Yesterday is ashes; tomorrow is wood.
Only today does the fire burn brightly.
- Old Inuit proverb
The music of what happens—that is the finest music
in the world.
- attributed to Fionn Mac Cumhail;
from Irish folklore
God, I really hope that we just remember we
all come from the same tribe in the end.
* * *
- Lila Downs,
from an interview in
Women Who Rock, Jan/Feb 2004
Remember how it was when we were young? It was like a dance, couples pairing up, together one month, the next everybody has a new partner, sometimes from within your social circle, other times a stranger brought in, but there was always this ebb and flow, like a tide, as though dating and love were a game of musical chairs, except you played it with your heart.
As I've gotten older, I've found that we seem to divide into two camps: the ones who keep a partner and settle down, maybe have kids, maybe buy a house; and the ones who stay in the musical-chairs dance and end up living on their own, who are on their own for longer and longer periodsof time until they grow to like their solitary lifestyle—or at least accept it. Some keep a hope buried for that certain someone to fall into their lives, but nobody's really looking anymore. Or they're not looking hard.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when that happens.
For me, hope runs eternal, even though my relationships never really work out in the long run. Maybe I set my sights too high. Maybe I'm just hopeless. I don't know. Or maybe I just never met the right woman, for all the times I thought I did.
Or maybe I did meet the right woman, but I never knew it, and went out with her sister or her friend instead.
Or maybe I did know it, but I told myself it was never going to work out...
The Dispute at the Crossroads
The crossroads at midnight. Or at least a crossroads, and while it was long past midnight, it still had the feel of the witching hour about it.
If Lizzie Mahone had been superstitious, she might have been more nervous about her car breaking down as it had, here where two county roads crossed in the middle of nowhere with nothing to mark the spot but an enormous old elm tree, half dead from a lightning strike. And the thought still crossed her mind as she got out of the car and popped the hood, her flashlight beam playing over the Chevy's V-6 engine. You couldn't be a musician and not know the story, how the old bluesman Robert Johnson once met the devil himself at the crossroads. But that had been in the Delta, deep south. This was just the dusty meeting place of a couple of dirt roads, surrounded by farmers' fields and bush. Nothing mysterious here, though that big old moon lent an eerie light to the elm tree and there was something in the wind...
Yes, Lizzie thought. Her imagination. Better it should concentrate instead on what was wrong with the car.
She jiggled the wires going to the distributor cap and battery, but that was about the extent of her mechanical knowledge when it came to cars, and she only tried it because it was something that others had done when the car broke down in the past. Sometimes it had even worked. She didn't really have a clue what she was doing, or what she should be looking for. Cars started when you turned the key, or they didn't. The world between the two was as mysterious as where the tunes she made up came from, though with the latter, at least, she had the faith that if she needed a piece of music, it would come. Maybe not right away. It could be late, sneaking up on her while she was in the shower, or down at the grocery store, walking down the aisles, hours or even days after she first started looking for the melody to go with a title or a feeling or the first couple of bars she already had. But it would come.
That wouldn't happen trying to figure out what was wrong with this confusing mess of wires, pipes, and engine parts. She didn't have faith, for one thing. And she certainly didn't have the mechanical background the way she had such an easy familiarity with her fiddle.
So a spontaneous solution to her problem was pretty much out of the question.
And, of course, she'd let her cell phone go dead when she could have easily had it charging while they were up on stage this evening. But she hadn't thought of that until she was in the parking lot after the show, getting into her car.
She looked up and down the dirt road she was standing on. There were no headlights visible in either direction. She hadn't seen another car or a farmhouse or pretty much anything since leaving Sweetwater and the bar where the band had played tonight. In retrospect, she should have stayed over as the others were doing. Right now they'd be hanging around in the bar, or in one of the rooms that the bar had provided for them upstairs, playing some tunes or just sharing a drink and some chat. But wishful thinking was always easier in retrospect, wasn't it? And if she had stayed, there probably would have been problems with Con, who couldn't seem to get it through that thick head of his that they weren't an item, never had been, never would be.
There was nothing really wrong with him. He was charming and goodlooking, easy to get along with, and while he might be just a touch too fond of the drink, he was a wonderful guitar player. She simply had her rules.
"What do you have against dating musicians?" he'd asked the last time the subject came up.
"Absolutely nothing—so long as I'm not playing in the same band as they are."
"Oh, I know. What could be more perfect? Working and playing and loving together. Except, my somewhat drunk and certainly randy friend, when it all comes apart, then you're still stuck playing together. Or more likely, one of you has to leave, and I want neither to start a new band nor have to break in yet another guitarist."
"It didn't take that long for me to come up to speed with your repertoire."
"Exactly. You're a great guitarist, so I don't want to lose you."
"Maybe this rejection will hurt so much that I'll have to leave."
She'd smiled. "And maybe when you sober up in the morning, you'll realize that this is a great gig you have with us and isn't it lucky you didn't let your libido screw it up."
That conversation had taken place last weekend when they were in Champion, north of Tyson and on the other side of the mountains. Sweetwater, being as close to home as it was—only an hour and a half if you went by the back roads as she'd been doing—made it much easier to come up with some excuse about having stuff to do in the city tomorrow morning and get in the car, rather than have to go through it all again with him.
Except now she was stuck in the middle of nowhere at—she checked her watch—three am. She'd probably have to sleep in the car, because there certainly didn't seem to be anybody else on the road, which might actually be a good thing, considering. But she'd be more nervous breaking down on her own in some parts of the city than she was here. Country folk could get as rambunctious and rowdy as their more cosmopolitan cousins—more so, if some of the gigs they played were any barometer—but they usually didn't have the meanness you could sometimes find in urban centers. She felt safer watching a bar fight from the relative safety of the stage in a country bar than walking alone at night down, say, any of the streets running off Palm back in the city.
And even if some cowboy got out of hand...well, it never came to much. She knew how to take care of herself, as more than one big strapping lug who wouldn't hear the word no had found out. While she might look like "just a wee lass with too much hair," as Pappy liked to describe her—though still standing six-foot-six at eighty-two years of age, pretty much everybody was smaller than her grandfather—she was stronger than she looked. She could box and wrestle—not to mention fight as dirty—as most men half again her size. It wasn't how big or small you were, Johnny, her sparring partner at the gym was forever saying, but what you did with what you had.
At least the night was balmy. There were still patches of snow to be seen in some of the fields and in the bottoms of the ditches, but the temperature was well above freezing. Typical spring weather for these parts, really: spring one day, the trees filled with the welcome calls of migratory songbirds, and the next it could snow again. But tonight was mild and the air smelled expectant, ready for spring.
She left the hood up so that if anybody did come by they'd know she was having car trouble and not just drive by while she was fast sleep in the backseat. She had a blanket, and a candle in case it got colder, though she doubted she'd need the latter. In the trunk there was also an umbrella, a collapsible shovel, a jug of water, a box of crackers, and a couple of chocolate bars. The other band members teased her sometimes about always being so prepared, though if she was really the Girl Scout they thought she was, she'd have at least charged her phone before leaving the bar.
Still, what was done, was done. She'd make her bed in the backseat and she'd get some sleep in it, too. Tomorrow morning was soon enough to worry about how she was going to get the car up and running again.
But first she had to have a pee.
She could have just gone beside the car—it wasn't as though there was any traffic, or even much chance of it—but she still felt better pushing through the old dead weeds in the ditch and going behind the elm tree.
