DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Russell for all of the lovely commas.
Of Sand or Stone
I can’t believe she said that.
Predictably, when someone feeds me that line, the first thing that comes to mind is a great, yawning chasm and me barely hanging on to not much. Though the chasm’s never that ‘great’ or ‘yawning’…or at least it’s not as deep as that implies. Shit like that’s always more threatening if you can make out the jagged rocks in the distance beneath your dangling feet.
And that’s just one of my many charms. For every scenario, real or imagined, I jump to the worst possible…
The wind picks up. I shove my phone into my pocket and tuck myself tightly into a corner of the service entrance alcove.
It seems to rain sideways for a moment, then the wind gusts the other direction and I get sprayed for the umpteen-millionth time.
…’cause like or not, that’s just how life is.
Raising my left hand, I smear at the latest mist from my face. But I have no real delusions that I’m wiping much if any of the water away. I’m just sicker than shit of water trickling down my neck and under my clothes to where water trickles on me. I have this built in flume. The soggy dam at the bottom cuts tightly across my ribs. I doubt I’ll feel warm or dry again until the damned thing’s gone.
Taking today’s theme into account, I think icy, churning seas and a slippery, algae-covered buoy to cling to might be more appropriate.
Sharks would work, but nothing huge. Getting bit in two would be too quick. Small sharks. The kind of sharks that grab hold of a hamstring and tear.
The rain pounds shimmering ringlets onto the wet concrete inches from my toes. Dusky light plays off of them as I try to imagine what it’d be like to swim with a severed hamstring. With the force of each kick my heel would waggle like the chin of a bobblehead doll.
But that makes it sound sort of cute. It wouldn’t be. Salt water would burn the wound. My flesh would tear each time I thrashed to stay afloat. Blood would gush from my ankle, attracting more sharks.
The real mystery of life, from where I stand, is how it manages to dish up one grossly unfair thing after another with such disturbing regularity and inspired creativity. It should run out of cruel stuff to do, but there never seems to be a shortage. Before I can even get over the latest sadistic thing life has thrown at me, something else always comes up keep me busy.
At least I’m never bored.
I clench my teeth and stiffen to stifle a fresh round of chattering and shivering. ‘Hang tight,’ my ass. It’d be good of her to get the lead out ’cause I’ve about had it.
Yeah, and I need to get over it. She’s not that far away. I feel her drawing nearer…another side effect of the trinket responsible for my mystical makeover. I’d feel her anyway, without it—my natural instincts are pretty good—but the bracelet hones them. I can even tell that she’s not worried. I don’t know why, but I decided a while ago that being worried that she’s not worried is just retarded.
The bottom line is it’s not her fault I’m miserable. I did this to myself. She’s not the dumbass who toured all four corners of this massive monument to irony in an arctic torrential storm.
I’ve never gotten the vow of poverty that priests and nuns take. They turn their backs on the almighty dollar to live in the lavish lap of an institution that’s been accruing wealth with murderous efficiency for centuries. Some people might label that hypocrisy, but I wouldn’t go that far because I believe that most of them have an honest desire to serve.
Thing is…while I get why they take a vow of poverty, I don’t see why it exists. In my experience, if what you want most is to do good, you’re not gonna be scamming for a buck anyway. You’ll seriously have your hands full with that first thing.
My jaw aches from tensing it to keep my teeth from chattering. That moves to the top of my list of major complaints, replacing the tension in my neck because it intensifies the dull throbbing in my temples. I think the mercury should just go ahead and dip a few more degrees, so this frigid, sopping shit can become the blizzard it was destined to be. Not that that would be the least bit helpful now. I’m soaked to the bone.
What I learned for all that fun was that Saint Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament is one story short of being organized religion’s answer to the Borg cube.
And that’s just a little too obvious to actually be amusing, but whatever…
There wasn’t a single open window in the whole goddamn place. Not one. The doors are all either locked or guarded or both, which I suppose isn’t that surprising for an inner-city school…especially since this appears to be a boarding school.
Loitering at the service entrance closest to the dumpsters was the only plan to sneak inside I could come up with that didn’t involve cold cocking two or three people, one or more of them nuns. That’s not gonna happen. Keeping up what few standards I have left is important. And I’m proud to say that I’ve never been the sort of degenerate who’d deck a nun.
I take one last hit off of the half-soaked, mostly forgotten cigarette. It’s done, just like the rest of me. The filter’s so wet I can’t even get a good draw off the stupid thing. I flip it out into the parking lot. It hits the pavement without so much as a sizzle or a wisp of smoke.
Probably the most stunning part of the whole nightmare is that slogging around the building actually got me somewhere…besides just back to the beginning.
And fuck me, I almost wish it hadn’t. This place is seriously setting me off. I feel like something bad’s gonna happen.
My brow tightens. It does nothing for my throbbing temples or aching jaw.
Or maybe something bad already is happening, right now, right under my nose…and I can’t do jack about it.
I shut my eyes. My ears rumble as I bear down. When I blink my eyes open, I actually catch a break…some of the tension eases.
It’d be so much better for my frazzled nerves if we were following B.’s lead. Mine has this history of being, umm…
I make this stupid sound, something like ‘ta-huh.’ That wanted to be a snicker. I hang my head. A smirk stretches my lips. They’re so cold and chapped it almost hurts.
Saying I’ve got bad judgment would be a serious kindness. I’m the sort of person who can cause a nun to eye me suspiciously just by telling the truth. That takes major talent—all the wrong kind. Of course, after the sister decided that I wasn’t quite the headcase she had me figured for, she actually managed to say something useful. No thanks to me. I was too busy making an ass of myself.
My fleeting, shitheaded happy passes. I don’t remember if I told B. about the support group or not.
Eh, it actually mattered, so probably not.
Anyway, that’d give Maeve opportunity. According to B. she has motive too, so…
I take out my phone and press the spacebar to check the time. It’s almost one. I’ve been here nearly forty minutes freezing my tits off. No wonder I’m a couple dozen different kinds of miserable and only getting worse.
I stare at the last text message from B. ‘I hope you’re getting somewhere. This has been a total bust.’
