Here were the things that I believed in: curling irons, books heavy enough to double as paperweights, dry cleaning, and the flat, smooth rock under my butt. I had a firm idea about the powerful breeze winding through my curly hair and causing my book’s pages to flap like a desperate bird, too.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to believe in all kinds of unlikely realities. I wanted to believe, for instance, that my mother would be home for dinner, or home at all in the next two weeks. I wanted to believe that my father would call me from whichever co-op or artists’ retreat or unholy pilgrimage he was undertaking. But Mom would work late, possibly get called to Japan or Greenland or Middle Earth or something, and dad would forget to call until it was four in the morning on a Wednesday night and I had a Latin test at seven.
Other beliefs I wanted to nurse included: the existence of kind faeries, a just God, and the dazzling worlds depicted in my heavy fantasy books, where good triumphed over evil and parents only neglected their kids because they had tragically died before the story started.
But seventeen years of life and a steady diet of old fairy tales and modern television is enough to be skeptical.
The wind was relentless. My hair flew in every direction, and the book became a living thing, fighting to escape my grasp. I wasn’t wearing the most practical outfit, either, because I had decided to try wearing my favorite style in public. These clothes were old-fashioned by any standard, featuring lacy, full skirts, long sleeves, and more bows than were strictly necessary. My dress was white with black details, and my hair was (poorly) restrained by a black, rose-topped headband. I had on white stockings and shiny Mary Janes with a little heel. In my mind, I was a refugee from a more elegant and refined time. To everyone else, I had forgotten that Halloween was two months away.
The entire ensemble was imported from
The creativity of cruelty was another thing I believed in.
Despite that, I had received mostly polite stares since my arrival in the park. Whenever anyone came to grab a stray Frisbee, they would pause for a second and let their gaze linger on the petticoat and stockings. But no one said a thing, aside from a five year old boy who asked if I was hot.
I was boiling. The dress had a high collar, and I felt the sweat gather there as I sat with my book, trying to read, to exude an aura of prim elegance. The wind was not helping my efforts.
I cut my finger on the book’s pages as I tried to flatten them out, and I winced as blood welled from the wound. I didn’t notice it then, but a few drops fell from my finger and into the clear, placid stream beside me, which was really more of a trickle than a body of water. Clusters of stones formed a rocky bed for the stream, almost entirely exposed, bright with the sun. My blood splashed against one of those stones; one drop of it, not enough to mention or miss.
I sucked on my finger and surveyed the park anxiously, hoping that my display had gone unnoticed. The afternoon had shifted to early evening, and the area’s population had thinned. The families were home now, fixing dinner; the dogs were asleep on the bed or in the yard. A few joggers passed by on the trail, but they were intent on their exercise and did not even glance at me.
I was about to stand, thinking I had survived this whole endeavor, when one of the rocks caught my eye. It was glinting with an intense, unnatural light, like a piece of coal in a fire. Disturbed, I took a step back, and then light erupted from the stone, blinding and howling.
I opened my mouth to scream, but something silenced me. Another mouth, hot and insistent, pressed to my own. I was too shocked to fight back, and strong hands on my shoulders held me still, besides.
The light faded, revealing a body, then a face—almond skin, black hair, wicked horns. A man, or something like it. He pulled back and opened his impossible, cat-like, ink and amber eyes. His expression was hopeful, pleading, and, to me in that moment, absolutely terrifying.
I tried to wrench away from his grip, and his claws tore the sleeves on my dress. His claws.
Obviously, I needed to re-evaluate my belief system.
“Does this mean that you’ve forgiven me?” the man-thing said, his voice just as urgent as his eyes. His claws bit into the meat of my shoulders, and I gasped in pain.
“Let me go,” I said, and he did, skittering away from me as if struck, as though I was the one doing violence to him.
“I am so very sorry,” he said. “Please, Brigid, say that you forgive me.”
“That’s not my name,” I said, now looking around frantically for someone, anyone, who might be witnessing this. But the park seemed empty, aside from the two of us. Dusk had quickly turned to full-on darkness, and I shivered; the night had brought a chilling wind with it.
“I don’t know who—or what—you are, or even what’s really happening right now, but I need to go home,” I said. I grabbed my black lump of a purse and fished around until I found my iPhone; the time was six-thirty, and I had missed three calls from my mom.
I decided that I was hallucinating, that my brain was somehow damaged from trying to sit primly on an uncomfortable rock for two hours, and that I would just walk away. He watched me as I set off for my car at a brisk pace, my eyes forward and my posture stiff. The parking lot was not far from the stream, and I reached my gleaming Lexus—last year’s sweet-sixteen present—after a few minutes’ walking. The car beeped comfortingly as I unlocked it on my approach. Several other vehicles dotted the lot, and I wondered where their owners were and why they hadn’t seen the strange man-creature accosting me.
