14 5 / 2012
CHAPTER I THE DECORATIVE POOR
Camden Town, 1880
This is my voice. You cannot hear me, but I hope you will read my thoughts…
The only sign of life he found in the broken and windswept house was one of death, the outline of a body, borne on a cradle of bloodstained paper. The intruder took another page from the dishevelled bed and continued to read Helena Graham’s journal:
I will endeavour to record everything—every word, each thought and action; such is the hateful gift of insight Alatiel has forced upon me. To my regret, I am certain she will take her turn to relate our story, smiling to herself all the while, secure in her wretched vanity and the knowledge that the chances of this journal being found are slim. Besides, she may just cast these pages into the fire and all my words will have been in vain. That would amuse her, I imagine … if indeed she is capable of such a human trait.
She will use my mind, my memories, to set down this tale. I hope against hope that someone discovers my journal and, having read it, fashions a way to destroy Alatiel, even if this action means the loss of what was once my life.
“I’ve found her!” Julian Paradine said. Those were his very words. But, truth be told, Alatiel found him, marked him out; well, she left her mark on poor Julian … on all of us, in fact.
We sat outside a small café on Thurzon Street, the men daydreaming, no doubt, that they were kindred souls of the Parisian Bohemians we had all read about; I, the token female in this circle of art lovers, was admitted only by virtue of my writing pastime and, of course, because of my brother’s presence. Although our parents had passed on, keeping company with these harmless ‘radicals’ would have been unthinkable were it not for my beloved Matthew.
Julian alone had actually been to Paris, but then, he was the only one amongst us whose career was in the ascendant; his crowd-pleasing paintings were beginning to be noticed by the Academy, no less. We were happy to follow his lead in so many things….
He pulled away from our table, took the girl roughly by the arm and pushed her forward. She appeared to glide, or float, towards us, and even when the cause of her strange and somewhat comical motion came into view, the eerie effect remained. The girl gave the impression of perfect control—of herself and of events—although seemingly at the whim of her master. She did not stir, did not blush as one might expect.
With his usual carefree, infectious enthusiasm—the joie de vivre which so endeared him to us—Julian presented his new plaything for closer inspection. Or perhaps that should be ‘delectation’; Matthew’s mouth fell open and he gazed in wonderment. However, the poet Callum Flynn flinched as though he’d been struck. He raised himself, made no attempt at excuses and simply murmured “I must go,”; he’d always impressed me as a strange man, all the more now. My fiancé Gabriel Holland also left us; he too stood up suddenly. His seat fell to the ground and he backed away from the table. Finally he excused himself by claiming that he was worried about Flynn. At first we were perplexed and concerned but, once the two friends had departed, we gave free rein to our merriment. To my shame, I confess I was too curious about Julian’s latest escapade to follow Gabriel. As it was, the remaining men resumed their scrutiny of the girl, in that concentrated, trepidatious and thoroughly silly way which is the hallmark of their sex. I, of course, could stare freely at her, with no such pretence or man-made restriction.
Certainly, she was beautiful, but in a strangely bland, indistinct way—not unlike an elder sister of Mr Carroll’s ‘Alice’, I thought. Her complexion was simply too pale, as though iced water slithered through her thin veins, and her ash blonde hair had none of the lustre of true health.
Julian held the girl by her shoulders and addressed us again:
“Well actually, Cristian Salazar found her, or rather, he bought her. Made a gift of her to me. She is perfect, isn’t she?” he looked at each of us in turn, soliciting agreement. “Say hello to Alatiel.”
They greeted her respectfully enough, I suppose, though Daniele Navarro made a show of slowly raising his hat, a display of ironic homage unworthy of him, I thought. Perhaps I was mistaken and this was the closest thing to chivalry he could muster… Matthew stuttered a few indecipherable words, such was his amusing shyness. The girl remained silent and still. Julian Paradine stood apart from her now.
“Ah, my apologies, gentlemen—and Helena, of course—I should have mentioned that Alatiel is a mute … or, at least, she claims she is.”
I felt rather ashamed as the others laughed at the girl’s expense.
“Alatiel … that seems familiar to me, as if it were from a book I read many years ago.”
“She has no name, Daniele,” Julian said, “so I chose one for her. I have invented her, you might say.”
“I thought you had broken with Salazar, Julian? Are you so easily bought?” Navarro teased.
