Read Near + Far Online

Authors: Cat Rambo

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)

Near + Far (10 page)

But there were no alarms from neighboring houses. Her father convinced her that she must have heard something from the downstairs television. For years after, thoughts of that woman obsessed her. She imagined her trapped, buried underground. Attacked. Lost. Alone. That mysterious figure became a motif in Everkind, was rescued in three separate episodes, once by Mrs. Mountebank, twice by the Whistling Gypsy.

In the current storyline, she was under siege again.

From The Annals of Everkind:

Mrs. Mountebank:

Sometimes you must waltz, even with Madness in his best ball gown.

The Whistling Gypsy:

I never thought I'd hear you say such a thing, Madam!

Mrs. Mountebank:

These things are the very bones and sinew of our world, if not the 
ichorous blood itself.

The Whistling Gypsy:

Words were ever things of madness.

Exhibit A:

Pulling up to get him, she'd seen a mousy woman trying to talk to him. Trying to chat him up. Lewis stared straight ahead, ignoring her. The woman faltered, tried again, glanced at the sound of wheels pulling up, walked away slump-shouldered as Lewis got into the car.

"Who was that?" Amber asked.

"No one," he said.

"Is she from your Shamanism group?"

"No, it's men only."

"It looked as though she wanted to start a conversation with you."

"Shall we begin the conversation about how important it is to build friendships? Let me cut to the chase—I'll be dead. It won't matter."

She refused to speak again, turned on the radio, let his jeers contend with a right-wing talk show discussing Mars' drain on the global economy, commercials selling gold and colon remedies, a tuna fish selling car insurance.

"All right," he shouted over the last. "We'll play it your way. I'm sorry."

Exhibit B:

Too unspeakable to be mentioned.

Exhibit C:

Was it something she could point to, or rather a series of things? The way her alarm clock turned itself on, on the days when she could have slept in, or how it went off twice at 3:00 am, a time she knew she hadn't set it for? Dogshit smeared inside her Crocs; her favorite zinnias blackened and drooping after he'd spent an afternoon contemplating them.

But still. Face to face, it was so much better that she thought she could endure this covert war for now.

After all, it was true. He would die and move on. All she had to do was outwait him.

A precious whole day to herself, to go into the city and talk to her editor. The nurse-aide arrived at 8; Amber was gone by 8:05.

"You need something new," the editor said over lunch, tender mussels and saffron pasta and a wine like the end of summer. "How long has it been since you introduced any new characters? It used to be one—sometimes two—per book."

Had it been that long? Was that why she found the latest one's imminence such a maddening itch?

"I'm working on a new one right now," she said.

"What is it?"

"It's still coalescing," she said, seized with fear that discussing it too much would drive the new character away, back into the darkness outside Everkind's bright borders.

The editor knew her well enough to shut up at that, to direct her attention to concerns of a possible change in paper, and where the e-rights might be picked up. It was delightful to eat and not worry about Lewis, to pretend that she was unencumbered by him.

Riding down in the elevator, laden with several advance proofs, she could feel the elevator moving downward. It made her feel vertiginous, as though she was plunging, rocketing into some unknown.

She leaned against the wall, its metal surface slick against her fingertips. The elevator was still plunging, still giving way under her feet. On and on. A dizzy reel, while the world whirled away. Amber was dizzy-dumb, and the fluorescent lights buzzed as though voicing her panic. She wanted to spread her arms, her wings and swoop upward. Escape this trap.

Would they die when they hit the bottom? Of course they would. Would she throw up before they hit or would it be quick enough to spare her that?

But no. The elevator was slowing, moving back to a normal speed. Water from a street vendor chased the taste of almost vomit from her mouth.

She was determined, though. This would be her day. Tomorrow, when she took Lewis to the hospital, she'd stop in and find out what the dizzy spell might mean. Maybe nothing more than too much food.

She went shopping, found two tailored blouses, a pair of shoes that were comfortable, strolled through a Picasso exhibit, then a set of smaller galleries.

