Saturday, May 17, 2014

Another Kind of Hunger

Scott waited for the usual shouts of irritation to greet him as he slammed the front door of his home and kicked his school shoes off. Instead, silence hovered over the house, heavy and cloying. Silence, that was, except for his rumbling stomach. He sighed and schlepped down to his room, dodging the stacks of miscellaneous paperwork and clothing in various states of cleanliness that lined the hallway. Looked like dinner would be beans on toast again.
Scott kicked open the door to his room and crossed the threshold into sanity. The rest of the house was his mother’s domain, carpets crusted with dirt and crumbs and ineffectual insect spray, mould growing in the corners where damp had invaded the house, drains stinking like a public toilet block.
In his room, the carpet was, if not clean, at least vacuumed. The array of stains were at least assured to stay where they were, and the walls had been scrubbed down so regularly they were starting to look worn. He closed the door with a heavy sigh and dumped his school bag in the bottom of the wardrobe.
Undressing was an exercise in precision; trousers washed only two days ago meticulously folded for reuse tomorrow, sweat-infused shirt in the hamper, tie over the hanger in the wardrobe. He pulled on trackies that would have crushed his carefully cultivated reputation in one fell swoop if anyone from school ever saw them, and a t-shirt that had sprouted at least two new holes since he’d worn it last time. There was a uniform free day coming up next week; he’d have to raid Mum’s wallet again.
Out in the kitchen, three envelopes skulked on the bench, all addressed to his mother, all unopened. Scott glanced at them. Phone bill, electricity and water. He rubbed a hand up his face, under his glasses and over his eyes. Dammit. The welfare payment wouldn’t be banked for another ten days. He’d have to call Aunt Cait again.
Whatever. Problem for later. Right now, the most pressing problem was his gurgling stomach. Lunch had been good old air yet again—easy to hide with enough arrogance and a few simpering girls to hold people’s attention—and it was nearly half past five.
He opened the panty door and was halfway through reaching for a can of baked beans before his brain registered the shadows. What the hell? He clenched his jaw, hands fisted. This was just too far.
Heat settled in Scott’s stomach as he stalked into the laundry. The rancid air made his eyes tear, but that was just another fact of life. He scooped a mouse out of the writhing tank in the corner—he’d long since gotten used to the feel of ten mice trying to cling tooth and claw to his arm at once—and shoved the wretched thing in his pocket. It squeaked in anguish as something broke—but he’d long stopped caring about that, too. He had the best role model in the world for not caring, after all.
But shadows, right there in the kitchen? Right where his mediocre dinner was supposed to be? Okay, so the house had more in common with a trash heap than a home. Okay, so she was often caught up in her mindless little schemes and forgot to make food. But shadows? In the kitchen? His cheek began a little twitching routine as he flung the pantry doors open again and surveyed the damage. God damn it all, he was hungry.
Scott fought down the disgust building in his chest. He should wait, be cautious and sensible, go down to the stream and cross over properly.
His stomach rumbled. Screw sensible.
He grabbed at the mouse, hardened against its pain by years of practice, and set it under his hand on the shelf, right near the edge of the shadows. Did he dare?
His stomach rumbled again, not so much a gurgle of hunger as a tight knot of emptiness. Gritting his teeth, Scott shoved the mouse towards the shadows with both hands. He closed his eyes and at the last instant, just as he felt the first brush of darkness, he snapped the mouse’s neck.
It wasn’t a terribly difficult thing to do; just about as difficult as breaking a paddle pop stick. And imagining it was just a stick helped with the guilt later. Just a little guilt—four hundred and sixty three mice previously were enough to dull the edges of it—but he added another one to the tally even as he imagined the Valley in crisp detail, eucalypts with their flashing leaves dancing in the wind, the smell of dirt and hard rock, the sharp-edged tussock grass, the heavy, cloying heat.
His body twisted towards the place, and he flung out a hand, catching at the darkness he sensed behind him—and Scott popped into the Valley, dragging a fistful of shadows. He flung them away and wiped his hand on his shirt.
In only took a minute to dig a grave deep enough for the mouse, and then he was off. He knew where she’d be; she never went far and, coming around the corner of a hill, Scott saw the billowing pillar of darkness his mother called home. It still made his neck itch.
