Churn

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Following at Willoughby’s heels, Amelia stepped into the daylit drawing room.  She felt as though she had new eyes. All of the heavy window coverings had been heaved aside, and light suffused or danced upon every surface.  Once it had been had been a hall of secrets, and then a gruesome crime scene, now…there was an emptiness devoid of both malice and hope.

Turning to her left, she could see into the dining room where she had eaten the evening meal with so many compatriots now lost, each seat now bearing some ghostly presence in her mind.  A maddening echo of laughter snagged against her skin, her own voice boldly asking for another glass of wine.  However, beyond the oilcloth-coated table and chairs, there was nothing else by way of decor.  The paintings, the candlesticks, all of it gone.

They strode with urgency that had already driven Amelia’s legs to quaver, with no pause to linger in such fruitless reverie, into the laboratory itself.  Amelia felt her stomach clench, but this room, too, was empty even of the supplies that had made had aided in the scientific research that the Professor and Willoughby had been working on the night that all of the horror began.  The ivory oilcloth covered the table, the

Willoughby pulled out a drawer which left a single pocketwatch. For several moments Withdrawing it and flicking it open in a swift motion, for the first time, Amelia observed the man disturbed.

“He should be here…he should be…”

He turned to her, eyes wide as he sunk to the floor. “To have done all this and lost Ammon…”

Amelia had no idea what to say and did not mind if the silent reply felt cruel.  The Professor was meant to be alive? As though Death were nothing more than yet another tactic for men of means to get at what they desired, nothing more than a short-term distraction.

“When did you arrive?” The assistant began to assist as though he were an automaton, pouring himself and Amelia a cup and filling his employer’s cup back up to the brim.

“Last night.  It was meant to throw me and it did.  The matter came to fisticuffs and you know how little I enjoy the sight of blood.”  There was no ignoring the state of him, or how it wrenched her spirit to see the Professor so viscerally wounded, the map of his skin now home to islands of plum and crimson.

What madness to forgive in an instant the death of three men, her own near-drowning.  She couldn’t do it, but she felt the impulse.  She did not move to the table, to the tea, or towards the memory of an equally sunny morning spent in this kitchen.  She stood in the threshold as dream that lingers too long into morning.

“I let the servants go.  They will no longer be needed. The end has begun, but do understand that it was not my choice.”

Willoughby shook his head, relieved at the result, but disgusted at the chaos.  She hadn’t realized it, but the Lamb was a servant to the pocketwatch first.  The tower of Order he presided over in the Professor’s absences was toppling.

“I was not here to help you.”  Willoughby’s voice was plaintive.

“It was a challenge.”  He smiled weakly and only for a moment.  “Still, as you see, I found my way to the teakettle.”

“Ammon…we are not ready.”

“No, we are not.  But perhaps that was always true, we would never be ready for what was to follow.  It still follows.  It is still happening.”

“You could turn away.  You could give it up and let the interference we have offered be enough.

A single look from the Professor’s

“There are wounds, Madame, that the lily cannot mend.  Wounds in bodies

He struggled to his feet.

“Am I meant to believe this?  Any of this?”

“You have your eyes.  I am sorry.  The journey has not been a simple one and there is little enough time

“I’m afraid I cannot be satisfied by a ‘suffice to say.’  If I have been duped

Willoughby laid down

“I am absolutely desperate for a cup.  I imagine your morning would also be improved.

He offered the cup with two hands as a priest offers the blood of the Lord.   The hands were flagrantly covered with the

“Tell me what I need to know…no, first, tell me these markings. The marks on your hands, what are they?”

“A passport.”

 

“I am not whatsoever it is that you have molded Willoughby into.  I am not capable, much less willing, to clean up this hell.

Somewhere in the far off distance, she could hear a voice, youthful, but anguished.

