Love, Time, Space, Magic
Melanie in the Underworld, by Victoria Feistner
When Adil didn’t come home, Melanie tried not to be suspicious. When he didn’t come home the next day, she tried not to worry. When the police came to her door, and told her that she would have to identify the body, she would not let herself think of the worst. It was only at the funeral that she greeted and called Reality by name: Adil was dead, and it was up to her to bring him back.
They had met at a seminar she had been giving in the back of her neighbourhood bookstore, an informal lecture on running a small e-business from home, which she had been doing for several years. Melanie hadn’t felt comfortable speaking on behalf of the subject, but the bookstore owner convinced her just to tell some illustrating anecdotes. She ended up speaking for an hour and a half. Adil had approached her in the coffee-and-cookies section of the evening, while she was dropping down from the euphoria of a room full of people absorbing knowledge from her.
He had quite enjoyed her speech, he had said, smiling from the eyes.
Her enthusiasm for her work was infectious, he had continued, sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup.
Melanie didn’t remember what she had said in response. She had been too busy watching his lips and imagining how they would feel.
The weather did not co-operate during the funeral. It was clear, and bright, a sunny late-April day with the lilacs that ringed the cemetery in full bloom, and lily-of-the-valley blanketing the shady parts of the grounds. Wafts of gorgeous scents drifted like the chestnut blossoms, settling on the mourners’ shoulders. It was obscene.
She didn’t speak much to anyone, either her family or Addy’s. They were too mired in grief, too tethered to the idea that he was dead. They were, in fact, defeatists. Not Melanie.
Her mother spoke to her, privately, concerned by Melanie’s lack of hysteria—which her mother called “grief processing”; she was big on psychobabble buzzwords—and Melanie calmly explained that she was not grieving as there was nothing to mourn. Adil’s absence was temporary, and wasn’t she, Melanie, a stronger woman than that, to not let a man’s momentary disappearance from her life cause her to become emotionally unhinged?
Her mother’s expression convinced her that perhaps she had better keep the rest of the plan to herself.
Melanie sat on the curb, one hand pressed against her forearm, holding the piece of gauze in place under her sleeve. There was a bench a block down at the street car stop but she couldn’t be bothered to get up again. This was more convenient.
Up all around her were the cliffs of the downtown core, rising to dizzying points, the yellow of their scattered lights showing against the darkening strip of sky. The true stars of Toronto’s nightscape.
Melanie just sat, neck craned upwards, as the sky got ever darker, losing its red tinge and becoming a deep navy.
“You wanna be careful,” a voice said, startling her out of her thoughts. She looked over her shoulder. It was a homeless man, wearing an old, torn, puffy jacket and baseball cap pulled down over his face, sifting through a dumpster. He was pulling out bits of plastic and sniffing them, and, if they were worthy, stuffing them into the pockets of his jacket, which were bulging.
“Careful?” Melanie repeated, not sure if he’d been speaking to her; but he nodded.
“Uh huh. A lady in this neighbourhood after dark—well, you just be careful, all right?” He stopped examining scraps long enough to look her in the face. “Jeez, lady, you don’t look so good.”
Melanie shrugged. She rolled back her sleeve and peeked under the piece of gauze; the thin slash mark had stopped bleeding. She carefully peeled the bandage away and crumpled it into a ball.
The homeless guy stopped rooting through the alley’s dumpster. “You got any cigarettes?”
“Nope, sorry.” Melanie was playing with the gauze now, pulling and twisting it between her fingers. “I don’t smoke.” He didn’t move away, or go back to his digging, and she looked up to regard him, carefully. He was of medium build and height; white; fair; there was a substantial amount of scraggly facial hair—not enough to be called a beard but far too much to just be scruff. And he looked young—only a few years older than she was—usually homeless guys in the core seemed much older.
“You been to see the psychic?” he asked her, scratching at an ingrown hair with fingernails completely black underneath.
“Yeah,” Melanie replied, going back to playing with the bandage. “She wasn’t very useful, though.”
“No?” the homeless guy seemed surprised. “She always seemed pretty good to me. Knew right who I was, soon as she saw me.”
Melanie snorted. “Yeah, well, she didn’t know who I was.”
“Well, you’re not me.”
She smiled at the irrefutable logic. “And you are?”
He came forward, awkwardly, and held out his hand. “Daniel Gabriel.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Gabriel. I’m Melanie.”
