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Authors: Rin Chupeco

The Girl from the Well

BOOK: The Girl from the Well
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Copyright © 2014 by Rin Chupeco

Cover and internal design © 2014 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover designed by Torborg Davern

Cover image © Mark Owen / Arcangel Images

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Fire, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the publisher.

For Les—

who taught me that monsters need love, too.

CHAPTER ONE
Fireflies

I am where dead children go.

With other kinds of dead, it is different. Often their souls drift quietly away, like a leaf caught in the throes of a hidden whirlpool, slipping down without sound, away from sight. They roll and ebb gently with the tides until they sink beneath the waves and I no longer see where they go—like sputtering candlelight, like little embers that burn briefly and brightly for several drawn moments before their light goes out.

But they are not my territory. They are not my hunt.

And then there are the murdered dead. And they are peculiar, stranger things.

You may think me biased, being murdered myself. But my state of being has nothing to do with curiosity toward my own species, if we can be called such. We do not go gentle, as your poet encourages, into that good night.

We are the fates that people fear to become. We are what happens to good persons and to bad persons and to everyone in between. Murdered deads live in storms without season, in time without flux. We do not go because people do not let us go.

The man refuses to let her go, though he does not know this yet. He is inside an apartment that smells of dirty cigarettes and stale beer. He sits on a couch and watches television, where a man tells jokes. But this man who wears a stained white shirt, with his pudgy arms and foul vapors, this man does not laugh. He has too much hair on his head and on his face and on his chest, and he is drinking from a bottle and not listening to anything but the alcohol in his thoughts. His mind tastes like sour wine, a dram of sake left out in the dark for too long.

There are other things inside this apartment that he owns. There are filthy jackets of shiny fabric (three). Empty bottles (twenty-one) dribble dregs of brown liquid onto the floor. Thin tobacco stalks (five) are grounded on a tiny tray, smoke curling over their stunted remains.

There are other things inside the apartment that he does not own. Small, pale pink scratches of cloth snagged against nails in the floorboards (three). A golden strand of hair, smothered within the confines of wood (one).

Something

gurgles,

from somewhere nearby. It is a loud and sudden noise, and it penetrates through the haze of his inebriation, startling him.

The Stained Shirt Man turns his head to a nearby wall and shouts, “You better fix that fuckin' toilet tomorrow, Shamrock!” mistaking one problem for another. If he is expecting a reply, he does not receive it, but he does not seem to care.

He does not look my way because he does not see me. Not yet.

But she does.

I can tell she has not been dead long. Her long, yellow hair hangs limply around her waist, her skin gray and brittle and bloated. The man drowned her quickly, so quickly that she does not realize it. This is why her mouth opens and closes, why she gulps at intervals like a starving fish, why she is puzzled at the way she does not breathe.

Her blue eyes look into mine from where I lie hidden, shrouded in shadow. An understanding passes between us for I, too, remember that terrible weight of water. Her prison had been of ceramic, mine wrought from cobbled stones. In the end, it made little difference to either of us.

The Stained Shirt Man does not see her, either. He does not notice the thin, bony arms clasped about his neck, or the manner in which her little rag dress is hiked up above her hips, her legs balanced against the small of his back. He does not notice the beginnings of decay that are ravaging a face that should have been delicate and pretty.

Many people are like him; they do not feel burdened by the weight of those they kill. A rope braid around her thin wrist is attached to another folded over the man's arm. I wear a similar loop around my wrist, though unlike her, I endure this affliction with no one else. The rope trails several feet behind me, the edges shorn.

The man talking from inside the television disappears, and the thrum of static buzzes at the Stained Shirt Man's consciousness, nagging at him like an angry bee. Cursing again, he tosses his empty bottle away and strides to the box, fiddling with the dials. After a minute, he pounds a fist down on top of it once, twice, three times. The television continues to hum, unimpressed.

He is still angry when the lights in the room wink out one by one, leaving him nothing for company but the still-fizzling box.

“Son of a bitch!” he says, kicking it for good measure. As punishment, the noises stop and the television flickers back on, but the man telling jokes is nowhere to be seen. Instead, for a few seconds, something else flashes across the screen.

It is a wide, staring

eye

and it is looking back at him.

It disappears, though the buzzing continues. The man gapes. He is afraid at first—that delicious fear steals across his face—but when the image does not repeat itself soon, he begins to think and then to argue and then to dismiss, the way people do when they are seeking explanations for things that cannot be explained.

“Must have imagined it,” he mutters to himself, rubbing at his temple and belching. The girl on his back says nothing.

The Stained Shirt Man moves to the bathroom and frowns when he turns on a switch but sees only darkness. Nonetheless, he moves toward the sink and begins to wash his face.

When he lifts his head, I am standing directly behind him, but only the top of my head and my eyes are visible over his own. The face rising over the back of his skull is one I have worn for many centuries, an oddity for one who has only seen sixteen years of life. But I have little cause to see myself in reflections, and sometimes I forget the face is mine.

Our gazes meet in the mirror, and the Stained Shirt Man shouts in alarm, stepping away. But when he turns back, all he sees is his own sweating face, drenched in water and fear.

Something gurgles

again.

This time, it is closer.

The Stained Shirt Man's eyes swing toward the bathtub. It is covered in dirt and grime and thin traces of bile. A large pool of blood is forming underneath it, spiraling outward until it touches the tips of his leather boots.