“Now, now, my friend, you know I never compromise in matters of art. As you’re no doubt aware, I paint those dreary society stalwarts and their charming cherubs solely because of the challenge to my technique; not for the few pennies their parents bestow upon me…” At that precise moment, Julian pretended to consult his gold pocket watch and turned it around until the sun’s rays glanced off its ornate cover. We laughed at his playful self-mockery. Julian’s smile faded a little as he glanced at Alatiel’s blank expression.
“Anyhow, the scoundrel made me a peace offering. Said he bought her for a sovereign, from some old crone in the East End; a lie, no doubt.”
I cleared my throat, and every head turned my way. “But surely no mother would ever sell her child?”
Julian became serious, for once, his voice almost plaintive.
“My dear Helena, even a mother’s love has its price … especially in the places Salazar haunts.”
The mood had darkened, and Julian attempted to lift the gloom once more by making a show of choosing which of his friends would be the first to make use of Alatiel. You see, this was how they worked—I had witnessed it a few times before—one of the circle would find a ‘stunner’ amongst the city’s waifs and strays and they’d pass her along between them, like a mysterious parcel excited children long to unwrap at birthday parties. Soon enough, they would tire of the game, and this fascination with the more decorative poor would pass. Granted, they only used the young women as subject or inspiration for painting and poetry—at least that is what I, in my innocence, believed—but afterwards the unfortunates were dismissed with a few coins and they would return to their miserable, poverty-stricken lives. I had never been struck by this carefree heartlessness until that day.
Perhaps my sentimental, self-indulgent empathy was wasted on this particular ingénue; as I tried to look upon Alatiel’s countenance again, sunlight drained the little colour her skin possessed and made her appear featureless, somehow. But my obvious unease did not concern her, and instead she turned to face her captive audience. In that instant, I imagined I saw her, not as she really was, but as she appeared to them: Alatiel was the mirror in which they saw themselves. She would be whatever her admirers wanted her to be.
Then, the spell was broken as Julian’s raised voice ended my reverie. He spoke winningly enough, but his words were wasted on the others. Finally, with good-humoured mock protests hanging in the air, he allowed Daniele Navarro to lead her away. Alatiel looked back—just once—and perhaps she saw us as we really were: Julian, troubled or guilt-ridden; Matthew, looking for all the world as if he were in love; and I, betrayed by my own face, the shameless fascination I displayed for her imperious majesty.
23 12 / 2011
Misguided Desperation Comes A Knocking
My mom’s a liar.
What parents aren’t, right? They tell their kids lies about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Even the Boogeyman who crouches in the shadows beneath beds has his legend whispered into the ears of young, green bean haters.
I wished my mom would use her deceptive powers for good. For one, I wouldn’t have to chase down people in the dark, braving the muggers and would-be rapists who lurked in the bushes on my street.
If she’d told the boy who came knocking I was upstairs in my room, then we could have had a quick—though unlikely civil—conversation on the front porch. Instead, she told him I was out with another boy.
And she didn’t just tell this to anyone. No, of course not. She told this to Josh Colby.
It was the equivalent of having a celebrity knock on your door after their car broke down. Except, as far as celebrities go, Josh’s status didn’t reach beyond the doors of our high school. We’d known each other for the many years of our educational careers, and mostly succeeded with our mutual effort to avoid speaking to one another.
Mocking doesn’t count.
I was too lazy to run for more than a block. To scream seemed an easier solution. When a male voice called back, I smiled at my small victory of intelligence over physical prowess.
He sounded close, within a block or so, but I couldn’t see him. The sliver of moon lacked radiance as she was smothered by dark clouds, but the streetlights were enough to confirm there was no silhouette of him on the sidewalk. He must have cut through a neighbor’s yard to head back to his house on the next street over.
“What did you want?” I winced at the sudden, sharp brilliance of lightning. Spots did flip-flops against the stretched shadows on the grass as my vision tried to recover. The scent of ozone carried on the cool breeze blended with that of a fresh cut lawn.
“That you, Elchubba?”
Elchubba is not my name. Not even close. Not that many of the kids at my school cared, and several might even be shocked to discover my real name was Kathleen. Not Kathy. Definitely not Elchubba. To my eternal frustration, I won that clever little nickname in junior high. Mostly because Ryan Dixon is a jerk, but also because I was horizontally challenged and usually clad in black from hair strand to toenail polish. It’s to do with Elvira. Lame, I know.
I just hoped Josh hadn’t asked my mother if Elchubba was home. I wouldn’t put it past him. Instead of correcting him, I turned on my heel and headed home. I didn’t answer him on principle.
