"Coercive as coma, frail as bloom
innuendoes of your inverse dawn
suffuse the self;
our every corpuscle become an elf."
-- Mina Loy, "Moreover, the Moon,"
The Lost Lunar Baedeker
Kaye spun down the worn, gray planks of the boardwalk. The air was heavy and stank of drying mussels and the crust of salt on the jetties. Waves tossed themselves against the shore, dragging grit and sand between their nails as they were slowly pulled back out to sea.
The moon was high and pale in the sky, but the sun was just going down.
It was so good to be able to breathe, Kaye thought. She loved the serene brutality of the ocean, loved the electric power she felt with each breath of wet, briny air. She spun again, dizzily, not caring that her skirt was flying up over the tops of her black thigh-high stockings.
"Come on," Janet called. She stepped over the overflowing, leaf-choked gutter along the street parallel to the boardwalk, wobbling slightly on fat-heeled platform shoes. Her glitter makeup sparkled under the street lamps. Janet exhaled ghosts of blue smoke and took another drag on her cigarette. "You're going to fall."
Kaye and her mother had been staying at her grandmother's a week already, and even though Ellen kept saying they'd be leaving soon, Kaye knew they really had nowhere to go. Kaye was glad. She loved the big old house caked with dust and mothballs. She liked the sea being so close and the air not stinging in her throat.
The cheap hotels they passed were long closed and boarded up, their pools drained and cracked. Even the arcades were shut down, prizes in the claw machines still visible through the cloudy glass windows. Rust marks above an abandoned storefront outlined the words salt water taffy.
Janet dug through her tiny purse and pulled out a wand of strawberry lipgloss. Kaye spun up to her, fake leopard coat flying open, a run already in her stocking. Her boots had sand stuck to them.
"Let's go swimming," Kaye said. She was giddy with night air, burning like the white-hot moon. Everything smelled wet and feral like it did before a thunderstorm, and she wanted to run, swift and eager, beyond the edge of what she could see.
"The water's freezing," Janet said, sighing, "and your hair is fucked up. Kaye, when we get there, you have to be cool. Don't seem so weird. Guys don't like weird."
Kaye paused and seemed to be listening intently, her upturned, kohl-rimmed eyes watching Janet as warily as a cat's. "What should I be like?"
"It's not that I want you to be a certain way -- don't you want a boyfriend?"
"Why bother with that? Let's find incubi."
"Demons. Plural. Like octopi. And we're much more likely to find them" -- her voice dropped conspiratorially -- "while swimming naked in the Atlantic a week before Halloween than practically anywhere else I can think of."
Janet rolled her eyes.
"You know what the sun looks like?" Kaye asked. There was only a little more than a slice of red where the sea met the sky.
"No, what?" Janet said, holding the lipgloss out to Kaye.
"Like he slit his wrists in a bathtub and the blood is all over the water."
"That's gross, Kaye."
"And the moon is just watching. She's just watching him die. She must have driven him to it."
Kaye spun again, laughing.
"Why are you always making shit up? That's what I mean by weird." Janet was speaking loudly, but Kaye could barely hear her over the wind and the sound of her own laughter.
"C'mon, Kaye. Remember the faeries you used to tell stories about? What was his name?"
"Which one? Spike or Gristle?"
"Exactly. You made them up!" Janet said. "You always make things up."
Kaye stopped spinning, cocking her head to one side, fingers sliding into her pockets. "I didn't say I didn't."
The old merry-go-round building had been semi-abandoned for years. Angelic lead faces, surrounded by rays of hair, divided the broken panes. The entire front of it was windowed, revealing the dirt floor, glass glittering against the refuse. Inside, a crude plywood skateboarding ramp was the only remains of an attempt to use the building commercially in the last decade.
Kaye could hear voices echoing in the still air all the way out to the street. Janet dropped her cigarette into the gutter. It hissed and was quickly carried away, sitting on the water like a spider.
Kaye hoisted herself up onto the outside ledge and swung her legs over. The window had been long gone, but her leg scraped against the residue as she slid in, fraying her stockings further.
Layers of paint thickly covered the once-intricate moldings inside the carousel building. The ramp in the center of the room was tagged by local spray-paint artists and covered with band stickers and ballpoint pen scrawlings. And there were the boys.
