I, who was keeping me here, why, can I go home, what are they planning to do to me? The list went on. But I couldn't move. I tried to move my fingers, but they didn't respond. It was like my brain had been cut off from the rest of my body.
Maybe sensing my distress, or just because she liked to, she smiled a little wider. She had a beautiful smile. Her lips, like the rest of her, were pale and bloodless, but they were still childishly pretty. Her face was framed with blonde ringlets, porcelain doll style curls that swept loose down below her shoulders, stopping at her shoulder blades. They were sunny blonde, like someone who spent most of their life outdoors, but her skin was so pale she must never have been outdoors a day in her life. The blonde of her hair gave her a more childlike appearance, but the details made her more and more of an enigma.
She took one step towards me, moving her tiny left foot in my direction. I was aware of nothing but her, the way her dress swayed and sighed against her as she moved, the way her arms swung slightly, and the absolute stillness of her head. Then she took another step, and another, and another, until she was standing right underneath my chin, still staring up into my eyes. I was a full foot taller than her, but it made no difference; she could still stare straight into me.
Her cold hands clasped mine. She rubbed her thumb over the back of my once, holding my eyes in her inescapable gaze. Suddenly a sharp pain pierced my palm as I felt her tiny fingernails gouging into my skin. My whole body stood to attention, but my mind was shrieking to stop her. Her little hand reached up to her mouth.
Then her eyes changed. The centre of her iris darkened, another colour mixing with the brown. Red seeped into and overwhelmed the brown, and I had all the confirmation I needed to know that this child – this little girl – was no human. Her eyes didn't exactly glow, but to my human eyes they were so freakish, so strange, she might as well have sprouted horns and a forked tail and told me she was the devil incarnate. She knew I was terrified.
The other hand dipped into the bodice of her dress and pulled out a black scarf. The other hand never left her lips. On tiptoe, she reached up and tied the scarf around my eyes. The darkness felt safe. In the same way animals calm down when they can't see what is going on around them, my mind stopped thrashing around in my brain for a little while. Either the warring sides called a truce or just nuked each other; they were silent for the time being.
My injured hand was touched by her cool skin again, and I felt her fingers twining with mine. She tugged gently on my arm like a coach driver tugging on a horse's reigns. We walked. I had no idea where we were going, but I probably didn't need to or want to know. I tried to memorise the turns we took to get to wherever we were going; left, then left again, three rights, down two sets of stairs, through a narrow door, and a right then left. I lost count after about a minute.
I was irrationally calm again. It wasn't that I'd come to terms with my probably inevitable death, my brain had just zoned out completely. It flickered incoherently in and out of rational thought, like a child who has been taught how to cut a film. Rolls of my life passed by, but with all the important bits missing. That alone stunned me; that at a time like this even my memory wouldn't cooperate.
We stopped, but the blindfold didn't come off. Her hand left mine, and I was alone again. A door clicked as it locked behind me, and I spun around. I turned too fast, underestimating the weight of my skirts, and landed on my arse on the floor.
I was aware of the bruising pain my fall had. Harnessing that sense of self, I waggled my fingers, then my hands, then my arms, steadily regaining the strength to lift them up and take off the blindfold.
Lifting the cloth away from my eyes, I took in my surroundings again. Immediately, my stomach sank at the lack of exits. I whipped my head left and right, eyes wide, scanning desperately for a way out. There was one door, but it was almost certainly locked. I didn't know how securely, but it would take some serious force to open it. I briefly pondered ramming it, and then dropped the idea again. There wasn't a suitable battering ram anywhere. The most disturbing thing about the room was it's compete lack of windows. There weren't even tiny portholes in the walls to let in shafts of sunlight in the afternoon. Unless I was in a room in the middle of the house, which I doubted, this was not normal. The absence of windows was obvious in a kind of perverse way. They weren't boarded over or bricked up; the wall just went straight up and met the ceiling without any interruption. That ruled out my one other method of escape.
The room itself wasn't Spartan by any means. The floor, walls and ceiling were all panelled in age-darkened wood, shiny with disuse rather than polish. There were paintings on every wall, mostly depicting forests, hunts and deer. A deer posed in a thicket in the painting hung on the wall across from me; eyes were wide as it stared into the throat of approaching hounds. A group of men and women on horses followed the hounds, conversing casually or laughing. Not a single character noticed the girl standing in the forest behind the deer, who stared straight into my eyes. I completely empathised with the deer for that second in time; I knew what it was like to be hunted. I blinked hard, redirecting my vision to several ottomans, a couple of armchairs and a long sofa, all with matching assorted coffee tables. The coffee tables were covered in ever-present clutter that accumulates on end tables; lamps, coasters, pens, coins, et cetera.