“Not Mr. Gabriel. Daniel Gabriel are my given names. Don’t go by my last name much.” He scratched his beard again, hesitated, and then sat down beside Melanie. He smelt of old trash and stale cig smoke.
“Okay,” Melanie agreed easily. Her commuter training was beginning to kick in: just be friendly and non-committal and maybe the person talking would go away. He didn’t seem like a crazy person, if she ignored the smell and the fact that he had been previously digging through garbage for plastic, which rustled every time he moved. She wanted to trust him, a completely unfamiliar sensation. She began to speak, hesitantly. “Do you ever find yourself in a completely random situation? I mean, you just sort of snap out of it and wonder how you ended up where you are?”
“Yeah,” he replied, quietly. “Sometimes.”
“Sometimes I do too. I mean, I am now. I mean, I am sitting here, on the curb, outside of a psychic, who drew blood from me—”
“It’s okay, she’s licensed.”
“And she needed it, for the sacrifice, she said. But that’s just my point. She’s the fifth psychic I’ve seen this week.” Melanie rolled back her sleeves: her forearms were lined with welts and scabs of previous slashes. “Looking for advice, looking for a way, and they all want blood, which is a little weird, but what do I know about oracles?”
Daniel Gabriel shifted slightly, his brow furrowing. “Blood sacrifice?”
He scratched at his scruff-beard again, the grime under his fingernails leaving thin black trails on his cheek. His eyes were a very strong blue, under the brim of his baseball cap, even in the twilight. “Seems a bit like you’re looking for something that maybe you shouldn’t be.”
She bristled. “What would you know about it?”
“Nothing.” He shrugged. “I’m not anybody. But blood sacrifice, that’s potent stuff.”
Melanie stayed tense, her shoulders pulled up around her ears, while she played with the very deformed pieces of gauze. “I need to know,” she said, quietly. “I need to know. If a certain thing can be done.”
She sighed. “The psychic doesn’t know. Even with the blood she took, she still couldn’t see it.” She closed her eyes and brought her knees up, to rest her forehead against them. “Fifth one. Still doesn’t know.”
They sat in silence for a long moment, Daniel Gabriel watching traffic a block away at the main intersection, Melanie with her head on her knees, her arms wrapped around her calves. Finally Daniel Gabriel spoke.
“What is it that you’re looking for? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“My boyfriend.” Melanie replied, muffled.
“He run out on you?”
“No. He died.”
There was a long pause, broken only by more terse scratching of facial hair. “Then don’t you already know where he is?”
She snorted and looked over at him, peeking out from under her bangs, still resting on her knees. “Nice.”
“I’m sorry. It just came out.”
“Whatever.” Melanie wiped her nose against her sleeve, and straightened up, stretching. “It doesn’t matter. He’s not where he’s supposed to be.”
“At home. With me.”
“Lady, he’s dead.”
She turned to look at him, frankly. “I’m going to bring him back.”
He returned her gaze, just as openly. “Why?”
“Why? He’s dead. People die, lady, it happens all the time. And they don’t come back. So why bother looking for him?”
And so Melanie talked about Adil. His sense of humour. She told the story of the broken sofa. How he made her feel safe, and protected and loved. She told the story of the beach vacation where the cottage nearly blew away in the storm. She told of how they were buying their first house, their first place together. They had bought it. They were due to move in a week. He always put off packing. He said it distressed him. He packed by throwing things into boxes at the last moment, whereas she sorted carefully, making notes. The fights; the exasperation; the excitement barely contained. And then Adil didn’t come home, because he got in a fight with someone who took it too far. A week before they moved in to their new home. All she did was talk, calmly, steadily, her voice barely wavering. Her eyes stayed off in the distance, seeing old events again.
Daniel Gabriel didn’t say anything, but he rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “That’s awful, lady.”
“You see what I’m trying to do. Why I’m trying to do it.”
“Yeah… but…” he sighed. “You’re looking for something you can’t have.”
“Who says I can’t have it?”
“You just can’t, you know? Life doesn’t work out that way. You get what you’re given. And sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way you expect.” He cleared his throat. “I wanted a top hat.”
“A what?” Melanie was completely confused, and a little angry that he was comparing her loss with an article of clothing.
