By Cat Rambo

The story might begin like this:

“Thank you for bringing me some water,” Lewis said as Amber neared the kitchen table. “Thank you for working to pay the rent on our house, because otherwise we wouldn’t have access to the water that comes free with it.”

“Fuck you,” Amber said. She was tired of this tune, tired of its tension clamping down on her neck muscles, gripping like lightning-laden wire along her inner arms.

This morning Lewis wore an unexpected, Dr. Seuss-bright tie, along with the usual plain white shirt and stiff new jeans. The cat strode across the fabric, peppermint-striped hat tilted, infinitely more carefree than her younger brother. Lewis folded his fingers, thumbs pressed together, pointed toward himself.

“No, I mean it,” Lewis said. “Thank you.”

She thumped the glass down near his elbow, sat to sprinkle salt substitute over her own microwaved sausage-in-an-egg-in-a-biscuit. Lewis had the same, plus a paper cup holding a dozen horse-sized pills, and two glasses of oily liquid.

After three bites of sausage, he methodically downed the pills, first using the vitamin-ade, then the water. He did it with a frown, looking into the distance as though examining himself in the bathroom mirror while shaving.

Was she supposed to ask why he was wearing a tie? What sort of scheme was he involved with now? How much of her money or energy or patience or love would it consume?

She was never sure how much of his hostility was humor, but the majority was genuine rancor at being unemployed, dependent on her.

“I’m staying late at the hospital after my treatment this afternoon,” Lewis said. “Using the spare time you so generously support me with to read to children. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a valuable use of my time, a contribution to society that you’re sponsoring.”

She wavered between opting to swat back the hostility or ignore his tone. She didn’t want to fight. “What are you reading to them?”

He gestured at the tie. “This sort of thing.”

“What time should I take you?”

“More shining generosity on your part. Don’t worry, I’m keeping track. I’ll figure out how to pay you back. Eventually. A little before two.”

“What kids are you reading to?”

“The fatalities,” he said. “Who better? The ones that aren’t going to make it.”

Like him, Plague-touched. The rare genetically gifted ones that could survive its ravages, though not neurologically intact, knowing that they had a few years left.

#

That, too, is another way the story might begin, Lewis and Amber listening to the doctor explain how long Lewis might live, given the right care and treatment: one to five years. And how long he would live without it: less than a year.

Amber watching a cloudy sky outside the window, ashy as Lewis’s face. He kept looking at her as though to judge her reaction. Dependency shaded by years of sibling rivalry and affection. Amber seeing Lewis as though through a window. Seeing too little time left with her brother.

And also too much time, too much to dedicate herself to him, putting aside everything but her work, in order to support him, like some nun in a solitary abbey. One to five years of watching over him. One to five years of driving him to his hospital appointments, one to five years of seeing the hospital, becoming familiar with its corridors, knowing where every bathroom, every drinking fountain, every vending machine, every waiting lounge was.

#

“Enjoy reading to the kids,” Amber said as she pulled up to the curb. “I think it’s a nice gesture.”

Lewis had been silent during the car ride, even when she had tried to bait conversation with conservative talk radio.

“What time should I pick you up?” she said.

“Seven.”

“That late?”

“Can you do it or not? I can take a taxi if I need to.”

And be stiff and terrified all through the ride that one of his fits would come, without her to coax him back, away from unbending panic, with a driver who wouldn’t know what to do with a hyperventilating, shaking passenger.

She could let him do it, but she’d sit there waiting, anxious, unable to work, until he came home.

“I can do it,” she said.

He stepped out, thin and frail with recent body loss. Almost time for another trip to Sears; he’d dropped another pants size. The tie flashed in the sunlight.

He walked away.

#

The air was full of cottonwood that spring, riding the air like memories of ash. Last year Mount Rainier had rumbled, as though announcing Lewis’s diagnosis, sent out a cloud that had coated the countryside for miles. Even now, traces of it lingered on roofs and rocks. Like everyone else, she had mason jars filled with the silky ash, so unsettlingly smooth to the touch.

Time and solitude in which to work. She ascended to her attic studio, settled like a weary bird into the papa-san chair, queued up Kay Gardner, Bach cello suites, then Beatles and Will Flirt For Fairy Fruit on the music player, pulled over her graphic tablet, and began to sketch.