I forced my eyes onto another painting. Another hunting scene, this time a bear being shot at by a band of huntsmen. Again, the same girl stood in the corner of the picture, staring. Another painting, same girl. Who was this artist, and why was he so obsessed with this girl? Who was the girl? And why hunting scenes? I looked at the other paintings. All hunts and they all had the girl. I shivered.
"You like the paintings?" A faint voice came from the far corner of the room. I whipped my head around to the voice. It was the little girl. She sat curled against a blue velvet ottoman, knees tucked under her. One delicate white shoe protruded from the folds of her skirts. The dress she wore matched the ottoman perfectly; a rich royal blue. I hadn't noticed her clothes before. Why were we dressed like Victorians?
I found my tongue. "Who's the artist? I don't recognise the style." I almost stumbled over the words. Of all the questions I could ask, why this?
"These? Of course you don't, these were done by a man I knew once. He was a little obsessed with me. When he died, I collected his work up and stored it away. He was a very – proficient – stalker." I savoured the long response. Her voice was childish, but without accent. And she spoke much more fluently than I did.
"Who is-" My voice cut off, and I couldn't find it again. My heart pounded in my throat, almost painfully. I swallowed, but it didn't help. I just stared at her, fear rising as I saw her eyes stare back into mine. The brown was bizarre enough to drive anyone insane just by looking.
"Who is the girl?" I nodded once, sharply. The back of my neck ached. "I don't really know." She looked briefly wistful, then, "Do you love art?"
I was a little thrown by the question. Why was she questioning me, when I was the one who should be freaking out, panicking, screaming. I calmed my inner voices and answered.
"Yes – I mean, no – I – It's complicated. I'm not sure what counts as art, to be honest. I mean, I love some kinds of art, like the pieces on the wall there. Historical pieces, you can learn so much about the mindset of the painters and the subjects by looking at how they're portrayed. You see the man in the red coat, leading the hunters?" I pointed, she nodded. "He's thinking about the kill, directing his men and his dogs towards the bear, and how he'll celebrate afterwards. He's the hero of the picture, representing the artist. The bear is the bad guy, but he's being killed by the dogs. The artist is scared of bears, but hasn't actually met one. See how disproportionate the bear is? The claws and teeth are wrong, but the dogs are killing it anyway on direction of the lead man, who is the artist's character. It's about defeating fear." I babbled, half-coherently. There was a pause, silence and the ridiculousness of my examination lingering heavily in the air.
"And the girl?" the girl said quietly, face blank.
"I don't know. She's just there." I whispered.
"I think she's there for a reason. The artist loved that girl." She paused, face marred with doubt. "No, love isn't right. He was just obsessed with her. He wanted her gift, but she didn't want to give it away. She's next to the bear in this picture because she's the next obstacle, or maybe she's the prize. She looks so bland, so bored. I wonder why..." her voice trailed off towards the end, and she sank back into pondering.
I broke the silence first. "Who is she?" My voice sounded awkward, even to me.
"I don't remember."
"Why not? You know so much about the artist, but not about the subjects?"
"The artist was so much more interesting, and I think I would rather have forgotten the girl." She shut her eyes.
We sank into silence again. She shifted on the ottoman, stretching out from her tightly curled ball into a more natural sitting position. Then, like a long-forgotten habit, she straightened up. Her spine lengthened, her shoulders sank, and her hands folded firmly in her lap. Her body stood to attention, but her face remained loose, thoughtful.
I pulled my eyes off her and thought about my own posture. My legs had crept up towards my chest, one arm curled around my knees. I had subconsciously mimicked her position exactly. Abruptly, I stood up and shook off the sensation. I felt like I was being examined, like this was some test I had to pass. I felt eyes boring into my skull, but I knew there was no one there. Was it the girl in the paintings? Or was I going mad?
