They (fairy tales) make rivers run
with wine only to make us remember,
for one wild moment,
that they run with water.
- C.K. Chesterton,
It was you, it was you, who said that dreams come true
And it was you, it was you, who said that mine would, too
And it was you who said that all I had to do was to believe
But when your ivory towers tumbled down, they tumbled down on me
- Fred Eaglesmith,
from "It Was You"
It's the family you choose that counts.
- Andrew Vachss
Newford, April 1999
Once upon a time…
I don't know what makes me turn. Some sixth sense, prickling the hairs at the nape of my neck, I guess. I see the headlights. They fill my world and I feel like a deer, trapped in their glare. I can't move. The car starts to swerve away from me, but it's already too late.
It's weird how everything falls into slow motion. There seems to be time to do anything and everything, and yet no time at all. I wait for my life to flash before my eyes, but all I get is those headlights bearing down on me.
There's the squeal of tires.
A rush of wind in my ears.
And then the impact.
- 2 -
Once upon a time…
That's how they always start, the old fairy tales that I read as a child. It's the proper place for them to start, because right away you know you're going to be taken somewhere else.
Once upon a time there was a little girl who wished she could be anywhere else in all the wide world except for where she was. Or more preferably still, she wished she could find some way to cross over into whatever worlds might lie beyond this one, those wonderful worlds that she read about in stories. She would tap at the back of closets and always look very carefully down rabbit holes. She would rub every old lamp that she came across and wish on any and everything…
* * *
I've always been aware of the otherworld, of spirits that exist in that twilight place that lies in the corner of our eyes, of faerie and stranger things still that we spy only when we're not really paying attention to them, whispers and flickering shadows, here one moment, gone the instant we turn our head for a closer look. But I couldn't always find them. And when I did, for a long time I thought they were only this excess of imagination that I carry around inside me, that somehow it was leaking out of me into the world.
In terms of what Professor Dapple calls consensual reality—that the world is as it is because that's how we've all agreed it is—I seem to carry this magical bubble world around with me, inside and hidden from the world we all inhabit. A strange and wonderful world where the implausible becomes not only possible, but probable. It doesn't matter if, most of the time, I'm the only one that can see it, though that's probably why I paint what I do; I'm trying to show the rest of the world this weird little corner of reality that I inhabit.
I see things from the corner of my eye that shouldn't be there, but are, if only for a brief, flickering moment. At a flea market, an old black teapot turns into a badger and scurries away. Late at night, a lost boy sits on the windowsill of the secondfloor nursery in the apartment beside the Chinese grocery down the street from my studio, a tiny spark of light dancing about his shoulders as he peers in through the leaded panes. Later still, I hear the muted sound of hooves on the pavement and look out to see the dreadlocked gnome that Christy calls Long, his gnarled little fingers playing with a string of elf-knots that can call up the wind as he rides his pig Brigwin to the goblin market.
Oh, and the gargoyles…sitting high up on their perches, pretending to be stone while having long conversations with pigeons and crows. I've caught them twitching, moving from one position to another, the sly look that freezes mid-wink when they realize I'm watching.
But then I've always had a fertile imagination and it was many years before I realized that most people don't experience these extraordinary glimpses the way I do. For the longest time I thought they simply wouldn't admit to it.
But the trouble with magic is that there's too much it just can't fix.
When things go wrong, glimpsing junkyard faerie and crows that can turn into girls and back again doesn't help much. The useful magic's never at hand. The three wishes and the genies in bottles, seven-league boots, invisible cloaks and all. They stay in the stories, while out here in the wide world we have to muddle through as best we can on our own.
- 3 -
The world feels all mushy when I open my eyes. My eyelids are sticky, encrusted with dream sand, and nothing has a defined edge to it. Colours are muted and my ears are blocked. I feel dislocated from the rest of my body. I'm aware of it, but it doesn't seem to really be connected to me anymore. That's part of the blur. I have the sense that I don't really want to connect with my body because that'll just open me up to a world of pain.
I'm vaguely aware that there's something pushed up my nose. An IV drip in my arm. Limbs weighed down with I don't know what.
I realize I must be in a hospital.
Hospital? Why would I be in a hospital?
I hear a small pathetic whimper and realize that I made that sound. It draws a huge face into my line of vision, features swimming. Slowly the face becomes normal-sized, though still blurry.
My voice comes out in a weak, slurred rasp. My mouth doesn't seem to work properly anymore.
"Oh, Jilly," she says.
My ears pop at the sound of her voice. My hearing clears. There's something I need to tell her. A dream I had.
"Everything's going to be okay," she says.
Then I remember the dream. The fuzziness and strange feelings go away, or at least distance themselves from me like I'm experiencing them through the wrong end of a telescope. I try to sit up, but I can't even lift my head. Not even that troubles me.
"I've been there," I tell her. "To Mabon. I finally found a way into your dreamlands."
She looks like she wants to cry. I thought she'd be happy for me. I've been wanting to go there forever, into her cathedral world where everything feels taller and bigger and brighter—more than it is here. She visits the city of Mabon in her dreams and has a whole other, really interesting life there. Christy calls it serial dreaming, where every time you fall asleep you pick up where you left off in last night's dream, but it's more than that. What, exactly, none of us really know. But I've always believed it was a real place and now I know for sure because I've been there, too.
"I couldn't find you there," I tell her. "I wandered around for ages. Everybody I asked knew who you were, but they couldn't tell me where you were."
"I was here," Sophie says. "With you. In the hospital."
I don't clue in at all.
"I was wondering about that," I say. "Who's sick?"
"There was an accident," Sophie begins. "A car..."
I tune her out. I don't like cars. There's something bad about cars, but I can't remember what.
I try to focus on her voice, but suddenly there's this great abyss inside me and it just keeps pulling me down into it.
Down and down and down...
- 4 -
Where is that nurse? Sophie Etoile wondered, looking over her shoulder at the door to Jilly's room. It felt like ages since she'd pushed the call button.
She turned her attention back to Jilly and brushed a damp lock of curly hair away from her friend's brow. Jilly was gone again, but at least her breathing seemed more normal. The doctor had said that when she came out of the coma, she would probably fall into a second period of unconsciousness, but it would be more like sleep. Now all they had to worry about was the possibility of paralysis when she came around again.
The call Sophie had gotten three nights ago had been her worst nightmare come true. The way Jilly was forever wandering around the city at all hours of the day or night, not caring about the danger, Sophie'd always worried that it would only be a matter of time before Jilly got hurt, though she'd been thinking more along the lines of a mugging rather than this—an early evening hit-and-run on a Lower Crowsea sidestreet. Sophie had often joked that Jilly must have a guardian angel looking out for her. Well, if that was true, either her angel had taken the other night off, or Jilly's run of blind good luck had finally run out.
It broke Sophie's heart to look at her friend. Always lively and vibrant, Jilly was almost unrecognizable at the moment. Her skin was sallow, except for the bruising on the left side of her face where she'd struck the pavement. They'd had to shave the hair on the side of her head to properly clean her scalp. Her left arm and right leg were encased in plaster casts. Her torso was wrapped with bandages because of the ribs that had been cracked. Tubes from her nostrils tied her to an oxygen unit in the wall. More tubes were plugged into her body, running from an IV pole that held plastic bags of fluids. Wires connected her to a bank of machines that were gathered near the bed like a crowd of curious onlookers, their conversation conducted in lights and beeps and monitor lines. Her heartbeat was displayed by three waveforms undulating on a screen.
Being in here made Sophie nervous. She and Wendy and a number of Jilly's other friends had taken turns sitting with her while she was in the coma, and Sophie was more than happy to do her part. But Sophie also had a unique problem in that mechanical and electrical devices sometimes developed odd symptoms around her. Digital watches could simply flash a random time while ordinary wrist watches ran backwards. She'd once crashed Christy's hard drive simply by switching on his computer. Though she wasn't connected to a cable service, her television could bring in cable signals, which would be fine except that the TV set also changed channels randomly.