"Kaye Fierch, you remember me, right?" Doughboy chuckled. He was short and thin, despite his name.
"I think you threw a bottle at my head in sixth grade."
He laughed again. "Right. Right. I forgot that. You're not still mad?"
"No," she said, but her blithe mood was gone, leaving her drained and anxious. Janet climbed on top of the skateboard ramp to where Kenny was sitting, a king in his silver flight jacket, watching the proceedings. Handsome, with dark hair and darker eyes. He held up a nearly full bottle of tequila in greeting.
Marcus handed Kaye the bottle he was drinking from, making a mock throwing motion as he did so. A little splashed on the sleeve of his flannel shirt. "Bourbon. Expensive shit."
She forced a smile as she took it. Marcus resumed gutting a cigar. Even hunched over, he was a big guy. The brown skin on his head gleamed, and she could see where he must have nicked himself shaving it.
"I brought you some candy," Janet said to Kenny. She had candy corn and peanut chews.
"I brought you some candy," Doughboy mocked in a high, squeaky voice, jumping up on the ramp. "Give it here," he said.
Kaye walked around the round room. It was magnificent, old and decayed and fine. The slow burn of bourbon in her throat was perfect for this place, the sort of thing a man in a summer suit who always wore a hat might drink.
"What flavor of Asian are you?" Marcus asked. He had filled the cigar with weed and was chomping down on one end. The thick, sweet smell almost choked her.
She took another swallow from the bottle and tried to ignore him.
"Kaye! You hear me?"
"I'm half Japanese." Kaye touched her hair, blond as her mother's. It was the hair that baffled people.
"Man, you ever see the cartoons there? They have them little, little girls with these pigtails and shit in these short school uniforms. We should have uniforms like that here, man. You ever wear one of those, huh?"
"Shut up, dickhead," Janet said, laughing. "She went to grade school with Doughboy and me."
Kenny looped one finger through the belt rings of Janet's jeans and pulled her over to kiss her.
"Yeah, well, damn." Marcus laughed. "Won't you hold up your hair in those pigtails for a second or something? Come on."
Kaye shook her head. No, she wouldn't.
Marcus and Doughboy started to play Hacky Sack with an empty beer bottle. It didn't break as they kicked it boot to boot, but it made a hollow sound. She took another long sip of bourbon. Her head was already buzzing pleasantly, humming in time with imagined merry-go-round music. She moved farther back into the dim room, to where old placards announced popcorn and peanuts for five cents apiece.
Against the far wall was a black, weathered door. It opened jerkily when she pushed it. Moonlight from the windows in the main room revealed only an office with an old desk and a corkboard with yellowed menus still pinned to it. She stepped inside, even though the light switch didn't work. Feeling in the blackness, she found a knob. This door led to a stairwell with only a little light drifting down from the top. She felt her way up the stairs. Dust covered the palms of her hand as she slid them along the railings. She sneezed loudly, then sneezed again.
At the top was a small window lit brightly by the murderess moon, ripe and huge in the sky. Interesting boxes were stacked in the corners. Then her eyes fell on the horse, and she forgot all the rest. He was magnificent -- gleaming pearl white and covered with tiny pieces of glued-down mirror. His face was painted with red and purple and gold, and he even had a bar of white teeth and a painted pink tongue with enough space to tuck a sugar cube. It was obvious why he'd been left behind -- his legs on all four sides and part of his tail had been shattered. Splinters hung down from where his legs used to be.
Gristle would have loved this. She had thought that many times since she had left the Shore, six years past. My imaginary friends would have loved this. She'd thought it the first time that she'd seen the city, lit up like never-ending Christmas. But they never came when she was in Philadelphia. And now she was sixteen and felt like she had no imagination left.
She tried to set the horse up as if he were standing on his ruined stumps. It wobbled unsteadily but didn't fall. Kaye pulled off her coat and dropped it on the dusty floor, setting the bourbon next to it. She swung one leg over the beast and dropped onto its saddle, using her feet to keep it from falling. She ran her hands down its mane, which was carved in golden ringlets. She touched the painted black eyes and the chipped ears.