A little burst of hysterical laughter almost escaped my lips; maybe madness would be a blessing. It certainly seemed to be one for this little lady. Because that was what she almost certainly was, a lady. One mad enough to be locked up in a house in some exclusive yet bizarrely backwater part of town, hidden in plain sight. Close enough to the city if anything should happen, but far away enough to be out of her family's mind. There was no other explanation for her cryptic language, her dress, and her treatment of me. Sane people don't kidnap other sane people.
I shut my mind up again and let my eyes drift towards her again. She was hypnotic, the way she sat so inconceivably still. If I looked at her too long, I probably would go mad. Her closed eyes stared back at me, framed by stray curls. I stared long and hard at those eyes. Windows to the soul. Who said that? Well, whoever did wasn't counting eyelids. Veiled eyes were just as bad as opened ones.
"Come sit by me," She whispered so softly it was almost just a breath. "I'm cold."
I looked around the room for a blanket or a throw to drape around her – then caught myself. I shouldn't help her. I shouldn't even comply with such a simple wish. But I did it anyway. I stood up, taking care not to step on the hem of my skirts, and walked quickly over to the ottoman. I sat down with a hand span between us, far away not to touch her. I felt my skin crawl as I approached her, but I didn't know if it was from cold or fear.
"Why won't you come closer?" She wheedled, then seemed to remember manners, and added, "Please. Katja."
I froze again. How did she know my name? I hadn't brought my phone or my wallet or any kind of ID with me to St. Mary's, so how did she find out? I was reluctant to get any closer.
She seemed to sense my shock, and sidled closer to me herself. Then, throwing away abandon, she flopped her little head down into my lap. Her sunny hair trailed over my thighs and back down onto the ottoman. Her eyes were closed, but I still felt them watching me. She raised a hand and patted my arm. The gesture was too human, and, perversely, I felt every muscle in my body unclench.
"Wha – Who – I -?" I said dumbly. She pressed a hand over my lips. I almost jumped back in shock, but I found I couldn't move again.
Silently, she rolled onto her side, her back facing me.
"You want to know how I know your name, who I am, where you are, what I'm going to do with you, when I'm going to let you go, et cetera, et cetera. Et cetera." Her voice climbed from apathetic monotone to snappish. "It's all the same; you humans, you always want to know about yourselves, it's always, 'me, me, me, me!' You aren't the centre of the universe, there are far more important things and important people out there. In the grand, grand scheme of things, one missing human woman in a sea of missing human women will not change the world!" She spat last few words like they tasted vile. "But that is not what you want, is it? I can hear your brain ticking like an old grandfather clock, tick, tock, tick, tock, counting down to the last ticks and tocks before it dies. But you do not have those any more, do you? It's all modern, made of plastic and silicon and other modern things. They make you happy because you don't have to get up to wind it every now and again, leaving you wondering when you'll have to wind it up again. All your modern conveniences mean you can just sit back and let other people change things for you. Well, I won't do everything for you. People I knew, some of them would rip your heart out of your chest before you could even think about asking them to wind your clock. People I knew..." Her voice trailed off again, devoid of emotion.
We sat in silence again, her not-quite-warm, not-quite-cold weight resting on my legs. I refused to think over her tirade; I hadn't been a psychology student for years, I wouldn't start again now.
I can't clearly remember how long it was exactly that we sat in silence, with her blonde head in my lap like a child, my hands itching dutifully to stroke her hair and comfort her. It was completely irrational; she was obviously not really a child. The way she spoke, moved and acted all pointed to her being much older than she looked. I wondered for a moment if she had a growth disorder. That would explain her child's body, as well as her advanced mental age. I wasn't an expert on things like that, but there had to be a completely logical explanation. There always was.
I almost laughed aloud at my own stupidity. How cliché was I, telling myself there was always a logical explanation for everything. Every single character in every horror movie goes through that thought process and it always ends in their usually very gruesome death. I resolved to look past logic; I refused to be another useless female character squirming on the floor with blood squirting unconvincingly out of a large hole in her chest.
If I was in a horror movie, that is. This was real. I could really die, really, really die. Not just get up off the set and peel off the cosmetics and fake blood, return to my dressing room and call it a day. I would have to watch, to feel, the blood draining from my body as I lay helpless on the floor of some insane girl's abandoned, locked up house. I would really die. I wouldn't get to go home and put the kettle on. I wouldn't go out to work the next day and be annoyed at Tara. I wouldn't get my job in the city. I wouldn't get to call Emily and tell her off for tricking me into a meal with mum and dad. I wouldn't get to make up with them. I wouldn't get to hold my niece. I would be dead.
