What do the tree huggers call it? Karma?
No, wait a minute; that’s not right. “Karma” is just a word for what goes around comes around, isn’t it? And on the surface, Robson Trowbridge’s only crime was to have been the hot guy in school who was totally oblivious to the bottom dwellers of his world.
Like me, Hedi Peacock, formerly Helen Stronghold, and still, unfortunately, a bottom dweller.
“Karma” isn’t the word I was looking for. Should someone’s life turn to crap just because he’s handsome? Even I’m not that bitter. But still, I wish someone would even it out, make it so that everyone had the same luck and chances. If I created the world, you could bet there would be a set of natural laws, and one of them would be the Law of You Can’t Stay Hot Forever. It would be stamped on the forehead of every high school heartthrob in ink visible only to bottom dwellers, just as an incentive to survive the ordeal of high school. According to my law, hot guys would age very badly. At thirty, they’d be thumbing through the yellow pages searching for a hair renewal salon.
I shifted on the back of my heels, and strained to peek over the counter. Ten years out of high school and Trowbridge still had hair. In fact, more than when he’d been the to-die-for son of the Alpha of Creemore. Back then, he’d owned a Jeep and had dibs on a crown. He’d have been considered cute even without the killer smile.
“What are you doing down there?” asked my manager, Mark.
“I thought I dropped something, but I can’t find it.” I stood and reached for the silver milk container beside my espresso machine. It had been a dumb instinct, dropping to my knees behind the counter. Most things are better faced when you’re upright.
“You’re slowing down again.” Mark slapped another cup on the order shelf. “Now, you have four orders to fill.” He lowered his voice. “Hurry. Up.”
I nodded, teeth clenched, and let out a jet of steam to make him back up. He was going to fire me.
I may have broken a cookie here and there. Everyone knows that broken cookies can’t be sold. Everyone knows that the person who notices the broken cookie gets to eat the cookie. These are facts. If people stayed with proven facts, work environments would be easier. Groundless accusations just stir things up, like the whole “Who hid the turkey breast sandwich behind the milk?” controversy. Did they think I did it? Well, prove it. Maybe I did do it, and maybe if you were an anal retentive asshole who counted cookies and sandwiches, you might feel those were two good reasons to fire your barista. Maybe.
But I was a goddess behind the machine. Normally, my fingers flew over the knobs, steam didn’t bother me, and no one, I repeat, no one, made foam like I did. I was a good barista, who could usually keep up with a stream of empty cups appearing by her left elbow. I even found it comforting, that monotony of press the button, steam the milk, empty the shot glass, pass the cup. But lately the familiar routine wasn’t automatic. Twice today, I’d come out of one of my aunt Lou’s transmitted thought pictures—something of a trance—with steamed milk running over the lip of the silver container and my heart jackrabbiting in my chest.
People were giving me plenty of space this afternoon, which was good. Space is a nice buffer when you work a shift with the idiot tag team of Mark and blonde-from-a-box Jennifer. They kept batting back and forth answers to the really important question of “If you could save only one thing from a fire, what would it be?”
Come on, guys. It’s not that hard. There’s only one answer. Yourself, dimwit. When fire is chewing through everything you’ve ever cared about, and there is no one left to rescue beyond yourself, the decision is simple: forget your charm bracelet and find the door. I’d point that out, but that would mean getting cozy with a human, and I don’t do cozy with the humans, which is providential, because as it happens, none of them have ever offered to extend the relationship beyond work hours. They keep their distance. Which is good, and bad, and maybe a little sad.
I can’t say I blame them. If I had to share a shift with me, I might be leery of getting in too close. Even full-blooded Fae need sleep, and my lack of quality time spent with a pillow was starting to show. But as long as I had a choice between an acid stomach or dream-plagued sleep? Pass the espresso.
At least when I was mostly awake, I could fight the sickening tentacles of Lou’s wandering mind reaching for mine. And if I failed, I could say to myself, Okay, take a deep breath, you’re all right, you’re just seeing her dreams through her eyes, but you’re still Hedi. You’re just stuck in your mad aunt’s head for a bit, witnessing how truly fucked up her brain is.
But when I was asleep? Different. Scary different.
And now I had Weres in my Starbucks; my stomach gave a disapproving gurgle.
When Trowbridge had opened the coffee shop door—the second Were to enter in ten minutes—I’d dropped to my knees, stricken with the fear that I’d slipped into a hallucination of my own, and had done so without experiencing the usual shit-here-I-go slide that happens before Lou pulls me into one of hers. Then, just as quickly as it had swamped me, my fear eased. I don’t detect scents when I’m dreaming and my nose had picked up an aroma over the brewed coffee that was Trowbridge’s alone. Ten years ago, when I’d been a lovesick twelve-year-old, I hadn’t been able to put my finger on that unique thing in his personal scent signature that my hormones interpreted as “Yum, Robson Trowbridge.”