My house was still a sadistic distance from me when I heard Josh stumble through some bushes near the sidewalk behind me. Oh, heavy black boots, how you’ve failed me again.
He mumbled a curse behind me after the distinct sound of his rubber soles tripping over a crack in the sidewalk. I didn’t slow down. Maybe he would follow me all the way back to my front door so I could slam it in his face.
He outpaced me to step into my path. I considered knocking him on his boney ass. I had the weight and momentum to do it. A whiff of whatever cheap, man-scent product he used to attract girls assaulted my nose. It reminded me of dish soap and burnt popcorn.
“Please, would you just stop?” Josh said.
“Fine. What do you want?”
A car horn blared a few blocks away, followed by the squeal of tires. Josh glanced around like a super secret spy.
My response was an eye roll and crossed arms. If he didn’t want to be seen talking to me, then he shouldn’t have answered me. For that matter, he shouldn’t have come over.
Josh said, “I need you to do me a favor.”
The laugh that escaped me sounded more maniacal than I expected. “You’re high.”
Great. I wound up chasing a boy I hated down the street to do a favor for him. It was not the pinnacle of my existence. At least I hope not.
“No, I’m serious.” Josh leaned closer and dropped his voice. “I’ll pay you.”
“Then it’s not a favor. It’s a business proposition,” I said. “If you’re going to pay me for services—of the non-prostitutional variety—then it’s a business arrangement, not a favor. A favor I’d do for free.”
The hopeful look that passed his face prompted me to add, “For friends, not for you.”
“Okay, whatever.” Josh fished in a pocket of his too-baggy jeans and pulled out a folded bill. It was too dark for me to see which president. He smiled, his teeth a perfect picket fence of glaring white. “I want you to write a letter for me.”
My eyebrows lifted without my permission. “A letter? To who?” I didn’t ask why me. I was editor for the school paper and wrote for the quarterly lit magazine.
“I’m not telling you unless you agree to do it.”
My eyes narrowed. “I’m not going to be suckered into writing a bomb threat or some stalker letter to a model you masturbate to.”
“No, no. It’s nothing like that.” Josh slouched and lowered the hand which held the bill to his side. “I was watching some old movie on TV tonight, and it got me thinking—”
“I’m serious, stop it. Well, this guy writes letters for a girl, but they’re from another guy who likes her.”
“You watched Cyrano de Bergerac?”
“Who? No, it was Roxy or Roseanne or something.”
“Roxanne?” I shook my head. “You were inspired by Steve Martin. Of course. You noticed that didn’t end well for the one guy, right?”
“Well, yeah. But that’s because the guy writing the letters steals her away. That won’t happen with us because you’re a girl. I mean, unless you’re a lezbo.”
My frown was so deep, my brows nearly touched. “How politically correct of you.”
“Oh… you mean you are?” He stepped away as if he’d just realized I was Typhoid Mary.
I was offended on behalf of sexual libertines everywhere. “Yes, and we’re highly contagious. You better leave before you start wanting love letters for Ryan instead of whichever girl gets your mangina tingling.”
For the record, I’m not a lesbian, but I didn’t care what he thought.
“Well, she’s not,” Josh said. “So it wouldn’t matter if you liked her or not.” He lifted up the bill again. “I’ll give you twenty dollars to write a letter that a girl would like, and make it sound like me.”
I chuckled. “Those two concepts don’t mesh.”
“Just take it, all right?”
“No, I’m pretty sure my morals exclude this… escapade of falsehood.”
“What? Jesus, why can’t you talk like other people?”
“My intellect prevents it, sadly.” My wry smile belied any regret.
“No, you just like being freaky little Elchubba,” he shot back. “Only not so little.” He glared at me as he stuffed the money back in his pocket, and then strode away in a huff.
He couldn’t have been more wrong. I didn’t like being Elchubba at all. I didn’t like being called that, I didn’t like being overweight, and I didn’t like that I had to go back into my house and explain to Darth Mother who Josh was and why I chased him down the street.
Sometimes, I feel like life is trying to swallow me whole. I do my best to flail about and get caught in its throat. More than once I’ve been sure I was hanging onto life’s uvula by my fingernails. Which, of course, just tickles life’s throat until it coughs me back out.
God, I’m tired of being coated in life’s phlegm.
But my curiosity was piqued. What girl could Josh possibly think was worth all this trouble?