When Jilly first learned about this affliction of Sophie's, she'd insisted that Sophie give it a name. Something fanciful, rather than gloomy.
"I don't know that I want to make friends with it," she told Jilly. "Then it'll never go away."
"It not a matter of going or staying," Jilly had replied. "It's a part of you. This'll just make it easier for us to talk about it. You know, like our own secret code."
Jilly liked codes almost as much as she liked mysteries, and after any number of long conversations on the subject, Sophie finally gave in. They ended up calling it Jinx, because while it was a friendly-sounding word, it still warned of its potential for disaster. And it was easier, at least among their circle of friends, to simply say "Jinx" when Sophie wasn't to be trusted around anything that could possibly be influenced by this peculiar trait of hers.
But giving the affliction an identity didn't make it any easier for Sophie to deal with the way Jinx slipped in and out of her life, or make her any less nervous in situations such as the one she was in at the moment. So while she was here in Jilly's room, she made sure not to touch, or even stand too close to any of the equipment that was keeping her friend alive. Except for the call button. Had she screwed that up as well? Was the nurse now on his way to some room at the other end of the intensive care unit?
She was about to try again when the nurse came hurrying into the room.
"Sorry," he said. "I would have been here sooner but there was a problem with another patient's ventilator and the monitors at the station didn't show an emergency in here."
Jilly was going to enjoy being looked after by this nurse, Sophie had decided when she first met him. Daniel was as handsome as a soap opera doctor, tall, dark-haired, ready smile, gentle eyes. If you had to be sick, you might as well have a dreamboat for a nurse.
"Why did you call for me?" he said.
He didn't look at her as he spoke, his gaze travelling over the array of monitors before settling on Jilly's bruised features. Sophie eased his obvious concern by explaining what had happened.
"Did she seem lucid?" he asked.
Sophie had to smile. With Jilly, how could you even tell? But she nodded.
"She was a little confused," she said, "but she recognized me right away and knew she was in a hospital. She didn't seem to be aware that she'd been hurt."
"That's not too unusual in a case like this," Daniel told her. "There's often a certain amount of disorientation, even amnesia sometimes, but it rarely lasts long. I'll have the doctor come in to check her over."
And then he was gone again.
Sophie looked back at Jilly. She seemed so fragile lying there, like a broken doll, her guileless features no longer so slack now that she'd slipped from coma into a more natural sleep. But it was still heartbreaking to see the damage that had been done to her, to know how much work lay ahead before Jilly might be her old self once again.
The two of them could have been sisters. They were of similar height, with the same slender build, though Sophie was a little bustier. Her hair was a soft auburn, tamed into ringlets, while Jilly's was usually a tangle of darker curls. Wendy likened Jilly's quick, clever features to a Rackham pixie, Sophie's softer ones to a Pre-Raphaelite's painting, and strangers often mistook one for the other, then remarked on the family resemblance when corrected.
Wendy was the missing third member of their little tribe of, as Jilly liked to describe them, "small, fierce women." She was blonde, so less easily mistaken for either of them, but of a similar body shape and height, and just as tangle-haired. Though the three of them were unrelated by blood, they were sisters all the same. In the heart, where it mattered. Others had come to join their tribe—and they had become close and greatly loved, to be sure—but the three of them were its root, the core from which all their other relationships blossomed.
Rising from the bedside, Sophie bent over and brushed her lips lightly against Jilly's brow, then left the room to make some phone calls.
* * *
"Oh, my god," Wendy said. "It's like the best Christmas present anyone could get."
Sophie laughed. "And yet, it's almost summer."
She could feel Wendy's good humour come across the phone line and wasn't surprised by it. Her own body felt lighter with the weight that had been taken from it and she was more than a little giddy herself. Even the phone was behaving for her, allowing her to talk to Wendy instead of trying to connect her to someone in Japan or Germany.
"I'm coming down right now," Wendy said.
"She's asleep," Sophie warned her.
"I don't care. I was so worried."
Sophie understood. None of them had wanted to even consider what would happen if Jilly hadn't pulled through, but it hadn't been far from any of their minds all the same. Life without Jilly in it was unthinkable, but as someone had once said, fair was only the first third of fairy tale, and the world had its own agenda that didn't take anyone else's into account.
"I'm going to make a few more calls," Sophie said. "Would you mind letting Christy and maybe Sue know before you leave? I'll call the professor and the others."
"Don't forget Lou."
"Or Angel or—"
"Okay, okay. I'll make my calls and then I'm on my way."
Sophie smiled as she hung up. She fed another quarter into the phone and dialed the next number on her list.
Be nice to me, phone, she thought. Don't give me any trouble tonight.
For once something mechanical seemed willing to give her a break.
* * *
When Sophie finally returned to Jilly's room she thought she saw two girls peering in through the window, dark faces pressed against the glass, hair standing up in sharp spikes. She hesitated in the doorway, trapped by the impossibility of their presence, then blinked, and they were gone.
She crossed to the window and looked out, but there was no one there, of course. The ICU was on the third floor and there was no fire escape outside the window. When she lifted her gaze she saw a pair of crows in the distance, winging off against the Crowsea skyline.
Jilly would say it was the crow girls, but Sophie knew better. All she'd seen was an odd reflection on the glass. She might have an active dream life, but she didn't let it carry over into what the professor called the World As It Is. It drove Jilly crazy, but the only magic Sophie saw in the world was what people made for each other. Still, what she thought she'd seen had been disconcerting, if only for a moment.
You're just not getting enough sleep, she told herself, rubbing at her temples.
The doctor came in then and she concentrated on what he had to tell her after he'd examined Jilly.
- 5 -
Once upon a time…
The forest seems familiar to me right away, but it takes me a moment to realize why. I stand there, absorbed by the towering trees that surround me on all sides, trees bigger and stranger than they have any right to be. There's next to no undergrowth, just these behemoths, their trunks so wide that five of me couldn't touch hands around them. Light pours down from the dense canopy above in golden shafts and that's when I know where I am. The cathedral effect reminds me of what I call the place that Sophie goes travelling to at night.
I'm back in the dreamlands again. The cathedral world.
It's not the city of Mabon that Sophie founded with her faerie blood, but a magic place all the same. It would have to be, wouldn't it, with trees like this. They must be close cousins of what Jack Daw used to call the forever trees, the giant growth that made up the first forest when the world was born.
I can't believe that I'm finally able to cross over into the otherworld like this. While I'd prefer to be able to go in my body, dreaming my way across is certainly the next best thing. But I would like to learn how to choose where I end up, the way that Sophie can. I'll have to ask her how she does it.
Thinking of Sophie reminds me that I just saw her…or was that a dream, too? She really didn't seem herself. Way too sad, for one thing. I know everyone can't be as exuberant as I tend to get, but couldn't she have shown just a little more enthusiasm about me learning how to cross over, too? Because now we can have adventures in the dreamlands together. And I'll finally get to meet her mysterious boyfriend Jeck, that handsome crow boy that she can only be with in Mabon.
Sometimes I just don't get her. How can someone be so full of magic and still deny it the way she does? You only have to look at her to see the faerie blood, to know that she's as magical as anything you could find in or out of the cathedral world.
A little niggling thought comes worming up through my happiness. It's got to do with that last time I saw her. I remember her starting to say something about accidents and cars, but I don't want to go there. I don't want the World As It Is to intrude on the magic I'm experiencing right now.
I take a deep breath and look around some more, trying to empty my mind of everything except for what's happening at this moment. I want to exist in Zen time. No past, no future. Just now. Just being here.
I think I'm alone until I smell the cigarette smoke. I turn in a slow circle and finally see a thin drift of it coming from the far side of one of the nearby trees. I head over, happy to have something new to focus on. When I get there it's to find a guy sitting with his back against one of the trees, legs sprawled out in front of him. He's wearing jeans, scuffed workboots and a T-shirt with faded writing on it that I can just make out. Oh, and he's got the head of a coyote or wolf, but I know who he is all the same.
"Hey, Joe. I haven't seen you for awhile."