It was when she was pulling her jeans up that she heard the voices.
She zipped up quickly, then hesitated about showing herself. There were too many voices, low and rumbling, joking and laughing. She made out four, maybe five different ones. Peeking around the elm, she looked either way down the road.
At first she didn't see anyone. Then she realized she was looking too high. Approaching from the direction she'd been heading in, before the car up and died on her, was a gang of boys, almost hidden from her sight by the weeds. She'd been looking for men, because the voices were men's voices.
As they drew nearer, she readjusted her thinking yet again. The bright moonlight showed a group of little men tramping down the road toward her. She was five-foot-six, but not one of them would come up to her shoulder. Their heads seemed large for their bodies, and they were dressed as though they were returning from some medieval reenactment—a Renaissance Faire, perhaps, with old-fashioned leather trousers and jerkins, and short swords or long knives sheathed at their belts. They all had quivers and carried bows, and three of them were carrying the bloodied remains of some kind of large animal. A deer, perhaps.
About the same time as she was able to make them out better, they became aware of her car, though why they hadn't noticed it sooner, she couldn't say. Probably they'd been too busy with joking and congratulating each other on a good hunt. But they had noticed it now.
They stopped, the two not carrying meat immediately nocking arrows to bowstrings as they all looked around.
Lizzie ducked back behind the elm.
"What's this?" she heard one of them say.
"Someone's bad luck."
That brought a round of laughter.
"Maybe good luck for us. Anything inside worth nicking?"
Oh, no, Lizzie thought. Her fiddle case was lying right there on the backseat.
"Anybody inside worth eating?" someone added to more laughter.
Lizzie had been about to step out from behind the tree and take the chance that they were more wind than bite, but at that last comment she stayed hidden, pressed herself tightly against the bark, and tried not to breathe.
"There's food in the boot," one of them said.
"Chokky bars and biscuits...oh, and a jug."
"'Cept it's just bloody water."
"Now who'd waste a good jug on carrying about water?"
Lizzie had left the trunk open while she went to have her pee. Maybe they'd be satisfied with what they found in it. Maybe they wouldn't look in the car itself.
But then she heard one of the car doors open.
"Looks to be our fool's a musician. There's a fiddle case just a-lying here."
"That can't be right. Where's the fiddler who doesn't drink?"
"Better question still, where's the fiddler?"
All of Lizzie's bravery had long since fled. There was something not right about these little men.
She'd thought they were midgets or dwarves.
She'd thought they'd come from some Faire.
She'd thought that she wasn't really in any danger.
But there were no Faires at this time of year—not around here. If there was, she'd know, because her band would probably be playing at it.
And these little men...there was a nasty undercurrent to the jovial delivery of their conversation. She could sense it as clearly as she could on those nights when the band just couldn't connect with a crowd, when nothing you did up there on the stage was right.
"Hiding on us, do you suppose?"
"Unless some green-brees had him for a late-night snack."
"Don't even joke about that."
"Unless he's not a he."
"What've you got there?"
Lizzie already knew. Whoever was rummaging around in the back of the car must have found her little knapsack with its toiletry bag and change of clothing and underwear in it.
"I'd like a soiled pair better."
"Where do you think she's got to?"
"Prob'bly went looking for help."
"And left her fiddle behind? Not likely."
"She carries water around instead of poteen, so she's not much of a fiddler, is she?"
"I say she's hiding."
Lizzie heard a series of wet thumps and realized that they'd dropped their loads of meat in the trunk of the car.
"Let's have a look-see, shall we?"
Oh god, oh god, oh god.
"Hello, hello, wee fiddler," one of them called out in a loud voice. "Why don't you come out and play?"
"Whisht—not so loud."
"Why not? I want her to hear us."
Lizzie heard the whack of someone being slapped on the head.
"Ow. What'd you do that for?"
"If you're that loud, something else might hear us, hey?"
They all fell silent. Lizzie pressed her face against the elm, wishing she had something—anything—in her hand to defend herself with.
But she didn't.
She had only herself.
Best defense is offense, Johnny would say. If you know you're in trouble, don't try talk. Just come out swinging.
She swallowed, her throat and chest tight, and readied herself. She'd slip from behind the tree and charge them, take them by surprise. If she was lucky, maybe they'd run off. If she wasn't, she'd hurt as many of them as she could. She had good leather boots on and the toes were hard. She made fists with either hand.
But while the little men had been silent, they hadn't been still.
"What have we here?" a gruff voice asked.
And just like that, the element of surprise was taken from her. She'd never heard them moving through the dry weeds, but here they were, all five of the little men, arrows nocked in bowstrings and aimed in her direction. They stood around her in a half circle. With the elm at her back, there was no avenue of escape.
"Pretty thing," one of them said with a grin.
She caught only a glimpse, and it was hard to tell with no more than the moonlight behind him to see by, but it seemed that all his teeth had been sharpened to points.
"Ah, they're all big, her kind."
They were lowering their bows, one by one, letting the strings go slack. Sure they had her. Sure of themselves.
"I like 'em big," the smallest of them said.
The others laughed. Perhaps it was the way he'd said it—as though he was trying to impress his companions, more than her. One of the others gave him a light cuff across the back of the head.
"You wouldn't know what to do with her," he said.
"Bit of a laugh that hair of hers."
She'd dyed her normally black hair a brilliant scarlet a month or so ago, but the black roots had grown out now.
Go ahead, she thought. Have a good look. Get all stupid and confident.
"Only hair I'll be looking at is down below."
"'Less she's the kind that shaves."
"Are you that kind, girl?" the one closest to her asked.
He moved toward her and she took her chance. Before any of them could react, she took a step forward. Using the momentum of her forward motion to add even more force to the blow, she drove the toe of her boot into his groin.
"How's that for between the legs?" she cried above his shriek of pain.
She didn't wait to see the result. Turning, she hit the one on her right square in the face with a cross blow. Felt his nose collapse. Turned again toward the next, right arm cocked, only to find herself staring straight at three arrowheads, bowstrings pulled taut behind them.
"Shouldn't have done that," the little man in the center said. "We were only going to play a little with you."
"Were," the one on the right said.
The one on the left nodded. "But now you're meat, girl."
"We're all meat, you little freaks," a new voice said.
Lizzie had no idea where he'd come from, a tall Native man in jeans and a checkered shirt, with long black hair and coppery skin. One moment she was alone with her attackers, the next he was standing behind the center one. But she didn't stop to work it out.
With the little men distracted, their bows lowering as they turned to the newcomer, she charged the one on her right and drove him to the ground, pounding him with her fist. She heard cries, the sound of punches. When she looked up from her own foe, the other two men were also down, the stranger standing above them. The one she'd kicked earlier was still lying in the dirt, moaning, legs pulled up, hands on his groin. The one whose nose she'd broken was pulling the long knife from his belt. Before he could get it free, the stranger stepped in and knocked him to the ground with a flurry of blows.
"The thing is," he said as his assailant dropped, "some meat fights back."
One of the men he'd knocked down earlier lifted himself from the ground by straightening his arms under himself. He spat on the ground, blood and a tooth, small eyes dark with fury.
"Eat my shite, you grand pluiker," he muttered.
And then he disappeared.
Lizzie's eyes widened, not sure she'd seen what she'd seen. But then the little man she was still sitting on vanished as well. She scrambled to her feet as though she'd had an electric shock. As she watched, the other three disappeared, one by one.