“It does not open but for a death in this other world.  And the monsters that rule there have a vise-grip upon its control.  At the appointed time, on the appointed day, we climb to the ritual font and

He looked down into his teacup, as if it held the only warmth in his body.  When he looked up at her, she could see the birth of a tear in the corner of his eye.  Amelia couldn’t help feeling unsettled at this.

“All the time we dined, and as we waited for the pudding, some poor soul was facing their end.”
“You may understand why it was impossible to be of good cheer.  It has not been for a very long time. Even if I wished it, for your sake. I have never made for a good actor, myself.”

“For my sake? Why should this be your burden?”

“I owe your father my life and the lives of all those who are crushed under

“What should destroy mad magic if not mad science?
“My father was not a scientist.”
“No, he was a procurer of what was needed, be it souls or scientists

“Was?”

“I…this is not a conversation for this world, Amelia.  There is a context I cannot give you, no matter how many cups are shared between us.  You must come back with me and see for yourself.”
“See? What?”
“You are what I am to gather, on this, my final trip through the looking glass.

 

I Forgave You Your Shortcomings: Day Two Hundred Eighty-Three

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The last run of the morning done, his hands stained with the ink that hadn’t settled into the newsprint, Adrian climbed back into the driver’s seat of the delivery truck.  They hadn’t seen her in three days.  Tomorrow would be Wednesday and make four.  If they made it to Friday, her name would be the headline on the papers he stocked fifteen times once a week.  He’d seen the signs her family made.  His stomach felt taut and he felt as though he could hear the individual gas bubbles rise and explode.

They had asked him where he was that night at the dance, the last place anyone, including Adrian, had seen Angela.  They had been together the whole time.  At least.  Until Lillie showed up.  And he couldn’t help but remember the dreamtime between them as soon as he saw her standing in the corner with that anchor Mitch.  Suddenly, he had wanted to explain why Angela, why now.

“Her father…her father is Detective Hank Molloy.  I thought if I hung out with her, I could ask him about what happened to my father, about the body bag. You and I both know Thomas Louder was lying to our face.”  Unabashed earnestness in his expression, he made Lillie feel ridiculous for the green knot of jealousy she’d plaited in her hair.

“Hung out?  Adrian.  You’re dating her to get to her father?…You’re doing this because of the case?”

“The case?  THE case! My case, the case of us.  I don’t see how you can ignore it – don’t you want to get me…out of your head?”

“No.”  She’d said simply.  “No.  I don’t want to risk that for anything.”

And the problem laid itself out at his feet again.  As scared as she was of breaking it, as scared as he was, Adrian had to understand the connection and that meant he needed to dance with Angela.  “I’m sorry.” He’d held his hands up apologetically, and Lillie stared at him like he was crazy.  Maybe he was.  But when he turned back to look for his date, she wasn’t sitting by the punch bowl.  He had figured that she probably deserved an explanation, too, only, he thought somehow he could avoid that part until he’d

Adrian sniffed.  The other driver smoked and the cab reeked of Marlboros including have a dozen smashed into the ashtray.  He leaned back and the thought overtook him: He could really be an asshole.

When it came to things that mattered, yeah, he could.

Adrian decided to get out and take a walk in the half-hour or so before the rest of the kids arrived for first bell.  He wasn’t sure where, but he needed to move as though if he held still the thoughts couldn’t attack him.  He pulled the keys from the ignition, and locked the truck behind him.  He wandered for a few moments up and down the sidewalk until he came back around to the school.  He realized that the noise of the fountain he’d heard each week when he stopped for the last rack wasn’t flowing.

He walked towards the fountain when he realized there was a body in the red, punchbowl-like water and the smell of blood in the morning sun was so strong, so strong, so strong…fingers, a foot displaced from a leg, a head dispatched and mutilated like a honeydew melon cut up for Sunday brunch. A foot hung over the side, the bluish flesh covering up the Memorial on the plaque that read G. Howard Grant Memorial Fountain.

If Adrian wasn’t already on the verge of throwing up, the ribbonetted flesh ran in fatty coils away from the bone, each reeking. Reeking so strongly that he wobbled, almost fell to his knees against the cobblestones that surrounded the facade.