I should text her and tell her about the stupid ‘support group’ thing, but I really don’t feel like it. My fingers are numb.
How I managed to do better than her by saying a name that’s more commonly taken than given and describing every terminal patient in every oncology ward in the—
Y’know what? This hasn’t been for nothing. What with her mistaking a four-door sedan for a moving van, there wouldn’t have been room in the car for me anyway.
Well, alright, so…I guess it all worked out. It sucked, but whatever…
Her part should’ve been simple. She should know exactly where she’s headed by now. Instead, she’s coming to me because she hasn’t got any better ideas.
We’re so screwed.
Best I can figure, either Maeve’s a real piece of work or Cass isn’t worth her salt…or—who knows—could be a little of both.
At least I won’t have long to wait. The new witchy lojack is telling me that B.’s not even a block north and moving my way fast. I almost feel bad for Cass.
As I pocket my phone, some big guy in a brown fedora emerges through a break in the hedges at the farthest end of the parking lot. I expect to see B. Not seeing her feels really weird. It worries me. I wonder if this thing’s just whack. I feel her. She should be there.
It isn’t until the big guy bends down to duck under the limbs of a small tree between the hedgerow and the curb that I catch sight of her. She was completely eclipsed by him. My new take on the sitch is that I’m the one who’s whack. The man isn’t a man at all. That’s gotta be Cass.
She stops to hold the tree limbs up for Buffy and falls in behind her. Once they’re past the parked cars at the back of the lot, they walk side-by side at an angle toward the entrance—the main one—and I see that I was wrong again. Cass is actually shorter than B., though not by much. But I guess B. does have heels on, so it’s hard to say.
Aside from being a bit on the sawed-off side, Cass is what polite people might call ‘stout.’ The rest us would probably say ‘chunky,’ or even ‘fat.’ I find the rest of us annoying, so I’ll just be pleased she looks like she can handle herself. We may need that.
I start to leave my hiding place, but as I step forward, they turn to pass between the next rows of cars and B. spots me. She changes direction, dragging Cass along. I step back under the overhang again. Getting any wetter isn’t something I’m looking forward to. I’ll gladly put it off, even if it’s just for a couple minutes.
Y’know…my judgment might not’ve been so far off if Cass dressed a little less like she raided her brother’s closet.
Her jeans are baggy with rolled boot cuffs. She wears lug soled shoes that might be boots, but it’s impossible to tell because the rolled cuffs were a necessity and they could use another turn. The heavy, brown leather duster she has on makes me think her brother might’ve been an extra on Walker, Texas Ranger. Her hat’s the only thing that doesn’t fit her like a hand-me-down, but it doesn’t exactly fit her look either. What with her coat, it seems like it should be more Arkansas than Indiana Jones.
But again, being fair, I can’t see her in skinny jeans or those girly, pointy-toed ankle boots with the weird, knotted suede overlay B.’s got on. If Cass is anything like me, the heels on those boots would lead to an untimely tragedy.
And B.’s three-quarter length raincoat would just be hilarious. Of course, it is slightly pink, like just this side of bubblegum. It’s adorable on her, but there are certain things that only she can pull off. And even more that only she should try. That coat’s one of them. I wouldn’t wear it on a bet, but I’m glad she dug the silly thing out. Between that, with its coverage and hood, and the leather coat and fisherman’s sweater she’s got on underneath, she should be toasty…if not roasting.
This little alcove really isn’t big enough for the three of us. When she takes the free corner, instead of crowding in, Cass just stands in the rain, looking completely unaffected…if not contented.
B. introduces her and I hold out my hand. “Nice to meet you,” I say. For an expected courtesy, it isn’t well received. I know I look like a rat that didn’t make it off the ship, but—
I give Cass longer than I should to make up her mind. Just as it dawns on me that I might be being pushy, she moves past the ‘friendly smile’ part of the exercise. My hand warms with her touch. In the space of a handshake, the warmth radiates out.
When she releases me, I look down. I’m not sure what I’m even looking for. The only detail strikes me as off is her nails. They’re neatly manicured and a little longer than I expected.
That means shit to a tree. And even less to me.
I’m still soggy, but I’m no longer freezing. In fact, after that handshake, there’s a bunch of things I’m ‘no longer.’ It’s the damnedest thing. The tension just peeled away. With the exception of one afternoon I spent with B., I haven’t felt better in months.
I even think we have a fair shot of succeeding today. And that one detail tips the scales. A slew of missing aches and angst trigger warning lights and throw up caution flags.
As B. slips her hand into mine, I try to blow them off. Fact is, Cass reads about as prickly as a teddy bear.
I glance at B. seconds before she turns to me. She regards Cass with warmth in her eyes and a smile on her face. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help resenting it.
I really am that shallow.
The bitch of the sitch is I know that Cass couldn’t have known B. that long. It took me years to get to where she has in a matter of months or maybe even minutes. She jacked what I had to earn.
As if to reward my pettiness, the tension creeps back into my body. And the chill returns too…though I barely had time to miss it. I stiffen to ward off a fresh round of shivering and chattering.
I want this over with. The sooner we do what’s gotta be done, the sooner we can part company. And the sooner I can get warm. I’ve already looped B. in on the guards and stuff. There’s nothing to discuss, so I suggest, “Let’s get moving.”
“Alright, but I should explain something before we go,” Cass says. Her round face is impossible to read. “That is if you’ll indulge me.” And her voice is just as deceptive. Because of how she looks, I expect her to sound something like Calamity Jane does on Deadwood. All harsh edges and forced deepness. Basically a caricature. Instead, her voice has a pleasant, friendly pitch and a quality that makes me think of bells…or laughter.
She’d be right at home laughing.
That doesn’t help. I want to hate her, but I’m not sure I can. I reply, “Shoot.”
“I believe we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot,” Cass says.
Oh, for the love of Bob! I thought she had something to say about this place or what we need to do. Enough bonding already! I reply, “No, we’re cool.” Let’s just get this over with.
“Are we?” Cass asks and immediately answers herself, “That’s not the impression I got,” so I can’t get a word in edgewise.
I hate it when people pull that crap.