“A top hat. Ever since I was a kid. No, just listen for a minute… when I was a little kid, I was one of them weird ones. Always standing apart from the other ones. And from my family. And I would look at my tired old dad, and my mom, and I would think, I won’t be like that when I’m old. I will travel the world, and wear a top hat, maybe have a cane, too, and do as I please, and I won’t be someone’s tired old dad. And life just doesn’t work out that way. You think you can have something just because you want it, but life, it has other plans.” Daniel Gabriel cleared his throat again, and then spat onto the street. “Man, I gotta get some more cigarettes.”
Melanie pulled her sleeves down, picking at a stray thread, shoulders hunching again. “Why don’t you have a top hat?” she asked, quietly.
“Never did find one. Probably couldn’t afford it if I did.” He shrugged. “Like I said. Life gets other plans.”
Melanie nodded, slightly, almost unconsciously. “I still have to try.”
He shrugged. “It’s your life, lady.”
She got to her feet, slowly, dusting herself off; she felt as though her strings had all been cut. All she wanted to do was go home. “I should get going.”
He nodded, remaining on the curb. “Got any change on you that you could spare?”
“Sure.” She fished a couple of toonies out of her pocket. “It’s… it’s been good talking to you.”
He smiled up at her, depositing the toonies in a non-plastic-filled pocket. “People always say to me, I’m easy to talk to. I should be like that guy on tv, the doctor guy.”
She smiled back, but it was perfunctory. Already she was thinking about routes to take, streetcars to catch.
“You ever want to come back and chat, I’m always around here somewhere,” he continued, blithely. “That psychic used to be a good friend of mine.”
She nodded, hugging her arms to herself; it was getting cold. “Have a nice night, Daniel Gabriel.”
“You too, lady. You too.”
The next morning was gray. Melanie got up in the washed-out light, got dressed, brushed her teeth. She didn’t bother to turn the lights on; she was comfortable in the half-gloom.
All her boxes had been put away, the furniture arranged. She hadn’t yet hung the photos and the paintings—there was debate with Adil’s sister over the ownership of some of them.
She checked her email. A friend since college had recently moved out West and was urging her to visit, to stay a while, in Vancouver. A business-related email from a supplier. It could be put off a day or two.
Melanie padded across the living room floor in bare feet.
Perhaps she would mop the floors today. She paused by the windows, looking out into the backyard that was an unruly profusion of green. No leaves were fluttering from the wind or bent under with the rain. She took a closer look at the puddle under the coiled garden hose, hanging on the shed’s wall. No ripples. No droplets. So she didn’t need to stay inside and invent chores.
Anything to get away from the empty house.
She took the streetcar along King, slicing through the core to the west end. It was a long trip, which could have been made shorter by taking the subway. Addy endlessly groused about her habit of planning circuitous routes around the city, just so she could have interesting sights on the journey. Endlessly complained. Only—it had ended, hadn’t it?
Impulsively she grabbed the pull-cord and dinged for a stop. She could walk the rest of the way. She needed fresh air.
It was late in the day when she stepped through the door to the shop, the bell chiming overhead. Behind her, out in the street, sunlight still struggled through the cloud covering; in front of her was the depth of the shop, shrouded in shadow and smelling very strongly of camphor and old dust.
As her eyes adjusted, Melanie took in the wares. Clothing. Piles of it, racks of it, bins of it. Vintage. How had she not known of this place before? This is, after all, my profession, she thought to herself, momentarily delighted. She ran her fingers over the sleeve of a velvet jacket.
“Can I help you?” wheezed a voice from the further gloom: the back of the store. She looked over, startled; what she had dismissed as a pile of tweeds and woollens was in fact an older man, cataloguing.
“I’m just browsing,” Melanie replied, quickly. “Just looking.”
“Take your time, my dear,” he coughed, and went back to his work. He checked back on her a moment later to find Melanie staring at him, open-mouthed. “Is there something that you’re looking for?” he asked, disconcerted.
She nodded, and pointed over his head at a small wall-mounted shelf displaying knick-knacks, and other vintage accessories, including a worn, faded top hat.
The top hat was expensive, even in its dilapidated state. They were highly sought-after by collectors, a fact that Melanie knew all too well. The only reason she could afford this one at all was that it was the cheaper version, made with beaver pelt, which was mostly intact but ratty in places and in desperate need of a good cleaning.
As she sat on the streetcar, hatbox on her lap, she thought about the futility of what she was doing. It was stupid. A waste of good money, her upbringing said forcibly. And yet, if it did work out, wasn’t the money worth it? Wasn’t anything worth the expense? The toll?