29 10 / 2011
AN EVER-PRESENT STATIC had moved into my head like a squatter I couldn’t evict, and I *thought* getting rid of it would be my best shot at survival. Like all I needed was silence, even if only within myself, to feel at home.
I was wrong.
My decision to rid myself of the white noise started innocuously enough—with Mrs. Franklin staring at me from across the diner as though I was possessed by some demon spirit.
She always looked at me that way, and it wasn’t just because I sometimes spaced out and screwed up simple pancake orders.
I crossed the black-and-white tiled floor to the jukebox, hoping Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ would drown out the wasping in my mind.
“Sophia!” Mrs. Franklin’s high-pitched, singsong voice cut into my thoughts.
I gripped the sides of the jukebox and turned my head toward her. “Yes?”
She smoothed invisible wrinkles from her paisley, ankle-length dress. “Check, please. I’d like to get going before any secular music touches my ears.”
I walked to the register, printed her check, and headed over to the red vinyl booth where she sat. “Anything else, Mrs. Franklin?”
“I was hoping you’d reconsider my offer on your house.”
Of course I hadn’t. Why would I sell my inheritance unless I’d make enough to leave this rotten town? “I’m not interes—”
She grabbed my arm, and I forced my glare from her whitening knuckles to her scowling face. I considered pulling free, but if we caused a scene, I would be the one to go down. The customer’s always right, after all.
She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “You either get out of that house, or we’ll take you out of it.”
Great. Why couldn’t she put *that* in one of those notes she was always plastering all over my property? I stared back, uncertain what to say. But I didn’t need to say anything. She gave me a long, warning glare, then released my arm, gathered her purse, and hurried to the checkout counter.
I blew a stray hair from my eyes and gazed past the booths, out the window to the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. Belle Meadow was thirty minutes from Denver but ages from the modern day. This town was a trap, a collection of crazies. Including myself. If Colorado was the heart of the southwest, Belle Meadow was a clogged artery.
On my way back to the kitchen, one of the two boys sitting at table four flagged me down to request a milkshake. I tried focusing on the order as I ran the blender, but I couldn’t tell where the sounds in my head ended and the sounds of the real world began. A swarm of bees, a blender running, the warning of a rattlesnake—they were all one with the hissing curse.
“I heard she’s a witch,” the older boy whispered loudly.
His friend grinned. “She’s blonder than your sister, even…and probably twice as dumb.”
Right. Sophia Parsons, town idiot. Pale, blonde, and brown-eyed. As bland as oatmeal, yet somehow I’d become the rumor mill’s hot sauce.
I wanted to dump the boy’s shake over his greasy little head, but instead, I recalled the Wiccan Rede that had so long guided me: *An it harm none, do what ye will.*
Did they think harassing me would inspire me to leave town? It wasn’t as though I *wanted* to stay. I was only stuck here because Mother would have an aneurism if I moved away and Dad would be heartbroken.
That, and I couldn’t afford the higher utility bills in the city, and my job search since returning from Colorado State University was proving fruitless. Apparently, no one wanted to hire a twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college teaching history.
A few stage-whispers weren’t going to change that.
The greasy-haired boy nodded toward the diner’s front door. “Let’s get out of here. She’s giving me the creeps.”
Though they left, the itchy feeling of their judgments did not. Maybe if Mother hadn’t seen the altar in my room during one of her unannounced visits, she wouldn’t have announced my faith to Mrs. Franklin, and then no one in town would know I was Wiccan. Now, everyone knew, and at least half of them took major issue with it.
The ding of someone opening the diner’s front door brought me back to reality: burnt grease and coffee on the air, along with my duty to serve whomever strolled in. It just so happened that ‘whomever’ was Sheriff Locumb. He entered the diner with a purposeful gait, scanning the room before heading my way.
“Hey, Sheriff.” I righted an upside-down coffee mug and began to pour. “Anything besides the usual?”
His mustache twitched. He brushed some crumbs away from where his stomach bulged against his brown police uniform, then lifted his gaze. “Miss Sophia Parsons?”
I stopped pouring mid-cup. *Hello? I serve your coffee every day. Obviously it’s me.* “Yeah?”
Jack came up beside me, drying his hands on a towel. “Hey, Sheriff. What’s going on?”
Locumb cleared his throat. “I’m, uh, afraid I need to ask Miss Parsons to come with me.”
Jack and I stared at each other and then back at the sheriff.
“Is this a joke?” I asked.
I didn’t really think he was joking. Sheriff Locumb wasn’t the joking kind. Everyone in the diner watched. Even the jukebox went silent.