Go figure, she grins, making me think it was intentional. “We weren’t supposed to meet,” she says. “Not yet. Not like this.” Water collected in brim of her hat pours out when she looks down, shaking her head. “But life’s just full of surprises, so here we are.”
B. squeezes my hand, vying for attention. Funny, when I face her, she hangs her head all coy and shit. Fringes of blonde hair dangling below her hood are all she lets me see.
Well, it’s not like I’m gonna get her wet, so I reach out to draw her closer. She comes willingly, placing her hands on my shoulders. Her folded arms separate us.
Mumbling to my chest, she says, “I was going to talk with you about this on the way to Chicago.” She exhales a snicker through her nose, but I feel her tense. She’s nervous. That comes through loud and clear. “We can still talk. I want to talk. That’s why the road trip. There are easier ways to get around, but none that are quite the same for talking.”
But the rest…?
I’m not sure what her deal is. I wish I could see her face. Gently probing, I find the side of her neck and use my thumb to coax her to lift her chin.
She doesn’t budge. “This is what I meant when I mentioned the mountains last night,” she says.
Okay, so…cryptic references to cryptic statements and hidden faces it is. At this rate, I might have a clue what’s up by Christmas, but I won’t hold my breath.
After a drawn-out pause, she turns frustrated, grumbling, “Oh,” like a curse. “I wish we had time. I want to explain. I want to feel better. I want us to feel better. It’d be nice to forget about everyone else and just worry about ourselves for a while.”
I guess I agree, but she still isn’t making a hell of a lot of sense. I’ll go with the feeling better part of that. Feeling anything but crappy is commodity that’s been in short supply.
As for the rest…I must be missing my decoder ring. I look up, hoping that Cass brought hers.
She has this quirky, crooked smirk on her face, like she thinks we’re cute or something. Sobering when I meet her eyes, she declares, “This sucks,” pausing to grin. “I don’t know what I was thinking. There isn’t shit I can say. It’s not like I can make you to trust me. You either will or you won’t.”
Well, Cass is making sense. Lots of it. But I’m not—
“And even if you come to, it probably won’t happen today.”
That’s nice, but she’s on a totally different page…and not really—
B. slips from my gasp, settling back into her corner. Between the edge of the parking lot and here, she went from happy-go-lucky to twitchy and weird. And the only thing that’s changed is me. That’s not a comfort.
Cass has her arms crossed when I return my attention to her. Looking down at the door somewhere between B. and me, she continues her spiel, “What I can do must seem pretty dangerous to you. I won’t argue with that. It is. You’re right to be concerned.”
I wish I could say I cared.
She lets her arms fall to her sides. Her posture relaxes. “It’s a curse,” she says, like it’s some kind of admission.
I glance at B. She’s watching Cass too. What starts as a glance ends up stare. She looks fine now. Perfectly normal.
I s’pose it’s a good thing. But of course, just because, I end up eyeing her like she did something weird when I’m—
“You’d think it’d be cool,” Cass says, briefly distracting me. “That I could do or have anything I wanted.”
I’m the one who’s off her meds. B. should be staring at me. Since they joined me—all two or three minutes, or however long it’s been—I’ve been spazzing like a one-armed man in a rowboat…
…headed over the falls. Yeah, that’d be me.
Cass says, “And if I wanted anything, you might have a point, but I don’t.” The way she’s grinning, I guess she thinks I find her amusing. She lets out a sniff of a snicker. “Well, that’s not exactly true.”
Figures I’d tic to another water analogy.
“What I want is to be able to shake hands with someone new without all the drama.”
Good for you. What I want is a two-track mind. Having just the one really isn’t working for me.
As for the rest…I’m sure being instantly liked really sucks. I wouldn’t know.
“Remember? I told you Cass is here to help Kim,” B. says.
When I nod, she gives me a quick, lopsided little grin that dimples her cheeks. It’s hopelessly cute.
I get sucked in and end up grinning too, like the idiot I am.
“She and her friends—the coven I told you about—they run a women’s shelter,” she says. “Of course, their doors are open to all women, but because of how they do what they do, they attract a special kind. What you might call ‘the cream of the crop.’ But there’s no creamy goodness ’cause what they’re best at is being screwed up. Most of them are so wounded that it’s just easier for people to write them off.”
I glance at Cass. She’s ready to bail. That doesn’t get any better as B. continues to talk her up, “Cass and her friends are more into doing what’s right than what’s easy. Without them most these women would end up locked away god knows where. Cass’s gift is a big part of that.”
“It’s not a gift,” Cass mutters under her breath and takes off for the entrance.
I’m surprised she lasted that long.
I step out of the alcove. Rain splashes my head. My arms and shoulders stiffen against the cold. I consider putting my hood up, but I think—
“I should do the talking,” Cass says as B. and I fall in behind her.
It’s pointless. My hood hangs heavy between my shoulders. It’s so wet, it’s soaked the back of my sweater.
At least I get the picture now—all that incoherent stuff B. spewed—she must’ve made reservations for us at Casa de Cass. I guess she tweaked because she thought that her making plans behind my back might piss me off.
And she’s right. It does.
They’re leaving me behind, so I pick up the pace. Maybe Cass gets how miserable I am. That seems like progress. I like progress. I’ll take all the progress I can get.
Yeah, at this rate I’ll be swimming in fresh, frigid ‘progress’ by the time we reach the entrance.
Well, I’m awake now.
Y’know, under any other circumstance, I’d probably stay mad, but I can’t. That just wouldn’t be fair. Considering the past few weeks, I get why B. did it. It’s not like I was up to making my own decisions. She needed the help. I can’t blame her for trying to find it.
And while I’m not exactly thrilled that she might’ve talked about my problems with some stranger, I trust her enough to believe that she wouldn’t say anything to hurt me, so…
I have this theory that running in the rain doesn’t really gain you anything. More forward momentum just means more spatter. You get just as wet regardless. I’ve never really tested it because I always felt like a dumbass walking when everyone else was running, but I think it’s true.
As I jog to keep up, the refreshing chill of ‘progress’ splatters my face, runs down my neck, trickles between my tits and shoulder blades, down my stomach and the small of my back. My sweater’s too soaked to catch much of it. And the movement of running just makes that part worse.