Even now, older and a hell of a lot more bitter, I couldn’t find a word for it. It was just a truth, as tiresome and hard to deny as the notion that chocolate bypasses your stomach and goes straight to your hips. Trowbridge smelled different than the other Creemore Weres. He always had.
He was still pretty, if a bit unkempt. His jaw hadn’t seen a razor in a good week. And his hair was different. Now it was long, dark rumpled curls that brushed his shoulders. The type of curls that say, “I just got out of bed after a night of really hot sex.” Curls that don’t need a brush, just some sated female to finger-comb them.
Annoying. A girl couldn’t look at Robson Trowbridge without thinking about sex, even if she had reason to hate him. To keep myself sharp on that point, I checked out his neck, and sure enough, he had a gold chain hanging from it. He’d hidden the rest of the amulet under his shirt, but I knew it was there. Fae gold calls to my kind. I could feel its siren song, even from where I stood, half hidden behind the coffee machine.
Old history, and yet not.
“Double decaf, tall, no-foam latte.” I placed the coffee on the bar and scowled at the man who reached out for it before I finished centering it on the tray. There’s protocol, even at a Starbucks. You don’t reach for it, you wait for it. I snatched my fingers back before his could brush mine. All this pent-up fear was making me cranky.
It had snuck up on me, this yearning for Trowbridge, around puberty. I’d taken one glance at his Were abs, and gone from kid to preteen so fast that Mum had gotten whiplash. Worse, it had clung to me, that desire. Even though I try not to think of him, I still call up his face for every dark-haired hero found in one of those romance novels I boost from Bob, the blind bookseller.
Yes, I steal books from a blind bookseller.
How screwed up is that? Imagining Trowbridge as Lord Worthington, complete with the spotless Hessians?
I really wanted to rub my eyes. Behind my glasses’ magicked lenses, my eyes were sparking so badly it felt like a squad of Boy Scouts were competing to see who could start a fire with a flint and steel. But if you have a disguise, you wear it, even if it’s inconvenient, even if part of you wants to do a pirouette on top of the bar and sing, “Hah, I didn’t die after all, you scum-sucking dog.”
As I reached for a new gallon of skim milk, Trowbridge moved from the doorway toward a white-haired Were who’d come in a few minutes earlier. Geezer-Were had looked as benign as an old Were could, but I’d been keeping tabs on him anyhow, ready to bolt if he looked at me sideways. By my rulebook, Gramps shouldn’t have been there in the first place, not if he was a regular Were, doing regular things. Why? Because, basically, the stench of coffee is akin to the best doggone wolf repellent available. It won’t stop the motivated, but will deter the average Were.
Which is why, when the old Were had entered the café, nose high, and snared the last free table, my stomach had tensed, and I’d shrunk a little lower behind my brewing machine, not knowing what to expect. But since then, he’d just sat there, slouching in his comfortable country clothes, one hand playing with a stir stick someone had left behind. My ill ease had flattened, because part of me figured I could outrun a fossil like him, any day, any time. But now my fight-or-flight instinct was tapping me on the shoulder, telling me to stay sharp. What would two Weres be doing in a coffee shop? Had the Weres of Creemore finally come looking for me?
Trowbridge took a quick glance around the room before pulling out a chair opposite Geezer-Were. I held my breath as his gaze skipped me and drifted over to a shapely brunette, waiting to place her order. So much for the “aha” moment. He didn’t point a finger at me and exclaim, “Lo, there be the long-lost daughter of Benjamin Stronghold!” I wiped the counter while the steam did the foam thing, considering the implications of that. My features hadn’t changed that much. I mean, if you searched hard enough, it wasn’t a big stretch to spot the similarities between a kid named Helen and a girl named Hedi. Did the Creemore pack actually think I was dead? Unbelievable. After the flames and smoke had petered out, hadn’t anyone pawed through the rubble searching for our remains? Two kids, plus two parents brought the body count to four, not two. Fools. No one scratched their head and said, “Hey, we’re missing two corpses”?
Unless the fire reduced everything to ash? Could it do that? Bones and teeth too?
I’d never made their wanted list. It was a near sickening thought when one took in all the effort Lou and I expended hiding our tracks … oh hell … I could have gone to school … Without taking my eyes off Trowbridge and company, I pointed my finger and sent out a mental stream to the steam knob. It eased a fraction to the left.
His wedding band winked at me as he tucked a hank of hair behind his ear.