Joseph Crazy Dog's the only guy I know who'd be wearing that "Don't! Buy! Thai!" T-shirt in the dreamlands. Like they have boycotts here.
Unlike Sophie, he's upfront about his otherworld origins. The funny thing is, no one pays much attention to that. Most people just assume he's this city Indian come down from the rez, living on the street and he won't take his meds. Or they know him as Bones, sitting in Fitzhenry Park, telling fortunes with a handful of what gave him his name, scattering the rodent and bird bones on a piece of deerskin, reading stories in how they fall. Stories about what's been, what is, or what might be.
The wolf head shimmers while I'm standing there, morphing into the face I know with its dark, coppery cast and broad features. Square chin, eyes set wide, nose flat. His long black hair's tied back in a single braid festooned with feathers and beads. I've always loved his eyes. They shift like mercury, one moment the clown, one moment the wise man. Impossible to capture in a painting. I know; I've tried.
Joe shrugs in response to my greeting. He takes another drag from his cigarette as I sit down beside him.
"You know how it is," he says. "I'm always crossing back and forth and you've been busy."
"It seems like I'm always busy. Maybe I spend too much time trying to be too many things for too many people."
"You wouldn't be the first, though you do seem to have made more of a career of it than most. Could be this accident of yours is the spirits's way of telling you to spend a little time on yourself for a change. Kind of like forcing the issue."
"See, that's what I mean. You just don't pay enough attention to yourself."
Sometimes Joe can drive me crazy with his obliqueness.
"Is this one of your lessons?" I ask.
Joe's been working with me on and off for a couple of years now to prepare me to be able to cross over into the spiritworld like he does, walking in my body. The way that came about was out of this long conversation we had, back when Zeffy and Nia got lost in the otherworld. I wanted to accompany Joe while he was looking for them, but he wouldn't let me.
The way he put it was, "It's dangerous for anybody, walking there in their own skin, but especially for someone like you. You're like a magnet for the spirits, Jilly. Got a light inside you that shines too bright. I've told you, I can teach you how to navigate that place, but you've got to give me a few years so you can study it properly."
"But Sophie just goes there," I'd said to him then.
"Sure she does," he told me. "Only she doesn't go in her skin. She dreams her way across—she'd have to, seeing how she shines about as bright as you—and that's the only way you can go, too, until you learn more."
"I don't have those kind of dreams."
"Maybe you just don't remember them." He'd smiled at me, those crazy eyes of his grinning. "That light you carry's got to have come from somewhere. I don't know many people shine so bright without having touched a spirit of two along the way."
"I guess," I said. "I only wish I could be the one to decide when it happens."
"You've got to accept your blessings as they come. Most people don't even get one, and when they do, they ignore it, or explain it away."
"I'm not ungrateful to be here," I tell him now. "No matter how I got across. But I can't help wanting more. I want to know that I can keep doing it. I want to be here like you. For real."
"This doesn't feel real to you?" he asks.
"You know what I mean."
He nods. "I guess I do." He puts out his cigarette on the heel of his boot and stows the butt away in his pocket. "We always want more than what we've got."
"I don't mean to sound greedy," I tell him. "But I don't want two lives like Sophie does—one in the World As It Is, and one here. I'd feel too schizophrenic. I don't know how Sophie does it."
"One's real for her," Joe says, "and one's a dream. She puts each experience in what she figures is its appropriate compartment and it all comes out tidy."
That describes Sophie to a "T." She's as neat as I'm messy. I don't know how she does that either. I can't open a tube of paint without some of it immediately migrating to my fingers, my hair, my jeans…
"Tidy," I repeat. "That's sure not me."
Joe laughs. "You don't have to work at convincing me about that."
I could just whack him sometimes.
"I mean I can't divide my life up neatly like that," I say. "If I'm going to have access to the spiritworld, I want to be able to bring my sketchbook across with me and then bring it back again. I'd like to carry over a tent and food and things so that I could stay awhile and not have to worry about shelter or eating roots and berries."
The thing about travelling to the dreamlands the way Sophie does is that you can't bring anything with you. You can't bring anything back. Only the experience.
"I hear you," Joe says. "And we've been working on that with what I've been teaching you."
"I know. But finally being here, even just like this…"
I see the understanding in his eyes. That understanding's been there all along, but I had to explain how I feel all the same.
"It's hard to be patient," he says.
"We can work on it," he says. "Being able to dream yourself over's going to make everything go a lot quicker."
"When can we start?" I ask.
He gives me an unhappy look.
"First we have to deal with that accident," he says.
I start to shake my head. I don't want to talk about it, whatever it is. But Joe's not one to let you bury your head in the sand.
"You've got a hard road ahead of you," he tells me. "Maybe your being able to cross over like this is compensation for all the work you've got waiting for you back in the World As It Is. Or maybe that bang on the head knocked loose whatever it is that lets people cross over in a dream."
I am shaking my head now. Joe just ignores it. He fixes that steady gaze of his on me, the clown gone. He's all serious.
"I brought in a couple of different healers," he says. "Even asked the crow girls to look in on you. They all say the same thing. You've got to do the mending on your own. See, the problem is, there's an older hurt, sitting there on the inside of you, and it's blocking anybody's attempts to speed the natural healing process of what's wrong on the outside."
"What are you saying?"
I don't admit to anything, but some part of me knows what he's trying to tell me. Just thinking about it makes me feel the pull back to the world I've left behind. I don't want to go back.
Joe hesitates, then tells me, "It's like a part of you doesn't want to get any better."
"I'm not even sick."
"Well, you don't have the flu," he says, "but you got banged up something bad. There's no point in either of us pretending otherwise. And you and I both know there's old hurts you've just hid away. Maybe you can turn up the wattage of that shine of yours to fool most people, but you don't fool me."
"What kind of hurts are you talking about?"
"If I knew, maybe I could help."
"You know the story of my life," I say.
He gives a slow nod of his head. "But I don't know how you feel about it."
"This is such bullshit."
Joe sighs. "I'm just telling you how it is. If you didn't want to know, you shouldn't have asked."
It's true. Joe rarely offers advice without first waiting to be asked. The trouble with advice is that it's usually something you don't want to hear.
I have to look away. I let those wonderful trees fill my vision. Already they seem less present. Or maybe I am. I can feel the tug of my body, and it's stronger. I don't want to go back. I know what's waiting for me now.
"I'm sorry it worked out this way," Joe says.
I nod. "Me, too," I tell him.
"You deserve better."
I shrug. I don't think the world works on merit. At least, not as much as we'd like it to.
"We'll find a way to beat it," Joe tells me.
And if we can't?
But I don't say the words aloud. I touch his hand.
"Don't you worry about me, Joe," I say. "I'm a survivor."
Then I let the pain reach across into the dreamlands and pull me back to that hospital bed. I hear his voice as I go, a faint sound, growing fainter.
"There's more to life than just surviving," he says.
I know that's true. But I also know that sometimes just surviving is all you get.
- 6 -
It was getting to be like old home week, Wendy St. Clair thought as their friends continued to arrive. The waiting room was crowded, getting close to standing room only as the last seats were taken. There were so many familiar faces, Wendy felt she was at one of Izzy or Sophie's gallery openings, except for the fact that everyone was far too glum.
And Jilly wasn't here.
If there was something special going on in your life—a reading, a book signing, a gallery opening, a gig—you could always count on Jilly to be there to help you celebrate. Just as she was also there when the world bore down too hard and you needed a friend, someone to commiserate with. But tonight Jilly was a couple of rooms away, wires and tubes connecting her to the life support and monitoring machines, the Rackham pixie transformed into a creature from an H.R. Giger nightmare, and it was her friends who had gathered to lend each other what support they could, and to celebrate, in their quieter way, Jilly's having come out of the coma.