"How..?" Lizzie turned in a slow circle, trying to understand.
"It wasn't magic," her rescuer said. "They just moved between."
"Between? Between what?"
"This world and the other."
Lizzie slowly shook her head. "This isn't happening."
"'Course it's not. That your car?"
She nodded, her attention on one of the abandoned bows. It wasn't much longer than her own fiddle bow, but sturdier, and certainly deadlier. She toed it with her boot. It seemed real.
"What's wrong with it?" the stranger asked.
She looked up, confused. The bow seemed intact. What was wrong was that it was even here in the first place. It, and all those little men, and this mysterious stranger…
"Your car," he said. "What's wrong with your car?"
"I don't know," she finally managed.
"Let me have a look."
She trailed along behind him, stepping over the ditch and onto the road.
"Who were those…"
She reached for a word, still feeling lost and stupid. She had to grip her hands and hold them against her chest to try to stop them from shaking.
"Those dwarves?" she finally said.
"They were bogans, not dwarves," the stranger said. He was looking under the hood of her car without apparently needing a flashlight. "There aren't many dwarves around here and, anyway, they've much better manners. And they don't poach."
Poach? Lizzie thought. But then she remembered what the little men had been carrying when they first showed up.
"Looks like your alternator's crapped out on you, so your battery hasn't been getting any juice."
"Can you fix it?"
He lifted his head from where he was studying the engine to look at her.
"Not permanently," he said.
He put his hand on the manifold and the engine coughed, then started up. Lizzie stared at the car. The motor seemed to be running more smoothly than it had in years.
"What did you just do?" she asked as he closed the hood.
He gave her a thin smile. "Now that was magic. It'll hold until you get to wherever you're going so long as you don't turn the engine off."
"Where were you headed?"
"I was on my way to Newford from Sweetwater, but maybe I should go back if the car's not really fixed."
No, it had been magicked and what did that mean, anyway? Hopefully, she'd already fallen asleep in the back of the car and was dreaming all of this. Maybe she'd never left the bar. Maybe she was actually sleeping upstairs in the room she was supposed to be sharing with her cousin Siobhan. Except, could you know you were dreaming if you were dreaming?
"What's in Sweetwater?" the stranger asked.
"A gig. We played at the Custom House tonight, and we're supposed to play again tomorrow night and Sunday."
He nodded. "I'd take your car to the garage at the corner of Willis and the highway, just after you've come into town. They're cheap and they do good work."
"So you're a musician? What kind of music do you play?"
"Celtic stuff—you know, jigs and reels, a few songs. We also do some original material."
Although the moon was bright enough to see by, she couldn't read much on his face. His features were too still. But she got the sense he disapproved. Or maybe it was just that he didn't like her.
"Get into a fix like this again," he said, "and you should try whistling some of that music. Even bogans are suckers for anything that reminds them of their homeland."
"You called them that before. What are bogans?"
"A kind of fairy. You people brought them with you when you came in your big ships. Bogans and every kind of fairy freak."
Lizzie knew that a lot of Native Americans harboured a grudge against Europeans, and rightly so, she supposed, all things considered. So she thought she understood his anger. But all this talk of fairies didn't make any kind of sense.
"Fairies," she said.
"Oh, yeah. And as you can see, they're not all tiny little things living in flowers and sipping nectar from acorn cups."
"I've got to go. Your car'll get you back to Sweetwater. Just remember: don't turn it off until you're actually at the garage because it won't start again until they fix it."
She nodded. "I won't. Wait," she added as he started to walk away. "I didn't get a chance to thank you."
"You don't need to."
"I'd probably be dead if you hadn't come along."
Because you can die in a dream, right?
"Maybe, maybe not," he said. "You were handling yourself pretty well."
He started to turn again.
"Wait," she repeated. "At least tell me your name."
"You don't need my name."
"You want my advice, you get in that car. You go home or wherever else it is that you need to be, and you forget about all of this."
"God, how am I supposed to do that?"
"Not my problem."
But she was talking to an empty road. As suddenly as the mysterious stranger had appeared, he was now gone. He'd vanished, just like the little men had—the bogans, as he'd called them. Here, then, poof. Gone. Not even poof. Just...not here anymore.
She looked around herself. Everything seemed so damned normal.
But it had happened.
The soft murmur of her car engine proved it. She walked slowly around to the back of the car. The car's engine running, and the meat the little men had dumped in her trunk, because it was still there, raw and bloody.
Enough, she told herself. Wake up already.
But the dream wasn't going to let her go that easily.
Fine. She'd play it out, the way you did with a tune that you couldn't get out of your head. She'd get back in the car and return to Sweetwater. And maybe then she'd finally wake up.
Except, dream or no dream, she couldn't drive with that meat in her trunk.
Her first impulse was to simply dump it on the side of the road. She actually had a piece in her hands, meaning to do just that. It felt horrible, slick and bloody, hard to hold. A dead weight.
She let it fall back into the trunk and picked up her collapsible shovel. Unfolding it, she locked the two halves of the shovel in place, then crossed the road and went back over the ditch until she was standing under the naked boughs of the elm tree once more. She pushed around in the dirt until she found a spot that didn't have a big root and started to dig.
Ten minutes later she was ready to start hauling the deer parts from her trunk to the hole she had dug. When all three pieces were in the ground, she shovelled the loose dirt back on top, patting the rounded mound with the flat of the blade to tamp it down. It didn't seem right to stomp on the loose dirt with her boots.
She stood for a few moments when she was done, holding the shovel. The night was so quiet. A breeze rustled the twigs on the branches above her, and whispered through the dry weeds. There was a scatter of cloud, but mostly the sky was clear, the stars bright, the moon lowering to the horizon. She wasn't shaking anymore. The aftereffects of her adrenaline rush had completely gone, leaving her only tired.
Finally she went back to the car, collapsed the shovel, and dropped it into the trunk. It was a mess in there, pooled blood and dirt, but she wasn't about to try to clean it now. She got out a rag and the water bottle and washed off her hands, drying them on the rag.
The car still purred, the engine running smoothly. She had a momentary worry that it might run out of gas, but then she realized it probably wasn't running on gas anyway. She remembered her rescuer putting his hand on the engine to start it up, then saying to her, Now that was magic.
The car would run until she woke up.
She looked at the elm, but knew she couldn't go yet. There was still something unfinished. It took her a moment to decide what.
She took her fiddle case out of the back of the car and laid it on the hood, opening it. Got the bow from the lid, used the frog to tighten the hairs. Ran her fingers across the strings to check the tuning. Finally, she went back across the road to the elm and stood over the little mound of earth with her fiddle under her chin, bow in hand.
What to play?
The first thing that came to mind was a song that the band did. It was about a hare that lost its life in a hunt, not a deer, but maybe that was close enough. She started to play, slowing the tune down so that it was like an air. A lament.
Closing her eyes, she played it through three times, the notes of her fiddle weeping for the dead flesh she'd buried, for the live creature it had been, cut down by the little men's arrows. The breeze caught the music and took it away, across the fields to where a dark smudge of forest came down from the hills to meet the expanse of dried weeds and leafless bushes that lay between their trees and the road.
She held the last note, lightening the pressure of her bow on the strings until the note whispered away into silence. She tucked the fiddle under her arm and let the bow dangle from her forefinger. Opening her eyes, she regarded the little mound of dirt.