"Your heart is fluttering faster than a hummingbird," The girl mumbled.
I cleared my throat. "What do you want with me?" I asked, hopefully sounding braver and less terrified than I felt.
"Not much." She rolled over, lying flat on her back and staring up at me. "I want you to make me human."
I stopped. "What?" I said, confused. "Of course you're human. What else would you be, a fairy?" I almost laughed. Almost.
She paused again, beige eyes rolling to one side. I couldn't tell if it was at my apparent stupidity or if it was a flinch. Then she sighed, and closed her eyes again.
"I've been alive for six hundred and twenty three years. I'm decidedly not human." Her voice was monotone, bored.
"Don't be ridiculous, of course you aren't. You're what, thirteen? Twelve?" She rolled her eyes visibly through her eyelids. Her pale eyelashes rested on her cheeks.
"Must I prove it? Must you act like every other human I've told this since 1732?" She said with a hint of annoyance.
"Well, yeah, I can't just believe that. That's completely stupid. But if there's some problem in your life you want to get over, if that's what you mean by making you human, then I might be able to help. I have a degree in psychology." I said in my best therapist voice. She opened her eyes and raised one eyebrow.
Shaking her mane, she stood up and brushed her skirts into place. The movement was half-complete and lacklustre, like an old habit she was in the process of shrugging off. She dipped a tiny hand into her bodice and pulled out a knife. The blade was gold, and shone like sunlight in the lamplight, with a hilt inlaid with ivory and ebony. The letter 'C' was carved into the blade. She quickly ran a finger along the edge of the blade, and handed it, hilt first, to me.
"Why are you giving me this?"
"To demonstrate something. And then to make you feel better when you know I'm unarmed." Her voice was cold, but not harsh. Just flat. I took the hilt, and my hand sank a little with the unexpected weight of the knife. It was smooth and seductive in my hand.
"What do I do now?" I enquired softly, staring at the blade.
She took my hand in hers and guided it to her face. When I realised what she was going to do, I tried to pull back. I wouldn't cut a child, no matter how insane she obviously was. Her little hand was like a vice, and my hand with the blade kept moving closer to the pale, smooth skin of her cheek. The point of the blade pressed into her skin, and she dragged it painfully slowly down, almost to her lips, then withdrew the knife and dropped my hand. My fingers spasmed with revulsion, and the knife fell to the floor with a soft plink.
I kept staring at the cut on her cheek. It was like any other clean cut I'd ever seen, where there is an obvious line where the skin has been pierced. But it didn't bleed. I stared and stared, watching and waiting as the seconds ticked by painfully slowly.
"You see? I don't bleed. Unless I want to, that is." And at her words, a trickle of blood flowed down her cheek from the wound. "And then I can heal it up any time I want. I could walk around for years with this on my face, but it might attract some attention eventually, so I heal it up." I watched as the cut healed, the skin meshing together and returning to its pale, perfect surface.
I was speechless at first. Then I found my tongue again. "How?" I whispered.
"I told you, I'm not human." She picked up the knife and gave it back to me, blade first this time. "Bend it." I tried. I rubbed my fingers along the cold metal, and then strained with all my might to bend and break the gold. She took it from me, and bent the blade between her thumbs and forefingers as easily as if it were rubber. Then she bent it back, stroked it lovingly, and dropped it behind the ottoman. I wondered who 'C' was.
I stared at her, face in slack numbness at her casual display of strength.
"W-what are you?" She giggled, one hand raised in modesty to shield her smile in another old half-habit. It was emotionless, obviously put on for my benefit.
"I wondered when you'd finally ask. I've had many, many people ask me that over the years. I've told them different things from time to time. At first, I thought I was a demon. Then, for a brief time, I pretended to be Satan herself. But I'd always really known what I was because I was told on a late autumn evening. The first thing I wanted to see again was the Sun, but that's no longer possible." She paused, briefly wistful. "I'm a vampire."