Professor Dapple, Christy, his girlfriend Saskia and Alan were on one couch at the end of the room, with red-haired Holly sitting on the coffee table in front of them, looking perfectly at home between the piles of old magazines stacked on either side of her. Sophie, Sue, Isabelle and Meran had commandeered the other couch that ran along the longer wall. Desmond and Meran's husband Cerin were sitting on the floor between the two. Cassie had a Formica and metal chair that must have been borrowed from the cafeteria, while Wendy herself was sharing the only other seat with Mona. It was a stuffed chair with squared cushions and arms that was a really dreadful colour of olive green. The two of them were taking turns sitting on one of the arms and the seat cushion.
While they were missing a few faces—Geordie and Tanya were still in L.A. and Cassie's husband Joe…well, who ever knew where Joe was?—it was still quite the turn-out. But then Jilly inspired this kind of loyalty. If she was to die, half the city would probably show up for her funeral.
Wendy put her hand to her mouth, even though she hadn't spoken the words aloud.
Oh, god, she told herself. Don't even think such a thing.
Mona touched her arm. "Are you okay?"
Wendy nodded. Before she could fumble an explanation as to what had made her suddenly go so pale, the door to the waiting room opened and Lou Fucceri and Angel came in. Lou smelled like cigarette smoke, Angel of a blend of cardamom and ylang ylang oils.
It was odd seeing the two of them like this. They hadn't been an item for almost twenty years, but whenever Wendy saw them together, it was impossible for her not to think of them as a couple. Neither had gone on to get married, or even had a long-term relationship since they'd broken up, but they hadn't tried to fix whatever had gone wrong between them either.
Wendy thought it was their jobs. They both had careers rooted in heartbreak and frustration, neither of which allowed much emotional strength left over to work on a relationship. Because of those careers they had locked horns more often than not, disagreeing on the letter of the law and how the people who broke it were best served.
Lou was a career policeman. He'd risen to the rank of lieutenant since Jilly first met him as a rookie street cop—when "my life began again," as Jilly put it—without asking for or taking favours. He was a tall, broad-shouldered Italian whose people had a long history of either entering law enforcement or working for the Cerone family on the other side of the law, which could make holidays and birthdays strained affairs at the best of times.
Angela Marceau was a counselor for street people and runaways. She had a walk-in office on Grasso Street and wasn't above bending, if not outright breaking, the law if the safety of one of her charges was at stake. Wendy had first met her years ago and Angel was as gorgeous now as she'd been back then. She had a heart-shaped face, framed by a cascade of curly dark hair, and deep warm eyes. Her trim figure didn't sport wings, and she leaned more towards baggy pants, T-shirts and hightops than she did harps and shimmering gowns, but some of the street people claimed she really was a messenger from God, come down to help them. She certainly had the Botticelli image down, updated for present times.
"Has she come to again?" Angel asked after she and Lou had said their hellos.
Sophie shook her head. "But she's out of the coma. The doctor said she's just sleeping now."
"She'll need all the rest she can get after that sort of trauma."
"Rest, Jilly," Mona murmured from beside Wendy. "Somehow you don't expect to hear those two words in the same sentence."
"Has there been any word on the driver of the car?" the professor asked Lou.
Everyone fell quiet to hear his response. Lou got an uncomfortable expression and a horrible feeling shivered through Wendy.
Don't tell us, she wanted say. If it's more bad news, just don't tell us.
But they had to know. That was the only way to face your fears. You can't stand up to the night until you understand what's hiding in its shadows, someone had told her once.
"There's been a complication," Lou finally said. "Dispatch got a call late this afternoon from Jilly's landlady…" He looked old, sagging in on himself, as though having to describe what had happened was more than he could bear. "Somebody trashed the studio. I mean they really had themselves a time. They cut her paintings into ribbons, pulled everything out of her drawers and shelves and went to town tossing it around. The place looks like a hurricane hit it. Everything reeks of turpentine and solvents. But it's the paintings…"
He shook his head. All those years on the street, with all he must have seen, and still this had obviously gotten to him. Maybe because it was personal, Wendy thought. Because it had happened to a friend.
"Who could ever do this to Jilly?" he said. "Who could hate her that much?"
His last few words were drowned in a general hubbub of disbelief and concern. Wendy glanced at Isabelle and saw the pained look on the artist's face. They were all upset, but Isabelle, who'd lost most of her paintings in a fire years ago, was the one who knew better than any of them just how devastating this would be for Jilly.
"This is connected, isn't it?" Sophie said. "To the hit-and-run."
Lou turned to her. "What makes you say that?"
"I can see it in your face."
"You think someone ran her down deliberately?" Meran asked. Her voice echoed the shock they were all feeling.
No, Wendy thought. That couldn't be true. It was just too awful to contemplate.
"Until we find the driver," Lou said, "it's impossible to say." Then he sighed. "But it doesn't feel right to me. First the car, now this business with her studio. The incidents are just too close to each other to feel like a coincidence."
"But you're talking about someone actually trying to kill her," Saskia said.
Angel shook her head. "No, they want to erase her. Her and her work… To make it be like she never existed."
"I don't believe it," the professor said.
He took off his glasses and gave them a brief cleaning they didn't need before putting them back on, his gaze fixed on Lou's grave features.
"No, it can't be true," Cassie said. "How could it be true?"
Lou just gave them all a tired look.
"Does she have enemies that any of you know about?" he asked.
There was a long moment of silence.
"This is Jilly you're talking about," Sophie said.
"I doubt she's ever hurt anyone in her life," Meran added.
"Certainly not deliberately," Lou agreed.
On the other couch, Christy nodded. "Which would mean you're looking for someone with an intense dislike for the relentlessly cheerful."
That woke faint smiles throughout the room, but they didn't last long as Jilly's friends considered the idea of someone hating her so much that they would want to cause her this much pain. Enough so that they would destroy her life's work and deliberately run her down with a car.
"Just think about it," Lou said. "Keep your eyes and ears open. And if you think of anything that could help us, if you hear or see anything, call me. I don't care what time of the day or night it might be."
- 7 -
Once upon a time...
I open my eyes and I can't move. It's not just because of the casts on my left arm and right leg. There's no feeling under the leg cast. There's no feeling in my right arm either. That whole side of my body is paralyzed and numb. It's so weird. I can feel the fabric of my hospital gown and the bedclothes against my skin—but only on the left side. On the right, there's nothing. I can move my head, stiffly, with an effort, my left leg, the arm in the cast, though that sends a shiver of pain through me.
I remember how it was before, when Sophie was looking down at me. I couldn't move then either. Now I know why. I remember the car and the impact.
There's no one in the room with me, but I can hear voices from nearby.
I look down at my useless right arm, my hand, my drawing hand, willing it to move. I can't even feel it.
There are lots of fairy tales. I remember the professor telling me once how people need to be storied to get over their fears. We were talking about the elements of fairy tales and their relevance to the World As It Is, the here and now in which we all live. It was just the three of us, Christy, the professor and me, sitting in that old-fashioned drawing room of the professor's that he uses as a study.
People who've never read fairy tales, the professor said, have a harder time coping in life than the people who have. They don't have access to all the lessons that can be learned from the journeys through the dark woods and the kindness of strangers treated decently, the knowledge that can be gained from the company and example of Donkeyskins and cats wearing boots and steadfast tin soldiers. I'm not talking about in-your-face lessons, but more subtle ones. The kind that seep up from your subconscious and give you moral and humane structures for your life. That teach you how to prevail, and trust. And maybe even love.
The people who missed out on them have to be re-storied in their adult lives.
Maybe that's what's happening to me. Faithfully though I read them when I was a kid, and have kept reading them all my life, maybe I need to be re-storied again anyway. Because there's something missing in my life, too. I don't need Joe or anyone else to tell me that. I've always known it.
I'm an onion girl, like in that song Holly Cole sings. And what I'm most afraid of is that, if you peel back enough layers, there won't be anything left of me at all. Everyone'll know who I really am. The Broken Girl. The Hollow Girl.
Maybe the stories can fill me up.
Once upon a time…
I try to move my right hand again. It's like it doesn't exist.
I can't imagine a life in which I can't paint and draw.
Once upon a time…
I'm in the fairy tale where the girl gets hits by a car and then lies in the ICU ward of the hospital, waiting to die. Or at the very least, life as she knew it is over and everything is forever changed.