There, she thought. Now that felt right. Nothing should have to die, hard and alone, with no one to mourn their going. Not even in a dream.
She started to walk back to the car, then paused, realizing that, once again, she was no longer alone. Her pulse quickened as she turned. The moon was almost gone now, the night much darker than when her car had first broken down. At first she thought it was a huge deer standing behind her. Then she realized it was a man. Or at least the shape of a man, dressed in tunic and trousers of some kind of light-coloured cloth that made his skin appear to be very dark. On his shoulders he wore a headdress of a deer's head, the tines of his antlers rising up into the starry sky like a smaller version of the elm at her back.
There was just enough light for her to see the glisten of tears on his cheeks.
"That was kindly done," he said.
When she saw the lips move, she realized it wasn't a mask, but for some reason that didn't trouble her.
His voice was soft and warm, husky with emotion. She wondered if her dream had now conjured up the ghostly spirit of the dead animal for whom she'd played her funereal air. It didn't matter. This was far better than the horrible little bogan men, or the brusque Indian, even if he had rescued her and used his magic to fix her car.
This was like the time that she and Siobhan had gone camping with her grandfather. Pappy always went to bed late, but he was an early riser, too. "Don't need the sleep like I used to," he'd say, "and I never needed much then." The two of them were up and sitting on a log by the lake where the campsite touched the water when they heard a rustle behind them. Turning slowly, they saw a doe and her fawn stepping out across the dew-laden grass.
She'd never seen eyes so warm and deep and brown. Something rose up from deep in her chest, and she'd gripped Pappy's hand as they sat there for a good fifteen minutes, watching the two creatures feed. And long after they were gone, that feeling stayed inside her, the same deep warmth that she'd seen in the eyes of the deer. Years later, that memory could put her in a dreamy trance that helped wash away hurts or sorrows or simply the feeling that the world was all the same, one day blurring into the next.
This moment was like that, a great wash of awe that didn't make her feel small, but rather, made her feel connected to everything.
"I...thought he needed some kind of a send-off," she said.
The deer man nodded, antlers dipping.
"Her name was Anwatan—'calm water' in your tongue. She was my daughter and I give you the knowledge of her name as a gift for the music you played to send her spirit on its way."
"Thank you," she said, not quite sure what else to say. She'd always been bad at condolences. "I'm so sorry for your loss."
His sigh of response held a world of sorrow and hurt.
"A father should not outlive his child," he said.
"I can't imagine what that must feel like."
He dipped his antlers again. "I hope you never do. It...there's an emptiness in me where she once was, and moment by moment it seems to only become larger." His gaze found hers. "Sharing the gift of her true name with another helps only a little."
That made Lizzie think of her rescuer.
You don't need my name.
"Is there something special about names?" she asked.
She saw a quick flash of teeth—a smile, she realized, but it never reached his eyes. It was the smile that you saw at a funeral, when everyone's trying to be normal, but you know it never will be. Or won't for a very, very long time.
"Names are everything," he said. "If you know the full, true name of a thing, it is at your mercy."
"So it's rude to ask someone their name."
That got her another attempt at a smile. "It depends on who's asking and why. If it's someone who doesn't know better…"
"So that's why he wouldn't tell me his name," she said.
She was speaking more to herself, but the deer man lifted his head, his nostrils working.
"I see," he said. "There were others here—aganesha and a cousin of mine."
"I guess I mean the cousin. Was he another deer man? He didn't have antlers."
The deer man shook his head. "He'd look strange with them, a bird with antlers."
"He's corbae. My people are cerva. We're cousins, but not close."
"I don't understand."
"They're just tribes," he said. "His people usually sleep through the moon's rise and set. Mine wander under her stillness because her light feeds our spirits, as food does our bodies. But we're still cousins. If you need a speaking name for him, he's been known to answer to Whiskey Grey—or just Grey."
Lizzie smiled. "You make him sound like a bootlegger."
"Well, I've heard that old jay does like his drink. He has his own sorrows, they say. Old ones. I don't know the details."
Neither spoke for a moment. Lizzie looked past the deer man for a moment to see the last part of the moon slip under the horizon.
"I'm dreaming, aren't I?" she said.
"No. This is Kakagi-aki—your world. The dreamlands lie on the other side of the between."
"It still feels like dreaming."
The deer man nodded. "Perhaps it's better if you see it that way."
"That's what Grey said. He told me to forget about all of this. To go on with my life like it had never happened. But how can I do that if it's real?"
"I'm told forgetting can be easy, if it's what you wish. But..."
When he didn't finish, Lizzie prompted him. "But what?"
"You might not be allowed to forget. Or it might be better if you didn't. Not if the aganesha have marked you. It would be better to be prepared, should they decide that you owe them for your intrusion into their business tonight."
Lizzie looked nervously around them. "Do you mean the bogans? Is that what you call those little men?"
"A bogan is a kind of aganesha, yes."
"So aganesha is your word for fairies."
The deer man nodded. "It's what we call all the beings that came with your ancestors to our world."
"But you're not aganesha yourselves?"
He made an angry sound that rose from deep in his chest and spat on the ground.
"We are the spirits of this land," he said. "We don't steal from others."
Lizzie took a step back. "I'm sorry. I didn't..."
"No," the deer man said. "I should apologize. How could you know? Until tonight, it seems you knew nothing about any of us."
"So these aganesha are trying to steal your lands from you? I guess the way Europeans did from the native people?"
"Not all of them. Most are content to keep to the territories spoiled by your people. But the green and the wild, these are still ours. Until you build upon it, the aganesha have no claim to the wild places."
Lizzie gave a slow nod. "So your people stay in the forests and the aganesha stay in the cities."
"We go where we please," the deer man said. "We can live in your cities—it is still our land under the concrete and steel. But most of us don't choose to."
He looked to the sky, reading something in the position of the stars, Lizzie assumed from what he said next.
"I must go. I have still the sad tale of my daughter to tell my family and the hour grows late."
"I really am so sorry about what happened to her."
"I know. I heard that in the lament you played for her. I saw it in the reverence with which you laid her flesh in the ground. I—my family—we are in your debt."
Lizzie shook her head. "No, I just did what anybody would have done."
"Then you don't know many people. Most would have left what they found of her alongside the road like so much refuse."
"But I don't want anything from you."
"I know that, too. But you could still have brought more trouble upon yourself from those aganesha. If they come after you, call for me and I will come. My speaking name is Walks-with-Dreams. My friends call me Walker and I hope you will, too."
"I...do I really have to worry about those bogans?"
"Probably not. But it's better to be careful. My daughter wasn't."
"Grey said to play music—that it would stop them."
"It might give them pause. But you'd do better to call for me."
"I travel a lot."
"Distance doesn't mean the same thing to my people as it does to yours. If you call for Walker, I will hear you, no matter where you are."
"Okay. My name's Lizzie—"
"Careful," he said before she could finish. "The night has ears, and we are too newly met for you to entrust me with your true name."
"But among my people we use them all the time."
He gave a slow nod. "And so squander the power of it. Unless the names you use are speaking names and you simply don't know your true names."
"I wouldn't know."
The deer man nodded. "Neither would I. That's a puzzle for the shaman to worry over, not common folk like you and me." He lifted his hand. "Keep your strength, Lizzie. And thank you once more."
And then he, too, like Grey and the bogans before him, was simply gone.