Tag,

the blood is saying.

You

are

it.

And from inside this bathtub a decomposing hand reaches out, grabbing the side with enough strength that the porcelain cracks from the urgency of its grip. The Stained Shirt Man slides to the floor in shock and fright, legs suddenly useless, as

I

heave myself up and over the side of the bathtub to land in a heap of flesh before him. I am writhing. My body stiffens and contracts, tangled hair obscuring enough features that you would not know what I am, only what I am not.

I gurgle a third time.

The Stained Shirt Man crawls back into the living room swearing and screaming. In his fright, he stains his pants with his own excrement. He grabs at a phone, but the line is dead. Stumbling back onto his feet, he tries to feel his way through the dark, the sputtering light of the television set his only guide. He finds the door and tugs at it frantically, but it will not open.

“Help me! Oh God oh God…Help me!”

He begins to drive his shoulder against the wood, his efforts redoubling once he realizes

I

have followed him out of the bathroom, slithering, slithering, bone joints cracking and noisy from disuse.

“Shamrock!” His voice totters on panic. “Shamrock, can you hear me! Anybody out there! I…Jesus! Jesus Christ, help me!”

There is terrible contorting in the way the figure he sees moves. It does not crawl. It does not speak. There is only a dreadful, singular purpose in the way its fingers and feet scuttle closer, spread from its body like a human spider, though I am neither human nor spider.

The Stained Shirt Man soon realizes the futility and sinks back to the ground. “Was it the girl?” he asks then, and in his piggish eyes, dreadful realization seeps through. “Was it the girl? I didn't mean to…I never—I swear I won't do it again, I swear! I won't do it again!”

He is right. He will never do this again.

“Please,” he croaks, lifting his hands as if they could shield him, and whether he is asking for mercy or wishes to be killed quicker, I do not know. “Please please please pleasepleasepleaseplease.”

Something gurgles one last time, and it is above him. He looks up.

This is how the Stained Shirt Man now sees me.

He sees a woman on the ceiling.

Her gray feet are bare, settled against the beams.

She hangs down.

Her chin is jutted out, her head twisted to the side in a way that the only thing certain is her broken neck.

She wears a loose, white kimono spattered in mud and blood.

Her hair floats down, drifting past her face like a thinly veiled curtain, but this does not protect him from the

sight

of her eyes.

There are no whites in her eyes; they are an impenetrable, dilated black.

Her skin is a mottled patchwork of abuse and bone, some of it stripped from the edges of her mouth. And yet her mouth is hollow, curved into a perpetual scream, jaws too wide to be alive.

For a long moment we stare at each other—he, another girl's murderer, and I, another man's victim. Then my mouth widens further, and I

de

tach

myself from the ceiling to lunge, my unblinking eyes boring into his panicked, screaming face.

• • •

Some time later, the other girl comes to stand by my side. Silently, she holds out her arms, knowing what comes next. The braid around her wrist dissolves. At the same time, the rope on the dead man's arm shatters like it was made of glass.

She is free. She is smiling at me with her gap-toothed grin. When the dead are young and have once known love, they bring no malice. Something glows inside her, something that flares brighter and brighter until her features and form are swallowed up, obscured by that blessed warmth.

Yearly festivals of
chochin
were celebrated in my youth, paper lanterns lit to honor the dead during older, younger times. In dimmer recollections I remember grabbing at those delicate, fire-lit paper lanterns and the excitement that coursed through me as I held them aloft. I remember running along the riverbanks, watching dozens of
chochin
afloat on the water, bobbing and waving at me as I struggled to keep pace, until they drifted off into larger rivers, into places where I could not follow.

I remember straining to see the lanterns floating away, growing smaller until darkness enveloped the last. I imagine them in my memory like tiny fireflies hovering over the river's surface, ready to find their way into the world. Even then I found the word fitting, soothing.

Fireflies.

Fire

flies.

Fire,
fly
.

I remember my mother's voice, warm and vibrant before the sickness crept inside her. I remember her telling me how
chochin
bear the souls of those who have passed away. It is why we light these representations of their essences, she said, and float them in rivers—to allow the waters to return them to the world of the dead, where they belong.

The dead girl, like many other dead girls before her, resembles these
chochin
. When she begins to shine so very brightly, I take her gently in my hands, the soft heat suffusing my being with a sense of peace I am unaccustomed to. It is only for a few seconds. But when you have resigned yourself to an eternity filled with little else but longing, a few seconds is enough.

I release her soul outside the Stained Shirt Man's apartment. By then she is nothing more than a glowing ball of fire cradled against my withered form. I close my eyes, trying to absorb every bit of warmth I can take from her—to bring out and remember during other colder nights—before lifting my hands to the sky. Unbidden, she rises up, floating briefly above me as if granting benediction, before she continues to soar higher and higher like an autumn balloon, until she becomes another speck of cloud, another trick of the light.

Fire,

fly.

I am where dead children go. But not even I know where they go when I am done, whether to a higher plane or to a new life. I only know this: like the
chochin
of my youth, where they go, I cannot follow.

I stand there for a long time, just watching the sky. But nothing else moves in that darkness, and in this wide expanse of night, I see little else but stars.

BOOK: The Girl from the Well
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