A gasp of air from his lungs burst from his lips and he turned his head away, suddenly awash with heat. A sting followed, the pain disgust brings when it comes on too fast.  He summoned himself to look once more.  Right, right now, right now you’ve got to be sure. Amid the gore, the mash of muscle and studs of bone, there was one thing. A tattoo of a bleeding rose, bleeding both in image and in fact. It must have been situated on her breast.  Maybe he’d seen a petal of it when she was dancing.

His stomach sent him toward the nearby decorative bushes to empty its contents, nothing much but acid, and as he finally felt finished, the bitterness coated his mouth.

It was this taste on his throat, these images, when he called Lillie from the pay phone outside the laundromat two blocks south of the school.  Lost…he felt…so lost. And when Adrian felt lost now, there was only one Gibraltar he knew of.

“Hello?”  She was sleepy still.

“Hello.”  Lillie was waiting for him to answer.  Adrian could hear her reposition the phone against her ear.

You called me, Adrian. Adrian?”

“There’s a body…in the fountain…it’s Angela.  She’s…I should…” He could feel his voice falter, even felt a whine change his pitch, but couldn’t help it.

“Just call the police, Adrian. We’ll…just wait for me at Hazel’s.  Buy some coffee.  I’ll just be a minute. Don’t…”

“Yeah, I‘m going.”

More, Later: Day Two Hundred Fifty-Four

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Out on the glass parapets that crowned and fortified the rooftops of the Daedalus offices, belying the modern transparency the building and at least the first forty floors of financial offices espoused, Adrian saw something that made him lean forward in his bonds.   It was too high, too late in the year, and after the roughing up from Miranda’s footsoldiers, not to mention her…antics, it was hard to believe.

But he saw the brown bird cheerfully scuttle along the edge, perhaps trilling to itself, perhaps not.

Adrian knew what it meant and the memory of his first brown bird ran through him like a bolt of blue light from one of Jack’s collection of concealed tasers.  He smiled despite himself, despite the crazed look in Miranda’s eyes, despite feeling the metal of the cuffs press into the critical junctures of wrists and ankles.   What little he knew of his newest captor was from the former, but Jack’s impressions seemed fairly dead-on.  She was not a woman who was meant to relax.  A maenad.  But it was too involuntary to stop himself from risking the reverie.  It had, he later realized, later treasured, later despaired, been the beginning of everything.

It was elementary school.  Warren G. Harding Elementary.  A squat building in a town of squat, unadorned facilities, half-burrowed into a hillock.  A weeping willow had grown aggressively nearby, a patron saint, and it hung so low its drooping limbs would reach out and stroke your cheek as you passed.   It was a Thursday – hamburger day – when Adrian followed his class into the library, the teachers letting him go last because nobody told Adrian he couldn’t go last.  He saw a girl, with stringy straw-colored hair shuffle towards one of the library’s cubby holes with two different shoes on. Granddad said you watch. You figure out, but you don’t need to bother people with every thought in your head. Still. He wanted to know why she had two different shoes. One ratty and red, and one a faded pink but a completely different kind of sneaker. He’d never seen that before. He wondered, really, why he hadn’t thought to do it himself. Why it mattered at all if your feet didn’t hurt. A shoe did what a shoe did. Probably his grandfather would have made him go back upstairs and stop being a goofball and he would have gone back upstairs and made one pair or another.

Later, he was trying to turn his attention back to the book he was supposed to be selecting for his book report when he noticed a brown bird fly in through the open window. It fluttered around the room from bookshelf to bookshelf before dipping down and settling itself on the pine privacy barrier in front of Lillie Green.

She did not look up at it. In fact, nobody seemed to pay any attention to its sudden presence.

Very quietly, he watched the bird. He wanted to tell the librarian, Mrs. Flanigan about it but birds got scared when you made noise.

It cocked its head.