Concentrating on anything else is a bitch.
But yeah, I think—I’m not one-hundred percent sure—but I think that if I told her I wasn’t into making the trip that she’d respect me enough not to push.
Well, it’d depend on whether she thought I was one wave short of a shipwreck or not.
On the ‘glass half full’ side of things…thankfully, my jeans are still dry enough through the waist to spare my ass the latest ‘progress.’
Whatever…point is—the one that actually matters—she meant well. She still does. And I’m not convinced that that unfortunate character flaw should buy her an instant ticket to Hell. So what if it’s ridiculous to want to try to fix everything no matter how hopelessly broken it is? That’s just B.
I should be glad she’s that way. God knows I’m a fixer-upper.
I let it go.
And just in time. We reach the door. Cass opens it. As she ushers us inside, I smear thick, sopping clumps of hair back from my face with both hands and get to experience the thrilling chill of ice cold ‘progress’ one more time as it dribbles down my spine.
My stance on progress may’ve changed. Any progress I make usually leaves a mark.
We pass into an antechamber about the size of a generous walk-in closet, past a pair of metal detectors on either wall, through another set of doors and into a huge oblong room.
The gust of warm air I was hoping for doesn’t happen. I’m too wet and cold to say for sure, but it doesn’t seem much warmer in here than it was out there. At least it’s drier.
This place is just the opposite of where I had my run-in with Sister Mary Dubious. That was basically just a waiting room with a few churchy touches. This is great hall with all of the regal elegance of a Catholic cathedral, but without all the set dressing to clutter up the marble floor mosaic.
Another pair of heavy, arch-shaped, wooden doors like the ones we just passed through separates a set of two two-story stained glass windows that take up most of the far wall. The doors must lead to a central courtyard because this room isn’t nearly as long as the building is wide and the light behind those windows is way too natural.
Above the doors hangs the obligatory cross complete with token martyr. I’ve never gotten that. We all know how the story goes. It’s a little hard to miss when we’re force-fed it practically from birth.
What with all the ‘tell’ going on I don’t really see the need to ‘show.’ But whatever…it’s their party. S’pose they think we’re dense enough to need the visual cue.
Check. Crucifixion would suck. Got it. But I dunno, maybe I’m being touchy.
The guard I sensed when I was snooping around outside is to our right. As I get over my role as a closet art critic long enough to recognize him with a nod, Cass enters. Acting like the model visitor, she approaches him with her hand outstretched and a friendly smile on her face.
At least one of us is. B.’s caught up in the touristy vibe too, checking out the ceiling.
Cass and the guard exchange pleasantries as he takes her hand. “My name’s Casey Tolliver,” she says. “These are my friends Dana Gentry and Annette Summerton.” After pretzeling names so badly that I wonder briefly who this ‘Dana’ chick’s s’posed to be, she gestures over her shoulder at us.
I’m sure we look oblivious…and appropriately clueless, but we’re not…or at least I’m not. I can only guess about B. I join her in taking in the ceiling as Cass slathers a thick layer of bullshit with absolute sincerity, “My sister Tina goes to school here. She’s been having some trouble, so we drove down to see if we could help out.”
Yeah, so…the ceiling’s cool…more so than the windows or that stupid cross. It’s divided into three square sections by wedge shaped structures that are a little more beefy than your average molding. The wide, beveled edges serve as a frame for three murals. The hosts of Heaven stare down at us, locked in motionless flight.
And the guard still hasn’t let go of Cass’s hand. That’s funny.
“I’ll call the Mother Superior and let her know you’re here,” he replies.
But who can blame him? If she hadn’t let go of me, I’d probably still be holding her hand. I almost remember what it was like not to feel like complete shit.
“I’ve already spoken with Sister Francis,” Cass replies. “She’s expecting us.” She must’ve dug the name up from the same place she got a sister named Tina—Google probably—but whatever…her info must be good because the guard doesn’t choke.
Not that he looks all that quick on the uptake. He’s about a head taller than Cass, paunchy and balding. One of his eyes is even a little on the lazy side, which just adds… And the way he talks makes me want to kick him in the ass to see if I can get him going.
“I should still check in and let her know you’re here,” he says.
The surprise is that he doesn’t just swallow her act hook, line and sinker. He actually seems skeptical until Cass says, “Don’t trouble yourself. We’ll be fine.”
Why the change—I’m not sure—but whatever she did, it worked. She finally lets go of his hand. No clue.
I don’t expect him to move, but when she heads for an arched opening about halfway down the right wall, he keeps pace with her.
“At least let me help you find her,” he says.
Yeah, he’s a real credit to his uniform. But Cass doesn’t seem to mind. They chitchat quietly back and forth like a couple of old pals as we make our way down the hall.
I try to follow their conversation, hoping for clues as to where we’re going, what we’re doing, what the hell’s up…but—
She touches his hand at regular intervals as they talk. If didn’t know better, I’d say she was flirting. She isn’t, but he might be. It’s hard to say.
I pick up enough to put together that his name’s ‘Martin Little’ almost like the actor. Unlike the actor, he really isn’t. Figures I’d get stuck behind his big ass. I bet B. can still see the doors. I can’t. All I see is Martin. I glance at her as our tour guides yuck it up. She rolls her eyes.
Eventually the brains of the operation gets over how funny that really wasn’t and moves on to better things, like the Steelers. They’re both huge fans. That must be part of why they’re all buddy-buddy. Football solidarity.
Christ. I give up. What I know is good enough. We’re headed somewhere and Cass isn’t doing a bad job of getting us there. I haven’t had to coldcock anyone yet, so I’m golden.
I have trouble placing the smell at first, but then it comes to me and I feel stupid. It’s so obvious. This hallway reeks of church. That sounds worse than it is. It’s actually kind of a nice smell. It brings back memories of Aunt Lu and long hours spent in uncomfortable clothes listening to a bunch of gobbledygook spouted by a dude a funny dress. The spectacle part of the spectacle was always kind of cool, but the rest was just…part of growing up in Southie.