I'm not sure I want to know how the story ends.
Once upon a time…
Tyson, Summer 1969
Pinky Miller's about my best friend, so I guess that's why I put up with her the way I do. I mean, she's as like' to get me into trouble as out of it and there's no way around it. She's pretty much a strollop, and not the sharpest tool in the shed neither, but she's got a lot of heart. Always stood by me, leastways.
Like the time we ended up at this tailgate party on the Sutherland's back forty. We were still in high school at the time, fifteen going on twenty, the pair of us. I was always small, but big in all the right places, if you know what I mean, and Pinky, well, you look up statuesque in the dictionary and you'd find her picture.
We was popular with all the boys, but I never put out like she did. Back in those days my big brother Del'd have tore a strip off me if he ever heard I was letting anybody get past second base. He was always telling me I had to save myself for that special guy and we both knew who he was. The boys I dated didn't mind. I gave a righteous hand job and there was always Pinky, happy to oblige whoever I was with if her own fella got himself a little wore out, and they got wore out more often 'n not.
Pinky's been like that pretty much since we hit puberty. There were three things a girl had to live for, she'd tell me, men, money and partying, and not necessarily in that order. "Think about it, Raylene," she told me once, at a time when we might've been going to college if we'd had the grades, the interest, or the money. "You can't have a party without men and the foldin' green to buy the party favours, am I right? Now given my druthers, I'll take a backwoods boy any day of the week, hung like a horse and ready to rock 'n' roll. But for the finer things in life—and I'm talkin' perfume and jewels and pretty party dresses here—give me some old fuck with a fat wallet. It's just economics, you understand?"
But in those days we was dating high school seniors and the dropouts that hung out at the pool hall. Rich was something you saw on TV, not something anybody who lived in our section of Tyson could ever claim to be, so we had to make do. We was white trash, plain and simple. I don't mean we thought we was white trash, but that's what we was all the same.
See, we lived not only on the wrong side of the tracks, but past the Ramble, past Stokesville—which the ignorant still call Niggertown—all the way out on the butt end of Tyson in what the townies called Hillbilly Holler. Had us rundown clapboard houses that the wind was as like' to blow over if we didn't burn 'em down our own selves, with hand pumps in the kitchen and outhouses 'round back. We had phones, and power when it wasn't being shut off, but the sewers and water mains stopped our side of Stokesville.
What makes a body live there, you're wondering? What makes you think any of us had a choice?
Anywise, that night I was with Lenny Wilson, a handsome enough boy except for that spray of zits on his forehead. He wore his dirty blonde hair slicked back like he was right proud of those zits, but he dressed sharp and he was funny. Always made me laugh, leastways. He was a high school dropout like pretty near everybody in our crowd already was, or soon would be, and I guess he was going on twenty, but he was okay for an older guy. He settled for the handjob like it was all he needed and never pushed too hard for more.
There was maybe eight or nine of us in the field that night. We had the three pick-ups backed up to each other, nice and cosy like, a little fire burning in the middle where they met, shooting up sparks—hillbilly fireworks, Lenny called them. There was plenty of beer, a little pot, and good tunes coming in on the radio. It was still early so most of us was just dancing, or necking, or lying there in the bed of one of the pickups, looking up at the stars.
The music was pretty loud, and I guess that's why we didn't hear a fourth vehicle come bouncing across the field until it was pretty much blowing gas fumes up our asses. By then it was too late to do anything 'cept shiver and quake.
There was three of them sitting side by each in the cab. Russell Henderson, Bobby Marshall, and Eugene Webb. All of a kind, dark slick hair, weasel-thin, and about as mean as you can imagine, and if you're like me, you can probably imagine pretty good. None of the boys we was with had a hope in hell of standing up to these hardcases. I'd bet even Del'd have backed off 'less he could take 'em on one at a time.
"We're lookin' for a party girl," Russell said with a grin. He studied us, one by one, that cocky gaze of his finally settling on me. "Now you see, Eugene? I told you we was gonna find us some fresh meat tonight."
Pinky and me, we was sitting on the tailgate when they drove up. 'Bout now I was shaking so hard I thought I'd pee my panties, but Pinky just lounged against the side of the truck bed, hands in the pockets of her jacket.
"You sure this is the way you want it to play?" she asked Russell.
"Now don't you be frettin'," he told her. "You and me, I ain't forgettin' the fun we had in the past. I mean, you don't meet that many girls who'll take it up both ends and still ask for more."
Pinky gave him a smile.
"Your call," she told him.
He reached for me and the next thing I know she was swinging her feet to the ground. Her hands came out of her pocket and there was a switchblade in one of them, the blade popping out and locking in place like a piece of dark magic. What happened then happened so fast it took everybody by surprise, especially Russell. She stuck that knife in him, hard, deep in his gut, then gave him a little push. By the time he dropped to his knees and the other two were moving in, she had the knife free and was moving it back and forth in the air between them, spraying drops of blood.
This was a side of Pinky I'd never saw before that night. I mean, she always talked tough. I just never realized how hard she could back the words up. But I guess those boys knew. The one that got himself gut-stuck, all the fight was taken out of him, that was for sure. Bobby and Eugene grabbed hold of him and held up him between them.
"This ain't over," Eugene told Pinky before they dragged Russell away.
"Hell, no," she told them. "Whatever gave you that notion? I'm of a mind to go by where you sorry fucks live and burn them shacks down. Listen to your mamas squeal while they're fryin'. That about what you had in mind when you're sayin' this ain't over?"
Eugene dropped Russell's arm and started for her, stopping when that weaving dance with the switchblade stopped and the blade pointed at him, still wet with Russell's blood.
"A smart man'd know when to quit," she said, "but you're just a big dumb fuck, ain't that right? Let me tell you what's going to happen here, Eugene. I'm goin' to be wearing your balls for earrings if you don't turn around and haul your sorry ass out of here."
I didn't know which was troubling Eugene more, that it was a girl facing him down, or that the rest of us was there to see it happen. But I knew this, he was scared of Pinky and scared of that knife. More scared of dying than he was of losing face.
"Fuck you," he said. "Fuck you all."
He reached down and grabbed Russell's arm again and helped Bobby carry him back to their pickup. Pinky eased her way round to the cab of the truck we'd been in the back of and pulled down the hunting rifle that was up on the rack behind the seat. By the time Eugene and Bobby had reached their own truck, she was standing there with the rifle in her hand now, just a-waiting.
That was Pinky for you. Like I said, she's not real smart in a whole bunch of ways, but she's cunning. She knew them boys might have them a coon gun up on the rack of their own truck and she just out-thought 'em, same as she out-braved them. Eugene and Bobby got Russell into the cab, climbed in their ownselves and they peeled outta there, tires spitting up sod and dirt. I wouldn't have liked to have been Russell on that ride, holding in his guts as the truck went jolting back across the field.
"You can't never back down," Pinky told me as she laid the rifle on the tailgate. "You back down and they're gonna walk all over you. Not just today, but every goddamn day. You trust me on that one, Raylene."
I didn't say anything, but I nodded. I already knew that. I'd been backing down seems like my whole life and it never got better. Never helped much and only got worse. It's like every time you get pushed a little further, the one standing over you's just gotta find something meaner to do, like he's daring you to stand up for yourself, but he knows you never will.
Pinky reached down and picked up her switchblade from where she'd dropped it on the ground. She gave the blade a wipe, then closed it up again.
"Where'd you learn to be so brave?" I asked.
Pinky laughed. "Hell, Raylene. I got me four brothers—only one more 'n you. When we ain't fightin' with each other, they're showin' me how to fight anybody wants to hurt me. Don't Del or those other brothers of yours teach you nothin'?"
He teaches me more 'n enough, I thought.
"Nothing I want to learn," I said. "Not from Del. Tell you the truth, Robbie and Jimmy and me—we's all scared of him."
Pinky shook her head. "That ain't right."
She hefted her switchblade in her hand, then offered it to me.