She could feel the new character, so close she could almost glimpse it in the crowd, following at her heels. She practiced the things she might have said to it if it showed up at her elbow, the pictures she might have pointed out to it: a serigraph of Tinkertoys in bright primaries; a skull and feather fan; a distorted face floating in an abandoned hubcap, broad-stroked in acrylic paint.

She looked up. Reflected in the glass of the frame. Hawk or woman? The menacing curve of its beak. A flower-pupiled eye, cherry and amber.

She spun.

Gone.

Breathlessness seized her. She stood in the middle of the crowd, half-expecting the dizziness to attack her again. It passed. The noise of the crowd eddying around her pressed in on her ears. She need solitude, craved it.

She could not coax the vision back, but still—close. At the botanical garden, she sketched birds: starlings managing to be glossy and shabby all at once; rusty finches; a fat seagull; a smugly stupid robin; pigeon after pigeon after pigeon. None seemed right, but she lost herself in the detailing of lines forming each feather's vane: rachis and barb, plumy tufts of afterfeathers.

When she returned, she was still giddy with the pleasure of the drawing. The nurse-aide's scowl ripped the mood away.

"Don't call our agency again," he said.

"Did he have a fit?"

"Yes. It was after that. Client was inexcusably rude. I'm blacklisting you."

Not the first time. But she had thought Lewis' recent good mood might extend to interacting with other people.

He slouched on the divan, watching a feed of some event in a garden, people planting a tiny tree in a circle of cameras and tulips. Tired and drawn, hunched over himself.

"What happened?" she asked.

"The usual," he said. "You living don't understand."

"We living?" she asked, incredulous.

He looked up. His lips firmed. "It's what we call you. We who are about to die." He saluted her.

"Lewis, I didn't cause any of this. Can't you cut me some slack?"

"It is the nature of the wild bird to hate its cage," he said.

"What does that mean? How are you analogous to a singing bird?"

"I didn't say singing," he said. "I am a representative of the wild world, though. A dimension that you can't touch or comprehend."

"You never even went to summer camp," she said. "The closest you've ever come to the wild world is grilling in the park."

He snarled at her, his face so distorted with fury that it drove her a step back. "I can be anything I want to be!"

"Of course you can," she said.

"Don't fucking
humor
me!" He plunged his face into the side of the couch. Rope-skinny arms covered his head. "Just go the fuck away!"

She did.

Was he going crazy? She couldn't imagine the pressure of having Death a constant presence at your elbow. Had he become more himself, as he had said? Had he always been this mean at the core, just hid it better before?

He'd been in her study.

Nothing she could point to at first. Then she noticed the shelf where she kept her knick-knacks, inspirational objects, remembrances. The crèche Lewis had made her in childhood was off to one side.

The figures had been smashed, reduced to terra cotta shards.

She touched one little heap. The sheep, with its spiral curls signifying wool and funny, lopsided expression. A version of it was a frequent visitor in her novels. Mr. Wiggly.

The fragments were beyond reassembly, almost pulverized. She swept them into a shoe box, closed the lid on it. Shoved it in the bottom of a cupboard.

She rearranged her shelf to compensate for the absence. She touched a sheaf of feathers clustered in a vase. Eagle or hawk, she wasn't sure which. Gathered by a lake one morning at summer camp, long ago. They ruffled against her fingertips, soft comfort.

The loss hurt.

The intrusion into her workspace, always off-limits in unspoken terms, hurt even more.

Middle of the night; waking.

Something, someone stood there in the bedroom in the darkness. But she knew the door was locked, she did that habitually, couldn't sleep if she knew it was open.

Moonlight sliced across the carpet. Was she dreaming?

Something
breathed
immediately next to her ear.

She couldn't move.

Surely this
was
nightmare. All she had to do was force herself awake.

The brass-framed bed creaked and tilted as it settled onto the mattress beside her. She smelled musk and smoke.

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