The smell gets stronger the farther we go, so I guess where we’re headed is pretty obvious. Those doors I saw before I ended up stuck behind the human roadblock were the cathedral doors. That clears a couple things up. The obvious lack of people…
My guess: this part of the school is more ‘church’ less ‘school.’ The entrance on the other side was locked. That’s probably the school part. It makes sense to put the kids in an area farthest from the main entrance. It’d cut some of the bullshit factor…make it harder on them to skip out. With the courtyard in the middle, they’d have a place outside to hang out.
And judging from the other stuff I’ve seen, like the paintings displayed in this hallway that aren’t—
The guard stops.
Cass and B. both slip past him through the open door and I follow. When I enter the vestibule, B. snags my wrist. We stay put, off to the side next to a little wall-mounted stoup.
While I’m here, may as well give in to the compulsion. I know B.’s gonna look at me like I’ve cracked, but I bow my head and dip my finger anyway. Crossing myself, I mutter under my breath, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen,” just like I do every time I get holy water, but she wouldn’t have any way of knowing that, so…
Besides, it’s not like I actually—
That’s not true. I’m not sure what I believe. It just seems the right thing to do. Respectful or whatever…
While I’m paying due diligence to dogma, Martin rejoins Cass. The happy couple’s leaving us behind. S’pose that’s part of the plan.
I glance at B. Must be. She’s in no hurry. And sure enough, she wipes the funny look off her face and busies herself by removing her raincoat.
It’s cool. I know I’m not right.
She rolls her raincoat into a tight bundle and tucks it under her arm. Guess she thinks that pink, crackly plastic might not be the best thing to be sneaky in.
At least I assume that’s what we’re doing. We would’ve just followed the two lovebirds into the cathedral if—
They have a slight head start when she touches my hand and gestures for me the follow. We pass through the narthex. At the back of the nave she veers off to the right and ducks down behind the last row of pews.
Yup, looks like that’s it. I go along with the plan, hunkering down and slinking to the other end of the row with her.
This brings back some memories. Good times. Except the last time I was in church I sat on a wooden bench that was so hard and straight-backed that squatting might actually be preferable.
But my clothes…
My clothes are classic. Absolutely perfect. Auntie Lu couldn’t have done better. My sweater’s bugging the hell out of me. Between my shoulders, buried deep within all the soggy, steamy layers of sticky, heavy, wooly fabric, I itch. And there isn’t a damned thing I can do about it.
Well, I could, but not without drawing attention to myself and I think the goal is for us to slip past the old crone who’s up near the altar.
Martin and Cass haven’t interrupted her yet either. They’re probably keeping a respectful distance, waiting for her to finish whatever nunly thing she’s got going on.
Again, I’m clueless. I glance at B. and she shrugs. Good thing we’re both on the same page.
Eventually, the nun says, “How may I be of service, child?” The line’s so stale it sounds scripted. And it might be. Who knows with nuns? But it’s her voice that really kills it. It sounds pinched, like someone’s holding a turd under her nose as she speaks.
Cass introduces herself without bothering to point us out this time because—well, we’re hiding…in a huge, well lit room. Yeah. It wouldn’t take a hell of a lot for us to be spotted, especially by a nun. They’re naturally suspicious.
B. takes my hand and tugs. As I half listen to an alternate line of crap about Cass’s imaginary sister, we cautiously move toward the front of the church, still ducked down, using the pews for cover. Cass switches from the troubled teen to another timeless classic on the retelling: the dead grandmother. That’s so Ferris Bueller of her.
Marvin either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that Cass’s story’s changed. Either way, he’s got nothing.
I guess after sizing the place up, she got the same impression I did: this is a prep school. Troubled teens and prep schools mix about as well as stout beer and wine coolers.
Goddammit! I just had to go there. And could I ever use a drink.
The nun replies, “It saddens me to hear that.”
She sounds it…and—it’s hard to tell—but I think she sounds closer.
We stop. I follow B.’s lead, tucking myself tightly against the end of a pew.
And still not a word from Marvin.
“Tina and Granny Evelyn were very close,” Cass says.
Yeah, she sounds much closer. About even with us, actually. Good thing we stopped.
Steadily moving toward the doors, she explains, “She’ll probably want to come home to be with the family.”
B. touches my hand and starts to duck-walk up the aisle as Cass adds a tentative, stammering, “That is, if that’s okay.”
Whatever. They’ll be gone in a sec, but I follow her anyway.
The nun replies, “Yes, certainly.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah…
There’s a list of shit the pious say to comfort the bereaved. I’ll give her an ‘A’ for effort. She hits the high points as they walk up the aisle. Her tone even changes to something sort of like sympathy. It’s a nice touch, but her spiel still seems so rehearsed to me, it borders on condescending.
Good thing this is a dry run. Maybe Cass will hook her up with a few pointers. That seems right up her alley.
When a muffled thump drowns out the nun’s nasally chatter, B. stands.
I start to ask what’s up, but she leaves me behind. I find my legs and take off after her.
She goes straight for the vestry door beside the pulpit. There’s a ring of keys in hand, but she tries the knob first.
The door swings in as my voice finally decides to work, “Wha—”
Fat lot of good the poor, pathetic, broken thing does me. She heads straight for the adjacent door. The knob rattles in her hand. This one’s locked, like the other one should’ve been.
Okay, so, two things: in addition to being downright scary, Cass must also be a skilled pickpocket. Good to know. But the important thing is we’re on the right track. We have to be. I can’t think of any other reason that door would’ve been unlocked. So she did the right thing…the right, wrong thing. Funny how that happens a lot around us.
It gives me the creeps, but I tag along, locking the knob and shutting us in.
I used to wonder what a vestry would be like. Not that I was ever curious about a priest or what it might be like to be one. It’s just the appeal that any forbidden place has when you have no manners.
The keys jingle as B. tries them one-by-one.
Now I know. And I’ve gotta say, I’m a little disappointed. All the trappings of the trade are here, lit by pale yellow light so dim it barely reaches the floor. Candles and crucifixes, scrolls of parchment and old leather bound books, silk and velvet thises and thatses, and assorted brass doohickeys. It seems like tons of clutter, but the way it’s arranged has an ‘everything in its place’ sort of feel.