“Didn’t stop the cheating dog from checking out the brunette, did it?” I muttered to my chest. In response, my amulet, Merry, twitched in her sleep, still hidden under my shirt where I wore her. Sometimes she roused to see what was up, sometimes she didn’t—she’d simply twitch or flinch, sort of her version of a pillow over the head. In the end it didn’t really matter, because I’d give her a blow-by-blow later. Unless Merry was feeding, she hung around my neck on a chain, making her a convenient audience for one of my monologues. The rest of the time I let her nap inside the cup of my lace bra.
Trowbridge sat a little straighter. Well, he was a Were; he’d probably heard me. But recognize me? That appeared to be another thing. I wasn’t twelve anymore, and besides, I was supposed be dead, burned up in the fire.
“Peacock,” said Mark. “Speed it up.”
I spooned off a little foam and put the next order on the bar.
“That’s nonfat?” asked the woman.
“Yup,” I said with my toothy barista smile. When she turned away, I began to clean the nozzle with the damp rag. Trowbridge hadn’t moved much since he’d done the visual and slapped a “later” label on the brunette, but from my side of the bar, I could smell his growing unease over the coffee, warm milk, and humans.
That’s right, something’s wrong, I telegraphed. What is it?
His head tilted to the side as if he were searching for a clue. His nostrils flared.
Good luck on that. Faes don’t have a scent. He wasn’t following the script. He was supposed to haul me out from behind the bar, and stalk out of the coffee shop, with me a helpless, fainting burden in his arms. I’d be wearing kitten heels, one of which would drop off. My small fists would beat on his chest, and he’d look down at me and realize that his life was over unless he claimed me as his own.
Of course for that scenario to work, I’d have to be weak, blond, and at least fourteen pounds lighter. And he’d be Lord Worthington, not some no-account Were. I’m round and short. I don’t wear kitten heels. I’d like to, but they aren’t on the approved shoe list for Starbucks.
See, there you go, another lie. I’d never wear kitten heels.
My hair is brown. When it’s freshly washed and the sun catches it just so, someone who’s read one too many bodice rippers might use the word “chestnut” to describe it. That’s a stretch. Most days it could be best described as mousy brown. I haven’t worked out what to do with it, so I usually wear it pulled back in a ponytail—one of those slacker ponytails that conveniently hide the ears.
And I’m not in the least bit beautiful, which just goes to show what a contrary bitch genetics is. My mum was beautiful, otherworldly beautiful, with golden hair that swung in graceful waves to her hips. But then again, she was born a Fae—what most humans call a fairy. She didn’t have wings, and she didn’t go around in a belted tunic. She did have the ears though. Mine have a slight point to them, courtesy of her. Sometimes I find my fingers stroking their sharp, curved peaks. It soothes me.
What’s on the other side of my gene pool?
Werewolf. From my moon-called father, I got a full upper lip, a temper, and my own personal inner Were. I have that bitch on permanent lockdown, buried so deep that she represents little more than a salivation problem when I walk past the deli. I do not turn furry when the full moon rises in the night sky. My eyes don’t glow red with rage, my teeth don’t elongate, and I can hear only a little better than humans.
Get over the myths. They’re never accurate.
Trowbridge got up, and jerked his head toward the exit. Geezer-Were stood to follow. Trowbridge held the door open for him, his right hand spread wide on the glass door. It had three fingers; a thumb, a pointer, and an f-u. The pinkie was missing, leaving a rounded nub close to his palm. The ring finger had been severed after the first knuckle. Who’d hurt him?
“Did you get that?” hissed Mark.
“The next order. Grande, two pump vanilla, nonfat, extra hot, latte. You’re falling behind again, Hedi,” he said, from the safety of the cash register.
The door swung closed behind Trowbridge. I bore down on the next orders with a ferocity that made all the other little baristas stay well clear as I came to terms with the thought that all my hiding had been for nothing. They really did think I had died in the fire. Walk away, Trowbridge, I thought. Take your chewed-up hand with you.
Fourteen minutes later, my beautiful silver coffee maker started to shimmer. I squeezed hard on the steamer’s shiny silver handle, and concentrated on my fingers curled around it. Small hands, the knuckles four white sharp stones under soft skin. I could feel the pull, the sick slip of melting into Lou’s thought-pictures.
A big fat red apple flashed through my brain.
“Easy, Lou,” I said under my breath as I slid a bold one to a short guy. Fae tears, my aunt was lost today. This was the third time.
Concentrate. My hand. This handle, shiny, and silver bright. Concentrate on the sounds in the background. Someone was jiggling his keys. Use that as an anchor, cling to the sound, stay in the here. There was a sickening flutter of images as she overwhelmed my resistance. A red apple, something flying through the air, a face angry and distorted.