Lizzie stood for a long moment, listening to the quiet night around her. Finally, she turned and walked back to the car, her head brimming with all she'd been through since her car broke down. The first part had been scary, and handling the deer meat had been kind of gross, but talking with Walker, just being in his presence, had woken a song in her heart that she didn't want to lose.
Maybe this wasn't a dream. And if it was, she wasn't sure she wanted to wake up from it.
Because for the first time in longer than she could remember, the world seemed to have weight to it. Everything seemed to have importance and meaning, and she felt connected to it in a way that never happened unless she was deep in a tune, lost in her music.
* * *
She made it back to Sweetwater without further incident and found the garage that Grey had recommended. There was an old and battered sign above the door to the work bay that read Tommy & Joe's. The whole place seemed sort of run-down and nothing about it really instilled much confidence in her, but she decided to leave her car all the same. Grey had saved her life. And he'd gotten her back on the road. What reason would he have for steering her wrong now?
She wrote out a note describing the problem and where she was staying. Hesitating a moment, she turned off the ignition. The engine went quiet. She tried to start it again, just to see, but nothing happened. The car was as dead as it had been back at the crossroads.
She wrapped the key in her note and slipped it through the mail slot in the front door. Collecting her fiddle and knapsack from the car, she set off the few blocks down the road to the Custom House and hoped that Siobhan hadn't taken in a guy for the night because, until Lizzie had decided to drive back to Newford, they were supposed to share a room. That's about all these places would spring for: separate rooms for the boys and girls. Con and Andy would be sharing the other room, and she wasn't about to go knocking on their door.
The front door of the hotel/bar was unlocked, but there was no one at the desk. Lizzie stepped behind the counter, took the extra key for the room from its hook and went up the stairs. Inside the room she was as quiet as she could be undressing and using the toilet, and then finally she was lying down in her bed. In the other twin bed, Siobhan slept soundly and moments later, Lizzie was, too.
When I stepped out of the door by the loading bays, the parking lot was empty except for my brother's old station wagon, still parked where I'd left it late last night. There was the start of a morning glow on the eastern horizon, and the cloudless sky above promised another beautiful day even though there were still patches of snow on the ground. But this was March in Newford. Some years we get more snow in this one month than we do through the whole winter. So far, we'd been lucky. The temperature was mild this morning and the promise of spring—officially here already, but yet to make an actual physical appearance—was in the air. Living in this part of the country, you took what you could get.
"Sure you won't stay?" Galfreya asked.
I turned to look at her, shifting my fiddle case from one hand to the other.
"It's morning now."
I smiled. "So it is. But I should get Christy's car back to him."
If anybody else was here with us, they'd think I was crazy for turning down the invitation. Galfreya's gorgeous. Sloe-eyed—as they say in the old trad. ballads—and tall, her waist-length hair a messy storm of braids and loose curls decorated with multi-coloured barrettes, feathers, ribbons, tiny bones, and other found objects.
This morning she was wearing her usual platform high-tops and a pair of black, hip-hugging cargos, but instead of one of her skimpy midriff-baring tops, she'd opted for a baggy sweatshirt, black like her cargos with the words NO FEAR stenciled on the front in bold yellow letters. She dressed like a skateboarder, no question, but the scruffy wardrobe only seemed to accentuate her fine-boned beauty, and it couldn't hide the regality of the fairy queen she was.
Okay, so she was a seer and not a queen, but that didn't change a thing except that I have to laugh as I use those words. All my life I've avoided the weirder side of life that my brother embraces, this idea that side by side with our world lies a secret, hidden world of fairies and goblins, ghosts, and other improbabilities. But the past two years have changed that. I've seen and experienced far too much that can't be rationally explained away, culminating in my showing up here at the Woodforest Plaza Mall a couple of nights a week to provide music for a fairy court's revels. I mean, once you're part of a pickup band made up of little stick people and a troll playing a stand-up bass, it's pretty much impossible to keep laying the "I don't believe in this crap" card down on the table.
So now I'm a believer, but I'm not all evangelical about it like my brother Christy, or the Professor and Jilly, wanting everybody else to see what I see. I've just adjusted these long-held, if erroneous, beliefs and carry on with my life.
I wish I could say the same about some of the other personality quirks that seem to be hardwired into my psyche. Well, not my feelings about music. I don't ever want to buy into the idea that recordings are anything more than a snapshot of a moment—especially not now, when they've got the software to tweak a bad performance so that every single element of a recording comes out sounding note perfect.
Music needs to live and breathe; it's only pure when it's performed live with nothing hidden—neither its virtuosity nor the inevitable mistakes that come when you try to push it into some new, as yet unexplored place. It's improvisational jazz. It's the jam, the session. The best music is played on street corners and pubs, in kitchens and on porches, in the backrooms of concert halls and in the corner of a field, behind the stage, at a music festival. It's played for the joy and the sadness and the connection it makes between listeners and players.
When it's played for money, it's a job. When it's played for itself, it's magic. And I guess that sums up why I'll always be living hand-to-mouth instead of making the decent living everybody thinks I should be making with it, because if a gig doesn't seem honest to me, I'll turn it down.
I've done the other kind. I've written for soundtracks. I've been a session musician on more recordings than I can count. I've played concerts. But I'm happiest sitting in a corner of the pub, playing tunes with a couple of friends, nothing planned, just seeing what happens as one tune reminds us of the next and then leads us into another.
I don't think that'll ever change. I wouldn't want it to. But I sure wish I could figure out a way to stop putting women on a pedestal—or rather, stop obsessing about the unattainable women that I've put on a pedestal. I know it cuts me off from meaningful relationships I could have, and even if I do get into a relationship with one of these pedestal women, it never works out. Partly because no one can match up to an ideal anyway, and partly because what I'm bringing to the relationship is an unhealthy devotion. I get way more concerned about everything to do with them, which makes my own life just an echo of living instead of the real thing.
But knowing all of this doesn't make me stop.
That said, Galfreya was a perfect candidate of someone for me to obsess over, but there were things about her that I just couldn't get around. For one thing, being a fairy made her somewhat promiscuous—at least by human standards. I'm old-fashioned and expect a monogamous relationship. For another, she looks like she's in her twenties, half my age, which feels strange enough. What feels stranger is knowing she's…well, I don't know exactly. Fairy are basically immortal. For all I know, she could have been around since the beginning, when Raven first made the world. So it's weird that it looks like I'm robbing the cradle, going out with someone who could be my own daughter, but she's actually old enough to be some distant ancestor.
Then there's the fact that I can only see her on her terms. I come to her at the mall, play my fiddle at her fairy revels, stay the night sometimes in her private quarters that aren't quite in this world, aren't quite in fairyland, but some place in between the two. She doesn't come to a gig with me. To an art opening. To a movie unless it's at the mall's Cineplex. Out for dinner, except for ditto, and the mall eateries are never going to make it into the city's best culinary guidebook any time soon.
So she's not exactly an ideal life companion. She's not someone I might expect to make a life with, to grow old with.
I know, how incurably romantic of me, looking for everlasting love in a world of five-second sound bytes, where most people find it more interesting to watch the so-called reality of other people's lives in scripted television shows than to actually live one of their own.
But I do want that long-term stability. I don't really expect to ever find it, but that doesn't stop me from yearning for it all the same. That said, I also have to admit that I'm probably more scared of getting into a serious relationship than I am of living the rest of my life on my own. It's not that I'm a commitment phobe. It's just that whenever I do, sooner or later, I get left behind.