Convinced now that he was an illusion brought on by fatigue, I opened the driver’s side door and slid into the front seat.
“Brigid, what manner of carriage is this?” He was in the passenger’s seat, his gravelly voice full of wonder, his cat-like pupils dilated with interest.
“You’re a figment of my imagination, so could you shut up, please?” I said. “I can’t drive well when I’m distracted.”
His earlier anxiety resurfaced; he wrung his hands and said, “I did not mean to be so forward, but I’ve been imprisoned for such a long time. Longer than I had originally presumed, for I find nothing familiar about my surroundings.” He leaned forward, and I pulled away, pressing against the hard, cold glass of my window. “Aside from your face.”
“We-well,” I said, hating my nervous stutter, “I read on Wikipedia once that everyone has a few people who look just like them, so I think you’re mistaking me for someone else. How’s about you go invade her mind and personal space, huh?”
I jammed the key into the ignition and the car growled to life. The guy-whatever panicked, extending his massive wings like a frightened bird. I was momentarily blinded by a mass of black feathers. Coughing and spitting, with my foot firmly on the brakes, I cried, “Stop! Stop.”
I reached through the swirl of feathers to touch him, both to check my understanding of reality and to, hopefully, calm him down. My hand brushed against the sharp, bony ridges of his horns, and I forced myself not to recoil. Instead, I endured the strange texture, running my fingers over his head until I felt a soft shock of hair. I petted him gently, like someone trying to soothe a fussing cat, because that was the only experience I had to draw from.
Fortunately, it worked. He settled into the seat, retracting his wings to the point that they disappeared. I blinked and began to feel a little faint.
“Okay,” I said, through gritted teeth, “I need to drive home. It’s two miles down the road. If you’re going to hang around, could you not move or talk for the next five minutes?”
“Of course, my lady,” he said, his eyes half-closed in pleasure, as I was still rubbing my thumb against the back of his neck. Maybe treating him like a cat was the right instinct. Maybe he was a dream-version of my cat and I had imagined this entire day, had lost my nerve at leaving the house in my frilly clothes and instead daydreamed a scenario in which I was brave. Maybe I was actually sitting on my bed at home and would wake up soon. But the scene never shifted abruptly to my room, and his breathing was too audible and his skin too warm to be anything but real.
I withdrew my hand, and he slumped down, sullen but docile.
He remained that way until I pulled up the drive way to my house, which was big, bright, and free of human life, as usual. Mom insisted that I keep all the outside lights—including the pool lights—on constantly, and that I make sure at least three of the windows facing the street were lit up, too. She thought this would deter home invaders. I glanced at the persistent figure of memory/mythology beside me and concluded that my mother’s efforts were in vain.
He followed me up to the door, staring silently as I went in, disabled the alarm, and then headed to the kitchen. The answering machine had six messages on it, and I knew without listening that at least four of them were mom. As I punched in the numbers for her office, my figment asked me what year it was.
“We are firmly in the twenty-first century, Buck Rogers,” I said.
My mother picked up on the second ring. “Ciara, where have you been?” she hissed. “You know you’re supposed to check in with me every day, before dark.”
“I know, ma,” I said. “I was at the park and lost track of time.” And possibly my sanity.
“But you’re at the house now, right?” Over a full minute passed before her reply, and I could hear other people trying to catch her attention in the background.
“Obviously,” I said.
“Sorry, we’re about to start a conference call. I’ll call you later. Make sure the doors are locked!”
“Little late for that,” I muttered, but she had already hung up. My mother practiced intense and largely ineffective long-distance concern. I doubted that I would see her until the middle of the week—when she was in the middle of an important deal, which was constantly, she often rented a hotel room nearer to her office and slept there instead of coming home.
Figment-thing had inspected the kitchen while I talked on the phone. His head was in the freezer when I turned back to him.
“Enjoying yourself?” I said.
He rumbled with dissatisfaction and stepped back from the fridge. “That’s truly the most advanced ice-box I’ve yet seen. This is the twenty-first century, you say?”
His accent was vaguely British, and he pronounced words carefully, as though he thought for a second about each one before saying it out loud. When he moved towards me, his body was awkward, loping, like a large and uncertain child. Still, he crossed the room in two strides, stopping right in front of me again, staring at me.
“You are not Brigid,” he pronounced.
“My name is Ciara Fisk,” I said. “Mistaken identity, I’m telling you.”
“No,” he said. “I am not mistaken. Her blood is yours.”
“Her—what—?” I glanced at the receiver in my hand. This was progressing from unnerving to creepy real fast.
“She is your relation,” he said. “You have no one by that name in your lineage?”
I was about to say no, and then paused. I had done an ancestry project in social studies ages ago, and an image of my clumsily drawn family-tree popped up in my memory. My father’s great-grandmother had that name. Or great-great. It was way up the branches.