She saw, where her sleeve had ridden up, a thin welt, barely healed and knew then that she was doing the right thing.
Melanie stood outside the psychic’s, hatbox under her arm, wondering what to do next. The alley was empty, and she wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. Somehow, in the daydream she had while punching in her Interac code she hadn’t covered this possibility. She debated getting the hat repaired and selling it. She would find a buyer easily and for a good profit. But she knew she wouldn’t. She knew the box would be put somewhere, to be held until she came down this way again, and when would that be; meanwhile the hat, from its shelf-top perch, would glare at her malevolently. She would feel its accusing gaze on the back of her head until she finally gave it to someone, anyone, just for her own sanity.
So the money was as good as gone already. She had nothing to lose.
Melanie took a pen from her messenger bag and hastily scrawled “To Daniel Gabriel” on the top of the hatbox and then placed it carefully between the two dumpsters of the alleyway.
And then she walked away, telling her upbringing to shut it.
When Melanie woke up, it was to a gray, semi-cloudy sky and she wondered, idly, if she was repeating Tuesday.
She got up, dressed, brushed her teeth. Her mother called, offering gifts of groceries. Adil’s mother called, proposing prepared meals. Both thought Melanie was off her rocker. She politely declined both gestures.
Mail: Rogers bill, gym advert, Visa offer directed at Adil.
Email: useless forwards. Business email from supplier, following up. And then, tucked away, one from another psychic. It sounded promising, and Melanie began to get excited: a lead. She clicked through to the website, noted under the hours that drop-ins were welcome, and decided not to delay. She could get her breakfast downtown and then be back in the afternoon to take care of her business concerns. It looked like it might be a full day.
Melanie was awake now.
She grabbed her rain jacket from a hook near the door.
Underneath was a small stand they had picked up off a curb in Rosedale: it badly needed refinishing but was useful as a place to store keys, mail and other near-door detritus. It also displayed a small photograph in a stand-up frame.
Melanie turned it right-side up. She and Adil looked back up at her, grinning. It was from her uncle’s boat. She was freckly and swiftly burning: already pink was spreading across the bridge of her nose. Adil was tanned (the bastard!) and only about to turn darker. Waves were cresting off to the horizon. Their smiles were inanely happy. It was only last summer.
She gripped the frame tightly in both hands, her thumb covering her own portrait. “I’m getting closer,” she whispered. “You’ll be back soon.”
She turned the corner onto Broadview, walking briskly to the subway, ignoring the profuse greenery of the neighbourhood gardens. So intent on tuning the scenery out, Melanie nearly walked right past him.
He was leaning against a telephone pole, sans baseball cap, with a clean jacket and jeans instead of the dirty, shredded versions. In fact, he looked so normal for Riverdale that Melanie wouldn’t have looked twice, except for the top hat he was playing with.
She first slowed her pace as she registered this, then stopped completely, mouth agape. She tried to say something but her brain failed completely. He smiled in recognition, straightening up from his slouch, and came towards her with his arms outstretched. She still didn’t have the power to move.
Daniel Gabriel wrapped her in a bear hug, still holding onto the top hat. He smelled of worn aftershave and coffee and mothballs. Melanie returned the hug, awkwardly at first but then with full feeling and found that she was shaking. Holding back tears.
“Hello, Melanie,” he whispered in her ear. His breath, curiously, lacked any warmth, although he was warm himself; she could feel his cheek against hers. It rasped a little. “You gave me what I was looking for. Now it is time for me to return the favour.”
Melanie was planted outside the store. Street kids, hipsters and the odd suburbanite-on-a-daytrip pushed past her, around her, as she stood staring at the ancient, cracked mannequins draped in dusty, god-awfully garish cloth. The yellowing vinyl sign over her head said simply “Fabric Importers”. This had to be the place. Daniel Gabriel had given her very specific instructions without actually naming the business or giving a street number.
“What is it called?” she had asked.
“Now, remember: the north side of Queen. If you hit Augusta, you’ve gone too far,” he had replied, top hat at a rakish angle. They both had studiously ignored the stares of the others at the station.
“Yes. Five stores east from Augusta. North side. But what is it called?”
“I think the number has a five in it, although I could be wrong…”
One of their first dates had been to the Second Cup at Augusta and Queen. It was close by to his work, and it just seemed easiest.