“Stay in the here, stay in the here,” I whispered. I tried to focus on the feel of my hand on the handle, the distinctive reek of coffee, and the murmur of human voices in the background. Lou’s telegraphed images started to get thin to transparent. For an instant I could see the lineup of cups on top of my machine.
Another flash, another push, and suddenly, she’d started to tow me helplessly back into the current of her thought-pictures. The same freakin’ red apple. A gravel path. A tree line, dark and somehow horrifying. The inside of Bob’s bookstore, with midday light streaming weakly through the open space of glass. A natural pool. The water dark, but the trees so green, and the light so bright. A dark uniform, bulky and foreign. Lou’s hand, her ornate ring too loose on her finger.
The “here” was gone.
“Ow,” I squeaked as sharp pain broke through my haze and shattered Lou’s thought-pictures. I was back, staring at my hand on the knob again, with the smell of coffee pungent in my nostrils. Saved by Merry, once again. When all else fails, a well-timed pinch works just dandy.
Lou had never pulled me so quickly into the broken puzzle of her deteriorating brain, except when I was asleep. When I was inside her head that deep, I couldn’t spit out the fear that lay heavy on my tongue.
“Hedi,” my manager said carefully. “You’re off the line.”
The next customer had stopped jiggling his keys. I bit my lip at his carefully neutral face, and turned with a sense of inevitability. Mark was standing halfway between the cash register and my machine.
“Work the cash register for the rest of your shift.” He didn’t have the balls to come any closer. Jennifer was behind him, her brows pulled together. One day she’ll be Botoxing the crap out of that vertical line.
Humans all around me.
“You know what, Mark?” I pulled the apron over my head and tossed it. It caught the milk container, ghosted over it, and slid to the wet ground. “I’m not feeling well. I think I need to punch out early.” I pulled my backpack out from the cabinet storing the vanilla bottles.
“Wait a minute. I haven’t given you permission to leave.” He lifted a hand as if to catch my arm. “I’d like to look through your bag before you go.”
“Kiss my ass, Mark.” I shouldered past him, shrugging on my backpack.
“You walk out that door and you’re fired. You’ve broken your last machine, and stolen your last sandwich,” Mark snapped.
I searched for a good retort, couldn’t come up with one, and threaded my way through the tables. I kept my head high even when I heard Mark claim I was the worst barista ever. A patent lie. My foam was the best ever. Period.
“She’s on drugs,” Mark said in a low voice to Jennifer.
“Crack,” she said.
I paused, one shoulder holding the door open. The cool wind slid past me but it did nothing for my temper. I took my time, eyeing targets, before settling on the coffee machines. Affixed to the top of each machine was a plastic bowl. Inside the bowls were the coffee beans, waiting to be fed into the grinder. Two machines, two bowls each holding two pounds. Four pounds total.
Mark stood with one possessive hand on my favorite machine, his eyes all puffy as he narrowed them into a squint. That’s what made it so easy. They never saw it coming.
I felt my lip curl.
I cocked my fingers backward, smiled, and with a flick sent my magic streaking through the air. Invisible to humans, its progress left a bright fluorescent-green trail to my Fae eyes. It hit the first bowl and stuck. I parted my fingers into a V. The stream separated into two trails. The second trail streaked toward the next bowl. “Weave,” I said, tracing an O with my fingers.
“Grow.” I fed a little more energy down the invisible cord. I did four rotations with my hand until the rope of magic was swollen and hot and then I snipped the line.
I put one foot out of the door, and waited.
You know how you’re not supposed to hold a lit firecracker in your hand? So what do you think happens when you tell magic to grow and send it to a place it can’t expand? Uh-huh. Kaboom.
The lines around the base of each bowl swelled, until the contained magic looked like a sausage hooked too long on the meat grinder. The bowls began to creak with the pressure around their bases. The plastic lids began to shiver.
Jennifer backed up.
Abruptly, the lids shot up, hitting the ceiling-mounted water pipes with enough force to make them shatter. And then the fireworks.
Sweet to my soul was the Vesuvius of magically powered coffee beans spewing in one long sweet eruption of caffeinated hail to the ceiling. The stunned silence of the café was punctuated by Mark’s strangled, inarticulate, “Ack, ack, ack,” and the rat-tat-tat of the beans hitting the water pipes.
I waited for the last bean to fall. It clinked on the ground and then rolled until it hit the back heel of a suit.
“Huh,” I said. “That was strange.” I smiled again, baring all my teeth, and let the door close behind me.
* * *
Merry, being Merry, was pissed. I hadn’t taken six long jubilant steps out of the café before she struck in a fury of searing heat that just about took a strip off the tender skin of my left breast.