My last serious relationship really brought it all home to me—how this was something that was never going to work in my life. Because we were perfect for each other; what problems we had, we were both willing to talk about and work on, compromising where necessary—you know, all the things you're supposed to do in a relationship, though that's nothing I learned from my own parents. Tanya and I, we did everything right, but one day, there I was all the same, alone in our L.A. apartment, packing my bags to come back to Newford.
So in a way, these occasional liaisons with Galfreya—no strings attached, be together when it felt right, no hard feelings when it didn't—should have been perfect. But I, at least, am human and we're never satisfied, are we? What I had with Galfreya wasn't true love. It had no future. It had only the here and the now, and while that's obviously enough for fairy, who seem to live the whole of their lives ever in the moment, it wasn't enough for me.
"I'm sorry you can't stay," Galfreya said, then leaned close to kiss me. "Say hello to Christy for me," she added.
I was halfway to the car when I heard the door close behind her. I reached the car, then paused, cocking my head. If I listened hard I could hear a fiddle playing—low and lonesome, coming from some far distance. I almost recognized the tune, but then the sound was gone.
I looked around, but I was alone in the parking lot with my brother's car. Or so I thought.
I opened the back door and laid my fiddle case on the seat. As I was straightening up, my gaze became level with that of one of the small twig and leaf fairies that were regulars at the mall revels. She was lying on the roof of the car, pixie-featured and grinning, head propped on her elbows, her vine-like hair pulled back into a thick Rasta ponytail. She wasn't really made of twigs and leaves and vines—or at least I didn't think so—but her skin was the mottled colour of a forest, all greens and browns.
"Hello, Hazel," I said.
"Hello, your own self." She got up, tucking her ankles under her knees so that she was sitting cross-legged. "Can I get a lift into town?"
"Sure. What're you up to?"
She shrugged. "Oh, you know. A little of this, a little of that."
"In other words, some kind of mischief."
She made her features go very serious and said, "I don't think so," but she couldn't hold it. Laughing, she fell back onto the roof and then kicked her feet in the air.
"Well, come on," I said.
She jumped to the ground when I shut the back door. Standing, she came up to about my waist, a skinny little gamine in baggy cropped blue jeans, a sleeveless T-shirt, and a yellow bandana tied loosely at her neck. Her feet were bare on the pavement.
"You're not cold?" I asked.
She shook her head. "But I could pretend to be, if you like."
I laughed and opened the driver's door, standing aside so that she could climb in and scramble to the passenger's side of the bench seat.
"Buckle up," I told her after I got in.
"It's okay," she said. "You won't get a ticket. I won't let the policemen see me."
Handy thing, being a fairy and only being seen when you wanted to be. Unless you had the gift of the Sight, or had it given to you as I had by Galfreya, so that none of the more impish fairies could play tricks on me.
"That won't help if I have to brake suddenly," I said, "and you go flying up against the windshield."
Hazel sighed theatrically, but she already knew that I wouldn't start driving until she did as I'd asked. It was an old argument, but that didn't stop her from trying every time I gave her a lift.
"How did you get so boring?" she asked. "Did you have to practice?"
"I was just born that way."
I laughed. "Yes, sad isn't it?"
Once Hazel was buckled in, I started the car and pulled out of my parking spot. With the lot empty, I ignored the designated lanes and drove straight for the exit. There was already traffic as we pulled out onto the highway—commuters driving in from rural communities. They came in early to beat the rush, and subsequently were able to leave early as well, but all it really did was spread the traffic congestion over a longer space of time. Rush hour in the city was now three to four hours long, depending on the weather.
"How come you didn't stay with herself?" Hazel asked.
I shrugged. "I'm just tired. I've been up all night. I had a gig before tonight's revel, remember, and I don't exactly have a fairy's stamina. I don't think you people ever need to sleep."
"Of course we do. If we didn't sleep, how could we dream?"
I didn't see the logic of that—there were many other, and I'd say far more pressing, reasons to get one's sleep, starting with how exhausted and stupid you end up feeling when you don't get enough—but there was no point in arguing logic with fairies.
"She really does like you, you know," Hazel said.
"It's just she—"
"I know," I repeated.
"I don't even know what that means," she said.
"It means you're annoyingly full of verve and pep."
She smiled. "Oh, well, that's true."
We had to slow down for a light that had turned green ahead of us, but the line of cars was just getting back up to speed.
"Oh, look," Hazel said. "Damn pluikers. Don't they just make you sick?"
I had time to note a line of three or four fairies sitting on a fence watching the traffic go by. They looked and dressed like Native Americans—jeans and buckskin, checkered shirts—but I could see hare ears and antlers, which is how I knew they were fairies. And naturally, they were invisible to everyone except for me and Hazel.
She raised her middle finger and waved it at them, sticking out her tongue.
"Why did you do that?" I asked.
She gave me a look that asked how did you ever get to be so dim.
"Because they're green-brees," she said. "Duh."
"But what does that mean?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. That's just what we call them. I think it means stagnant water—or the slime you find in stagnant water."
"So why don't you like them?"
I could still see the line of little figures in my rearview mirror. They seemed perfectly normal—in fairy terms, I mean.
"Why should we?" Hazel said. "They don't like us."
"They just looked like fairies to me."
"Well, they're not. They didn't have to come across the water to get here. They were already here when we arrived."
"So they're native fairies."
"They're not fairies. We're fairies. They're just pluikers."
"And what does that mean?"
Hazel grinned at me. "That they're great big fat pimples on the arse of the world."
"You're beginning to sound like a racist."
"I'm not a racist. I just don't like them. They keep us in the cities—right from the start they have, back when the cities were no more than a few shacks at the edge of the water. We rode those high seas for long, long weeks and looked to replenish ourselves from the green and the wild, but they kept it all for themselves and they still do."
"Well, it was their land."
Hazel sniffed. "There's so much. Did they need it all?"
"How would you feel if someone took something that was yours, and you didn't want to give it up?"
"I suppose. Except on the one hand they say that the wild and the green belongs to no one, it just is. Then on the other, they keep us out of what they claim are their territories. So what's that supposed to mean?"
"Maybe they don't want what you call the wild and the green to be spoiled the way the cities already are."
Hazel shot me a frown.
"This is a boring conversation," she told me.
She reached over and turned on the radio, stopping at a station that was playing a 50 Cent song. We listened to rap and hip-hop for the rest of the drive in, all the way to where she had me let her off downtown.
* * *
Our conversation was still bothering me after I'd dropped the car off at the garage Christy rented for it and got back to Jilly's loft. I don't know why I still called it that. After her accident, Jilly moved into the Professor's house and I took over her loft, but it's been a couple of years now. And it wasn't just me—everybody still referred to it as Jilly's place. I guess it was because we didn't want to give up the hope that one day she'd be able to manage the steep stairs of the building and move back in.
When I got upstairs, I laid my fiddle case on the kitchen table, shed my clothes, and got into the Murphy bed that I almost never bothered to fold back into the wall. It wasn't like I ever had anybody over.
I lay there, tired, trying to figure out this enmity between the local fairies and those that had started to come over when the first Europeans landed on these shores. I didn't actually want to be thinking about this, but I couldn't get it out of my head.
I don't know how long I would have lain there, unable to sleep, but something else came to me then, the memory of that elusive snatch of fiddle music I'd heard in the parking lot, just before Hazel showed up. It teased me with its familiarity. I felt I knew it, but in a different setting, maybe at a quicker pace. But instead of keeping me awake, the memory of the music lulled me into a feeling of great peace and sadness, and I drifted off.