Muttering idle threats to himself, he marched towards it, hardly even hesitating as he plunged from broad, sunless daylight into all-consuming black.
“Mum? Are you in here?”
A laugh that was only half delighted rang out. “Scott, darling? What a lovely surprise.”
Hands fisting at his sides, Scott marched closer. The pillar, only a couple of paces across from outside, had been steadily growing in breadth every time he’d entered it; now it took him no less than thirty long strides to reach the centre of the darkness, where his mother luxuriated beneath a twisting, spiralling column of light.
“Seriously?” he muttered, glancing up at it.
“Isn’t it lovely, dear?”
The look on his mother’s face bordered on rapturous, and Scott sighed. “Yeah. Sure, Mum. It’s lovely. But—“
Scott Harden? a voice boomed in his head. Do you also come to me?
Scott blinked. “Uh, Mum?”
She tittered. “Isn’t it simply marvellous?”
He eyed the pillar with suspicion, hunger momentarily forgotten. “What is it?”
His mother turned to face him for the first time, eyes alight. “This is the Valley, Scott,” she said, voice sharper and more lucid than he’d heard it in weeks.
“I know we’re in the Valley, but—“
“No! This is the Valley.” She turned back to the twisting pillar of light. “This is the heart of its power, made sentient, given life.”
Scott eased himself a little further away. Crazy lady at two o’clock. Okay then. “That’s… That’s great, Mum. You did this?”
She beamed, even as the voice lashed out at his thoughts. Together we have done this thing. I am will, I am power; she, merely the life force I required.
Scott frowned. Life force? That sounded… permanent. “Uh, Mum? You sure this is a good idea?” It wasn’t obviously; her ideas rarely were. But this seemed stupid on a more spectacular level than usual.
“Now, Scott,” she chided, taking his hand and tucking it into the crook of her arm. “Don’t you want something nice to eat?”
He snatched his hand back. “Funny you should say that, Mum, considering all the shadows where the food should be in our pantry.”
While he’d spoken, his mother had positioned herself behind him, and now she took him by the shoulders and forced him forward, towards the pillar of light.
“Mum, I’m serious! You can’t keep messing around with these things. We can barely afford to eat as it is, and if you d—“ The word died in his throat and he swallowed down the sudden burn of grief. He shook his head.
His mother squeezed his shoulders and pulled him close to her, hugging her back against her chest. “Hush, now dear. Don’t you think I know that? Why else do you think I did this? Can’t you imagine what this much power can offer us?”
He tried to face her, but her iron grip held him fast. “Mum, I—“
“Go, son. Make your peace with the darkness, and you will rule it all.”
She shoved him forward and he stumbled, trying desperately to fling himself aside. Instead, he tumbled headfirst into the pillar of light. He screamed as it swallowed him, light burning through every pore.
So, you come at last, the voice he’d heard before said with satisfaction, louder this time.
Scott spat blood from his mouth, wiped his lips on the back of his hand, and dragged himself to his feet. “No.”
No? The light flared around him. But Scott—shivers slid over him at the sound of his name, eerily familiar on the light’s metaphorical tongue—you could have so much.
Image flashed fleetingly through his head, control, order, neatness, everything clean and tidy and organised. Longing rolled through his body. He shoved it aside and forced himself to sound nonchalant. “Heh. Not unless you’ve got dinner in there for me.”
He reeled as images of food assaulted his senses: the smell of roasting chicken; potatoes crackling in a buttery pan; bowls dripping with jewel-coloured fruits, sweet and lush; cheeses stacked higher than his hips, creamy-coloured and butter-yellow, veined and holed; the smell of rosemary, savoury and fresh; mint, sharp and sweet; cakes laden with icing and cream, swirled through with jam and curd and chocolate.
“Stop!” he cried, cowering with his hands over his head. His gut wrenched. “Please, just stop!”
All of it, crooned the voice. You could have it all.
The sensations intensified, his stomach cramping in response. “No,” he whispered, curled into a quivering ball. “I am not my mother.”
No? the voice whispered back. Are you sure?
“I’m sure.” The words were barely audible, but given he could hear the light in his head, it probably didn’t matter.
You refuse? The light’s voice roared like lightning. You refuse me?