“Shit, Merry-mine, not now,” I said, speeding up toward the corner of the building. “Cool down. Please, just cool down.”
She was so red that the front of my white blouse glowed as if I’d tucked a flare into my bra. I hunched my shoulder protectively, shielding my chest from the customer who was staring at us through the front window, his mug of coffee suspended halfway to his mouth.
I rounded the corner of the building at a good clip. The dusk had already deepened into urban night, the sort of leached-out gray that passes for a night sky in the city. Immediately on breaking the corner, I bent over at my waist, pulled my blouse away from my skin so that I could jerk Merry out by her chain. I let her dangle from it, red, gold, and glowing.
Merry hung from a long length of Fae-wrought gold necklace that my mother had placed around my neck the night she died. You’d need a magnifying glass to see it, but Merry was more than just a smudge in a piece of amber. She was an Asrai. I knew that at least, even if I didn’t know precisely what an Asrai was. I knew that she once had form: two legs, two arms, long hair. She belonged to the Fae world, but Lou had trapped her inside the amulet long before I was born. A horrible fate, I agree, but she wasn’t completely powerless.
Fae gold is not to be confused with mortal gold. Fae gold snickers at titanium’s relative weakness. It isn’t some dumb inanimate thing that just sits there, forever frozen in the shape that the artist had hammered it into. It’s alive. It can remold itself. It could, powered by the wrong Asrai’s spite, literally twine itself around your neck and choke you.
That bore remembering when you were talking to an Asrai-powered amulet.
And as much as Merry sometimes pissed me off—say, like when she tried to burn a layer of skin off me—she and Lou were it. One crazy-ass Fae named Lou, and one amber-colored stone, mounted in a swirl of baroque gold, named Merry. That was my world.
“You can cool down right now,” I said, flattening my shirt so that she could hang in the cool night air. I lowered my voice to a soothing tone. “My hand barely hurts. It’s not red, well, not red like my freakin’ boob is. You know, you’ve got to control your temper.” One of Merry’s unique attributes was the ability to heal my payback pain.
The red light turned a fraction purple.
“Okay, maybe I’m not the one to be talking about holding on to my temper. Trowbridge was in the shop tonight, Merry. And I quit, and so yeah, I may have used some magic. Just a little bit. I was feeling stressed.” I rubbed the soot off my finger against the rough grain of my khaki pants. “Look,” I said, pulling my finger up so that she could see it. “It’s barely red. I don’t need healing. It hardly hurts.” I was lying like hell, my finger was throbbing like someone had slammed it with a car door, but I held it up straight so that she could see.
“You don’t need to heal me, and you don’t need to have a hissy fit.”
She knew as well as I that payback pain would get worse before it got better. Her color cooled to a stubborn claret. I don’t know what claret is, but that’s what the bored heroes in my Regencies always drank, and I always figured it was red wine. And sometimes when I was feeling mellow, a furious Merry reminded me of a glass of something vintage, held up to the golden dancing flames of a lit fire.
I kept walking, passing the last car parked in the lot, so engrossed, and still, admittedly, somewhat high with adrenaline, that I didn’t even notice the red van idling against the metal fence until I was too close to avoid it. The vehicle smelled of hamburgers, Febreze, and car wash. The sweet bubble-gum smell of the latter twigged a scent recall. I looked, and saw Robson Trowbridge in the driver’s seat talking to Geezer-Were. Eyes averted, I walked past the rear of the van, Merry tight in my fist.
Geezer-Were opened the window.
Were scent, fragrant as the woods that I was heading to, reached out to me. Silence as I passed. I don’t know who would screw around with a pause, but this one struck me as pregnant. I held my breath, kept my gait casual, and wondered how fast I could run. As fast as a full-blood Were? I skipped over the barrier between this parking lot and the next, and made it onto the gas station’s patched asphalt. I didn’t change my speed until I had made it around the repair shop, then I broke into a light trot.
Lou’s next flood of pictures came with no warning. An aisle in the bookstore. A path with trees, leaves whipping out in the wind. A dark uniform. Something glinting gold. An arm with a sword, raised high. Then bushes, and ground. Lou’s hand reaching for a rock. Booted feet passing the vegetation.
As abruptly as they came, they were gone. No visions, no pictures, no fear. I was back in the “here.” I took another lungful of air.
The entry to the ravine was another half block ahead. I tightened the straps on my backpack and picked up the tempo. Lou would be waiting for me at home. So would my bed, and my dreams. I found my feet slowing. I was early anyhow. If I came home too early, she’d ask why. I walked twelve feet along the ravine path thinking about that before I stepped off the trail to find a tree for Merry.