Truth be told, the disappointment’s my fault. It’s got nothing to do with this place…or not much. My perception’s what’s wrong. There’s just something about the bad lighting, the dark wood tones and all of the white and gold and red knickknacks that makes me feel like I stepped into a sports bar where The Holy Trinity’s the home team.
A soft, “Huh,” of a laugh slips from my mouth. Hard to say, but I think I just put my finger on the main problem I have with organized religion.
With organized anything. It’s like we have this innate ability to take the coolest concepts and turn them cheesy.
B. glances over her shoulder at me. Could be the laugh. More likely, considering her expression, she’s discovered none of the keys fit.
Lord knows why I nod.
I just hope we don’t run into the priest. Odds are he won’t be impressed.
She takes the knob in both hands and bears down, twisting it. Something inside the lock snaps. I cringe. I’m going to Hell for sure now. Like there was ever any doubt.
The door still doesn’t open, so she puts a shoulder into it.
I can’t watch. A series of crackles and pops issue from the doorjamb.
Knowing B., if we get caught, she’ll probably skate on her standard combo of ignorance and good intentions.
But me…? I know better. And as usual, because of that, there’s no excuse.
The door finally springs open with a loud, shuddering clatter.
No one comes running, so I guess we’re good.
She feels around for a switch and turns the lights on. We’re standing in a nook at the west end of a room that’s either a large study or a small library.
I guess more than one desk makes it a library. Studies are kind of personal things. Or I think that’s how that goes.
There’s a pair of doors to our right. We’ve gotta be almost to the east end of the building. My guess, the hallway that connects that service entrance I was loitering in to the kitchens or whatever is on the other side of this room.
I stand around a moment too long with my thumb up my…and she leaves me again. I turn around and one of the two double doors stands open.
“Hurry up,” she hisses from the next room. “Turn the light off when you leave.” The expression ‘quiet as a church mouse’ is totally lost on her.
I flip off the lights and close the door behind me as I step into a wide hallway that’s lined with windows on the left side. It’s basically just dead, useless space lost from the floor plan because of the south transept of the cathedral.
Useless space with a vaulted ceiling that’s big enough to hold most people’s kitchen, living room and dining room. No wonder her voice carried so well.
The hallway ends at another pair of heavy wooden doors. She leans casually against the left one, holding it open as I make my way to her.
How she knows where we’re going is beyond me. Maybe she’s guessing.
Nah. She’s too sure of herself. If she didn’t know, she’d ask what I thought. The only other choice is that Cass kibitzed. There’s no one else who could’ve. But after we came inside, she talked with everyone else except us. Unless I’m really missing something.
I stop about five feet short of the doorway and B. Before we go any farther, I’ve gotta ask, “What’s the deal with Cass? Is she a demon?” It’s a fair guess. The only other touchy, feely, ‘tell me your troubles’ sort of dude I know is green, has horns, loves show tunes and plays a mean game of Parcheesi. Only one of those things doesn’t scream ‘demon’ to me.
But B. obviously doesn’t agree. All grins and giggles, she asks, “What?” Her smile fades. She takes a breath, snaps dead serious and just answers my question, “No, she’s an empath.”
Straight answers are good…when I know what they mean. “A who?” I stammer.
“Bless you,” she replies through a smile. At least she finds me amusing.
I roll my eyes. I swear each time I open my mouth my I.Q. drops. At this rate I should be a shoo-in for ‘village idiot’ wherever we land when this shit’s over.
And standing here like a lump’s working so well for me too. Screw it. I want this over. I can figure crap out later. I’ll have her draw pictures or something to make me understand.
As I step past her through the open door onto the stairway landing, she prompts, “Empathy?” hopefully, like that might help.
Okay, I’ve heard it, but—
I mumble, “Isn't that just a fancy word for sympathy?”
She doesn’t hear me.
You know what? Piss on this. I don’t care. This stairway’s enough distraction for now. It’s pretty as hell. And that must be the point. It’s sure in no hurry to get anywhere. It’s a huge wooden structure that wraps the room one complete turn for each floor. This whole side is one large platform, like a balcony. With the square platforms at each corner, the thing’s about half flat.
Eight ornately trimmed columns, one at each inner corner and one in the middle of each side, stretch up past where I can see. A spindled banister bridges the gaps between the columns. I go to it, lean out into the opening and look up. The stairway snakes up three more stories. And there’s another domed skylight in the ceiling, like the one in the cathedral. That explains why it’s so light in here.
I shrug. Guess she’s looking for more word-a-day action. She’s seriously looking in the wrong place.
The door shuts. I sigh and grumble, “Just fill me in.” My tone’s a lot harsher than I mean it to be. As she passes me on the landing, I mumble, “Sorry,” under my breath.
Goddammit. I really hate that word.
I turn away from the railing and follow her. We reach the first set of stairs before she says anything. “It’s alright.” She takes one step down and another, all leisurely, like we’re out for a stroll. “It’s sort of like sympathy, but with physical stuff too. Like if someone was cold and you felt cold too, not because it’s cold, but because they’re cold.”
I expect her pick up the pace, but she just saunters along, looking back over her shoulder every now and again as she explains, “And yeah, I know how that sounds. No clue how it works, but the upshot is that Cass is really sensitive to other people.”
There’s enough room for us to walk side-by-side on the stairs, so I let go of the banister and walk beside her.
Giving me sidelong glance, she says, “She can also share what she feels or make someone feel a specific way by touching them.” Her hand rests against the railing. She seems oblivious to it, so much so that it runs into the column before she pulls away. “But you got that much already,” she concludes.
We round the first corner together and I reply, “That sounds like it’d suck.”
“Yeah, I can’t imagine,” she says. “Getting mad really wouldn’t be any kind of fun at all, like it ever is.” She shrugs. “But it’d be worse for Cass because she’d just end up spreading the love. She’d have to leave. And y’know those people—the ones who just won’t let go…?”
I reply through a laugh, “Yeah, I hate that.” The not-so-funny…she’s done that to me, but there’s no point in me sharing that little tidbit.
“I guess she spends a lot of time alone,” B. adds.
That much is obvious. You’d have to.
This is going the way things usually go with us. I hope for some deep insight and she just shoots the breeze. It’s sad. I bitch about it—to myself at least—but truth is I enjoy listening to her. I’m such a damned hypocrite.