Adrian watched over the cover of his book. He flipped to the next page and the bird startled and flew back out through the window.

When the teacher rung, he gathered up his books, shoving them in his backpack and slung it over backpack

“There was a bird…right here.” He whispered and pointed to where he had seen it.

She cocked her head, confused, but there was something he hadn’t…he was too young to understand.

“There was a…there was a bird.”  The look deepened.

“Okay.” The first bird.  The first word.

 

 

Casualty of Love: Day Twenty

“Every day.” She said softly and took the book out of Annie’s hands and held it closed between her hands as though she were waiting for it to pulse and come to life.  Annie thought she was waiting for her to say something, but instead, gestured towards her steaming cup.

“I think you should try some of the tea.  You’re anxious.”  Moira turned her head.  Annie found herself thinking of the last time she was across the table from an opponent which is what the psychic felt like, not the advisor Mary had promised.

“Why? Is it magical?”  Annie’s words rode out of her with a sneer.  The silence of the room was uncomfortable and the baby had begun to kick hard enough to make her eyes water.

“It’s soothing, a sort of magic.  Drink it, please, and quit the attitude or I can be of no further help to you.”

Satisfied that Annie had actually swallowed some of the tea, tea which tasted as much like any other green tea Annie had ever come across, no secret unguent to unnerve her or give her pause, Moira closed her eyes for a second.

Annie found herself involuntarily leaning in, watching the woman, listening for a hum or a crackle, or a knee knocking against the table meant to be a spirit from the great beyond.  There was none of that as she opened her eyes with a concerted breath and read the first thing her eyes seemed to see.

“Then Agammemnon called a council of his wisest and bravest chiefs.  Nestor advised that an embassy should be sent to Achilles to persuade him to return to the field; that Agammemnon should yield the maiden, the cause of the dispute, with ample gifts to atone for the wrong that he had done.”

She closed the book, and looked up, her eyes sad and stoic.  Annie was uncomfortable with all the emotion that seemed to run through the woman like the Nile. “Do you see what you’re being told? Do you hear the message in the words?”

Annie shook her head,  “I’m no maiden.  This King of yours…it means nothing.”

Moira did not waver this time, “No.  You will have a daughter. ”

Her hand fell to her belly, the little piglet, the little creature was a girl.  If she believed, and she found that she did, Annie could start to love her.  She chuckled. Alright.  Maybe.

“You should give appease him and give her up.  That is the wise council of the chiefs.”

“Give her up to him?”  Her plan, her secret unspoken plan was being dictated to her by some sort of witch.  This wasn’t right.  He…what did he want with her?”

“You know what happened the Trojans ignored this wise council? Ten years of war.

“What the hell kind of advice is this?”  Annie bolted up out of her chair, a pang of maternal power galvanizing her.  She ripped the book out of Moira’s hand who let it loose, but met her eyes and kept Annie standing in front of her.

She drank another slug of tea. “But this is not my council.  Mary sent you here to protect herself, her family.  To keep your King from taking more from her after he lit Charlie’s corpse alight.  I tell you this not for Mary’s sake, or mine, and certainly not for yours, but for the sake of that child, you should leave Falls Valley.  Go into hiding, instead of a war, perhaps he’ll forget.”

“There is no such place.  And you don’t know shit if you think I can sidestep this man.”

“This man?”  At this, she laughed.  “Your King is no man.  Was once, surely, but that was long ago.   It’s a bad miracle that he had the life in him to make a child. And whatever purpose he sees in you, in the child you bear, it will not serve anyone but himself.”

Salad Days

“It doesn’t matter why, does it?”

Lillie stepped back.  “Five years.  It matters why.”
“Listen, this is going to be one of those times where you just have to come with me.”

“No.  It’s not, Adrian.  I get answers or I go.  I go and find whatever pill, whatever shot, whatever it takes to forget I saw you here tonight and you go back to being dead to me and I…go on with my life.”

