22 Harbinger

August 31st, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Central City, Mansion Basement

Pastor was still passed out when Rose returned.  She listened to the key in the lock without turning around, without moving.  But as the soldiers’ footsteps receded down the hall, she crossed the small cell to its single bench and sat down on it.  A moment later something in the overhead pipes rumbled.  The lights went out one by one down the hall, each with a kind of shuddering thunderclap.

There could be, she reasoned, those kind of cameras that see in the dark.  She turned her coin over carefully and checked it with her fingers, repeating this motion until she felt the sign for Heads.  Then she took Pastor’s hand and checked his pulse, his fingers, his forehead, worrying now, while trying to move calmly over a pounding heartbeat, that their packs had been taken and all pockets emptied.  He seemed alright for the moment.  At length, she pressed her back to the stone of the cell wall and tried to let the coldness calm her down.  She felt feverish, manic, and all the while, she knew she had to look indecisive.

What now?

Rose curled her fingers around the silver coin and clutched it hard until it hurt.  Was it working?  Fred was dead so it had better be working.  This all had better be worth something.

She bowed her head over her knees and started to shake, then cry.  There were no footsteps along the corridor, nothing moving in the dark but the steam in the pipes.

At length there was something.  A faint flash?  No, a swinging light.  Back and forth, a light beam was sweeping, white and wedge-shaped up the hall.  Its rhythm was kept by someone’s feet.  Back and forth, out and back, the light was a pendulum and the steps ticked.

As they approached the cell door, the footsteps slowed.  Rose stiffened, afraid to look up to see more than a glimpse of whatever it was.  The steps stopped, as she’d feared, in front of the cell’s door of whitewashed bars.  Illuminated by the faint light—painfully bright after so much darkness—Rose could see a pair of calves and doll-like feet in silhouette, just below the glowing hem of a layered white skirt.  A second pair of legs arrived a moment later, not walking into view but lowered in only stocking feet to the floor, where they wobbled a bit, uncertain.

“Aunt Linda?”

Rose’s chest tightened at the curious voice.  It was a familiar voice, but not the words that belonged to it.

“That’s you, Aunt Linda, they said so.”

She’s speaking to me?  Of course, who else?

Slowly, Rose turned the coin.  She slapped it onto her hand.  She checked it.  Tails.  A moment of relief.  She turned it again, slapped it down again, to see if there’d be another one.

“Oh, you’re still doing that?”

Tails.

“You should stop now.  It wasn’t funny when Uncle Dion did it either.”

Turn.  Slap.  Tails.

“Aunt Linda?”

Her voice was so young…

Tails.

The steps moved closer.

“I know you’re not well.”

The light washed the cell for a moment.

“He isn’t either, is he?”

Tails.

“I thought maybe it would help if I came down here.”

Tails.

“Make you see sense.”

She didn’t talk like that.

Tails.  Turn…

“Don’t you want to meet your grandnephew?”

Slap.

Rose didn’t lift her hand.  The second silhouette wobbled forward.  A child, she realized.  A young child.  Barely old enough to stand.  Quiet.  Held by the hand.  How had her niece become a mother already?

She knew how.  Rose lifted her hand.

Heads.

She looked up again.

“Lily,” she acknowledged.

The girl smiled a little.  Not even sixteen…  She’d gotten hairpins for her birthday, the last birthday Rose had seen her anyway.

“You’re like that now?” the girl asked.

Rose let her eyes fall on the child again.  His stare was tired, fixed, his finger in his mouth.  His hair was mussed, a lopsided halo.

Slowly, Rose turned her coin again.  Heads.

“His?” she asked.

Lily turned a frown.  “Now, don’t be like that, Aunt Linda.  It’s an honor, mothering.”

Tails.

Rose stared at the child again.  She thought of Gao.  Would the Slight Twice King be so kind, or at least so indifferent, as to let his child have a life?

“I can’t tell you what it’s like to be around him, Aunt Linda,” Lily said.  She dared a step forward, wrapped her small fingers around a bar.  The flashlight rose again.  Rose squinted.  It was glaring.  “It’s like a dream.  It’s wonderful to be always dreaming.”

Rose’s hand shook but…  Tails.

Gods above…

“What happened?  Why are you here?  Why is he like that?”  Lily pointed at Pastor.  “I heard you got someone killed.  They’ll hurt you, Aunt Linda.  I know they will.  You have to tell them you aren’t well, like Uncle Dion.”