“She sure wasn’t thrilled about doing this,” she says.
I ask, “So why did she?” That was an offhanded remark that I should’ve just let drop. But I didn’t, so I try to cut a little of the chitchat by filling in the predictable stuff, “I mean, she’s obviously got mad skills when it comes to getting in and out of places she isn’t s’posed to be, but it seems like a regular witch could’ve done something similar.”
As we turn the last corner, she replies, “They could’ve, but it wouldn’t have been the quite the same. What Cass does isn’t as invasive.”
That’s nice, but if I’m reading this right, she’s stalling so we can talk. I need to wrap this up. What I want to know is this: “So where are we going?”
“I don’t know exactly, but I know it’s downstairs,” she replies. “When Cass passed off the keys, she showed me something that looked like a glowing blue spot on the cathedral floor. Other than that, I don’t know anything more than you do. Right now we’re really just headed for an X on the map.”
We leave the stairs and make our way to the door. Resting her hand against it, she looks over her shoulder to confirm what I’d already guessed, “We’re almost there, so we should probably try to be quiet.”
She twists the knob, pushes the door in, gets it about halfway open, thinks better of it, pulls it closed and turns back to me to add, “It was a big spot. I have no idea what that means, but ‘big’ usually isn’t a good sign with stuff like this.”
I grin. I can’t help myself. She just tickles me sometimes.
And of course, while I’m looking at the floor, trying not to crack up, she leaves me again. But that’s probably for the best. The snickering, snorting thing that’s happening with my nose is really attractive, I’m sure.
I look up when she pokes her head in the door and asks, “Are you coming?” She sounds as annoyed as humanly possible in tones that might not get her shushed in a theater.
I need sleep bad.
I pass through the doorway and the décor changes to institutional bland. The hallway leads off to the left. The midpoint should be, roughly, right under the center aisle of the cathedral. The only question now is ‘left’ or ‘right.’ She answers that quick enough. ‘Left’ it is.
Moment of truth. We do this, whatever this is, we put things right and we can motor.
Monty, I’d like to see what’s behind door number one.
As the lovely Buffy turns the doorknob and pushes, I watch over her shoulder.
Well, this room isn’t very big. The table Kim’s passed out on takes up half the available floor space. The door just misses it as it swings in to the left.
She still has on her hospital gown. That part I expect. From there things get a bit different.
But y’know, the day something like this goes down exactly the way I expect, I’ll probably drop dead on the spot.
I quickly inventory the shit that doesn’t fit, starting with the furniture. The table’s too big and heavy-looking for such a tiny room and there aren’t any chairs. That says ‘storeroom’ to me. So the overhead projector parked ahead of us in the aisle isn’t that surprising. The part that doesn’t work for me…
On top of the projector is this beat up wooden box. It looks something you’d throw away…especially since it’s smoking.
Bet Maeve brought that with her. She’s sprawled out on the floor just past the projector. Another woman with long white hair stoops over her.
Actually, that shit’s nastier than smoke. It’s black as tar with an oily sheen just like that. It doesn’t move like smoke either. Smoke goes wherever it’s carried by the air. This stuff’s erratic, like millions of lazy flies no bigger than fine grains to sand.
The way it looks I expect to smell burnt rubber or something worse. I smell moisture. This basement’s kind of damp.
Kim’s breathing the shit in. The plume of not-quite-right smoke trails out of the box directly into her nose and mouth. But the way it swirls it’s hard to tell if it’s coming or going. She might be breathing it out.
Snow White didn’t flinch when the door opened. That made me wonder. But she’s still with us. Her hand moves from the Maeve’s cheek to her own lap.
I tense even though that isn’t exactly a provocative gesture.
Her white hair makes me think ‘old,’ but that’s not it. Her shoulders are bare. All she has on is a tank-top and sweats. Either her hair’s the result of some sort of unfortunate peroxide mishap or Granny’s seriously been rockin’ the Clinique. Her skin’s just way too good, though she could really use some sun.
Other weirdnesses: she’s dry as a bone. Either she lives here or she got here by wiggling her nose, which fits, considering, umm…
The area in front of her glows. The fluorescent lights are so bright I don’t notice. It isn’t until I see that the shadow under the cart has faded that—
She turns abruptly.
A compact ball of lightning flies under the projector and hits B. square in the chest. As she slumps back into my arms, I remember something.
Willow had white hair. I don’t remember when or—
I swing. My forearm smacks her across the cheek.
She drops over sideways.
I punch her again.
I don’t remember crossing the room.
Blood trickles from the corner of her mouth.
I feel bad, but if she’s psycho enough to attack B., I had to do something.
Did I let B. down easy? I meant to.
I don’t remember.
Why would Willow—?
Someone’s moving behind me. As they circle the table, I dive under the damn thing, turning, twisting. Reaching up, I seize the edge of the tabletop and pull.
They grab my right leg.
Clinging to the table for all I’m worth, I kick and thrash.
Whoever this is, they’re wicked strong. The table slides an inch or two, screeching against the floor.
The lights dim. Or maybe it’s just that I’m under the table?
I gain a little. My arms are bent. I let that go, bending my legs instead, then kick for all I’m worth. My foot connects.
She gasps. The table thuds. Actually, I think that was her head.
Bitch lets go. That’s all I care.
I drag myself from under the table and spring to my feet.
Dumbass I am, I stand up in the middle of a shit storm. The ‘smoke’ from that box—I guess Willow was controlling it.
It clumps together in spots, like metal filings drawn by a magnet. When the spots are stationary, they boil like storm clouds. Spots group with other spots.
There’s some sort of crude pecking order, like this shit’s alive on some level. A cluster of spots follow one lead spot. Each snake has a head. At least three separate ‘snakes’ fly around the room. One them’s downright sluggish. The others weave in and out of the slower one, swirling, twirling and dancing around it.
If I was crazy, I might think they were trying to taunt it.
This messed up, whacked out, pseudo-storm brews mostly near the ceiling. That is until I make a break for the door. One of the ‘heads’ takes an interest in me. Go figure I get the most A.D.H.D. one of the bunch. It turns a circle around my head so fast each spot has a tail like a comet.