The white horse rose on unsteady legs in her mind. The long curls of the gold mane were cool in her hands, and the great bulk of the animal was real and warm beneath her. She wove her hands in the mane and gripped hard, slightly aware of a prickling feeling all through her limbs. The horse whinnied softly beneath her, ready to leap out into the cold, black water. She threw back her head.
"Kaye?" A soft voice snapped her out of her daydream. Kenny was standing near the stairs, regarding her blankly. For a moment, though, she was still fierce. Then she felt her cheeks burning.
Caught in the half-light, she could see him better than she had downstairs. Two heavy silver hoops shone in the lobes of his ears. His short, cinnamon hair was mussed and had a slight wave to it, matching the beginnings of a goatee on his chin. Under the flight jacket, his too-tight white T-shirt showed the easy muscles of someone who was born with them.
He moved toward her, reaching his hand out and then looking at it oddly, as though he didn't remember deciding to do that. Instead he petted the head of the horse, slowly, almost hypnotically.
"I saw you," he said. "I saw what you did."
"Where's Janet?" Kaye wasn't sure what he meant. She would have thought he was teasing her except for his serious face, his slow way of speaking.
He was stroking the animal's mane now. "She was worried about you." His hand fascinated her despite herself. It seemed like he was tangling it in imaginary hair. "How did you make it do that?"
"Do what?" She was afraid now, afraid and flattered both. There was no mocking or teasing in his face. He was watching her so intensely that he seemed drained of expression.
"I saw it stand up." His voice was so low she could almost pretend that she didn't hear him right. His hand dropped to her thigh and slid upward to the cotton crotch of her panties.
Even through she had seen the slow progression of his hand, the touch startled her. She was paralyzed for a moment before she sprang up, letting the horse fall as she did. It crashed down, knocking the bottle of bourbon over, dark liquor pouring over her coat and soaking the bottoms of the dusty boxes like the tide coming in at night.
He grabbed for her before she could think, his hand catching hold of the neck of her shirt. She stepped back, off-balance, and fell, her shirt ripping open over her bra even as he let go of it.
Shoes pounded up the stairs.
"What the fuck?" Marcus was at the top of the stairwell with Doughboy, trying to shove his way in for a look.
Kenny shook his head and looked around numbly while Kaye scrambled for her bourbon-soaked coat.
The boys moved out of the way, and Janet was there, too, staring.
"What happened?" Janet asked, looking between them in confusion. Kaye pushed past her, shoving her hand through an armhole of the coat as she threw it over her back.
"Kaye!" Janet called after her.
Kaye ignored her, taking the stairs two at a time in the dark. There was nothing she could say that would explain what had happened.
She could hear Janet shouting. "What did you do to her? What the fuck did you do?"
Kaye ran across the carousel hall and swung her leg over the sill. The glass she had carefully avoided earlier slashed a thin line on the outside of her thigh as she dropped among the sandy soil and weeds.
The cold wind felt good against her hot face.
Cornelius Stone picked up the new box of computer crap and hauled it into his bedroom to drop next to the others. Each time his mother came home from the flea market with a cracked monitor, sticky keyboard, or just loads of wires, she had that hopeful look that made Corny want to hit her. She just couldn't comprehend the difference between a 286 and a quantum computer. She couldn't understand that the age of guerilla engineering was at a close, that being a motherfucking genius wasn't enough. You needed to be a rich motherfucking genius.
He dropped the box, kicked it hard three times, picked up his denim jacket with the devil's head on the back, and made for the door.
"Can you use that stuff, honey?" His mother was in Janet's room, folding a new pair of secondhand jeans. She held up a T-shirt with rhinestone cats on it. "Think your sister will like it?"
"Thanks, Ma," he said through gritted teeth. "I got to get to work." He walked past The Husband, who was stooped over, getting a beer from the case under the kitchen table. The white cat was waddling along the countertop, its belly dragging with another pregnancy, screaming for canned food or pickles and ice cream or something. He petted its head grudgingly, but before it began rubbing against his hand in earnest, he opened the screen door and went out into the lot.
The cool October air was a relief from the recirculated cigarette smoke.
Corny loved his car. It was a primer-colored Chevy blooming with rust spots and an inner lining that hung like baggy skin from the roof. He knew what he looked like. Beaky. Skinny and tall with bad hair and worse skin. He lived up to his name. Cornelius. Corny. Corn-dog. But not in his car. Inside, he was anonymous.