When work was going well, it flowed, a narrow river into which she could submerge herself, almost forgetting to breathe, feeling colors, lines move through her, coming from her lungs and heart and brain, coiling together before racing through her stylus point onto the computer, words and pictures becoming the Land of Everkind, its citizens the people of Leaf and Flower, and the talking animals that helped and hampered them.

She had been working on them for two decades now. Characters as familiar to her as Lewis: Mrs. Mountebank and her be-ribboned head; the Whistling Gypsy; the Turtle-headed Woman; the Count of Cube; Pepperjill’s Magic Monkey troupe; the Tango Gotango Gotengo.

Some parents thought the books too dark. The characters too raw, too savage. But that was what children liked. The monster under the bed. The touch of fear at their heels. Mrs. Mountebank’s dark-windowed wagon; the magic monkeys’ pointed teeth.

A new character was coming to her. She could feel it fluttering at her mind’s edges. She sat still for a half hour, trying to will it closer. It stayed out of reach, as it had for months now.

She drew herself, Lewis on the pad, drew them looking at each other. Similar features. Lewis was skinnier, but not by much. Staring, caught.

Trapped.

She wiped the image away, let a story distract her. Caught herself moments after seven. She’d be ten minutes late. Not inexcusable, but he wouldn’t excuse it. And she’d wasted valuable alone-time on reading! She raced down the steps to the car with an angry clatter of keys.

She pulled into a waiting space in front of the hospital lobby. Lewis was staring at his watch. Her dashboard read 7:13.

He attacked, vicious as a wasp, as soon as he entered. “Glad you could spare time to pick me up.”

“Lewis, sorry, I lost track,” she said.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” he said. Brittle, icy-edged in a way that sometimes signaled a fit’s immanence, sometimes just a tantrum. “Perhaps you would be so kind as to stop at the drug store? I have some things to get. Wait in the car if you want.”

He knew she’d opt for that.

After ten minutes she raised her head in time to see Lewis exiting the drugstore.

She readied her keys but saw him turn into the craft store that was next door.

What was he doing?

She waited.

The store was busy. A few dozen people came and went through the double glass doors before Lewis exited, carrying a plastic bag. Stems protruded from the opening, brown and knobby. Dried flowers?

He dumped his purchases on the back seat. She smelled eucalyptus. His look dared her to ask.

Whatever it was, he’d tell her in time.

The car chimed reproof as she started it, flashing an indicator for Lewis’s missing seatbelt. As always, she thumbed it off, rather than argue with him.

“How was reading to the kids?” she asked.

“Fine,” he said. “Good kids. Most of them.”

“Not all of them?” she said, surprised.

“Think being close to dying makes somebody automatically good?” he said.

He pressed his fingers to the ledge where door met window, marched his hand along, middle finger become a head half raised.

When they were little, Amber eight to Lewis’s three, they had pretended their hands were animals that explored the tops of the sofa and walked like tightrope dancers along the playpen’s high wire.

The memory made her smile.

“People just become more of whatever they were to begin with,” Lewis said. “Concentrated. Much more so.” Malicious smile. “Like ever so much more grateful to you, darling Amber.”

Plucking away her expression like a spider web.

#

Lewis read to the children every Tuesday and Thursday. He continued to be inexplicably late. He couldn’t be reading to children for five hours.

Might he be dating someone?

Imagine if someone else took him on, drove him from place to place, paid for the medicine that kept him alive for the perhaps-four-years (but who knew what might happen, how that statistic might stretch with medical advances) he had left. It would be as sudden, as welcome as a fairy godmother’s wish granting, removing the responsibility for Lewis from her life.

What would it be like if someone else–perhaps a nurse with excellent health insurance, prone to wounded bird sorts–took that on?

Extracting the hospital newsletter from the mail one morning, she’d looked through the list of classes and discussion groups: Social Networking for Seniors; Health Insurance Basics; Applying for Disability Benefits; Journaling for Beginners; Intensive Journaling; Extreme Journaling, Alcoholics Anonymous; Sexoholics Anonymous; Netheads Anonymous; Strength Training and You; Ornithology for Your Window Feeder; How to Live Without Salt; You and Your Colon; Learning to Trust Doctors; Making a Living Will; Vegan Cooking.

Practical Shamanism.