Melanie hadn’t really cared much about the locale; she wasn’t a coffee snob and the Second Cup seemed cosy and intimate. It wasn’t, of course, it was full of people at that time, picking up their thirteenth cup of joe of the day for the commute home. And a group of high school students had smacked Melanie with one of their enormous backpacks and sent her crashing into someone doing a coffee run carrying an armful of lattes. Lattes which sprayed everywhere. Melanie had been mortified, of course, but Adil’s good-natured laughter had helped her smile too, just as he had picked her up off the floor and swabbed her off.
You seem like one of those people who never has a dull moment, he had remarked, chuckling, over his eventual cappuccino. Melanie hadn’t replied; she just went speechless, as she so often seemed to do, around him.
It all seemed so trite, now.
She pushed open the creaking, rusting door, which set off a bell over her head which tinkled off-key. At first glance, the store was a single mass of fabric bolts and rolls, reaching far over head, but further examination revealed a narrow, meandering path leading into the gradient darkness.
As she walked through the narrow disorganized corridors, the smell of dust and old cloth—a dry, tickling smell—intensified; over her head one of the humming fluorescent strip lights flickered off.
Melanie turned a corner and suddenly found herself confronted with an employee. She assumed the person was an employee.
The young Asian woman was sitting behind a glass countertop that contained things that glittered, and which supported a cash register wrapped in ancient, yellowing plastic. The woman herself was dressed in black blouse, with a similarly glittering broach and she was knitting. A sock. She regarded Melanie with undisguised hauteur for a moment, eyeing her up and down before returning to her handicraft.
Melanie cleared her throat; the woman’s response was to merely raise an eyebrow, not even slowing in her stitching. Nothing to do but try, she thought, and began, as Daniel Gabriel had instructed her: “Oh Shining One, your illustrious br—”
The younger woman put her knitting down, her look now pure condescension, and Melanie trailed off.
“You don’t want me, you want her,” the saleswoman said, with a sigh.
“My manager. Duh,” the woman replied. She twisted around in her seat and yelled in Cantonese towards a door in the back. That accomplished, she turned around, picked up her knitting and ignored Melanie completely.
No one emerged from the back, and Melanie was left uncomfortably silent, knowing that the young woman would rebuff all attempts at conversation. She stared at some of the fabric, she looked in the case of glittering items—brooches and earrings of a singularly gaudy type—and then tried to make out what the young woman’s brooch was, without staring.
It was a spider, with long thin silver legs, covered in rhinestones, with eight glittery ruby eyes. Unlike the items in the case, the workmanship was exemplary; it looked as though it was ready to crawl away at any moment—
“May I help you?” Melanie jumped, then, catching her breath, turned around to see the manager, an older Chinese woman in a dark gray twinset, which offset her bright gray permed hair. “Did I startle you?” she continued, bemused, her accent with a Cantonese tilt to it.
“I’m sorry, I…” Melanie trailed off, and then shook her head. She took another preparatory breath and began: “Oh Shining One, your illustrious broth—”
The manager waved it off, and Melanie, once again, fell silent. “Which brother?”
“Which brother sent you?” The bemusement was gone from her
voice and her gaze was frankly assessing. “Although I have a fairly good idea already.”
“Um, Daniel Gabriel?” Melanie replied. This was not going at all according to the plan.
“Daniel Gabriel? Is that what he’s calling himself… oh, I see. That is fairly clever. And obtuse. How like him.” She turned her gaze to her assistant. “Geejiu, go make some tea and be useful for a change.”
The younger woman snorted, and put down her knitting.
“Whatever.” She sloped off into the backroom.
The manager smiled, a prim, thin smile that didn’t reach her eyes. It was a smile of principals, nannies, nuns, and head nurses. “Did he tell you my name?”
“No, ma’am,” Melanie replied, feeling herself regress with each
“No, of course not. Only that ridiculous greeting. Well, you may call me Maotoùying.” She tapped her own brooch, a similarly stunning piece of craftsmanship in the shape of a snowy owl, at the same time.
“Maotouying,” Melanie repeated, carefully.
“No. Maotoùying,” the manager replied.
“Maotouying,” the younger woman repeated, feeling more useless by the moment.
Maotoùying sighed and rubbed her temples. “Oh, never mind. Say it however you want to, I can’t be bothered. Geejiu! Where is the tea?” Geejiu replied with something that was obviously entirely too sassy for her manager’s liking; Maotoùying lost the prim smile. “That girl, I don’t know why I ever bothered. Melanie, please sit down.” She gestured at two stools that Melanie was sure were not there when she first looked. “We need to discuss what is, I am sure, a ridiculous question.”