Every day for the last three weeks he had left a little earlier for work. He would go to the convenience store and buy some food. Then he would drive around, cruise past all the local rutting joints, imagining he had a semiautomatic rifle in the car and counting how many he could have gotten. "Pow," he'd say, softly, to rolled-up windows as a brown-haired boy with broad shoulders and a backwards baseball cap ran up to the giggling girls behind the window of a red truck. "Pow. Pow."
Tonight, he bought a cup of coffee and a package of black licorice. He lingered over a paperback with an embossed metallic dragon on the cover, reading the first few sentences, hoping something would interest him. The game was becoming boring. Worse than boring, it made him feel more pathetic than before. Nearly a week before Halloween and all, this was the point when a real maniac would go and get a gun. He sipped at the coffee and almost spat it out. Too sweet. He sipped at it some more, steeling himself to the taste. Disgusting.
Corny got out of his car and chucked the full coffee into the parking lot. It splashed satisfactorily on the asphalt. He went inside and poured himself another cup. From behind the counter, a matronly woman with frizzy red hair looked him over and pointed to his jacket. "Who are you supposed to be, the devil?"
"I wish," Corny said, dropping a dollar twenty-five on the counter. "I wish."
"The stones were sharp,
The wind came at my back;
Walking along the highway,
Mincing like a cat."
-- Theodore Roethke, "Praise to the End!"
The wind whipped tiny pebbles of rain across Kaye's face. The droplets froze her hands, making her shiver as they slid down her wet hair and under the collar of her coat. She walked, head down, kicking the scattered trash that had eddied up on the grassy shores along the highway. A flattened soda can skittered into a sodden chrysanthemum-covered foam heart, staked there to mark the site of a car crash. There were no houses on this side of the road, just a long stretch of wet woods leading up to a gas station. She was over halfway home.
Cars hissed over the asphalt. The sound was comforting, like a long sigh.
I saw you. I saw what you did.
Awfulness twisted in her gut, awfulness and anger. She wanted to smash something, hit someone.
How could she have done anything? When she tried to make a magazine page turn on its own or a penny land on heads, it never worked. How could she have made Kenny see a broken-legged carousel horse move?
Never mind that she might as well assume that Spike and Lutie and Gristle had been imaginary. She'd been home for two weeks, and there was no sign of them, no matter how many times she had called them, no matter how many bowls of milk she left out, no matter how many times she went down to the old creek.
She took a deep breath, snorting rain up her nose. It reminded her of crying.
The trees seemed like flat lead panels missing the stained glass to fit between their branches. She knew what her grandmother was going to say when she got back, stinking of liquor with a torn shirt. True things.
The same things that Janet would say tomorrow. There was no way to explain what had happened without admitting to something. His hand on her leg was what Janet would really care about -- that, and that she had let it rest there, even if only for a moment. And she could imagine what he was telling Janet now -- flushed, angry, and drunk -- but even a badly managed lie would sound better than the truth.
I saw it stand up.
But even if he didn't go that far, who would believe that he touched her crotch on purpose, but ripped her shirt by accident? No, he must have told an entirely different story. So what was Kaye supposed to say when Janet asked what happened? Janet thought she was a liar already.
She could still feel the heat of Kenny's hand, a stroke of fire along her thigh in contrast to her otherwise rain-soaked skin.
Another gust of rain stung her cheeks, this one bringing a shout with it from the direction of the woods. The noise was brief, but eloquent with pain. Kaye stopped abruptly. There was no sound except the rain, hissing like radio static.
Then, just as a truck sped past, kicking up a cloud of drizzle, she heard another sound. Softer, this one, maybe a moan bitten off at the end. It was just inside the copse of trees.
Kaye moved down the slight slope, off the short grass and into the woods. She ducked under the dripping branches of an elm, stepping on tufts of short ferns and looping briars. Weeds brushed across her calves, leaving strokes of rain. The storm-bright sky lit the woods with silver. An earthy, sweet odor of rot bloomed where she disturbed the carpet of leaves.
There was no one there.
She half turned toward the highway. She could still see the road from where she was standing. What was she doing? The sound must have carried over from the houses beyond the thin river that ran along the back of the woods. No one else would be dumb enough to go trooping through wet, dripping woods in the middle of the night.