She’d smelled sage and lavender wafting from his room. New habits: an odd gesture with his hands before and after eating, a phrase said under his breath. A scuttle of unintelligible words, like a tinny echo of a prayer in foreign movie. Sitting by himself, staring at plants in the garden.

What could it be other than Practical Shamanism?

She stuffed the brochure in the recycling bin as though it might tip him off that she’d been snooping. Give him something new to reproach her with.

She didn’t want to ask him directly. She wasn’t sure what to make of the concept of shamanism, or even where it fit into the world of the New Agey.

What else could she do but search on the Internet, making mental notes, bookmarking as she hopped from page to page?

A range of beliefs. Tarot and divinatory dreams. The healing properties of tourmaline and snowflake obsidian. The ability to enter other dimensions. Healers and renders of the soul, one website read. Animal or spirit guides.

She pushed her chair back and stretched. Wondered which of her characters would be her spirit guide. She loved them all. Maybe Mrs. Mountebank and the Whistling Gypsy a trifle more. Only a trifle. And they weren’t animals.

What was Lewis’ spirit guide? A snake, a wasp? Something more terrifying? She could not imagine it being benign.

But Lewis seemed happier, less snappy. Perhaps she could relax. Never entirely, though. She’d been ambushed too often.

#

From The Annals of Everkind:

Lily the Turtle-headed Woman: Something’s coming, sure as shooting stars.

Mr. Wiggly: Baa!

LtThW: No, I mean it. A chancy sort of thing, and lunatic as the moon’s frown.

#

Lewis flipping through TV channels. The trees rattled their fingers on the dark window, swished their leaves against the glass as though asking to come in.

“They’re called Dhami,” he said.

“Who?”

“The shamans in the school of teaching I’m studying.” He smirked. “Now you’ll tell me how nice it is I’m doing something outside the house.”

“I didn’t know you were interested in shamanism,” she said. She could see, given the list of other groups, why he might have chosen it.

His tone altered, slipped out of its usual snakeskin coated form. Became more sincere. “They teach what might happen after death. How you can prepare.”

The honesty stunned her. The first moment like this they’d had, since he’d become a nuisance. A nuisance but also something she loved fiercely, had missed like a lost forearm ever since he’d withdrawn from her.

She groped for words like someone trying not to scare an exotic, unimaginable bird, phoenix or quetzalcoatl. If the shamanism class had taught him this, she was all for it.

“What are you learning?”

But the moment had passed, sudden as a cloud’s shadow slipping away.

He folded his arms. “I’m going in Sunday mornings as well, for a drumming workshop at the coffeehouse.”

Did she need to stay and wait, in case he needed her? She could take her pad and wait in the car. He shook his head in answer.

“Some nurses from the hospital are attending. They know what to do.” He sneered. “It’ll get me out of the house, I knew you’d approve. You can make more of your little books.”

That stung enough that she retreated to her workshop. She took her buzzer. It would alert her if he fell prey to a fit.

She curled in the chair. How had she come up with Everkind? Stories she wrote as a child, crude wish-fulfillment, a kingdom of magical ponies battling a villain called Brutescruel. She’d drawn them whenever she could.

Eventually she’d added more characters, made more and more sophisticated stories. She listened to concepts, dramatic tension, denouement, foreshadowing, in a creative writing class, and found them familiar, like learning a language you knew as a child. Find your voice, one teacher kept saying, but she had already found hers.

The stories had possessed her. They emerged beneath her pen, flowed like a fountain. Even when she’d graduated and gone to work as a graphic designer, she’d still drawn them. An art director who liked to mentor had sent one off to a publishing company.

The rest was history. The Everkind graphic novels, her “little books,” might not be wildly popular, but they did provide enough to pay the rent and for the medicines that ate up four fifths of her income. He knew as well as she did that she could be living much better. His illness was responsible for the shabby but clean house that they lived in, the ten-year-old car she drove.

Downstairs, Lewis moved about, restless, turning on a nature show on the TV, then talk radio, the kitchen mini-TV sending out the ping of a bat, a crowd’s roar. Battling soundtracks. The inevitable precursor to a fit.

She was downstairs before the device in her pocket buzzed.

He lay on the floor, shuddering for breath. She thumbed the hypo-spray, pressed it into his forearm. He moved from side to side, helpless, staring up. She looked away, didn’t meet his eyes. Her fingers rested on his inner arm, letting his pulse race against her fingers, agonized, slowing at an imperceptible rate.