* * *
If anyone passed, it looked like I was just leaning against the tree, thinking up poetry, and really that’s what I was doing. The tree-leaning bit; not the poetry.
I don’t have to do much to feed Merry—there’s no can-opening, or big bags to lug—so I have plenty of time to think. Once I find a tree and plop her on a limb, all I have to do is stand guard as she chows down. True, I have to be particular about the type of tree. It has to be green, preferably wild. She prefers hardwoods. Pines and spruces make her turn an unattractive yellow-brown. In a pinch, flowers at a grocery store will do, but they really fall into the fast food category. She doesn’t get much juice from them. Not enough to last more than a few days, anyhow. Don’t ask me to explain the mechanics. She doesn’t watch me when I’m soaping up in the shower, and I don’t observe her too closely as she sucks down some tree essence. It gives me a chance to think, that half hour while she’s eating. Some of my best thoughts happen then. Some of my worst too.
I’d cried for three hours the day Robson Trowbridge married Candace Temple. I might have gone longer, but my twin Lexi bartered two of his X-Men comics for one hour of silence. So I stopped, but felt tragic and misunderstood, even as I turned the pages and ate a brownie. But then of course, I’d been twelve, and I’d thought marriages were eternal honeymoons. Since then, I’ve seen enough human unions to know that’s just another myth. Sort of sucks for Weres though. When they say “I do,” they’re saying it for life. If one mate dies, the other follows. Sometimes right away, sometimes it takes a few grieving months. I didn’t need to be told that. I’d listened to my dad’s heart stop, and then my mum’s. That’s the deal; the sour side of having a true mate.
“How am I going to keep Lou’s dreams out of my head now, Merry?” I used the rough tree bark to scratch a spot between my shoulder blades, as I worried the problem. Without a job, I had no distraction from Lou. “I wish I knew how to keep her out.”
The constant dribble of Lou’s thought pictures and dreams was wearing me thin. I couldn’t sleep without being overwhelmed by them, and the problem had grown intolerable since she’d taken to napping during the day. Thought-pictures I could handle. But when her nighttime dreams became my daytime terrors? I can’t explain how equally repugnant and fascinating I found it. Prior to this, I’d needed no defense against Lou’s fragmenting mind. We’d been two separate beings with a whole bunch of white space between us. We didn’t even exchange thought-pictures like I used to with Mum and Lexi.
Handy things, thought-pictures. You can get a lot across with two well-selected ones. For example, imagine a picture of one twin batting the other over the head with something hard. See? Bet you have an immediate opinion about that. If you don’t like your sibling, you may think, “Hah, good.” But if you’re one of those humans with delicate sensibilities—you know, one of those manual-reading mums who believe in naughty corners—well, your first thought might be, “That’s terrible.”
Now here’s where the skill comes in. It’s all about the next image. Pair the picture of Helen hitting Lexi with her shoe, followed immediately by an image of Helen’s mother frowning fiercely. Neat, huh? You have an opinion and a lesson delivered in two quick images.
Merry signaled that she was finished with the tree by rolling off the branch. “You done already?” She pointed to another tree; one with different-shaped leaves. “You know, you’re getting as fussy as a cat.” I picked my way through the knee-high vegetation and reached up to place her on the lowest limb.
I could live with Lou’s thought-pictures, but increasingly, the images were melting into dream fragments and that just scared the shit out of me. The first act was considered nonthreatening; it was common practice among the Fae to share a static mental snapshot or two with their blood relatives. But sharing dreams? Those are dangerous things, aren’t they? Your unconscious is at the controls, and he’s that bad relative that gets drunk at the wedding, and tells all the family secrets.
Anyhow, for most Fae-born, the issue was moot. They simply weren’t born with the ability to send or receive another’s dreams.
Most of them.
The first non-Hedi dream I ever experienced was Lexi’s. For want of a better word, I was dream-napped. My conscious self was caught and dragged into my twin’s unconscious mind, as if it were something sticky on the aural plane that got tangled in the trawling hooks of his dream. That’s what it feels like. Nothing at all like a thought-picture’s discreet knock. A slip, a slide backward, and then, that feeling, that awful, dreadful wrongness, as if you’d taken off your skin, and squirmed into another’s. Once in, there was no out. You were forced to stay in it until the dream ended—an unwilling spectator to what they saw, an unwilling receptor for what they felt.
Merry tugged her chain to get my attention. I opened my palm and as my fingers closed over her, I felt soothing warmth seep into my skin. “Let’s go home, Merry.”
I started walking again, following the trail through the woods, but my mind was still on the first time I heard mention of Threall.