Rose clenched the coin in both hands and pressed its ridge to her forehead.  That light was giving her a headache, or maybe it was just everything.  Fred was gone.  Jill was…  something.  Death was coming and they were going to steal her last hours with this?

“Then maybe they’ll let you go.  You have to stop talking about killing people, Aunt Linda.  Killing’s wrong.  You always said so.”

Turn.  Fumble.  Catch.

Turn.  Flip.  Breathe…

Look.  Heads.

“You never called us aunt and uncle,” she said flatly.  “You never called me Linda.”

Lily lifted her pointed chin.  “Well, I wasn’t one of the ladies then, Aunt Linda,” she said.  “I have to be good and proper, so my son will be.  It’s an honor, you know.  Only a few of us get children.”

Rose turned the coin tightly in her fingers this time, in front of her forehead, looking down, away from that glaring light.  It was horrible, looking at that child, with the tiny finger in his puckered mouth.  Would he be like Gao?  Or would he be just a tool?

Heads.

“What’s his name?”

Lily smiled, bent over, and hefted the boy up onto one hip.  She was a bit wider than last they’d spoken, but her bones showed through her skin at the joints.  The awkward handling of the light was making horrible shadows on her face.  She looked young one minute, old the next, withered.

“Lionel,” she said proudly, tossing her long, thinning hair.  “For my father.”

Heads.

“You’re not even sixteen.”

“It’s not about all that.”

Tails.

“Aunt Linda, what is wrong with you?”

Tails.

“If you’re going to be like Uncle Dion, why can’t you keep the rest of us out of it?  He did, ‘cept for you, Aunt Linda, but it’s your own fault you were there.  You know how he’d get, shooting in the woods, what with the drinking.  You’re lucky he didn’t kill you same as that other man.”

Tails.

“You’d think he’d know when the safety was on.”

Tails.

“Maybe you’re checking on him made him nervous.”

Tails.

“Maybe he forgot because of you.”

Tails.

“Why are you trying to hurt people, Aunt Linda?”

Tails.  Bloody Tails…

“Why are you trying to hurt me, Rose?”

Heads.

She looked up.  “You called me Rose,” she said.

Lily stared at her.  “What?”

“Rose,” she repeated.  “Just now, you said ‘Rose.’”

The shadows on the girl’s face deepened.  She wrapped her arms around Lionel, throwing the light behind her.  “I didn’t.”

Mercifully Heads.

“Did he tell you to call me Linda?”

“Aunt Linda…”

Turn.  Turn.  Heads.

“You should leave,” said Rose softly.  Her voice echoed in the emptiness of the hallway.  “He sent you here to unnerve me.  You don’t realize the danger you’re in once he starts to use you.”

“You can’t just go killing people!” Lily cried.  Lionel squirmed, then started to fuss and clutch at her collar.  “You have to tell them you’re sick.”

Turn.  Turn.  Turn.

Tails.

Turn.  Turn.  Turn.

Fumble.

Slap.

Look.

Heads.

“Lily,” said Rose, “if you can’t think about it, don’t think about it, but don’t stay.”

The girl shuddered.

“Leave, Lily,” Rose said.  “Leave, before it gets worse.  If it’s not me, it will be someone else.  I’ve made sure.  He can kill me.  But there will be someone else.  I’ve told others.  We know how to do it.”

“You’re a traitor, Aunt Linda!” Lily shouted.  It was a desperate shout, desperate to be heard, to prove something.  Rose felt her heart sink.  This is too much, she thought, but then she also thought, and that’s why they’re doing it.

Turn.  Turn.  Turn.

Tails.

So keep it up.

Turn.  Turn.  Turn.

Fake a fumble.

Slap.

Wait.

Lily was staring at her.

“Don’t you care about Lionel?” she asked.

A real flip.  Can’t look too controlled.

Tails.

“Aunt Linda?”

Tails.

“Aunt Linda, if you don’t answer, I’ll never talk to you again.”

Tails.

Rose held up the coin.  She shook her head.

“You’re crazy!  You don’t care about anyone!” Lily shouted.

Beside Rose, Pastor stirred.  She wondered how long he’d been awake.

“You don’t know anything either!  You’re just crazy!”

Pastor turned around on the bench, pulled down his blindfold, and looked out at her.  Lily stiffened, and stumbled back.