Scott only had time to tense before the burning began again. Knives of pain shot from every inch of his skin, sharp and hot. “Stop!” he screamed—only he couldn’t scream, couldn’t breathe. Pain poured down his throat, a liquid fire that set his body ablaze. In his head, he screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
Between breaths, he realised that the shouting wasn’t all in his head, wasn’t all his. “Mum?” he sobbed. “Mum! Help!”
The high-pitched whine of an insect filled his right ear over the roar of the light. It took a decade of effort to raise his arm, cup his hand, and the whole time he was terrified the mosquito would fly away. But he must have moved faster than it felt, because he slapped his own temple, capturing the creature, and in the instant its life force drained away, he imagined his mother’s den in perfect clarity, and twisted away.
He lay on thin, dusty carpet, wheezing and clutching at his ribs as the fire died away. He couldn’t tell if the sounds he was making were sobs or groans or maybe even laughter, because the whole thing was insanity; his mother had cracked, finally, gone mad and nearly dragged him under as well. He was going to die, cold and hungry and alone.
Sobs. Definitely sobs.
The doorbell rang.
He staggered upright with a monumental effort of will. His muscles ached and his skin felt raw, but he straightened, exhaled, and cleared the pain from his face. Heaven knew he had enough experience doing that, as well.
A vaguely familiar smell greeted him right before he opened the door, and then he did, and he had to lean against the doorframe to stop himself was falling.
 “There’s a letter with the delivery,” the pizza guy said, holding out one of the cobweb-edged envelopes his mother got specially made.
Pizza. Mum had ordered pizza.
Hand barely shaking at all, he took the envelope. With a crisp, crackling tear, he opened it and withdrew the letter.
“I’m sorry, Scott. It will all be better soon. I promise. I went back a little to get you the pizza—I’m sorry about the pantry—and I’ll be home in time for bed. Save me a slice. I love you.” The bottom was signed with her initials, and next to it… He let out an explosive exhale that almost sounded like a laugh. She’d sketched a mosquito. It had been her he’d heard after all.

Scott closed his eyes and pressed the note against his chest, not even caring that the pizza guy might see the wetness leaking around the corners of his eyes. He appreciated the pizza more than words could say, and she’d saved him from the light, that was true. But where the shadows had come once, he knew they’d come again, and one day he wouldn’t be strong enough to drag them all away. “Dammit, Mum,” he told the letter. “It’ll never be over. Not ever.”

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Blood

Eight years ago, I watched my father slaughter my mother. He tied her down on the kitchen table with rope from the family tent after binding her ankle and wrist, and slit her throat with the bread knife. It wasn’t sharp. There was so much blood I thought it would never stop.
Afterwards, after he’d given me this haunted look and told me he was sorry, after he’d run out into the night and left me screaming, ten years old and up to my elbows in the very blood that had once nourished me to life, I hated him, and as sobs tore at my throat and blood tingled under my nails and over my face where I’d shoved back my hair, I vowed that one day I would have my revenge.
I called the cops, of course. I was ten, not stupid. I told them what I’d seen; they bounced me along the foster-care chain and booked appointments with a lovely lady called Phyllis who gave me lollipops and sympathetic gazes over the rims of her gold-wired glasses. She talked to me for an hour every week until I promised that although I couldn’t forgive my father, I was beginning to heal.
I lied.
They never did find my father.

When I was fourteen, we did archery for sport at school. I loved it: it was soothing, focused – and practical. I sliced my finger open on an arrow the first time I touched one, testing to see if it was sharp enough to kill a man, and the blood got all over my bowstring. I never missed a shot. I joined the local archery club, working clean up in their cafĂ© to pay my fees. By the time I was sixteen, I was winning state tournaments. At seventeen, I won the nationals.
It was on my eighteenth birthday that I finally felt ready to hunt him down – the man who’d destroyed my life, and my mother’s. He wasn’t hard to find; on impulse I’d sat down with the phone book and flipped to a random page. I received the mother of all paper cuts for my troubles, but out of a perverse sense of irony I dialled the first number I’d accidentally smudged with blood. It was him; I’d know his voice beyond the grave.
He agreed to meet me at the base of the Okahawa Trail, and when we arrived and I told him I wanted to walk because I thought better when I was moving, he didn’t complain. He was too eager for anything that smacked of reconciliation; never even seemed to wonder if I’d just call the cops on him and have it done.