It took a moment for Galfreya to realize she wasn't alone in the central courtyard of the mall. She turned slowly to look down both of the long halls that ran east and west and south from where she stood before focusing her attention on the displays of stuffed animals that had been set up in the courtyard by the Newford Museum of Natural History. They were a sorry collection of creatures...wolves, bears, a bison, foxes, deer, falcons, hawks, owls, a family of raccoons…skin and horns, hooves and feathers commandeered to re-create a semblance of life that was betrayed by glass eyes and stances that were not quite natural. The birds fared best—at least their fur wasn't worn in places from the touch of a thousand hands—but they were still nailed to their perches.
The poor dead creatures were just as they'd been since the display had been installed earlier in the week. There were no additions. One or more of the dead hadn't suddenly become animated. She could still see no one in the halls, nor outside the front doors of the mall, nor in the shop windows closest to hand. But the presence she felt was close all the same.
"Okay," she finally said. "You're good. I'll give you that. But even if I can't see you, I still know you're here."
"What, a big shot seer like you can't find one itty-bitty me?"
The disembodied voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. It was a woman's voice, smoky and low, and not one Galfreya recognized.
"I'm hardly a big shot," she replied. "Would I be living in a shopping mall if I was?"
"Who knows? The ways of a seer are mysterious. And you do have your own fairy court."
"They're not my court. This just happens to be a handy place to hold our revels. Once the cleaning staff is gone, we have the place to ourselves. And why am I telling you all of this?" she added as an afterthought.
"Guilt?" the voice asked. "To show off how important you are?"
"I don't have the need to feel one or do the other."
"Whatever. I'm curious, though. How do you keep your images from showing up on the security cameras?"
"The same way you become invisible: magic."
"Oh, I'm not magic," the voice said. "I'm just a shadow."
And then there she was, lounging on the back of the bison, a small woman in her twenties with curly dark red hair and glittering eyes, dressed in a sweater the colour of Old World heather and a pair of faded blue jeans.
"I didn't think to look for you between," Galfreya said.
Between was the border country separating this world from the spiritworld. Standing in it, you could look out on either, but not be seen if you so chose.
"Being a shadow," she added, "still makes you more than human."
"Some would say less than human, considering I'm made up of all the bits of a person that they didn't want and threw away."
"No, of course you wouldn't," the stranger said. "You're a good fairy. So very Seelie Court and all."
"I've seen you before," Galfreya said. "But not here."
"I don't exactly haunt the malls, looking for a bargain."
"I meant in this world." She studied the stranger for a moment, then nodded. "It was at some of the parties in Hinterdale. You're one of Maxie Rose's friends."
The stranger smiled. "You see? I have a claim to fame as well."
"I don't claim any fame."
The stranger slid down from the back of the bison, her walking boots making a soft thump when she landed on the fake ground of the display.
"So what's with all the dead cousins?" she asked, running her hand along the bison's flank before she stepped down onto the marble floor of the courtyard.
Galfreya shrugged. "The mall just does this kind of thing. One week it's an antique show, the next it's a display of power boats. I think it's supposed to be educational."
"It gives me the creeps."
"Me, too," Galfreya said.
The red-haired stranger frowned at her.
"Oh no, you don't," she said. "That's twice you've tried to get chummy with me and find some kind of common ground. Just be yourself."
Galfreya knew that danger came in all sizes, so the fact that she topped the stranger by at least a head meant little, but the red-haired woman's attitude was starting to seriously annoy her.
"What is your problem?" she asked, not even pretending to be friendly any more.
"You," the stranger said. "At least, it starts with you. I mean look at yourself. You've got to be a couple hundred years old—"
"Give or take a thousand."
"So there's a reason your speaking name is Mother Crone. You should dress your age—you know, robes or something instead of this skateboarder look, which is way pathetic for a woman your age, even if you do wear a glamour that makes you seem twenty-something."
Galfreya hadn't changed clothes since she'd seen Geordie off.
"What makes you think it's a glamour?"
"Oh, come on. Everybody knows that fairies go for the sleek, young look, no matter how many years they've piled on."
"Unlike shadows who are always what they seem."
The stranger looked uncomfortable for a moment, then shrugged. "Whatever."
"So the way I dress is what's troubling you," Galfreya said. "Why should that be any of your business?"
"Well, that's not all," the stranger replied. "What's with you fairies and your enchantments and how you need to have humans amuse you, no matter what havoc it might play in their own life?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Your fiddler," the stranger said. "The one you keep drawing back here, week after week, with your music and your revels and your oh-so sweet talk. Why can't you leave him alone?"
"Why do you care? If you're in love with him, you're not doing a very good job of showing it because he's never said word one to me about you or anyone else."
"Oh, please. I'm not into incest. He's my brother."
The stranger nodded, a challenge in her eyes. Galfreya met her gaze with a look as steady, then slowly nodded.
"Yes," she said. "I see that he is."
"So tell me, why won't you leave him alone? I know you don't have a long-term interest in him because your kind never does. You just use people up and move on to the next."
"That's neither fair nor true."
"So, do you love him? Are you ready to give up immortality to be with him? That's how it works for your kind, right? There has to be a sacrifice. Or maybe you're trying to get him to give up his world to be a puppet fiddler in yours, always ready at your beck and call."
"Do you have to work at being so annoying?" Galfreya asked.
"You haven't seen me annoyed yet, sweetheart. And you didn't answer my question."
Galfreya stared at her, trying to keep her anger in check. The stranger was infuriating, but she was Geordie's sister, her own anger obviously born out of love. So Galfreya was willing to cut her a little more slack. But only a little.
"I love him as you do," she said finally. "As a sister."
The stranger raised her eyebrows. "Do fairies usually sleep with their siblings?"
"Fine," Galfreya said. "Then as a friend."
Now it was the stranger's turn to study her.
"Okay," she said after a moment. "Maybe you do. So then, why are you doing this? You know he'll never have a chance at a normal relationship so long as you've got your hooks in him. It might already be too late. All the glamours and magic might have already spoiled him for an ordinary woman."
"I'm hardly such a catch."
"What, are you a vampire, too? You can't look in a mirror? You're gorgeous."
Galfreya shrugged. "It's all in the eye of the beholder."
"I suppose. Is that why you dress down with the skateboarder gear?"
"I dress to be comfortable."
"And you're still not answering my question."
"I know," Galfreya said. "I don't really want to. Sometimes, speaking a foretelling aloud is the very thing that gives it life."
"Oh, please," the stranger said.
Her tone was easy, but she couldn't hide her worry.
"Very well," Galfreya told her. "This is what I saw: If I don't keep him close to me, to my court, he will be terribly hurt. Perhaps he'll even die."
The stranger swallowed, but the look in her eyes went from worried to determined. "So, what's the danger? What's supposed to hurt him?"
"I don't know. I couldn't see that. I can only see what I've told you."
Galfreya drew herself up.
"So far," she said, "I've responded to your insinuations and poor manners in a calm and polite manner—more for Geordie's sake, than for yours, I might add. But one more snide comment and I promise you will regret ever coming here."
"I'm not scared of you."
Galfreya smiled, but there was nothing friendly in her smile.
"You should be," she said.
Then she turned her back on her uninvited guest and strode down the hall, back the way she'd come.
"Wait," the stranger called after her.