Jack leaned closer to the sheriff, lowering his voice. “What’s this about, Jerry?”
Locumb sniffled. “Can’t discuss it, Jack. We just need to ask Sophia some questions.”
My heartbeat picked up. Sheriff Locumb could be a nice guy…*in a diner*. But I didn’t want to be on the other end of his questioning. Not again. Not ever.
Jack had nothing more to offer than a shrug. Trying to appear calm, I removed my apron and gently placed it on the counter.
“Okay,” I said. “Let me get my stuff.”
After promising Jack I’d make up my shift over the weekend, I headed to my Jeep and pulled up behind Sheriff Locumb’s cruiser.
I spent the drive to the sheriff’s office in a cold sweat, trying to stop myself from shaking. No handcuffs, no reading of my rights. I wasn’t under arrest. Hell, he was even allowing me to follow him to the station.
That whole thing with Mr. Petrenko—that was long over with, right? I’d only *found* his body.
I hadn’t killed the man. No matter what anyone thought.
SHERIFF LOCUMB and I sat in a small room with a table and two chairs and a cheap light embedded into the suspended ceiling overhead. I wiped my palms on my pants, but the sweat kept coming.
He pulled a picture up on his cell phone. “Look familiar?”
Maybe he should have gotten an eight-by-twelve print. What was the picture of? Wood? Reddish-orange paint? There was a shape: a figure eight and a cross. I frowned and shook my head. “*Should* this look familiar?”
“Someone spray-painted this on the abandoned grain elevator,” he said coolly. “Why don’t you tell me what you know?”
“What I know about spray-paint?”
“Look.” He leveled his gaze at me. “Mrs. Franklin said one of the women in her congregation—well, her daughter got sick. They think you had something to do with this.”
“Mrs. Franklin thinks I have something to do with everything.”
“Well?” he asked.
“Well, what? I didn’t get anyone sick.”
He puffed his cheeks and blew out a breath. “I’m not saying you got anyone sick, Sophia. They think you hexed their child by spray-painting this satanic symbol.”
“I’m in trouble for putting a *hex* on someone? You’re kidding.”
Belle Meadow might be a small town, but surely it wasn’t so dull that they needed to call me down to the station for *this*.
“You’re here because Mrs. Franklin suggested you might be the one who vandalized the abandoned grain elevator, not because you ‘cursed’ someone.”
“And?” I asked.
“Well, did you?”
He stared blankly. Blinked. “What’s that have to do with the case?”
“Wiccans don’t *believe* in Satan.”
“Listen, lady. I don’t care what you believe in. Why don’t you just tell me where you were when the offense took place?”
“When would that be?”
“Three hours from here, at Colorado State, taking my senior year finals.” Something a few minutes of research would have told him without dragging me down here.
Sheriff Locumb leaned back in his chair, slapping his hands against his knees before standing. “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind waiting here while I check with the school?”
I gestured toward the door. “Go ahead.”
Sheriff Locumb returned with a cup of coffee and an apology. I didn’t drink the coffee, but I did ask him about the sick kid, and he told me it’d just been a case of chicken pox. Not a demonic plague or anything like that.
After squaring everything away, I returned to my Jeep in the parking lot and gripped the steering wheel. I was finding it *very* hard to respect Mrs. Franklin’s version of ‘Christianity’ just now, but most other Christians I knew would probably struggle with it, too.
Either way, I couldn’t deal with her crazy accusations *and* the damn hissing. Something had to go.
Taking three deep breaths, I pushed the hissing as far into the back of my skull as possible. I wasn’t about to go back to work. Someone was bound to interrupt my relaxation efforts with a request for a drink refill or a complaint that their jalapeno loaf was too spicy or their ginger-lime chicken wasn’t chickeny enough.
As I drove home, I concentrated on the road—on one mailbox after another, on the way tree branches laced overhead, even on the glare of traffic lights, counting the seconds until they turned green. Anything to distract me from the noise.
My Jeep shushed along the pavement, but the roll of the road didn’t do me any good. The quieter the world around me, the louder the buzzing in my brain. Coping was no longer a viable option.
At the last major cross street before my neighborhood, the noise in my head roared. I slammed my palm against the steering wheel, gritting my teeth.
Enough was enough. I flicked my turn signal in the other direction and veered onto the highway, before my courage fled. It was time to turn away from caution and toward Sparrow’s Grotto. Toward something that might silence the hissing forever.