Her hand drooped like a sad little animal.

She wanted him to live.

She wanted, more than anything else in the world, for him to die.

Pain and hate and despair twisted his face.

Twisted her heart.

#

A childhood memory:

They’d insisted on going by themselves through the fun house, ten-year-old Amber, seven-year-old Lewis.

Amber knew it had been a terrible mistake the moment the cart jolted forward into darkness. Bones and red cloth and LED-lit eyes swooped at her. Lewis screamed. She flinched into him and put her arm around him.

“Close your eyes,” she said. “Nothing can hurt you if your eyes are closed.” She did the same.

There were noises, of course, shrieks and cackles. Twice, string brushed over her face. Lewis clutched her; she held onto his reassuring presence. The cart shuddered and tilted, ascended an incline. Doors swung open. Sunlight flooded around them, almost blinding them.

The second floor balcony track led along a ledge before returning to the funhouse. Amber could see her father and mother in the crowd below. They waved up, smiling.

Lewis screamed, trying to climb out onto the balcony. She held onto him, terrified he’d be caught in the machinery. She was the only thing protecting him. Anger flashed through her. Why had her parents left her with this terrible responsibility?

“Close your eyes. Close your eyes,” she repeated.

They returned to darkness and clamor.

Afterward they emerged, shaken and hand in hand, to eat hot dogs and throw up without preamble. Their displeased parents took them home.

In later years, they were uneasy allies. Sometimes they stole toys or candy from each other’s rooms. Other times, generosity moved them. Lewis made Amber an elaborate Christmas crèche in his art class that was still a treasured decoration in her study. She spent a month making him a dollhouse-space station in which his Star Trek figurines and her Barbies played.

#

Coming into the kitchen, she saw him with saltshaker raised over the pot burbling on the flat stove surface.

“Don’t put that in,” she said. And exasperated: “For Pete’s sake, you know I have to watch that for my blood pressure.”

He shrugged. “Guess I forgot. I don’t have to watch that sort of thing.”

#

He picked up his socks and jacket after himself, as though he had more energy. The lines around his eyes plumped out. He was nicer.

He still smelled of sage and lavender, and now other things, musk and sweet-amber and something with an odd metallic edge. Still muttered almost beyond her hearing, a phrase that sounded like calling for an errant dog.

Did she trust Lewis? No. And disliked herself for not being able to go that far. When had she become so cynical, so cold?

She kept waiting. Had a character ever taken such an agonizingly long time to come to her before? She wondered what a shaman would suggest. How to invoke it.

What had she ever known of this unseen world that Lewis dabbled in? Once, when she was eight or nine, she’d been upstairs, standing near the head of the staircase, when she’d heard a woman’s voice shout, “Help me, someone help me.” It had been so real, so close that she’d called out to her parents.

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 become 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 three am, a time she knew she hadn’t sent 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 eight; Amber was gone by five past.

“You need something new,” the editor said over lunch: tender mussels and saffron pasta and a wine, tasting 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 immanence 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 were 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 seize her again. It passed. The noise of the crowd eddying around her pressed in on her ears. She needed 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 feathers’ vane: rachis and barb, plumy tufts of after-feathers.

When she returned, she was still giddy with the pleasure of 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 backward. “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 hidden 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 shoebox, 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 in the darkness immediately next to her ear.

She couldn’t move.

Surely this was a 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.

Force herself awake.

Weight, so great it hurt, even more than the pinprick of claws, settled onto her shoulders, directly on the joints.

Another massive weight on her hip.

The ashtray reek of its breath, stink-fumbling at her lips.

Force herself awake.

She managed to pull her hands under it, shove it away by digging her thumbs into the pits directly behind its forelimbs.

She wasn’t dreaming. Her eyes were open.

She was frozen. She remembered being told what to do when attacked by a brown bear. Kick and punch and drive it away. If she was dreaming, couldn’t she drive it into that shape, fight it off?

It had seemed impossible, the idea of a human fighting off a bear, but people had, the instructor said. People had done stranger, more valiant things.

It bore down on her. Claws drove into her side.

She dug her thumbs as deep and hard as possible with a wild shriek like an eagle’s squawk.

It roared and tried to pull away from her. She let herself be drawn up, used the momentum to swing her feet under herself, clamber back away and over to the bed lamp, all in the space of one terrified breath.