"Here," she said. "It's about time you learned a thing or two 'bout takin' care of yourself."
Them boys showing up like they did pretty much shut the party down for the night. Pinky, she was still a-raring to go, but all the fun had leaked out of it for the rest of us. Pinky and me, we got us a ride home, had Lenny let us off a half-mile down the road because Pinky said she and me, we had some talking to do. We watched Lenny's taillights disappear down the road, then Pinky started to explain the finer workings of my new red-handled switchblade.
"You gotta practice gettin' it open fast," she said. "Sometimes that's all you need, just to have it out and be ready to use it afore anybody knows what's what. Most times, that's all you're gonna need to do."
I nodded. I don't know as I'd ever be able to cut anybody like she just done, but that knife sure felt good in my hand.
"Now, when you do need to use it," she went on, "you hold the blade edge up, and cut up with it. Natural inclination's to cut down, but all you're gonna do is hit you some ribs. Cuttin' up, you go clean through all the soft stomach tissue. And you keep this sweetheart sharp, you hear me? I'll get you a whetstone and show you how. You don't want to be dependin' on nobody but yourself."
It went on like that for awhile, Pinky talking, more serious that I ever heard her before, me nodding and listening, holding it all in.
"You know how to shoot?" she asked me after we got done talking about knives.
I shook my head.
"That's somethin' else I'm gonna have to teach you. Time might come when you gotta walk out into the dark, and if you're walkin' on your own, a gun makes for mighty fine company. See, most of the hardcases you're gonna meet, they ain't used to no pretty girl that can stand up and be just as hard as they are. Harder even. But they see you know how to use what you're holdin', and you ain't afraid to use it, ain't nobody gonna hurt you." She grinned. "'Less you like it a little rough."
"You been with those boys before," I found myself saying. "Russell and Eugene and all."
"Oh, yeah." I couldn't see her eyes in the dark, but her voice was as hard as I imagined they'd be. "We had us some history. But they just ain't much good at learning the difference between fun and pain."
* * *
Well, that night when Del come into my bedroom, like he's been doing three or four times a week ever since my older sister run off and he needed himself a new special girl, I was waiting with that present of Pinky's in my hand. I knew I couldn't outright kill him—that'd probably be a sin, killing your own brother, don't matter what he was doing to you—but I meant to hurt him bad.
I'd had me some of Pa's liquor when I got home, to fortify me like. Back then I didn't have much courage I could call up on my own. But I was primed that night. The old man and Ma was out someplace, don't ask me where. But I knew that'd mean Del'd be sniffing around my bed as soon as he got his own self home. Jimmy and Robbie were sleeping down the hall, but they wouldn't say nothing. I could holler like a cat on fire and they'd still stay in that room of theirs, too scared of Del to even think of helping me. Or maybe they'd be jacking off to the sound of my crying. I don't know. It's not like we ever talked about it or nothing.
I held in my head what Pinky told me afore she headed off home earlier. "You get into a situation," she said, " you gotta hold this thought in your head: 'It don't matter if I live or die.' That's what gives you the edge. Bullies, they're pretty much all the same. Scared under all that meanness and bluster. But they can read you good, smell the fear on you like an old coon hound." She'd grinned. "But they can smell the fearlessness, too. They know when you don't give a shit what happens to you. So you hold your head up, Raylene. Look 'em in the eye and remember what the Injuns say. 'It's a good day to die.'"
I said that to myself as I stood there with that red-handled switchblade in my hand, moonlight coming in through the window glinting on the blade.
"It's a good day to die."
And damned if it didn't feel that way. Part of me was still a little girl, scared as all get out, but part of me was something else. Part of me was a piece of the night, lying in wait for the monster to come. Lying in wait with a big shiny knife in my hand, and wasn't it a pretty thing?
The door opened without a creak. Del oiled those hinges on a regular basis his own self. I stood there against the wall by the door, watching him creep across the floor to my bed.
"Hey, there, Ray," he whispered. "Rise and shine, little sister. I done got you a present."
He was fumbling with his zipper when I stepped up behind him. He smelled of beer and cigarettes and something else. A dark, animal smell.
"You playin' shy?" he said, reaching out with his free hand to give me a shake.
But there weren't nobody there. Just some bunched up old jeans and shirts to make it look like I was sleeping
"I'm right here, Del," I said. "And I got me a present for you tonight."
I let him turn around. I let him see the moonlight in my eyes and the shine on that blade. I tell you, I was feeling big and tall, like one of them mountain men you'd see come down from the real hillbilly hollers. I wanted to drive that new knife of mine right in his gut, just like Pinky done with Russell, but all my courage drained away at the look on his face. I never seen him so mad. I was froze solid, like I had roots growing outta the bottoms of my cowboy boots.
He was drunk and I guess that's what saved my life, though it didn't seem so at first. He just up and backhanded me across the face. Split my lip and sent me skidding back against the window frame. Then he stood over me and laughed. I was so scared I maybe did wet my panties some and I was gripping the handle of that switchblade so tight my knuckles were whiter than the moon hanging outside the window.
But he was swaying while he laughed. Hurting something always made him giddy and I guess being drunk just made everything seem funnier to him.
"Lookit you, Ray," he finally said. "Damned if you ain't a sight. I think maybe I'm gonna take that little knife away and stick it up your hole. Whatcha think about that?"
He crossed the floor and I didn't know what I was doing, just knew I had to do something. So I swung out with that knife of Pinky's, honed sharp as a razor. I caught him in the back of his knee, slicing through his jeans and skin and muscle like it was butter. He howled and went down and I scrabbled out of the way.
"Jesus, fuck!" he cried. "You cut me, Ray!"
Something went click in my head then, changed me. He reached for me and I slashed again, opening up the palm of his hand. And it felt good. Seeing his blood. Hearing him moan.
Big, bad, scary Del. He was just lying on the floor, whimpering now.
"You sound like a girl," I told him.
I bent down so my face was close to his, but not so close he could grab me.
"This is gonna be our little secret, ain't that right?" I said, echoing the words he done told me more times that I can ever remember.
"I…I'll fuckin'…kill you…"
I'll give him this. He was hurt bad, but he wasn't scared. Maybe he was too drunk and mad to be scared. Or too dumb. I don't know. I didn't much care.
"I'm right sorry to hear you feel that way," I said.
I stood up again and I give him a kick. Those cowboy boots of mine have got them a point, so I know it hurt. He just cried out, backed away. Dragging his leg. Cradling his hand where the blood come bubbling up, making a slick mess.
"'Cause now I'm gonna have to kill you," I told him. "And that worries me, 'cause I'm thinkin' it could be a sin. What do you think, Del? Is killin' your brother a sin? And if it is, what I'm workin' on here is tryin' to decide if it's a bigger one 'n the things you done to me, your own little sister."
"You…you get me a doctor…"
I shook my head. "I can't do that, Del. I'm too scared to go walkin' around a big dark old house like this, all on my own like."
I didn't know it could feel so good, standing over someone like this and knowing you had the power of their life or death in your hands. If I'm a broken thing, like one of them shrinks at the jail house told me once, then this is the place I got broke. Not all those other times, when Del came sniffing round me, but that night. The night I learned how to hurt back.
I coulda killed him. Maybe I should have. But I guess I still didn't have it in me yet. There was a shake starting up in my legs and I knew I had to get me outta there afore I fell down my own self. He made another grab at me and I kicked him again, waving the knife in his face. He went down and I turned, grabbed the bag I'd packed before he got home, and I lit outta there, pounding down the stairs in my boots, the bloody knife still in my hand.
I made it maybe as far as the end of the lane before I got all weak in my knees. My legs went to jelly and I dropped down on all fours, my head bent down in the ditch, puking up beer and liquor and whatever sour crap was left when the alcohol was gone. I wasn't no pretty sight by the time I'd dragged myself down to Pinky's house and banged a handful of gravel up against her window.
"Damn, if you ain't a quick study," she said when I managed to tell her what I'd done.
That was the first time I run off from home, same as my sister afore me.