My thigh hits the table. I feel my way around its edge and run into the door. I push. It goes so far, not nearly far enough, and springs back.
I just need to slip past. I force the issue and the doorknob catches on my coat.
The black shit spins around my head. I can’t see. I fan my face. That doesn’t help. It’s a struggle not to flip out and swat the air. I breathe in. It’s the last thing I want.
This stuff should smell, but doesn’t. And the way it moves it should make a sound. Creepy shit doesn’t even stir the air. It feels like nothing.
Well, it may tingle a little when I breathe it, but that could just be me.
When my lungs are full, I exhale, blowing the crap away from my face. Then I free my coat and push harder.
As I squeeze past the door, my foot snags something. Trip and hop and tug. My foot doesn’t come free.
I fall, throwing my hands out to catch myself. My right hand touches down first. The something it touches is soft. I let my arm fold. What my other hand hits is hard. When the rest of me catches up, I get it. I fell on B. Her leg is under my stomach. I’m sprawled at an angle over her midsection. I pick myself up and crawl over her.
The black shit follows me out of the room. I huff and puff and sputter and spit. After too many breaths and a whole lot of waving, it finally leaves me alone.
It was her raincoat that tripped me. The stupid thing’s tangled around my foot. I stare into the room as I shake my foot free. The cart got knocked over. No clue when. Might’ve been me. The projector lays on its side half under the table. Broken glass litters the floor. The only thing I don’t see is the box.
The black shit ‘sniffs’ at B. Thick tendrils of the stuff whip around the room. It’s tripled or quadrupled in size since we arrived.
I have to get her out of here. As I drag her back, I get this sense. This bristly, uneasy sense…
I dodge a split-second too late. Her foot—the slayer—the one who’s bent on killing me—her foot grazes my face.
It feels like a lucky break when I manage to catch it, but I let go.
The bitch tackles me as I tumble away. For the second time in as many minutes, I land flat on my face. That might be a record for me. One I’d like to not repeat.
As I push off to my right, she drives her fist into my side just below my ribs. Pain gets in the way. My muscles lock. I wheeze.
I regain control and shove again.
Pissing blood never really gets old. I pay her back with an elbow to the gut as we flop onto our backs.
While she’s busy grunting, I roll back the way we came.
I try to stand again, but this bitch is flat determined we mop the floor.
She leverages me onto my back. Her hands close around my throat. The pressure makes me gag.
I do the only thing I can think to do. It’s cheap, but I force my arm between hers and grab the side of her face. My nails bite into her skin.
She wrenches her arm free and shouts, “You bitch!”
It’s news to me that I’m still clinging to her wrist.
She hauls off and knocks the shit out of me.
Pain sears my jaw. The back of my head smacks the floor. Tingling pressure pounds inside my skull. White flashes stipple my eyes.
I grab her shoulders.
White spots. Black spots. Red spots.
My hands encircle her throat. I kneel over her, straddling her hips, shaking her.
Her head smacks the floor again and again.
Red spots spatter her face.
I taste blood.
Rage leaks out of me like blood.
Blood spatters her face. Tears mixed with blood streak her cheeks.
They aren’t her tears. One dangles from the tip of my nose.
I reach up to mop it away. My mouth hurts.
Blood smears the back of my hand.
The details are sketchy, but my body remembers. She held my wrists. I feel her—the pressure of her grip—the way her skin clung, slipping and catching, stretching my own, tugging and twisting…
Every inch of me aches just like that. Each place we touched. Our bodies pushed and pried and pulled. I feel her mark on my skin.
The curtain of hair is gone. Her face isn’t backlit now. I peer into her wide, glassy eyes.
Hollowness fills the space where my heart was.
My fist’s drawn back, but I can’t get it to move.
I give up. My arm falls to my side.
I look first one way and then the other until I find Buffy. She’s still in the doorway breathing that noxious shit in.
I sit up and let the imposter wriggle free. She has to be the fake.
As I face her, the truth comes clear. It wouldn’t make sense for a body double to neglect herself. She’d do everything she could to be the spitting image of Buffy.
A bunch of tiny white scars stand out against the redness in her cheeks. I wonder what happened.
It’s cool. Our lives suck sometimes. That I get.
The deal breaker is that she hasn’t bothered to dye her hair. Just the ends are frosted blonde. The rest is brown. It doesn’t suit her.
This must be Buffy and Buffy doesn’t give a fuck anymore.
I don’t give a fuck either.
She doesn’t fight me when I get up. I go to the doorway and sit down.
My Buffy—the woman I’ve been with for—I don’t know.
I know she saved me. Some part of me belongs to her. I lift her into my lap and cradle her in my arms.
She expels fine, black vapor from her nose and draws it back in.
My head throbs. It feels a couple sizes too big. I hate what I’m thinking. I hate myself for thinking it, but I have to stop this.
Really, I’m too damned dumb to come up with anything better. I cup my hand over her nose and mouth.
She doesn’t struggle. That worries me. Even when I feel suction against my palm, she just lays there. But it stops. She doesn’t breathe any more of the shit in.
I take her place. Whatever was happening to her is happening to me now.
Better me than her.
Buffy shouts, “What are you doing?” The other Buffy. She’s standing over me. “Stop that!” Sanctimonious as ever, she grabs my wrist.
“Now you want to help?” I snap, sloughing her off with a twirl of my arm.
Where she gets off—
Bitch doesn’t answer me either. She walks away.
Typical! The more this sinks in, the more sense it makes. The real B. would’ve just fucked off on me. She wouldn’t have cared. She never gave a shit about me.
I hear her at the other end of the hall talking with someone else.
Tears splash Buffy’s cheek. My tears. My Buffy, not that bitch. As I brush them away, a hand touches my neck.
Someone crouches down behind me. She whispers, “Faith?”
It takes me a sec to place her voice. It’s Cass.
“You’ve done enough,” she says. “It’s time to rest. We’ve got it from here.”
I could fight it, but why? My body feels heavy. I’m warm and safe. My eyes drift shut.
Buffy’s in my arms. My Buffy. I feel her breath on my neck.
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