Screamed, “Help me, someone please help me.” Heard it go ringing down the corridors of time.

Wake.

Clicked the light on.

Nothing.

Her room, ordinary, bedclothes askew, laundry hamper, paperback straddle-backed on the bedside table. Beige carpet. The sound of her heartbeat, hammer-blasting in her chest, her throat, her ears.

She paused. Surely the commotion would have drawn Lewis. He was the lightest of sleepers.

Only silence from the rest of the house.

She crept down the hall in bare feet, paused outside his door. Her arm was sore, pain biting at it whenever she moved.

Only the sound of his breathing inside. Nothing else. She waited. She had read you could tell when someone woke up, that no one could control the pattern of their breathing from sleeping to waking. But the sounds continued, deep regular inhalations, rhythmic as a saw blade in action.

Faking? Or exhausted by his day, by the draining effects of his disease?

In the bathroom she avoided looking in the mirror as she dabbed at the edges of the wound with a washcloth, then covered them with Neosporin and a gauze bandage.

What had happened?

But that was not the real question.

Her mind crept around and around the real question.

How had Lewis managed it?

Because Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation–who hated her, who wanted to harm her?

Only Lewis.

#

Back in her room, she left the light on.

Somehow she slept.

And dreamed. Child-Lewis, standing beside Child-Amber, hands intertwined, his voice chirping, “What’s up, sis?” Love between them like a knotted rope.

Her arm around him, protecting him. “Close your eyes.”

How could it be any other way?

#

At five-thirty, she rose and did her morning run, steadfastly not thinking of the creature and showered while avoiding its shadow. It came at her in memory snatches, so vivid she could smell its breath, fetid as old meat, feel the way its claws thudded into her flesh.

The water streamed down and down around the raw blotches along her arm. She looked at her flesh and felt herself shaking again.

Steadying herself, what would Mrs. Mountebank do? well, then, do it. She picked dried blood from along the edges of the wound. She should have had stitches. It was not too late. Maybe when she dropped Lewis off at the hospital.

In front of her bedroom door, she stopped. Three claw marks across it like a sign. Had they been there before? She hadn’t looked.

Beside her, Lewis. “What’s up, sis?”

She looked from him to the marks.

He must be pretending not to see them. Just looked at her with a half-smile.

Not Child-Lewis. Something else. Someone else. Someone born of despair and hate and desperation.

Her brother was gone. When had he vanished? Why hadn’t she noticed?

Somehow she managed to pretend, too. She’d make him wonder. Maybe think she had some plan up her sleeve. Or that she thought it was still a dream. She pretended. She dressed, ate breakfast, took him to an early appointment.

“Seven,” he said curtly as he left the car, not even bothering to pretend courtesy or curiosity about the stiff way she held herself.

Till seven. Hours in which to figure out what to do.

She was just about to pull away from the curb when someone tapped on the window. She rolled it down.

Ginger-haired, balding. His sleeves rolled up to expose his burly forearms. Tattoos covered the left, an intricate black and white pattern of tribal thorns around crossed daggers. He smelled of cigarette smoke and sweat.

She disliked him immediately.

But his voice was unexpectedly soft-spoken as he introduced himself as the Practical Shamanism group leader, Sam Mintie. He’d seen her waiting to pick up Lewis, he said, half-apologizing for invading her privacy, imposing himself.

“Lewis is having a hard time with some of the class concepts,” he said. “Actually, some of the other members want me to kick him out of the group. Particularly Mrs. Oates.”

Her cheeks burned. What horrible things had Lewis said, to make the entire group want him to go? She could only guess.

“Mrs. Oates? But Lewis said the group was men only.”

Sam shook his head. “No. Perhaps he wanted to make sure you didn’t check it out.”

That made sense. Lewis didn’t like sharing anymore.

“What concepts is he having trouble with?”

He hesitated. “It’ll take a while. Do you have time to go-get coffee?”

“Give me the short version and I’ll decide.”

His eyes were blue and watery. “He thinks he’s a dark shaman–or can become one–and that to do so, he needs to kill you.”

“Get in the car,” she said.

#

At the coffee shop, he unfolded things better.

“Why me?” she asked. “He’d have an easier time luring in some homeless guy or something.”