Lucky for us both I had something a little more personal planned.
Long and the short of it, I shot him. I would have been a good, clean kill, too, right in the throat – a nice sense of irony, I though – but the arrow had been knocked a little off course by a freak gust of wind.
I could have walked away, just left him there to die; the bolt was just a standard cut-on-contact broadhead, similar to what the deer hunters around here used. Could easily have been an accident. But since he was going to be alive –at least for another minute – I figured he might as well know why I’d done it, and maybe go to his grave in regret.
I didn’t expect the tears. My own, I mean; I assume it’s pretty normal for your eyes to fill with liquid when you’ve had your throat sliced and are in pain and about to die. But as I stood over him, desperately bricking up the wall around my feelings, my eyes welled up and overflowed.
“You bastard,” I whispered. “Why did you kill her?”
He stared up at me with eyes wide – fear, pain, who could tell – gasping, and gurgling as the blood leaked out of him. My stomach flipped; this was too close to how I’d seen my other parent die.
Disgusted, I turned to walk away.
“Wait,” he rasped. “Stop.”
I stopped without turning around.
“She… was trying… kill you.”
I whirled on him. “How dare you. How dare you! You, you murderer!” I spat.
“Blood,” he wheezed. “Her blood.”
“Yes,” I said, locking him in a steely glare. “There was a lot of blood. I should know; you abandoned me in it.”
“Not… abandoned. Saved.”
I snorted and walked away.
“Cassie. Your blood. You never miss.”
I froze. “How do you know that?” How could he possibly know the reason why the club members called me Zero? How did he know I’d never missed a shot?
“She… same. You get… from her.”
I inched back around to face him, pulse pounding in my chest like it might break through my ribs and explode. “What are you saying?”
“She… Your mother… Fae.”
The rough trunk of a tree hit my back, saving me from lurching to the ground.
“The blood… you have her blood.”
My mind whirled as I remembered every incident I’d passed off as coincidence, all those times I’d thought I’d just been lucky – and blood. Every time, the blood. “Why did you kill her?” I whispered.
“She would have killed you. The Blood” – I heard the capital letter this time – “calls to blood. Any… any daughter of hers… competition.”
I sank to the ground beside my father. The ooze of red at his neck was coming thicker now. Desperation surged. I snatched at my sweater, tearing ineffectually before stripping it off to press against his wound. “She wanted to kill me?” I said, still whispering. This time, it wasn’t the memories of luck that came, but of unluck: of all the times I’d nearly died before I was ten. The time I fell in the gap between the train and the platform; the time I fell from a second storey balcony and rolled down concrete steps. My grandparents used to joke that I was made of rubber, that I was the most accident-prone child they’d ever seen.
I didn’t have a single accident after I was ten.
“It wasn’t… her fault,” he said through the gasps. “The Blood. You have her power. It … drove her crazy. Blood… never share its power.”
My father’s blood seeped through my sweater and stickied my fingers. I stared at the red-streaked whorls of my left-hand fingerprints. Was it true? Abruptly, I had to know. I snatched another arrow from my quiver and sliced the tip across my palm. I let the blood well for a moment. A tingling sensation covered the palm of my hand, familiar and comforting – the same sensation I had whenever I was cut. But now that I knew to look for it, I knew it wasn’t right. It wasn’t the feeling of injury, but  some more; my lifeblood pulsing with energy – and power.
The truth slammed into me, robbing my lungs of air, and I gasped. My mother had tried to kill me, more times than I could remember. My father had killed her to save me. And I’d come here for revenge.
I stared in horror as the blood of the one who’d made himself a murderer to save me ebbed away. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”
He didn’t answer, his face grey and clammy.
I hated him for killing my mother, even if she had been trying to kill me; I hated him for making me what I’d become, for not telling me, for not trusting me. But I couldn’t hate him if he was dead.
I pressed my wounded palm against his neck. My blood had been keeping me safe for eighteen years. Time to find out what it could really do. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Wreath-Bearer

The door clanging shut behind me squirted adrenalin from my stomach to my fingertips, setting my limbs on fire and shutting off the sounds of the festival as suddenly as if I’d died. The only sound I could hear in the pitch black of the Tower was my own panting gasps – until I stopped to wet dry lips and realised someone else was breathing too.