The morning after my first dream-walk, I told Mum that Lexi had slid his dream into my head. Absolute horror twisted her features. “Threall.” She grabbed my hand, yanking me out of the kitchen faster than you could say, “Lexi stole the last macaroon.” Next thing I knew, I was sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed watching her shut the door softly behind us. She rested her ear against it for a moment and then turned to ask me questions in that low, tense un-Mum-like voice, and when I was done answering, she was silent for a long time.
She sat down. Without looking, she pointed to the coins on their dresser. A penny lifted from its surface and floated gracefully to me. I reached for it.
“No, Helen, listen and watch.” She waited until my hands were back in my lap, and then said slowly, “You know that there are two different realms. The world to which you were born.” She made the penny jiggle. “And another, in which the Fae live, called—”
A quarter flew across the air, and hovered above the penny. “Yes, Merenwyn.” She made it spin so its bright silver surface caught the early morning light. Her eyes softened as she watched it. “I wish you could see it.”
“Why can’t you take us there?” I tucked my hair behind my ear. “You used a portal to come here, why can’t we open one and go there?”
“I made an oath that I would never cross a portal again. It’s an oath I cannot break.” She touched my hair. “Even if I could return home, I couldn’t bring you with me. The mages keyed the gates to open only for those with Fae blood.”
“I have Fae blood.” I fingered the bedspread.
“But you also have Were.” She gave me a slight smile. “The gates would sense that and might not let you pass. I don’t want you to ever try it, okay? Promise me?” When I didn’t respond, her voice got sharper. “Helen, using one is not like walking through a doorway. Even for a full-blooded Fae, it’s disorienting and dangerous.”
“I could do it.”
“Could you? When the gate is open, you see right to the other world, like you’re looking through a round window. It tricks your mind. You expect to cross a flat plateau, but instead your body is pulled upward at a great speed. It’s terrifying the first time, even if you’ve been told to expect it. If you lose focus of where you need to go, you can be pulled into the wind, and killed. They train your mind for weeks before you’re allowed to even think of stepping into a portal.”
“Who trains you?” I asked, my mind already wandering.
“There’s something more important for us to talk about.” She turned her head, and levitated all the coins sitting on the dresser into the air, squinting at them until she spotted the flat washer that Dad had put in his pocket and never returned to the jar in the garage.
“There is a third realm called Threall. It lies between this world and Merenwyn.” The flat disk floated across the room. It slipped into the empty place between the Merenwyn quarter and the earthly penny. I studied the stacked coins floating in space.
“Threall looks like a washer stuck between a penny and quarter?”
The coins dropped to the bedspread. “No, Helen. It does not look like that.”
“Then what does it look like?”
She sighed, but didn’t squeeze the bridge of her nose like she usually did after some of my questions. Instead, she picked up the quarter and the penny. “It’s said to be a land of mists and bad things. They say a part of every Fae lives in Threall, the dreaming portion of us.” She pressed her hand to her heart. “It should be sacred, not a place anyone can visit.”
I gazed dubiously at the dull piece of metal lying on the quilt. “How do you know Threall exists if no one has ever seen it?”
“There are some who can travel there.”
I gave her the “aha” look. “So there’s a portal.”
“No, Helen. There is no portal. Only mystwalkers can travel to Threall.”
“With their mind. Once trained, a mystwalker can create a second body in the world of mists, and walk on two feet, just as she does in Merenwyn.”
“Cool,” I said.
“No. Not cool. Mystwalkers search for people’s souls in Threall, Helen, and once they find them, they can do great harm.”
“Huh.” There were a few Weres I felt like harming.
“Don’t look like that.” Her fingers gripped mine. “There’s a reason I’m telling you this. Look at me.” Her eyes were so fierce. “Do you know how they find mystwalkers? They search for children born with the gift of walking into others’ dreams. Those children are brought to the King’s Court. Their gifts are tested. If they don’t have enough raw talent, they’re killed, and if they’re not killed, they become wards of the court. The King’s Court is not a place for any child. Those children, the ones who make it to adulthood, they become…”
“Mad and soulless. The royal family trains them to walk in the mists, and do things there that Faes consider soul destroying.”
“They steal others’ gifts. They plant seeds of madness in their enemies’ heads.”
“Helen, it’s not a talent I want you to develop. It’s not a good thing.” Her grip turned crushing. “It’s a terrible crime to steal someone’s talent. Mystwalkers are shunned by all except their trainers. The lucky ones die young before they are driven mad, or worse, disappear.”
“Where do they disappear to?” My voice sounded small.
“Their souls stay in Threall. It gets harder and harder for them to come back, and one day they never do. Their body dies in Merenwyn, and the mystwalker is never heard from again. They say they float on the winds of Threall, crying for their home.”