“Because you’re his closest blood,” he said. “To move with ease in other dimensions, he has to symbolically cut ties with this one.”

“He’s got it all worked out, doesn’t he?” she said.

“He does.”

“Lewis said people become more like themselves as they get closer to death,” she said.

Sam shook his head. “Really? I don’t think so. You get more distanced, maybe, but not in a bad way. You know the saying, don’t sweat the small stuff? You learn how to do that.”

But this, this wasn’t small stuff.

“So what is Lewis doing to symbolically cut ties with this one?”

Sam looked down at the table. His voice was low, forcing her to lean in.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed he’s been especially mean–perhaps downright nasty to you lately. Maybe destroyed something that had personal significance for both of you.”

“Lewis has always had his sharp side.”

“He is very…talented.”

The hesitation pulled her even closer. “More talented than any of the rest of the group?”

“More talented than any of the rest of the group could ever dream to be.”

“How?”

Sam shrugged. “Some mutation from the Plague? Or a genetic quirk? The right stars? But it seems to follow its own mythology. I’ve listened to Lewis expound on it at length.”

“How does his being nasty fit in?”

“He must renounce you, as the representative of his ties to this world. First by not being emotionally attached.”

“And then?”

“After he’s killed you symbolically, he must do it physically.”

“And how much of all of this bullshit of Lewis’s do you believe?”

He didn’t hesitate this time. “All of it. We don’t need more dark shamans in this world.”

At no point did she think, “I’m going crazy.” Or even, “Perhaps this is still a dream.” She thought it should have astonished her more. Shaken her world. It was surprisingly easy to change the laws in your head, or twist them to allow certain loopholes, it seemed.

Had she believed, in some corner of her mind, in this sort of thing all along? She had always despised superstition. It was appalling to think she’d secretly been a believer in the bogeyman under the bed all along.

There had to be a rational explanation.

At some point she’d have to sit down and think out all the implications. Now wasn’t the time.

“What have you seen?” she asked. Had he also woken to find something settling onto his bed, heard its harsh erratic breathing?

“I saw a shape hovering around him when he spoke of it,” he said. “Everyone did. The room seemed to grow dark. Poor Mrs. Betts nearly had a heart attack.” His voice trailed off before he half-whispered, “Everyone wants magic. But to see it in action…that was too much. Afterward, everything seemed new, as though the world had been stripped of its skin. Too much to bear.”

“So what can I do?”

He recovered himself. “He’s made his own mythology, combined it with bits of H.P. Lovecraft and horror movies, but it has its own laws, ways it works, I presume. If I understand it right, it will be no problem thwarting him, so long as he hasn’t made the first attack yet.”

She rolled up her sleeve to show the bandages from last night. “Too late for that.”

His fingertips hovered above the wound as though testing the air around it. “So strong,” he said. His eyes were wide as he shook his head, pushing his chair away from the table.

“Where are you going?”

“I can’t help you,” he said. “This is all outside my experience.” He fished through his pockets, took out a crumpled feather. He handed it to her, “I wish I could pretend this would be of help. Maybe you can believe in it more strongly than I ever could.”

“But you’re a shaman.”

“I wish I was. I’ve pretended all my life,” he said. “Closed my eyes and willed my spirit animal close. And then, with only a few little scraps, I see your brother accomplish what I’ve dreamed of all my life. I saw his animal and it terrified me, but it thrilled me, too. But I know in my heart that nothing I can do will stand against it. I’m sorry.”

She gaped after him as he walked out. The feather rocked on the table, caught by the shifting air as the door closed behind him.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to work. He was intended to be the deus ex machina, the source of wisdom that would tell her how to defeat the evil Lewis had summoned.

When life started to act like fiction, you expected it to follow fiction’s patterns. If there was no happy ending, how would you know when the story was done?

She could flee, leave the city, go into hiding somewhere. But who was to say he couldn’t send his creature after her, that it couldn’t track her down no matter where she went? She fingered the edge of the table as though testing its solidity while her mind raced. She couldn’t deal with this. It was impossible. It was asking too much.

Could she confront Lewis? Could she bring him to his senses, let him see this wasn’t what civilized people did, moving outside the laws of reality?

That was what she would do, over food that night.

She left the useless feather there beside her half-empty coffee cup.