Kaye walked back up to the road, picking her way through spots that looked somewhat drier than others. Burrs had collected along her stockings, and she bent down to pull them off.
"Stay where you are." She jumped at the voice. The accent was rich and strange, though the words were pronounced precisely.
A man was sprawled in the mud only a few steps from her, clutching a curved sword in one hand. It shone like a sliver of moonlight in the hazy dark. Long pewter hair, plastered wetly to his neck, framed a face that was long and full of sharp angles. Rivulets of rain ran over the jointed black armor he wore. His other hand was at his heart, clutching a branch that jutted from his chest. The rain there was tinted pink with blood.
"Was it you, girl?" He was breathing raggedly.
Kaye wasn't sure what he meant, but she shook her head. He didn't look much older than she was. Certainly not old enough to call her "girl."
"So you haven't come to finish me off?"
She shook her head again. He was
long-limbed -- he would be tall if he were standing. Taller than most people, taller than any faerie she had ever seen -- still, she had no doubt that was what he was, if for no other reason than the pointed tops of his ears knifing through his wet hair -- and that he was beautiful in a way that made her breath catch.
He licked his lips. There was blood on them. "Pity," he said quietly.
She took a step toward him, and he twisted into a defensive crouch. Wounded as he was, he still moved swiftly. Hair fell forward across his face, but his eyes, shining like mercury, studied her intently.
"You're a faerie, aren't you?" she said soothingly, holding her hands where he could see them. She had heard stories of the court fey -- the Gentry -- from Lutie-loo, but she had never seen one. Maybe that was what he was.
He stayed still, and she took another half step toward him, holding out one hand to coax him as if he were some fascinating, dangerous animal. "Let me help you."
His body was trembling with concentration. His eyes never flickered from her face. He held the hilt of his sword in a white-knuckled grip.
She did not dare take another step. "You're going to bleed to death."
They stayed like that a few more minutes before he slumped down to one knee in the mud. He bent forward, fingers clutching the leaves, and spat red. The wet lashes over his half-closed eyes were as silver as a safety pin.
She took two steps and knelt down next to him, bracing herself with shaking hands. This close, she could see that his armor was stiff leather sculpted to look like feathers.
"I cannot draw the arrow myself," he said softly. "They are waiting for me to bleed a little more before they come against my blade."
"Who is waiting?" It was hard to understand that someone had shot him with a tree branch, but that seemed to be what he was saying.
"If you would help me, draw this arrow." His eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. "If not, then push it in as deep as you can and hope that it kills me."
"It will bleed more," Kaye said.
He laughed at that, a bitter sound. "Either way, no doubt."
She could see the despair in his face. He obviously believed her to be part of some plan to kill him. Still, he slid his body back until he could lean against the trunk of an oak. He was braced, waiting to see what she would do.
She thought of the faeries she had known when she was a child -- impish, quick things -- no mention of wars or magical arrows or enemies, certainly no lies, no deception. The man bleeding in the dirt beside her told her how wrong her perceptions of Faery had been.
Her fingers flinched away from the wound in his chest. Her lungs turned to ice as she looked at the grisly wound. "I can't do it."
His voice stayed soft. "What do they call you?"
"Kaye," she said. There was silence for a moment as she noticed the cold cloud of her breath rise up with the word.
"I'm Roiben." Faeries didn't give their names easily, even part of their names, although she had no idea why. He was trying to show her that he trusted her, maybe trying to make up for the assumptions he had made about her. "Give me your hand."
She let him take her hand in his and guide it to the branch. His hand closed over hers, both of them chilled and wet, his fingers inhumanly long and rough with calluses. "Just close your hand on it and let me pull," he said. "You don't even have to look. As long as I'm not touching it, I might be able to draw it out."
That shamed her. She had told him that she wanted to help him, he was in a whole lot of pain, and it was no time for her to be squeamish. "I'll do it," she said.
Roiben let go of her hand, and she gave a sharp tug. Although his face constricted with pain, the branch only pulled out a short way.
Were there really other faerie folk in the trees, waiting for him to be weak enough to defeat? Kaye thought that if so, now was a great time for them to come down and have a go at it.