Rose waited, wondering what he could see.

The child looked back over his shoulder.

And blinked.

And frowned.

Then whimpered.

Anyone would, Rose told herself.

“What is it?” Pastor asked.  “Where are we?”

Rose flipped the coin so he’d hear the ping.  Heads.

“A jail.  That’s Lily.  She’s got a child now.”

“One of them?”

He waited twice for Heads.

“If you can’t see him, no more than General Gao.”

“You’re crazy.”  Lily hissed this time.

Pastor drew in a shaking breath and she whimpered.  He sighed.

“Right,” he said.  “I was still in the hospital back then.”  He fumbled a little, but found Rose’s shoulder with one hand for a brief touch.  Then he took a moment to tie his blindfold back on.

“Witch,” Lily whispered.

Pastor frowned again.  “I’m curious,” he said, “what do they mean by that?”

Lily only shook her head.  She turned and, flashlight swinging, bolted back down the corridor.  The light flashed back and forth, in and out of sight.  A door slammed.  She was gone.

For a minute, Rose could only breathe, and only just barely managed it.  Tears were choking her.  She’d tried, really tried, to think of Lily as dead.  Most families did.  Or to just not think of what was happening to her while she was alive.  It was easier.  But this…

“I think I get it,” said Pastor.

“What do you mean?” Rose asked shakily.

“The ‘witch’ thing,” he said quietly.

Rose swallowed hard.  Maybe he was trying to distract her from grief, or maybe he was desperate to talk, or both.  “What about it?” she asked.

“It’s like, when it’s your religion, it’s a miracle.  When it’s belongs to someone else, it’s witchcraft, right?”

“What would they even believe in?” Rose wondered, but she really didn’t care about that.  She felt weak, drained.  Curling up on her side, she turned her face to the unseen wall, clutching her coin to her chest.  How dare those bastards!  She wanted to scream.  She tried to hold her breath.

“Rose?”

She found the hand searching for hers and held it.

“They’ve shut the lights off,” Rose told him, methodically tracing the patterns on the coin with her thumb.  “I don’t know what time it is.  There are probably cameras.”

Her fingernails bit into his skin.  He didn’t let go.

“Are you okay?”

She kept turning the coin and running a finger over it.  “Fred is dead,” she said softly.

“I know.”  She felt him start shaking.  He coughed painfully.  She sat up as he began to beat on his chest and choke.

“Are you all right?”

“You know how it gets…,” he said with difficulty.  She pounded his back for him.  “No tear ducts.  It’s all messed up here.”  She heard movement.  He might have waved a general hand at his face.

Stumbling and half-groping, Rose helped him to the corner to kneel before a toilet that smelled of bad water.  He choked, spit, retched, and heaved, and eventually there was nothing left to come out and he was shaking on the floor.  She felt fear fight with her grief.  What if he had a seizure here?  What about when she was gone?  She picked up his shoulders and let him lay a moment with his head on her lap.

“We’ll be joining him soon,” he said.

“What if we don’t?” she argued bitterly.  “What if that’s just a story we tell, to feel better.”

He found her hand again.  “Rosalinda Thorne,” he whispered hoarsely, “are you an apostate?”

“I was born an apostate.”

“Liar.”

She swiped a hand at her tears.

“If life is nothing but passing through, then why save it?” she admitted.  “But if the gods are real, you and I are damned.  We can’t do good, or we can’t be good.  We lose both ways.”  Failure stabbed her again.  She felt emptied, melting, useless, so she confessed, “I was going to leave.”

He was still painfully catching his breath, but managed to say, “What?”

“A week ago,” she explained, “I was trying to think how to leave you all.  I thought Fred would take care of you.”

“Rose…”

“I don’t want you to die too….”

They helped each other back up onto the bench.  Rose lay down again and shut her eyes and this time he sat up to wait, a better watchman in the dark.  She tried to call some hope out of the hurt.  Things had changed since Jonestown.  Death had gone from possible to expected.  But now she felt shaken to the core.  She couldn’t meet the Slight Twice King like this.

“How are you so calm?” she asked.

Pastor sat up, his fingers finding her hair.  She waited.  The dark was absolute now.  Everything smelled damp and sick and old.  A rumble at the end of the long, long hallway said the furnace was burning.  She thought about Carlotta and the phone call at the temple, but didn’t speak of it.