A corner of my mouth twitched, but at the same time my instincts told me what she said was the truth. This strange ambivalence, the contrast of modern rationalism and historic superstition, wracked my body in a mini war. Half my brain screamed in revolt; it didn't want to believe in some other being, higher up in the food chain. It told me vampires were for movies and trash fiction novels and comics, not real life. Because that's what this was; completely real life. The other half quietly comforted the other side like a wise old great-aunt, reassuring it that there couldn't always be a rational explanation. The other side wept, insistent that there had to be. Eventually, that side took to crying silently in a corner, letting the cavewoman side take control.
So I just nodded. She raised an eyebrow.
"You're not going to tell me I'm crazy and try and kill me?" She enquired, still blandly emotionless.
"Oh, I might do that later, don't worry." I said about three octaves too high. Maybe the rational side was waking up again.
"Worry about what? Why would I worry?"
"It's just an expression. You don't literally have to."
"So, I assume you have questions." It wasn't a question, it was a statement. She'd done this before.
"When were you, ah, reborn?"
"Where did you live?"
"How old were you?"
"You don't look fifteen."
"I know. My diet was different."
"Did you have a family?"
"Did you have a choice? About, uh, becoming a vampire?" I half whispered the last words, even though we were the only two in the room.
That stopped me. If she hadn't chosen to become a vampire, why had she stuck around for so long?
"Do you really drink blood?"
"Do you want to drink mine?" I asked morbidly.
I stopped again to process that. She was so blunt, so honest. I hadn't expected that. I suppose lying would have represented some emotion, though, and she was refusing to show me any. I wondered why.
We sank into silence again. Then:
"I want you to make me human." She repeated her request from earlier.
"But...you're dead. Do you want me to kill you?" I said in disbelief.
"If I thought that would make me human, I would have done it myself centuries ago. I don't particularly want to die. Besides, I don't think you possess the physical strength to drive a stake through my heart, and I doubt you would be able to do it on the first try." She sounded almost annoyed.
"Well...what do you want me to do, then?"
"Make me human."
"How do I do that? Please, I swear I'll do whatever it takes to make you human, just tell me how." I immediately regretted my words. I had just given my word to help this thing in any way possible, including ways that were potentially painful for me.
I took a deep breath and reverted to my psych student self.
"Alright." The breath shuddered in and out of my lungs, making my voice shake. "What do you mean by 'human'?"
"I don't mean being of the human race; I can never do that. I don't really mean being kind or benevolent or merciful; those aren't the traits that have brought me thus far. I-"
"I mean the human condition. The positive and negative aspects of being the human animal. Especially the inevitable events, like birth and love and sex and death." Her voice was flat, devoid of emotion again.
"What do you think is preventing you from achieving the human condition?" I sounded so much more confident than I felt. I wasn't sure if she was toying with me, building me up to break me horribly later, or if she was completely serious.
"The vampire condition. You can't have both at my age. There were others, who stayed human for the short time I knew them, but they didn't last long. They tried so hard to hold onto their human characteristics, which is why they failed in the end."
"How did you know them?"
"Two were mine. I loved one of them and respected the other, but never experienced those two emotions at the same time. It's amusing, really, how those two emotions which are usually so closely intertwined can be separated if you remove the concept of death." Her voice rose on the word 'death'.
"Were there others?"
"Oh yes. Of course there were, there were many others. A few of them survived." She paused, then: "I'm sure they survived. They should have survived." The last statement was almost a question, but posed to no one in particular.
"What were they all like, the ones who survived?"
"They were like me."
"And what are you like? Describe to me how you see yourself."
"I don't. I physically can't in a mirror, and I refuse to look inside myself most of the time. The emotions I possess are purely coincidental."
"Alright. What were the ones who survived like?"
"They were ruthless. Cold. Cruel. It was either their downfall or their survival mechanism. Secrecy was a factor, I'm sure. I had great trouble finding her in the eighteenth century..." her voice trailed off again, eyes seeing into the past.
She was willing to describe other vampires (that was what I assumed they were, anyway), but not herself. I got the impression she was, to an extent, detached from her own psyche. That scared me more than her tricks with the knife.
"M-maybe you could tell me your story. The story of your life, I mean. It might help me understand you a little better. Normally a psychologist will have details about your life, your medical records, criminal records, records from other psychologists who've seen you before."
There was another silence.
"Well, will you?" I asked again. She stopped staring into space and stared into my eyes, her beige eyes looking into the blackness of my pupils instead.
"I will. Where should I start?"
"At the beginning." My body tensed with anticipation.
"My name is Alais."