“So what if I do? She’s been dead for over a hundred years now,” I said.
“And I have been locked away for that long, Ciara Fisk,” he replied. “Only her blood could break the spell set on me, and so it has.”
“Blood spell?” I whispered, clutching the receiver so tightly that I accidentally dialed a random mish-mash of numbers. A computerized woman droned that my call could not be completed as dialed, but my mind had turned to cotton. “What are you, exactly?”
“Mordecai,” he said, extending his hand with a flourish. “Demon prince of the lower depths. I am esteemed to be in your service.”
I held onto the counter for support. I wanted desperately for someone to shake me awake, but I could no longer deny that I was not dreaming.
“A demon,” I repeated. “From hell?”
“That’s a common and extremely hurtful misconception,” Mordecai said, sounding more rehearsed than offended. “You’re conflating two different concepts. Fallen angels live in hell, and I assure you that I have no part in their business.”
“But you said that Brigid locked you away.”
His gaze dropped to the floor. “An unavoidable truth.”
“Can I ask why?”
He clicked his tongue and sighed deeply. “It has been so many years … I simply cannot recall. I’m sure it was something dreadful.”
“What brand of dreadful?” I said. I replaced the receiver on its base. Some part of me wanted to hold onto it in case Mordecai lunged at me and I needed to call for help, but I had a feeling that a fight between me and demon would be over in a matter of seconds. Besides, even though I wouldn’t call him stable, he didn’t seem dangerous. If anything, he was depressed.
I walked into the den and he lumbered along behind me, his heavy boots thudding against the linoleum.
“Was it, like … stealing a necklace, dreadful? Telling an embarrassing story in public? Calling her best friend a slut, maybe?”
“No …” Mordecai said. “Much worse than that, I’m sure.”
He sat down on the long, plush couch and yawned, showing off his fanged teeth. I cleared my throat.
“Do not misunderstand,” he went on. “Brigid summoned me in the first place. I … cared for her.”
I touched my lips, remembering how he had greeted me with a kiss. My first, actually, unless you counted towheaded Tim in my kindergarten play group, which I did not. Technically, Mordecai didn’t count either, since he wasn’t human. Though he definitely had a body like a man. But still. Not eligible, especially since he wasn’t kissing me—only who he thought I was.
“Did she, uh, care for you?” I said.
“My memories are a broken mirror. But I do have a vivid image stuck in my mind, of Brigid casting the binding spell,” he said. “Her voice was clear and firm, her eyes bright … but her hands shook, and tears trailed down her cheeks.”
“Oh,” I said. When I had done research for that ancestry project, I never came across anything about magic. The most interesting fact I uncovered was from my mother’s side, whose ancestors might possibly have been Vikings. Or been conquered by Vikings. Something like that. Either way, I had missed the clippings of any demonic exploits.
I toyed with the remote, unsure of where to go from here. Mordecai was splayed out across the couch like he had lived in this house all his life. Even my cat, Mr. Boots, took to Mordecai immediately, jumping up beside him and purring in his face.
“I thought cats hated the supernatural,” I muttered.
“They do,” Mordecai said. “But my kind is as natural as they come.”
“I don’t know about that.”
Mordecai allowed Mr. Boots to climb over his shoulders and then slide down into his lap, where the cat promptly began to knead his thigh. “Demon was once just another word for ‘spirit’, and that’s what I am—an earth spirit. Not so different from this fine fellow.”
“So—you’re not going to devour my soul.”
“I like my own just as well,” Mordecai said. He ran the tip of his claw over my cat’s back, and I started forward, afraid that he would tear the skin. But Mr. Boots arched his back happily and dug his own claws in deeper, shredding Mordecai’s leather breeches.
“He can be a little destructive,” I said.
“I don’t mind,” Mordecai said. “It’s in his nature.” Like most cats, Mr. Boots was primarily concerned with what made him happy, and didn’t mind who got scratched in the process. I had a constant lattice-work of tiny cuts on my stomach, wrists, and ankles. But Boots was a housecat. Mordecai, whose smile suggested a greater kinship than I had previously thought, was a tiger.
“I need to change,” I said, getting up quickly. “It’s not easy to breathe in this dress.”
He sat up, preparing to follow.
“No, no,” I said. “You stay there. Um. Entertain the cat.” I tossed him the remote. “You can watch TV, if you want.”
I made my escape while he jabbed the remote’s buttons, fascinated.
Nothing man-shaped had ever come into my room, and I wasn’t ready to change that yet. Besides, I needed a minute alone.
I unzipped the dress, which was so damp with sweat that it clung to me like a second skin. As I gingerly pulled the sleeves down and stepped out, I noticed dark spots under the arms and along the neckline, which meant a costly trip to the cleaner’s. Not that it was my money, or that my mother noticed most of the charges on her credit card, anyway.