Melanie stood, fixed, on the sidewalk, feeling foolish. Twilight brought with it a cooler breeze, that put a nip in the evening even as it barely stirred the air. She looked again into the black fabric sack, now lumpy with goods, and felt foolish. Misled. Waylaid.
Daniel Gabriel was not waiting for her. She had hoped he would have been, however faint the hope was. Around her, the night-time people of Queen East, the squeegee kids and the hipsters, milled, all enjoying the evening’s respite from the day’s humidity.
She felt very alone, as she hefted the black canvas tote onto her shoulder, and headed for the streetcar home.
Three days later, there was a knock on her door.
Distant Early Warning
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Chapter Nine: Red Rose Jennings
Denny looked around her night’s accommodations, thinking how similar this place was to Burgoyne Arena, in St. Catharines, where she and her friends had gone to amateur hockey and lacrosse games in their teens, to eat crappy food, ogle the boys and cheer on the fights. Somehow, even without the rink filled, the place still managed to smell like ice, nachos and old sports equipment.
Most of the arena floor was taken up with other sleeping bags, but Officer Menken directed her over to an empty spot. Beside where she would be sleeping sat a girl in a white shift, who had her back to them. She had thick, dark hair with a light halo of flyaway fluff. When she turned around to look at them, Denny placed her in her early to mid teens. She had a common sort of face, with a rounded nose, small, close-set eyes and thin lips: the kind of girl you’d expect to work the night shift with at Tim Hortons or the Wal Mart Christmas sales. She had seen things. Even without a wrinkle on her olive skin, she had a hard-bitten look about her.
“Denny, this is Violet Jennings,” said officer Menken, “I think you two should have a talk before tucking in for the night. Now I’ve got to get back to the intake booth. If you need anything, talk to one of the officers along the wall and they’ll do what they can.”
Denny thanked her, then started unrolling her bed roll. She had been allotted just enough space for her bed to fit between Violet and an old lady who was snoring deeply.
Violet spoke first, as Denny had been prepared to let her do.
“So what kind of a name is Denny? You a dude?”
Denny fluffed up her pillow and avoided eye contact. She had worked enough crap jobs to know how this went.
“What kind of a name is Violet? You a house plant?”
“No, my Mom liked flower names. Good thing she only had girls… if I’d had a brother she might’ve named him Juniper. I know she was planning on it, and it’s only fifty-fifty Aunt Norrie would have talked her out of it.”
When Violet talked about her family, she looked off into the distance. It was like she was telling the story only for herself, embroidering little flowery medallions in the scrapbook of her mind. She smiled a little while she talked, and not the jaded smile Denny was expecting. She looked at Denny as if she wanted an excuse to go on, to dwell on happy memories, but Denny couldn’t think of anything to ask her but the one question that she suspected Violet had been subjected to many times.
“So where’s your Mom and your Aunt now?” she asked.
Violet smoothed her hair with both hands, but it came back just as flyaway as ever.
“That’s a long story, but I know that’s why Menken sent you to me. It makes me sad that nobody ever wants to talk about Mum’s flowers. She did paintings, you know, awful flat things that I always made fun of her for, but she put them up all over. Not because she thought they were good, but because they reminded her of us. She was always really into all that Celtic nature stuff… she called us her flowers. Like we’d grown out of her life and made it beautiful.”
Violet’s eyes welled up for a moment, but she rubbed the tears away quickly with the sleeve of her night dress. When her arm lowered again, that hard look had returned to her eyes.
“You mother sounds like a really caring person…” said Denny, unable to help but feel some of Violet’s emotion.
“She was,” the girl replied, “Until the night she killed my Aunt and Uncle.”
Violet waved a hand. “Like I said, it’s a long story. Finish up with your bedroll, get comfortable, and then I’ll tell you.”
Denny felt a little uncomfortable sitting in her sleeping bag listening to Violet tell her story, but the girl insisted. Still, it was a little too much like a ghost story at a sleepover for her taste. Those always gave her the creeps, even when she knew they weren’t real. At least all the lights were on in the arena still.
“When I was eight,” she began, “My older sister disappeared. Rose was twelve, and we did everything together. Except for that one day. I was kept behind at school because I hadn’t done my math homework, and my teacher wanted to go through it with me in detention. Rose decided to walk home by herself, and nobody stopped her. Teachers tend to think that twelve is kind of the cutoff age for adult involvement, you know? They can babysit, they can walk home by themselves. At least that’s the logic.