She took note of the angle of the armor this time, changing her position so that the branch couldn't catch on one of the plates. She raised herself to one knee, braced, and then stood, pulling upward as hard as she could.
Roiben gave a harsh cry as the branch slid free of his chest, its iron tip black with blood. His fingers touched the wound and he raised them, slick with blood, as if suddenly disbelieving that he had been shot.
"Very brave," he said, touching his wet fingers to her leg.
Kaye tossed the stick away from her. She was shuddering, and she could taste the ghost of blood in her mouth. "We have to stop the bleeding. How does your armor come off?"
He seemed not to understand her at first. He just looked at her with a kind of incredulity. Then he leaned forward with a groan. "Straps," he managed.
She came and sat behind him, feeling over the smooth armor for buckles.
A sudden wind shook the branches above, raining an extra shower of heavy droplets down on them, and Kaye wondered again about faeries in the trees. Her fingers fumbled in her haste. If those faeries were still afraid of Roiben, they didn't have to worry for much longer -- she was betting that it would be only a few more minutes before he passed out entirely.
To get off his breastplate, she not only had to detach it from the backplate at his shoulders and sides -- there were also straps that connected it to the shoulderplates and to his legplates. Finally, she managed to peel it off his chest. Underneath, the bare skin was mottled with blood.
He tipped back his head and closed his eyes. "Let the rain clean it."
She pulled off her coat and hung it on one of the branches of the tree. Her shirt was ripped already, she reminded herself as she took it off. She tore it into long strips and began winding them around Roiben's chest and arms. He opened his eyes when she touched him. His eyes narrowed, then widened. Their color was mesmerizing.
He straightened up, horrified. "I didn't even hear you rip the cloth."
"You have to try to stay awake." Kaye's cheeks felt so warm that the cold rain actually felt good against them. "Is there somewhere you can go?"
He shook his head. Fumbling near him, he picked up a leaf and wiped it against the underside of the leather breastplate. It came away shining red. "Drop this in the stream. I -- there is a kelpie there -- it is no sure thing that I will be able to control her in this weather, but it is something."
Kaye nodded quickly, although she had no idea what a kelpie was, and made to take the leaf.
He did not let it go immediately. "I am in your debt. I mislike not knowing how I must repay it."
"I have questions..."
He let her take the leaf. "I will answer three, as full and well as is within my power."
She nodded. Like a faerie tale. Fine; it wasn't as if she had wanted anything from him anyway.
"When you drop the leaf in the water, say Roiben of the Unseelie Court asks for your aid."
"Say to what?"
"Just say it aloud."
She nodded again and ran in the direction of the water. The steep bank of the stream was choked with vegetation and broken glass. Roots, swept bare of the mud that should have surrounded them, sat above the bank like overturned baskets or ran along the ground like the pale arms of half-buried corpses. She forbade herself to think of that again.
She squatted down and set the leaf, blood side down, into the water. It floated there, spinning a little. She wondered if it was too close to the bank, and tried to blow it farther out.
"Roiben of the Unseelie Court asks for your help," she said, hoping that she had gotten it right. Nothing happened. She said it again, louder, feeling foolish and frightened at the same time. "Roiben of the Unseelie Court needs your help."
A frog surfaced and began to swim in her direction. Would that have something to do with a kelpie? What kind of help were they supposed to get from a shallow, polluted stream?
But then she saw that she had been mistaken. What she had taken for the eyes of a frog were actually hollow pits that quavered as something swam through the water toward her. She wanted to run, but fascination combined with obligation to root her to the spot. Hollow pits formed into flaring nostrils on the snout of a black horse that rose up from the black water as if created from it. Moss and mud slid from its dripping flanks as the thing turned its head to regard Kaye with luminous white eyes.
She could not move. How many minutes passed as she stared at those mottled gray flanks, smooth as sealskin, and stared into the impossible glow of those eyes? The creature inclined its neck.
Kaye took a half step backward and tried to speak. No words came.
The horse-thing snuffled closer to her, its hooves sinking in the mud, snapping twigs. It smelled of brackish water. She took another careful step backward and stumbled.
She had to say something. "This way," she managed finally, pointing through the trees. "He's this way."
The horse moved in the direction she pointed, speeding up to a trot, and she was left to follow it, nearly shaking with relief. When she got to the clearing, Roiben was already straddling the creature's back. His breastplate had been haphazardly strapped on. She let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding.