This scenario hadn’t occurred to him.   The wet tissue paper heart, the porcelain girl, the whole truth wasn’t going to take him on his word.  She looked different suddenly.  Not better or worse, still beloved, but different.  Weird.

He glanced at his watch.  7:35pm.  Seven minutes to get them both out of the building before Jack turned up to make sure the mark was ex’d out.  This was not enough time.  They had never needed language in these moments before, she’d taken his hand.

“I’m in trouble.  I was from the minute I left that morning to get you your pancakes.  I still don’t…I don’t know why it’s happened like this, but there’s this guy and he’s coming and he’ll have a gun.  And he…seeing me with you…he won’t be happy.”

She took it in.  “He won’t be happy? And this isn’t a lie?”

Before he could say anything, she murmured to herself, pacing in front of him, gesturing to the table and chairs, “of course not, even when I needed you to lie, you never could.  At least, that’s what it felt like.  I was just a kid, Adrian.  I thought I loved you.”

“Just come with me and we’ll go someplace quiet and safe and I’ll tell you what happened to me.  I’m so sorry.  I’ll make it okay.  Somehow, I’ll make it o…”

It was not a measurable amount of time after their lips met that she was standing on the street back in Falls Valley.

A woman was holding an infant, patting it idly, but focused on the building across the street.  First National Bank.   She thought the woman was singing to her baby, but she wasn’t.  She was counting.  5, 4, 3, 2, 1.  As the blast hit on one, a police car streaked past her, away from the bank, still standing but smoke was billowing out of the windows.

Deafened by the noise, made to tremble by the shock that ran down through the pavement, she turned to look at the woman who stood next to her but she turned her straw-haired head away and away and away from Lillie.

She blinked out the dust and pain that stung her eyes as the baby, covered from the instant of the explosion by her mother’s arm, began to wail and cough.  As she felt herself she realize she could hear it, could hear the whole soundscape of alarms and sirens and people stepping out of their businesses in horror, one more blink, and she was back in Adrian’s arms.

In case she had forgotten what those arms dragged behind them, the wake and surge Adrian Senna left for her to drown in.

To hell with star-crossed lovers, she couldn’t do this again.  This part of her life was over.  It had to be over. She pushed away from him and ran out of the office door and for the elevator.

“Lillie!” He screamed, a bald force tunnelling through him, enough to lift him off the ground and send him, without sense, to chase after her.

Trifle

She stood in front of the stove, her hands on her hips. “Where’s my little china dog, then, Willy? That woman of yours took my little dog.”
Willy carried over the dishes to the sink. “No, she didn’t. We ain’t got it in the house, Ma.”
“What you have is not a house…it’s a travesty.”
“You ain’t gonna get started on all this now. We just had a nice dinner and I’m not going to listen to you tear her down and say all these sorts of lies.”
Delia gripped the crucifix around her neck, stroking at the cross as though it were a lucky rabbit’s foot, attempting to bless her final roll of the dice.
“Is this how it’s going to be now? You’re going to talk to me like this?”
Willy’s felt his shoulders tighten as he struggled to rein himself in. Used to be his fists would ball up when she’d get like this, he’d feel a fire spark behind his eyes, but he’d never say nothing about it. Never to her face. He’d gather himself up and go slam the door to his room. Mallory’s influence was making him brazen and Willy didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.
“You’re your own man, then. And your father has long had a dream of service to the church. His congregation will understand that he must follow this calling.”
“What are you saying? You have a granddaughter. How can you just leave us?”
Delia’s face was pink and swelling towards crimson. He had seen her mad as hell, but he’d never seen her like this. Something had cracked and it was no china dog.
“I…am sorry, but you have taken up with a woman who has no faith in the Lord. If she is not in league with the Devil to tempt you into sin, she‘s . Besides which, she‘s a thief. That is not the sort of woman I can just accept invading our lives.”
“She’s my wife. And if you don‘t calm down, she‘s gonna hear you.” He hissed, the volume
Delia shook her head as if that entirely dismissed and annulled both the point and, if she could keep it up, the entire relationship, Mallory’s entire existence.
“No, no. I’ve said my piece. There’s a mission leaving for South America. Sucre, your father says. That’s Bolivia. You’ll look after the house until we return. By then, I imagine the Lord will have shown us all the truth of many things. You may come to recognize the value of your parents if we are not here to protect you.
Willy didn’t quite believe it. He’d have laughed out loud if she didn’t look so damn serious.