Anyway, Rose was last seen by a few friends heading in the other direction about five minutes after she left school. Somewhere between there and home, she disappeared. They put out an Amber alert, scoured the neighborhoods, plastered it up all over the national news… but they never found her. Everybody at my school felt guilty. If one of us had stuck with her, or maybe if we could remember some key detail of the days leading up to her kidnapping… but we were just kids. And none of us had really seen anything.
My Mom wasn’t the same for a long time after that. She would just sit at the window all day, and break into crying fits every night. She didn’t sleep much, and she didn’t eat much. She stopped doing her paintings for a few years. Dad’s a deadbeat living in Australia now, I think, so we knew he wouldn’t be much help. The only one who offered to do anything for us was Uncle Maurice and Aunt Norrie. ‘Come and live with us,’ they said, ‘and we’ll help you take care of Violet. Just pay us rent and we’ll take care of the rest, so you can recover.’ It was the last chance we had, so we took it. Mom needed a change of scenery, and more good company. We moved in with them just over two years ago.
For a year and a half, it seemed to be working. Mom was perking up again, sleeping and eating better, and she’d even started to do her paintings. We hung out a lot together, and I stopped feeling like I was just a replacement for Rose. I think she started to be really thankful that she had me, and that I was me.”
“So what changed?”
“The Screamers came. They ruined everything. It was probably around three in the morning when it started… that time of night when you wake up and feel like there’s something watching you from the blackness in the hall. It was the month when they started sandbagging, too, when the rain started getting really heavy and people started losing property if they were near the water.
I woke up in a cold sweat, my heart pounding. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like I couldn’t even move or anything. At first, I didn’t know why. It looked like any other night. My curtains were blowing in the breeze, and I could hear the rain on the sidewalk outside my window. My nightlight had gone out, though. That was the first thing I noticed that was different.
The voice started out like my mother’s, but younger, like she was in the bathroom humming a lullaby. It had that echo to it. I listened, trying to calm down, trying to remember that she was here with me. And that’s when the song changed.”
“Do they all sound the same?”
“No. They’re all different, but this one cut me more than anything else ever could. Picture the saddest, slowest love song you’ve ever heard, and then imagine that every few bars, it rises into a screech so terrible that it’s like someone getting their eyes cut out. I don’t know how, but all at the same time it managed to be mournful and angry and even a little bit proud. Don’t tell me how I know, I just felt it.”
“I felt it too,” Denny said, feeling a little bit of half-healed ache spread within her at the recollection of Dad’s song.
“I couldn’t understand any of the words, but I knew they were words, too, and that somebody, somewhere could understand them. It wasn’t exactly like listening to a foreign language… more like listening to somebody talk while you’re still asleep. You form your own words, in your head, but you know it’s not what you’re really hearing, if you could just wake up.
I wanted to stay in bed. I wanted to stay there, pull the covers over my head and try to wake up from whatever horrible dream I was having. I swore to God in that moment I would never try pot again… I’d done it at Christie’s party that night, and I thought then that it had been laced with something, acid maybe, and I was having a serious freak out. Then Mom came stumbling down the hall in her nightgown asking where that sound was coming from. She was calling for me, and as much as I hated to leave my bed, I was all she had.
I tip-toed out into the hallway, where I saw Mom heading for the stairs. She was holding the steak knife she always kept under her pillow, just in case. Once you live at Jane and Finch for a while, like she had, I guess you never quite got out of the habit. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. She asked me if it was intruders. I said no, at least I thought not. She asked me if someone was maybe blasting ‘the young people’s music’. I said hell no. Even the death metal bands of old would have heard this voice and ran for the hills.
Somehow we ended up on the patio. I think it was because one of us saw the light, and decided to follow it. It was a dark red light… yeah, dark, and still a sort of light, like a creepier version of blacklight. It was the colour of a 60 watt bulb being shone through a bloody tank of water. It rippled like water, too, up over the patio furniture, onto the back of the house. The whole backyard was filled with rays of that light, flowing through the air like strobe lights without a source.