He saw her emerge from under the canopy of branches and smiled. His eyes seemed darker in the moonlight. "Were I you, I would stay clear of the Folk in the future. We are a capricious people, with little regard for mortals."
She looked at him again. There were scratches on his armor that she didn't remember. Could he have been attacked? He could barely lift his head before -- it was impossible to believe that he could have fought with someone. "Did something happen?"
His smile deepened, wiping the weariness from his face. His eyes glittered. "Don't waste your questions." Then the horse rode, moving like no living thing, darting between trees with unearthly speed and grace. Leaves flurried from kicks of its hooves. Moonlight glowed along its flanks.
Before she could think, she was alone in the wood. Alone and shivering and proud of herself. She moved to retrieve her coat, and a glimmer of light caught her eye. The arrow.
She knelt and picked up the branch with its iron tip. Her finger ran up the rough bark and touched the too-warm metal. A shudder went through her, and she dropped it back in the mud. The woods were suddenly menacing, and she walked as quickly as she could back toward the road. If she started running, she didn't think she'd be able to stop.
Kaye dug her feet into the muddy slope that marked the edge of her grandmother's lawn and heaved herself up. She slid past the overflowing trash can, the broken-down Pinto, the rusted coffee cans wired together as a fence for a wilted herb garden.
All the lights in the house seemed to be on, highlighting the grubby curtains. Blue lights flickered in the living room where the TV was.
She opened the backdoor and walked into the kitchen. Pots and pans, crusted with food, were piled in the sink. She was supposed to have washed them. Instead, she went to the cupboard and took out a bowl, filled it with milk, then put a piece of stale white bread on top of it. It would have to do, she thought as she carefully opened the door and set it on the step -- after all, the only things likely to come for it anymore were neighborhood cats.
Kaye crept into the living room.
On the other side of the staircase, Ellen was sitting in front of the television, eating one of the miniature Snickers Grandma had bought for the trick-or-treaters. "Leave me the fuck alone," she muttered to the drink in front of her.
"You think I don't know anything. Okay, you're the smart one, right?" Kaye's grandmother said in that too-sweet voice that pissed off Kaye so much. "If you're so smart, then how come you're all alone? How come all these men just use you and leave you? How come the only one to take you in is your old, stupid mother?"
"I heard you the first million fucking times you said it."
"Well, you're going to hear it again," Kaye's grandmother said. "Where is your daughter tonight? It's almost one in the morning! Do you even care that she's out gallivanting around who knows where, trying her damnedest to turn out just like -- "
"Don't you start in on my daughter!" Kaye's mother said with surprising vehemence. "She's just fine. You leave her out of your bitching."
Kaye bent her head down and tried to walk up the stairs as quickly and quietly as she could.
She caught her own reflection in the hallway mirror, mascara and glitter eyeshadow smeared across her cheeks and under her eyes, running in crusted and glittering streaks that looked like they were made by tears. Her lipstick was smudged and dull, arching across her left cheek where she must have wiped it.
Kaye turned to take a furtive look into the living room. Her mother caught her glance, rolled her eyes, and motioned her up the stairs with a furtive hand movement.
"While she's in this house she's going to live by the same rules that you lived by. I don't care that she's spent the last six years in a rat-infested apartment with whatever hoodlums you took up with. From now on that girl's going to be raised decent."
Kaye crept the rest of the way up the stairs and into her room. She closed the door as quietly as she could.
The tiny white dresser and too-short bed seemed to belong to someone else. Her rats, Isaac and Armageddon, rustled in their fish tank on top of the old toy box.
Kaye stripped off her clothes and, not caring about the wet or the mud or anything, climbed into the small bed, wrapped a blanket around herself, and folded her legs so that she fit. Kaye knew what obsession was like -- she saw how her mother craved fame, pined over men who treated her like shit. She didn't want to want someone she would never have.
But just for tonight, she allowed herself to think of him, to think of the solemn, formal way he had spoken to her, so unlike anyone else. She let herself think of his flashing eyes and crooked smile.
Kaye slid down into sleep like water closing over her head.
Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale
- Genres: Fantasy
- paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
- ISBN-10: 0689867042
- ISBN-13: 9780689867040