* * *
But that was a long time ago, some thirty years or better now, I guess.
Russell survived the cutting Pinky give him and he and his hardcase buddies kept up their wicked ways, but they never come 'round bothering us again. Oh, they beat the crap outta Lenny and a couple of the other guys'd been there in the field that night, and I heard they had themselves a party with Cherie, but they stayed clear of Pinky and me.
Del didn't die.
He told our parents and the police that he'd come upon a burglar, sneaking in through my bedroom window. He couldn't tell the truth. The can of worms that would've opened wouldn't have let him come out smelling like a hero the way his own story did. 'Course Jimmy and Robbie backed him up.
When the police found me at Pinky's and dragged me back home, I said I didn't know nothing neither. I stood there in Pinky's front hall, my own eye half shut and swollen from where Del'd hit me. It was just coincidence I picked that night to run off like I did, I told them, and they swallowed the lie. What were they supposed to think? That the slip of a girl I was, bra-size notwithstanding, coulda beat up a big ol' boy the size of Del?
Del didn't bother me for awhile. But he'd give me looks. Ma'd give me looks. Jimmy and Robbie. Only the old man went on the way he always did, pretending nothing was wrong.
I still hate them all. Del, well, he goes without saying. Pa for being so pussy-whipped and not protecting me. Ma for taking Del's side, blaming me when I first ran crying to her, a little scared girl, looking for comfort. Jimmy and Robbie, well, they was always no account. I don't know that I hated them. I don't know that they even registered at all. I mean we was all victims, right? Just like our sister afore us.
I think maybe I hate her the most of all, for running off the way she did. If she hadn't lit out, Del would've stuck with her and never took up with me. I know that's true. He told me often enough.
Newford, April 1999
Sophie found Mona Morgan waiting for her by the mouth of the alley that ran along Jilly's building on Yoors Street. The comic book artist had her hands in the pockets of her green cargo pants, her head tilted back to study the secondfloor window that Jilly used as a door to her fire escape "balcony."
"I would've given you the key last night," Sophie said when she joined Mona, "if I'd known you'd be early."
"I just got here," Mona told her. She ran a hand through her hair. The short blonde spikes were showing an inch of dark roots. "That's where they came in, I guess," she added, indicating the window.
Sophie nodded. "Lou said he boarded it up before he left last night."
"This is so awful," Mona said. "I just dread going up there."
Mona had offered to help clean Jilly's studio loft when she'd heard Sophie and Wendy talking about it at the hospital last night. Wendy would have come as well, but she had a regular job writing copy and doing proofreading at In the City now. The weekly arts and entertainment newspaper ran on a tight schedule that didn't leave a whole lot of room for creative time management. It wasn't like the old waitressing days when she could simply trade off a shift with someone and make it up later. These days, only Jilly still worked part time at Kathryn's Café.
Sophie sighed. Or at least she had been up until four days ago.
"Did you go by the hospital this morning?" Mona asked as the two of them returned to the front of the building.
They walked past the video store and the pawn shop to the narrow entranceway, pausing just inside the door so that Sophie could collect Jilly's mail. It was mostly junk: flyers, a catalogue. There were also a couple of bills and a letter with an L.A. postmark. From Geordie, Sophie saw when she turned it over to look at the return address. That would have been mailed before the accident, she thought as they climbed the stairs to Jilly's loft.
"I went by first thing," she said in response to Mona's question. "I wanted to catch the doctor while he was making his rounds."
"What did he say about…you know…"
"Pretty much the same as last night," Sophie said. "Every case is different. She could shake it off today, in a week, in a month…"
"But she's going to be okay."
"Of course she is," Sophie lied, as much to Mona as herself.
The truth was she didn't know if Jilly would ever be okay again. The results of the accident, especially the paralysis, seemed to have stomped Jilly's normally irrepressible spirit right into the ground. Understandable, of course, considering what she'd been through, but it was so disconcerting to see Jilly like this, lying there, staring up at the ceiling, answering in monosyllables, her few words mumbled because the paralysis had also affected one side of her mouth.
"Is she a fighter?" the doctor had asked Sophie before they parted this morning.
Four days ago Sophie would have had no trouble answering yes.
"Because it's the ones who are most determined," the doctor went on, "who recover most quickly..." He gave a sad shake of his head. "When they give up, nobody can help them."
"I won't let her give up," Sophie had told him.
But that was easier said than done. How did you make someone want to live?
"I don't want to be here," Jilly had said, lying there, broken and pale. Half her head shaven, the words spilled out of a crooked mouth. At least the tubes had been removed from her nose and she was no longer dependent on machines to breathe.
"I know you don't," Sophie told her. She was sitting on the side of the bed, wiping Jilly's forehead with a damp cloth. "None of us wants you to be here. But you don't have any choice right now."
"I do have a choice," Jilly said. "I can go back to sleep. I can go back to the dreamlands."
It was the most she'd said to Sophie all morning.
"That's not a solution," Sophie said. "You know that, don't you?"
But Jilly only closed her eyes.
"Sophie?" Mona asked. "Are you okay?"
Sophie had paused halfway up the stairs, tears brimming in her eyes. She shook her head. Mona came down to the riser she was standing on and put her arms around her. For a long time they stood there, holding on to each other.
"Thanks," Sophie said finally, stepping away. "I needed that."
Sophie's gaze went past Mona, up the stairs to Jilly's door.
"Let's get this done," she said.
* * *
It was both worse and not as bad as Lou had made it out to be. At least half the paintings were untouched, so the loss wasn't as complete as when, years ago, Izzy had lost all her work in the fire. But looking at the art that had been damaged, it was difficult for either woman to understand the sheer savagery of the sick individual responsible for the wreckage. There would be no fixing those paintings. Most of them hung in tattered ribbons from their frames. The remainder had even had their frames broken and splintered. Fifty or sixty of Jilly's gorgeous paintings, all destroyed beyond repair. Some were works in progress, but most were ones she'd just loved too much to be able to sell.
The reek of turps and solvents that stung their nostrils when they entered the loft came from some bottles that had been broken near Jilly's easel, almost as an afterthought, it seemed. The sharp sting in the air was enough to burn their eyes, but at least they hadn't been poured over the furniture the way Sophie had feared from Lou's terse description the night before.
Jilly's other belongings—her clothes, books, everything—were scattered around as though a squall had blown in off the lake and through the apartment. Only the kitchen area was relatively untouched. Some glasses and mugs had been broken there—they must have been in the drainer which Sophie found lying on the floor under the kitchen table. Except for that small bit of damage, the doors of the cupboards and fridge were all still closed, guarding their contents.
After a quick circuit of the loft to assess the damage, they opened the windows facing onto Yoors Street to help air the place out, removed a couple of boards from the back window to create some airflow, and got to it. They began with picking up the broken glass and porcelain, mopping up the turps and solvents from around Jilly's painting area.
"At least no one had a dump on the floor," Mona said as she wrung out the mop in a bucket.
Sophie turned to her with a handful of fired clay and porcelain fragments that had once been mugs and raised her eyebrows.
"Like what happened to Miki last year, remember? The people that trashed her place peed on her clothes and furniture and smeared feces everywhere."
Sophie grimaced. "God, I'd forgotten about that."
"It's the kind of thing you want to forget," Mona said. "Like this." Her gaze travelled the length of the room. "All these beautiful paintings…"
"I don't know how we're going to tell her," Sophie said.
"Or who's going to tell her."
Sophie nodded glumly. She rose to her feet and dumped the handful of mug fragments into the big plastic cooking oil container that Jilly used as a garbage bin. When she glanced back at Mona it was to find the other woman still gazing at the paintings.
"This is weird," Mona said, finally looking over at Sophie.
"The paintings that are destroyed. They're all Jilly's faerie paintings. The landscapes and city scenes—none of them were touched." She crossed the room and laid one of the damaged paintings on the floor, arranging the torn strips so that its subject could be seen. "You see? This is got a couple of those gemmin of hers in it. That one's of a dandelion sprite."