I scrabbled backwards against the door, but the long, rattling breaths drew closer. Something touched my foot. I screamed, flinging myself at the foot-thick block of spelled wood that separated me from life. I dug at it, long splinters tearing off in my fingertips, nail beds – and something touched my shoulder.
I froze, eyes screwed closed, little panicked breaths my only movement.
“Greetings, Wreath-Bearer.”
The whispered voice scraped over me like bones rattling in the wind, and I pressed against the door. “Please,” I whispered as my chest heaved. “Don’t hurt me.”
Cold fingers trailed down my spine and wind fluttered at my cheek. “We will not hurt you, so long as you bear the wreath.”
My fingers convulsed against the splintered door. The wreath. I’d dropped the wreath.
I whirled around, slamming my back against the wood. Where was the wreath? It could be anywhere in the dark, it could be—
Against all odds, the wreath lay right at my feet, and I could see it in the dark. Orange flowers bound into a circle with bright orange ribbons, glowing faintly against the Tower’s pitch-blackness. I glanced to where I’d last heard the voice, then snatched the wreath from the ground and hugged it to my chest. “I’ve got it,” I said, voice barely tremoring. “You can’t hurt me now. You promised.”
A susurrus of voices crested around me, whispers buffeting me from all sides. “Cannot hurt you… Will not harm… The wreath… The wreath! … Lead us on…”
I clutched the wreath tighter. “Who… Who are you?”
The susurrus rose again, but before I could make it into words the first voice spoke. “You know who we are, and what we require. We are the dead. You will lead, and we will follow.”
Licking my lips again, I nodded. “Yes. Lead you.” My shoulder blades dug against the gouged door and my chest still heaved. I scrunched my eyes closed against the eternal darkness. Lead the dead. Why me? Why now? A sob strangled me as I thought of the sky blue dress tucked away in a closet at my mother’s house, a dress I’d never need wear now.
One day. Just one more day, and I’d have been safe.
I swiped furiously at the tears that breached my eyelids. “Yes,” I said, more strongly this time. “Yes, I am here to lead you.”
I was here to lead them, and lead them I would, because I was part of the Tower now, and no one ever came out of the Tower.
“What… What happens if I lose the wreath?” I asked, eyes still closed.
Soft breezes swept my cheek, my forehead, my hair. “Feya,” the voices whispered. “Feya.”
My heart hammered in my chest. “What will happen to me?”
The first voice, the loudest, replied. “If the wreath is lost, then you will not see the way. You will wander among us until you become us. Then you will hope that the next Wreath-Bearer succeeds where you will have failed.”
I swallowed. Nineteen years. It had been nineteen years since the last successful Wreath-Bearer, and the spirits of the dead had been collecting in the Tower all that time, unable to find their way to rest without a Bearer to guide them. Nineteen years. Chances were not great that I would succeed where many stronger had failed.
Something niggled at my subconscious. I clenched my jaw and hugged the wreath to me, burying my face in the uppermost flowers. They smelled like sap and honey and death. “What do you mean, I will not see the way? How can I see anything in this confounded darkness?”
The breath against my cheek this time was almost warm. “Feya.” I could hear the smile in the speaker’s voice, but I still clutched the wreath over my heart like a shield. “Open your eyes.”
The air hitched in my throat, suddenly too dry to pass with ease. Open my eyes? But… Visions of dry, desiccated corpses filled my mind’s eye, corpses that shambled and hobbled while strips of decaying flesh hung from their bones, and suddenly to open my eyes was far less horrifying than keeping them closed. I opened them, and gasped.
Silvered figured danced and swirled in front of me, long hair flying, mouths open wide in silent, delightful laughter. The moment they realised I could see them, they turned, crowding in on me, hands outstretched in welcome. The breeze fluttered against my cheeks again and I heard the susurrus.
“Come,” they whispered. “Come dance with us. Lead us in the dance.” They whirled off and away, smiling, laughing, eye bright and shining, and as they divided I saw between them a path, gilded and silver, insubstantial as moonlight, threading between them.

My heart still hammered, but what other choice did I have? With my shoulders I pushed away from the door that had been gouged by fearful hands innumerable before me, and stepped onto the shining path. The wreath exploded into light in my hands, warm and bright like a phoenix. It swirled around me, then moved forward. I followed, and the ghosts of decades past came with me.