“You’re gonna get on an airplane. You’re gonna fly a thousand miles away.
You don’t even like to go to Columbus.”
“That is our mission.” She folded her hands around her coffee cup, steadied.
He pulled out a chair and sat back down at the dinner table.

Failures of Language

Lillie stood in the threshold, drawing the side of her hand up to shield her eyes from the wayward strobe lights that cut across the gymnasium’s scraped and warped maple floor.  She could feel the nearly negligible weight of the purse on her shoulder as though it were an albatross.   Her mother’s dress suddenly not as beautiful as she imagined when she’d spun its lacy petals in front of the bathroom mirror.   Suddenly, whatever bravery she’d invented or drawn up from a hidden reservoir within went dry.

There were sort of shambling masses rising up and down in front of her, seemingly to four or five different songs instead of to the driving rhythms of Ace of Base.  Nobody turned in her direction.  There was no mystical moment where the directionless spotlights all found her at once and lit her up from within, no gasp at her beauty, and her mother in the back of her mind fell silent.   She pulled up on the boatneck of the dress, than down, then up again.

She wanted to see Adrian’s face.  Let his eyes meet hers from across the room as the crowds parted, Red Sea-style.  Or even, Henry Pilbeam’s athletic eyebrows lurching up over a Dixie cup of sugary punch.  Suddenly the decision to meet him here instead of having him drive into the Dump and pick her up at her doorstep was in question.   How could that be any more awkward than wondering if all of this was some sort of joke?  But he wasn’t at the punch bowl, or idling around the makeshift DJ booth, or anywhere really.

She swallowed hard, squared her shoulders, but a rush of blood surged into her cheeks, the tips of her ears.  Nobody cared.  All of this was a fool’s errand in a dress she couldn’t fill out.

And she could just about walk home right now, sleep out on the ruins, nobody know any better.

Instead, the face that drew her into the room was Mr. Hargreaves, science teacher and definitive adult.  His hairline receding, his coat tweedy and ill-fitting, glasses indentations she was close enough to note. A man who should know what instinctively Lillie saw as patently obvious.  There was no reason for teachers to interact with students at school dances unless there was about to be a fight or worse yet, making out on the dance floor.  She had nearly gotten halfway down the hallway.

“Lillie, Lillie?  You aren’t leaving quite yet, are you?  Come in, come in!”

Lillie froze.  The lies started rolling around in her head, but she couldn’t get a whole one together before she started walking back.

Just over Mr. Hargreaves’ tuberous left ear, she saw them, sitting at a table.  She had a corsage on her wrist, a wristlet of little violets.  Andrea was laughing and Adrian, for as much as he ever looked happy, looked…felicitous.   She found herself entirely extraneous, like some spaceman who got his tether cut and could just watch the space shuttle shrink in the distance as he floated away.  Lillie just got spaced and Mr. Hargreaves was still talking.

“And now, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you certainly do look like your mother tonight.”

“Was she a friend of yours?”  For a moment, this piqued her interest.  For a moment, there was enough gravity to send her back to Earth.

“No.  Not exactly, but everyone at the Lucky Star was awful fond of her and she was a great waitress, really.”  His voice got taut just like Adrian said people do when they lie. Suddenly, she wasn’t the only one who wanted out of sweaty confines of a festooned gymnasium.

“Well, that’s very nice, you remember more of her than I do, then.”

The cold distance, the ice shelf he had floated between them, melted away.

“No, I am sorry, Lillie, you go enjoy yourself.”