Sophie joined Mona and looked down. The painting Mona had roughly reconstructed was one of Babe and Emmie—a couple of faerie that Jilly claimed she had met in the Tombs, that junked-out part of the city north of Grasso Street that looked like it had been bombed. Sophie lifted her gaze and regarded the other paintings with a new eye. It was true. Whoever had done this, really hadn't cared for the faerie art, destroying it, while leaving the rest untouched.
"So what are we supposed to think?" she said. "That it was some critic?"
"I can't imagine that," Mona told her. "But then I can't imagine anybody doing this kind of thing in the first place, so what do I know."
Sophie sighed. "I can. All you have to do is open the newspaper and you get a daily dose of all the horrible things people can do to one another."
Mona laid the ruined painting on top of another.
"What are we going to do with them?" she asked.
"God, I just don't know. But we have to do something. I don't want them to be the first thing Jilly sees when she gets back."
If she got back. It might be a long time before Jilly was able to navigate the stairs leading up to her loft. Maybe never. The professor had already offered his house for her convalescence, though how well Jilly and Goon, the professor's cantankerous housekeeper would get along, was anyone's guess. Goon was impossible at the best of times.
"Is there room in that closet?" Sophie added.
Mona went to look and gave a start when she opened the door.
"What?" Sophie began, then saw that it was only the life-size fabric mâché self-portrait Jilly had made in arts school that had startled Mona.
Mona gave her an embarrassed grin. "I forgot about the mâché clone."
"Is there room in there for the paintings?"
"Not really. What about the storage area in the basement?"
"We can only go check," Sophie said. "Let's finish cleaning this stuff up first."
* * *
"Why hasn't she ever moved?" Mona asked as they folded away the last of Jilly's clothes.
The smell of turps still hung in the air, but the air circulation had helped, and it didn't seem any stronger than it usually did when Jilly was working on a painting. The floor was cleaned and mopped, all the broken glass put away. Jackets and Jilly's few dresses hung in the closet, books restacked on their shelves in as much order as Jilly ever kept them in, which was none. Knickknacks were back in their usual places, or at least as well as either Sophie or Mona could remember.
"Surely she could afford a bigger place by now," Mona went on.
"For the same reason she works—" Sophie refused to say "worked"—"at Kathryn's—she doesn't like change. For all her spontaneity and love of the strange and unusual, there's something comforting for her when things stay the same."
Mona nodded. "That's true. She was really broken up about Geordie moving to L.A. Is that what you mean?"
"Well, Geordie was special."
"An honourary member of your small fierce women tribe."
"They spent a lot of time together, didn't they?" Mona said. "All those aimless rambles and late night coffee klatches."
Sophie nodded. "And she was also sweet on him."
"I'm sure." Sophie straightened up and looked across the room at Mona. "Though you'd never get her to admit that, not even to herself. The kind of happiness that comes from a relationship is something that's always eluded her. It's the intimacy, I suppose. It takes her back to…well, you know."
"So even if she did ever admit to herself that she liked Geordie in that way, she'd never have acted on it because she'd be afraid to spoil what they did have."
"And now he's with Tanya."
"Mmm. So it's a moot point, I guess."
* * *
Sophie had rarely been in the basement of the Yoors Street building that housed Jilly's studio and Mona had never gone down there. It was a dark, cavernous space, with only low-watt overheads to push back the shadows and who knew how many years of clutter making an adventure of the simple walk from one end of the room to the other. The old furnace was enormous, squatting in the corner like some drowsy dinosaur in comparison to the more sleek and contemporary models available now. Dangling from hooks attached to the tall ceiling were step-ladders, snow shovels, coils of extension cord, as well as any number of less readily-identifiable items, all of which made passage along the length of the room that much more hazardous.
The tenant storage areas were all along one side of the wall, square cells constructed of tall chain-link fencing and wooden support beams, each with its own pad-locked gate. True to Jilly's haphazard ideas concerning security, the key to her area hung on a nail beside its lock. The small room was full of boxes as well as some furniture and two more fabric mâché sculptures from her art school days: a rather crudely-rendered gargoyle that stood upright, rather than crouching in a traditional pose, and the seven-foot-tall, even more crudely-rendered Frankenstein monster that Jilly used to haul out and place on the landing outside her front door on Halloween.
"Whatever happened to the neat old bike Jilly used to have?" Mona asked as they moved boxes to make room for the damaged paintings, stacking them along the back wall.
"She set it free."
"It was after Zinc died. Remember how he used to cut the locks on bikes so that they could go free?"
Mona nodded. "I remember."
"So a year or so later, Jilly just leaned her bike up against the wall of the alley under her fire escape and set it free."
"Did it really…you know, go off by itself?"
"Oh, please. Someone just took it. The same way they took all those bikes that Zinc 'freed.'"
Mona paused with a box in her hand to look at her.
"You don't believe in magic at all, do you? Even with your dreamworld?"
Sophie shook her head. "Not the way you and Jilly do. Mabon's just that: a dream. I realize my serial dreams are weird, but they're not impossible."
"I've only ever had the one magical experience."
"I know. I read about it in your comic. It made a good story."
"But it really happened," Mona said. "This little grotty gnome of a man really did turn invisible and squat in my apartment."
"I believe in a different kind of magic," Sophie said. "The kind we make between each other. The kind that comes from our art and how it can change us. The world doesn't need any more than that."
"But what if it has it all the same?"
Sophie shrugged. "Then I'm missing out on it."
"I don't think so. Not with Mabon, and the way stuff goes wacky around you."
"Jinx is purely physiological," Sophie told her. "It's got something to do with the way my electromagnetic field interacts with that of clocks and machines and things like that."
"Maybe," Mona said.
Sophie smiled. "Well, it's not because of fairies."
They went back to moving the boxes.
* * *
Hours later, they were finally done. All the damaged paintings had been brought downstairs and stacked up in Jilly's storage area and the apartment was tidier than it had probably been in months. Mona had put on a pot of tea. When it was done, the two of them sank down on either end of the sofa and put their feet up on the pillow that lay between them.
"I think Daniel likes Jilly," Sophie said.
She looked at Mona over the tops of her knees, tea mug cradled on her stomach. Her fingers felt stiff and her back and shoulders were aching a little from the unfamiliar labour of moving all those boxes and paintings.
"You know. The hunky nurse in the ICU. He was asking me if she had a boyfriend last night."
Mona smiled. "Big surprise. Everybody likes Jilly."
"Not everybody," Sophie said.
They looked around, remembering the damage the studio had sustained. Sophie thought of what Lou had told them, his suspicions that the hit-and-run and the vandalism were connected.
"What are we going to do about all of this?" she finally said. "How are we ever going to figure out who's got it in for her?"
Mona slowly shook her head. "Maybe the person we should be asking is Jilly."
"Except that means we have to tell her about the paintings."
"We have to do that anyway," Mona said.
Sophie turned away and looked around the loft. She missed the faerie paintings. For all that she couldn't buy into the reality of fairyland the way so many of her friends did, she'd always liked the enchanted feeling she got sitting in Jilly's studio, surrounded by all those impossible denizens of the dreamworld as they were portrayed in Jilly's art. She sighed. Magical creatures and faerie were so much a part of Jilly's life, so integral to how she viewed the world. How was she ever going to deal with the loss of all her paintings of them?
It would kill her at the best of times, but now, stuck in the hospital and—please, god—temporarily unable to paint or draw because of the paralysis…
"I mean, sooner or later, she's got to know," Mona said.
Sophie nodded. "I know. And I guess it'll have to be me that tells her. But I'm just dreading it."
"You don't have to do it alone," Mona told her. "I can come with you. Or I'm sure Wendy would."
"Or maybe Angel," Sophie said. "She always seems to know the best way to give bad news without it seeming to be so completely devastating. And Jilly's always listened to her." She gave Mona a small smile. "I mean, Jilly's always a good listener, but Angel's like Joe. She can get away with telling Jilly stuff she doesn't want to hear."
"I knew what you meant," Mona said.
On Writing The Onion Girl
Dust Jacket Art