After a long time, Pastor’s hand went still.  Had he gone away again?  Would she be alone at the end?  Would there be no goodbye?

Then he shifted a little.

“I guess…,” he said slowly, “it’s because of her.”

Rose waited.

“She’s not afraid of them,” he went on.  He drew a deep breath.  “Maybe she knows something that I don’t let myself know, because knowing would have given me away.”

Rose remembered the stories.  He’d been little and started showing the signs, and there’d been punishments.  So he’d started to sort himself.  It had been necessary for survive, building that false dichotomy, the divide that never should have been created, between good and bad behavior, love and pain, male and female.

He said, “All she knows is every moment we have is a moment they’ll try to take.  So how can we give them up?”

Rose turned her coin again, letting the ridged edge press into her palms hard enough to leave a mark.

“This one,” he pointed out.  “And this one…  and now…  Three moments they can’t have.”  He sighed.  “And another…”

Rose swallowed and wiped at her face with her sleeve.  “But aren’t you afraid to die?” she asked.

He hesitated.  “When I’m her…,” he said, again letting his words come quiet and slow, “no.  I’m connected to everything.  It’s almost like seeing.  I think…”  Again, he paused.  “I think maybe she’s more than me.  Maybe we’re all more than ourselves.  I hope so.  I want to believe I’ll go back to that, when I’m not me anymore.”

“Was it like that the first time?” Rose asked.

“She was there.”  His shadow nodded a little.  “She wanted me to live, to keep protecting her, I guess.”

“You’re not two separate people, not really.”

“Maybe.”  He sighed.  “It’s been so long.  Am I just a mask, if I can be afraid?”

Rose turned the coin in her fingers.  Her heart felt broken and raw.  A thought made tears start again.

The squeal of a metal door shrieked into the darkness.  Rose bolted upright, her breath caught in her throat.  Pastor reached for her hand.  She clutched his arm.  With slow, rattling claps, the lights were coming back on, one by one.  It couldn’t have been long, she told herself.  It was hardly long enough for a night to pass.

“You know what you have to do?” Pastor asked quietly.

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll see you on the other side.”

It was too soon.

“You won’t,” she said.

Footsteps were coming, heavier than Lily’s, more than one pair, synchronized in military fashion.  Two shadows marched ahead of them:  Soldiers.

Rose clutched Pastor’s arm and leaned forward quickly as one stuck a key in the door.  Her kissed only grazed him, lest they see, then she leaned right to his ear.

“Goodbye,” she whispered.

“Maybe.”

And then they had her arms and were roughly dragging her out, not even bothering to see if she’d walk.  The lights over the hallway were more glaring than the flashlight had been.  They stung her eyes and felt too low, too hot.

The keys jangled again.  Rose saw a third person coming behind them.  She felt the blood drain from her face at the sight of that practiced smile.

“Mr. Spade,” she said stiffly, as one soldier handed him the keys.

Pastor raised his head.  Then, after a shuddering breath, he pushed himself off the bench, folded his legs, and put his back to the door, setting his hands in fists on his knees.  Slowly, he forced his hands open into a meditative posture.  Each breath was unhurried, deliberate, controlled.

This only made Spade’s smile fall along its more natural, more disturbing lines.

“The President wishes to see you,” he told Rose.  “Alone.”

She could only stare at Spade as the words sank in.  She thought of Lily.  Then of Jill.  No, she thought, she wouldn’t give him his fix.  With the yawning chasm of death opening up at her feet, she clung to the one thing she could do, until it calmed her.

“What do you see when you look in a mirror?” she asked the Fair Lord.

This wasn’t a reaction Spade was used to.  Stars exploded behind Rose’s eyes as he backhanded her across the face with the keys.  A hard kick to her stomach stole her breath.  Spade landed another one for good measure.  Rose felt something stab, then swell, and clutched at her ribs with a painful cry.  Rough hands hoisted her upright again and more pain followed in the movement.

Rose clutched her coin in one hand and didn’t look up, stillness replaced by quivering pain.  She could barely breathe.  Something in her left side protested.  Spade reached up and turned her head so she could see his smile again.

“We get what we want,” he said calmly.  “Do you understand?”

She stared at him, wide-eyed.

With a disgusted curl of his lip, he waved them off.  Rose looked back as long as she could.  He didn’t leave the front of the cell.  He just gazed right back at her and put a hand possessively on the cell bars, so she’d know why.

Advertisements