But in the reality of kitchen, the smell of lemon-scented dish soap, the sunlight streaming in through the windows, Formica countertop under her fingers, she couldn’t think where to start. She moved methodically from stove to table, setting up dinner. Hamburgers sizzled with senseless abandon. Broccoli melted under fierce steam.

Dessert? What best expressed “Happy Day That I Learned My Brother Is a Supervillain Planning on Killing Me?” Chocolate lava cake? Bombe Alaska? Some flaming dish?

When he entered the room, she froze like a wary animal. But he didn’t seem to notice.

“Smells delicious!” he said with a wide smile. He spread the napkin on his lap with a flourish. “Food like this, it’s worth living for, don’t you think?”

Their gazes met and locked. She felt herself pressing against a door, trying to find the handle, trying to open it. Her mouth cracked, trying to smile, trying to say anything ordinary, but only a hollow croak escaped.

“You don’t look so good,” Lewis said. His gaze traveled over her outfit. “It’s pretty warm for long sleeves, isn’t it? Are you feeling okay?”

She could almost hear the beast’s breath.

In the window-glass, a flash of copper feathers, the glint of a predatory eye. It struck along her nerves, a sudden intuition, and she smiled.

“Bad dreams, that’s all,” she said.  She turned back to the stove, pretended she was busy ladling out soup. She tossed over her shoulder, “Dreams can’t hurt anyone, after all.”

Uncertainty flickered in his eyes. “Well,” he said, taking a spoonful of soup. “Sure. Dreams.”

Years of bluffing him, of not betraying how much a blow had hurt, steadied her. She could act as though she wasn’t afraid. And that made her less afraid, somehow.

Still, after he’d gone to bed, she stayed up, saying she wanted to work on a sketch.

Up in her chair, she leaned over the graphic pad. It was very close, so very close.

“Come in,” she said, and began to draw.

#

From The Annals of Everkind:

Mrs. Mountebank: It comes!

The Tango Gotango Gotengo: Whose side is it on?

Mrs. Mountebank: There’s no telling. Pray that it’s ours.

#

It was her best work. She didn’t know how suitable for children it was, this one, but children liked a touch of darkness, after all–look at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the gruesome ends of the children there. Would children like this new character, the Madhawk?

It came in a swirl of feathers and talons; it came as swiftly as pulling the string that dissolves a tangle, lets the lines sweep free. It was graceful and deadly, and it rode the winds high above Everkind, feared but loved at the same time.

It came as suddenly as a battle trumpet shrilling, and its claws were sharp, sharp enough to defeat anything. Sharp enough to defeat fear and despair.

Sharp enough to leave Lewis in a tangle of red in his sheets, the dissipating smell of ash and smoke around him as his creature dissolved beneath the Madhawk’s fierce attack.

#

Afterward.

#

Ending Number 1:

When Sam knocked on her door, he didn’t say anything about Lewis’ death. He had shown up at the funeral with the rest of the Practical Shamanism group. She didn’t know whether they had come to express their condolences or to make sure that Lewis was really dead.

Perhaps a mixture of both.

Sam was easy to talk to, though, about things other than Lewis. He loved her books, it turned out, and had dabbled in writing himself, just long enough to appreciate it. They went out to coffee.

Then dinner, then a movie, then other things.

The Madhawk was very popular, it turned out. Everything she touched turned to gold from then on. Sam read each new book with wonder and appreciation. The perfect reader.

Of course he was in love with her.

Of course she fell in love with him.

She kept Lewis’s ashes on the mantel. The criminal who had broken into the house, inexplicably killed an already dying man, was never caught.

It was a good life.

#

Ending Number 2:

Of course, the Madhawk came to her once it was done with Lewis. Roused to blood, it could not relent until its maker was gone, until she had raised her wrists one last time to let its talon slash across the surface and set the crimson floodgates free.

When she had breathed her last, shuddering gasp, wondering what they would make of her stories now, the Madhawk stayed for a few moments, as long as it took for her to leave the world and enter its dimension. It plucked a strand of her hair, and carried it back to begin building its nest.

Its chicks were strong. It was a good life.


More from Cat Rambo:

Cat Rambo reads and writes in the Pacific Northwest, on the eagle-haunted shores of Lake  Sammamish. Her short story collection, Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight, was a 2010 Endeavour Award finalist and was recently released for the Kindle and other e-readers. You can find more of her work at http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/fiction/.

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