I bent my head to study the washer lying innocently on the chenille spread.
She lifted my face with mum-loving hands. “Don’t walk in others’ dreams. If you feel yourself being pulled into one, resist. Never travel to Threall. Ever. Never admit to anyone that you know anything about dream-walking. Anyone, do you understand? Don’t tell your brother, don’t tell your friends, don’t tell your father. But most important, never mention it to a Fae. Do you understand? Helen, it’s very important. Mystwalkers always come to a bad end. Threall is a bad place. It can hurt you.”
She got down on one knee, gazed deeply into my eyes, and repeated the last sentence, but slowly, as if each word were an individual sentence, turning the comment into a four-word paragraph heavy with meaning. Dream-walking was bad. Threall was bad.
But it was like having something stuck between your teeth, and never being able to get it out. I didn’t want to get her all upset, so I didn’t point out that I had no friends other than Lexi, and that I was unlikely to ever meet another Fae. Instead, I rationalized that two out of three was good enough, and as soon as Mum and Dad fell asleep that night, I trotted over to Lexi’s room, shook him awake, and asked if he ever dream-walked.
No horror on his face. He said, “Shut up.” Then he rolled over.
Clearly, he never felt the terrible suck of his waking mind being pulled into someone’s dreaming one. For once, I knew something Lexi didn’t. And right there I decided it was one secret I wasn’t going to whisper into his eager ears.
We already shared so much, a lot of it unwillingly. Does anyone really want to fight for elbow space in a womb? Be perpetually twelve minutes behind? Yeah, sure, there were probably advantages to being second—there were baby pictures of a pointy-headed Lexi—but the downside is that you start out not being first. And it seemed my legs were never long enough to catch up. For our first ten years of life, my brother plowed a trail ahead, leaving me to follow in his wake. Predictably, he was the first to walk. First to talk (and yap, yap, yap, did he ever talk). First one to dare to wander off the property and explore where he wasn’t supposed to explore. First one to be brought home by the Alpha after that adventure, looking muddy and wet, and more pissed than a cocker spaniel who’s been denied a treat.
Fae Stars, I miss him. It’s not something a singleton can understand; the depth of grief a twin feels over the loss of their sibling. Except maybe if I explain it to you this way: once I stood on three legs. Now I wobble on two.
But the future wasn’t something I thought much about back then. Like every other self-absorbed twelve-year old, I took it for granted that my brother would always be there; part best friend, part worst enemy. Mine to love and abuse. And so, I got mulish about the following. I got selfish about the sharing. And maybe Lexi did too. Maybe his heedless race through our short shared life was an effort to distance himself from me—the bobbing cork that followed the currents left behind him.
But still, even after Mum’s talk, I kept poking at the idea of Threall. I wanted to see it, just once. The best way, I reasoned, would be to visualize “up.” It’s how I manipulate my magic. Think the word, and let her rip. And besides, I strongly doubted that you needed to create another body up in Threall. Why couldn’t you just take your own up there, and bypass the whole “lost my body” problem?
So I sat there, cross-legged on my bed, and thought “up.” After a bit, I tried a different thought. “Lift.” Then I strong-armed it. I kept thinking “up” until sweat broke out on my brow and I felt queasy, and then suddenly, I felt a tearing inside me, so strong, it was as if a giant had my head in one hand and my toes in the other and was determined to stretch me like a piece of taffy.
At the onset of the pain, my concentration splintered, and took with it that horrible rending sensation. I curled up in a ball on my bed, held my stomach, and decided right there that I’d never try again. In fact, I added a codicil to my pledge: if dream-walking had anything to do with Threall, I’d resist being pulled into any vision. I’d turn away. I’d stay awake.
Scary stuff, Threall.
I exited the nature trail and turned down our street.
Funny how life works out. Pledges aren’t so much broken as worn down. I’d gone from thought-picture deprived to dream overloaded. And even though the circles under my eyes were starting to look like purple bruises, I still wouldn’t speak to Lou about it.
How could I tell her I was an untrained mystwalker?
And there was more. Stuff I didn’t like to admit. There was something in the pull of my crazy aunt’s unconscious that I liked. For all my horror, for all my fatigue, there was a part of me that craved being dragged into her dreams. Something in me enjoyed thumbing through her thoughts and memories. Sometimes—so rarely—I saw Merenwyn. Sometimes I saw my mother again. And sometimes I saw things that frightened me.
But it’s like a Fae version of Pandora’s box, right? You have the box, you’re not supposed to open it, and then somehow it’s open, and whooee, the stuff you find in there.
Fascinating, scary stuff.
Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to be bat-shit crazy like my aunt.
Copyright © 2013 by Leigh Evans