The song, which had kept going, got much louder. Something moved, in the bushes, at the back of the yard, and lurched out into the open. Even in the darkness, I could see that it was wearing sort of a cape… but by the sight and the smell of it, I knew the cape was blood. Then I saw the face… and I knew that it was Rose. It had her nose, her eyes (only one eye socket was left covered with skin but that was enough), and a chunk of her hair. Our nose, our eyes, our hair. She was the one singing. And it only got more horrible when she saw us. Her blood cape flew up around her, and streams of it came out of her… well, you’re a girl, you know. Only her… parts weren’t there anymore… just bits of bone and a huge hole in her stomach. I was afraid she was going to touch me, so I crouched down on the ground and started pushing myself away from her.
My mother had tears standing in her eyes when I looked at her. She put the knife on the patio table, and reached out her hands like one of those Jesus freaks on TV. She kept calling out, What is it, baby? I love you! Rose!… those three things over and over, in no particular order. Eventually, the screams got too loud for me to hear much of what Mom was saying. They bit into my ears, and I felt like something was squeezing my heart until I must have passed out, because when I woke up Rose was gone. I still smelled blood though. Mom was covered in it, and Uncle Maurice and Aunt Norrie were lying there, on the patio stones, their guts spilled all over. She wouldn’t look at me, only at them and sometimes at the fence by the bushes. I grabbed her face and made her look at me. I screamed at her to tell me what happened, to tell me what she did and why. All I wanted was for her to tell me why. But all she would keep repeating, with her eyes blank as a static TV screen, was ‘You’re safe now, honey, you’re safe.'”
The bitter look in Violet’s eyes had brimmed over long ago into tears.
“She sacrificed my Aunt and Uncle to keep that… thing that my sister had become from haunting me for the rest of my life. Stay away from them… they’re demons. They’ll snap your mind like a twig, and make you kill the things that you love most to survive.”
Denny had begun petting Geoff while Violet was telling her story. He had gotten concerned by all the sadness in the room and cuddled up to her, butt first, as was his way. Violet broke down crying then, and when she did, Geoff flopped across the divide between their two sleeping bags and rolled over a bit, tongue lolling out. Violet reached down and stroked his soft fur.
“He’s a good dog,” she said.
“He always works for me when I’m sad,” said Denny, “Something about that goofy grin, I think. And the way he tries to get in your good books by sitting on you.”
Violet smiled, although Denny didn’t see much happiness in the gesture. Just a willingness to be friends. Geoff sidled his rear end up to Violet, and the Canine Mutiny was complete.
“You can sleep there with him if you like,” said Denny, “He doesn’t roll around much.”
“It’s ok, I don’t sleep at night anymore. I’m not sure I can. You sleep, and I’ll make sure he doesn’t wander off. We can switch in the morning,” said Violet, leaning down affectionately toward Geoff’s face, which was licking the air as she got closer. He had rolled upside down now, the silly sod, and was wiggling with the scratches. Who could look at that face and not feel better? Not even Violet was immune.
Denny lay down in her sleeping bag and covered her head. Once there, she lay there, pretending to sleep for a very long time. She had learned long ago, with her mother, that you don’t contradict people when they’re in pain, but there were so many more questions that she wanted to ask Violet. She believed the girl had seen everything she claimed to have seen… if there was no evidence that what she said was true, then why would officer Menken rely on her testimony? But still, something just wasn’t ringing true. If the Screamer formerly known as Rose had wanted Violet’s mother to kill the most important things in her life, why wouldn’t she have killed Violet, too? No, Denny, knew what years of living in a dead sibling’s shadow felt like, and the kind of things it caused you to do, without even realizing it. One of those things was to de-value your own worth to your family, to erode your faith in their love for you in little ways, every day, until you were utterly convinced that you were not important to them, and that you could never measure up to what your sister would have been.
Violet’s mother had heard something that night from Rose… that much was undoubtedly true. But had it really forced her to kill the most important people in her life, and caused a psychotic break just with its powers alone? Denny doubted it. Denny thought that perhaps, just perhaps, Violet should suspect her late Aunt and Uncle as authors to her mother’s madness, rather than Red Rose. But these were things that she could never say… not to a casual acquaintance, and probably not even to a lifelong friend. If she ever figured out how to free her Dad, though… if she ever broke the code shrouding the Screamers’ shrieks and jabbering, she would come back here. She would find that yard, and she would try to give Violet some peace.
Denny finally fell asleep while listening to Geoff’s snores. When he was contented in this strange place, it almost felt unnatural for her not to be. She drifted off into a long, dark hallway, and there she heard another song calling her away.