I hung up the dress and settled into my pajamas; a long t-shirt and soft, cotton pants patterned with Hello Kitty faces. My gut, freed from the tight dress, expanded in relief. As I sat down with my laptop, Mordecai’s presence loomed large in my mind, but he would be okay for a few minutes. I had to run through all of my social networks, which had been left unchecked for an unforgivable eight hours today.
The moment I logged into my email, I was hit with an instant message from my friend, Tea. Tea lived a few states over and ran a ridiculously popular style blog. She wrote snappy posts about the latest pieces from the best brands and took daily photographs of her own outfits, which were reblogged and admired by her thousands of followers. Dark and thin like a drinking straw, Tea’s big, gray eyes, heart-shaped jaw and always glossy lips made her the perfect model for petticoats and tiny handbags and just about anything else, really. I moderated a discussion community about my love for girlish Japanese clothes and we had met that way, years ago.
Honeymilktea: hey girl how is life
how did yr whole
exhibitionism thing play out
CiCi: It wasn’t exhibitionism. And it was fine, mostly.
Honeymilktea: girl you are the one who
talked about it that way
like you were going to get socially arrested for
i wear my shit out all the time
& it ain’t no thang
CiCi: But you’re really pretty.
Honeymilktea: how many times do I have to discuss my sexual
feelings towards you before you understand
your own level of hotness
three million? Four? I can
handle that achievement
Honeymilktea: i just wanna know
CiCi: You’re so ridiculous. Anyway, it was kind of weird.
Honeymilktea: weird how
did somebody try to start something with you?
i will drive down there keke
i will cut somebody
CiCi: Not really. People hardly noticed me. I just ran into someone
strange on the way home. This guy.
Honeymilktea: ooohh gurl
CiCi: It’s not like that! Oh my God, it’s not even like that
Honeymilktea: ok whatevs
ima go cry at the thought of yr lost virginity ;(
She signed off, but I knew she was just going to write up a post about whatever amazing ensemble she wore today. She was always being silly like that; it was why half the internet had a crush on her. That and her perfectly rounded nose.
I spent a few more minutes clicking around, checking the usual blogs and feeds, but I couldn’t focus. The words and images blurred together like so much virtual sludge. I tapped my foot when I was nervous or agitated, and I was smacking the carpet so hard that my whole desk was shuddering.
I pushed away from the computer, giving up.
“I hope you two are playing nice down there,” I said as I descended the steps. But Mr. Boots was curled up on the couch alone, his tail lashing from side to side.
“Where did tall, dark and fangy go?” I said. Boots yawned.
“Mordecai!” I shouted, walking from room to empty room. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
He didn’t answer. I stalked through the house, searching every room, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. The den, the dining room, the bathrooms and Mom’s office—they were all, as always, in coldly perfect arrangement. The cushions in the formal living room were undisturbed; the leather books were artfully stacked on the glass coffee table; the piano keys gleamed with disuse. Aside from Mr. Boots padding to his food dish, everything was motionless and silent. My house was an immaculate tomb, and being there alone at night was nerve-wracking.
In the five years since my parents’ divorce, since my father’s exodus from this home and everything about his life here, my nerves had taken a lot of punishment.
When he still lived here, he would spend the crisp, autumn evenings out on the patio, grilling chicken breasts for us. We ate around a fire pit that he filled with cedar wood, watching the sparks pop and hiss against the screen as the sweet, warm scent enveloped us. He poured white wine for himself and my mother, and for me he mixed a sparkling juice cocktail. We hadn’t used that space for years.
Adjacent to the patio, the pool churned quietly, its water lit by rows of solar lamps stuck into the flower beds. I squinted into the darkness beyond that, trying to see across the full expanse of the yard. The house sat on three acres, most of which were grass and willow trees. The property line brushed up against untouched forest, which I had wandered into once or twice when I was younger. Ours was a secluded suburb, and the forest stretched several miles back. My parents discouraged impulses to explore, but I discovered the Internet at thirteen and made their worries moot.
I opened the door a crack and poked my head out. The brisk wind pinched me, and the ground seemed to shift with the movements of voles and rabbits. In the distance, I heard hooting, mixed with the throaty wail of a coyote. Mr. Boots wound around my legs, but he didn’t cross the threshold. He was strictly an indoor cat, despite his occasional feelings to the contrary.
“Where’s your new friend, huh?” I said. Mr. Boots flopped down on my bare foot, unhelpfully.
“You’re useless,” I said. He purred, taking it as a compliment.
I called for Mordecai one last time. I had the urge to run into the middle of backyard and demand his presence, but I fought it. The grass would feel like ice blades at this time of night, and I wasn’t wearing much. I waited at the door for a while all the same, but the night had nothing to say to me.
He was a figment, then. I was just that lonely. I picked up my cat, turned on the television, maxed the volume and let the voices fill my house and my head.
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