Galfreya paused, but she didn't look back or respond otherwise.
"Okay," the stranger said. "So I'm an ass. I came here with a chip on my shoulder. But I've been worried about Geordie and from where I stood, it looked like you were the thing I needed to worry about."
Galfreya turned to look at her.
"Your loyalty is commendable," she said. "Your manners are not."
"I'm trying to say I'm sorry, okay?"
"You have an interesting way of expressing it."
"I don't mean before. I mean now. My name's Christiana, by the way."
"I guessed as much when you said you were Geordie's sister. He's spoken of you to me."
"Yes, he said you were bratty, but it's part of what he likes about you, the moon knows why."
"That's the problem with family—you have to take what's dealt to you."
Galfreya shook her head. "I don't think I agree. If the fit is wrong, you can still just walk away."
"I meant the family you choose."
"You can walk away from that kind of family, too."
"But we both care about Geordie, right?"
Galfreya nodded. "We have that in common."
"See, the thing is," Christiana said, "I've seen how happy his brother Christy is, all settled down with Saskia. And I know Geordie sees it, too. And I also know that he'd like to have that kind of relationship with someone. The trouble is, he's made poor choices—"
"Love's like that," Galfreya said. "You can't choose who you love."
"Whatever. But he's not even getting out anymore. He hasn't had a date in at least two years, and we both know why that is."
"He's got this," she waved her arm to take in the mall. "The parties you guys have, a place to play music with people who know a whole whack of tunes that his other friends don't. And he's got you—for company and a roll in the hay whenever the two of you are in the mood. So he doesn't even look for anything else. But we both know that the relationship you guys have isn't either what he needs or really wants. He needs...I was going to say a real woman—"
"Says the shadow."
"I know—made up of all the cast-off bits of his brother. I should talk. And that's why I'm not going to say a real woman. He just needs someone who can commit. Someone who isn't the immortal Mother Crone that you are, who won't even leave this mall to go somewhere with him."
"I have responsibilities..."
"And they're none of my business. But Geordie is. His happiness is. That's why I came to ask you to let him go. That's why I showed up with the big chip on my shoulder because this whole business has been totally pissing me off."
"Now I don't know what to say except, maybe he should have the chance to find out what's out there, even if it's dangerous. I'll watch his back, and I'm guessing you will, too."
Galfreya gave a slow nod. "For Geordie's sake, we can be allies. But we will never be friends."
"Why am I not surprised?" Christiana said. "I should have remembered. Mumbo was forever telling me that fairies never forget a slight, no matter how large or small."
"You were a student of Mumbo's?"
"She showed me the ropes when I first manifested."
"Mumbo has always had a generous nature. I'm surprised to find a charge of hers with such a lack of common sense and manners."
"Okay," Christiana said. "I deserved that. But I already said I was sorry. What more do you want?"
Galfreya shook her head. "I don't want anything. I'm just wary of the darkness you carry inside you—the shadow of a shadow that has no love for my people."
"Fine," Christiana said. "Make up a new bogeyman for yourself, if it makes you feel any better. But for the record, I don't care about fairies one way or the other, except in relation to Geordie. Cut him loose from whatever enchantment you've put on him, and you'll never have to hear from me again."
And with that, she was gone. Stepped between and disappeared, taking with her all opportunity for further conversation.
Galfreya stared at the place from which the shadow had vanished.
She hadn't handled that well.
Christiana's cocky manner had put her off, as had the shadow's insights into Galfreya's relationship with Geordie. There was an enchantment on the fiddler, a small calling-on glamour that kept him returning to play at their revels and of which he was unaware. Galfreya was loath to remove it, for his safety—that much hadn't been a lie—but also because she liked having him in her company. There was no spell that made him pay attention to her. Unlike other fairy women, she always insisted on her consorts having freedom of choice. That made it all the sweeter when they were drawn to her.
And Geordie's affection was sweeter still, for he could say no as well as yes, as he had this morning. So when he did stay, it was because he wanted to. Because he wanted her.
She'd known it wouldn't last. If it hadn't been this, it would have been something else, because dealing with humans was always a chancy proposition. They were unpredictable and willful—much like the shadows they could cast from themselves. Enspelling Geordie had always been only a stopgap measure, not a permanent solution. And really, she knew better than any, that a foretelling would always play out. If not sooner, then later.
The fates of men and fairies weren't inexorably etched in stone. If there were weavers, making a pattern on their looms of how lives were lived, they could only nudge and hint, not force fate to unfold on some strict schedule. And a seer's vision saw only probabilities, not truth. The only truth was now. The past was clouded by memory; the future, in the end, forever a mystery. Even to a seer.
She knew Geordie would face a grave danger once he left the protection of her court. But not when, or how it would come to him. Only that it would come. And by keeping it at bay, she was denying him the opportunity of growth through adversity. The mettle of men and fairies was tested not by lighthearted revels, but by stepping out into the dark forest of destiny.
She pulled a small leather bag from where it hung under her sweatshirt and opened its mouth. From it she took a token—a small, rough representation of a fiddle made of clay, blood, and spit, one brown hair taken from the head of a fiddler while he was sleeping in her bed, the words that encompassed his true name, and a calling-on glamour.
She regarded it for a long moment, then lifted her gaze to where the dead cousins struck their unnatural, taxidermal poses.
"I don't do this for you," she said, speaking to the shadow as though she was still present. "I do it because time can't be held back forever. I do it for him."
Then she dropped the clay fiddle to the floor and ground the broken pieces into dust.
"But I would have kept him for a hundred years, if I could."
Then she, too, stepped away into her own between, and the dead cousins had the central court to themselves for the few hours before the stores opened and the shoppers descended upon the mall.
"You're breaking up with me," Daniel said.
I looked at him across the kitchen table, the remains of the Indian take-out he'd brought for our supper scattered between us. I understood that he couldn't quite believe it. I couldn't quite believe it myself. We'd been together for a couple of years and if there was ever a perfect guy, it was Daniel. But that was the problem. He was too perfect. He was so perfect I was choking on our relationship, but how could I tell him that?
"I think it's for the best," I said, which was so lame and not even close to an explanation.
"But we're such a good fit."
I shook my head. "We're not really."
"We like all the same things."
We did. But that was only because he liked whatever I liked. He didn't bring anything of himself to the relationship, and I'd known it for awhile now. I was just too lazy to do anything about it. Too comfortable in the easy familiarity of his company. And let's admit it, flattered that a guy as handsome as him, at least ten years my junior, was so into me when most people couldn't see past the wheelchair and the broken bits that define who I am. Of course, being a caregiver, Daniel saw past my handicaps to the person I was because it was second nature for him. He did it all day in his work.
"It's not you," I said, falling back on what's truly the lamest bit of break-up dialogue that's ever come out of people trying to disengage themselves from the affections of another. "It's me."
"I don't understand."
"I don't really either," I lied. "I just know it's not working for me."
"This is...god, it's so out of nowhere. I really didn't see this coming. I mean, you hear about it all the time when a relationship goes down in flames, but I never thought I'd be so blind to it."
"We're not going down in flames," I said. "We're just readjusting the parameters of our relationship." Don't say it, I thought, but the words came out of my mouth all the same: "I'm hoping we can still be friends."
He gave a slow nod. "Yeah, right."
"I know that sounded so stupidly clichéd, but it's true. I think we'd work better as friends than as a couple."
He looked at me, and I made myself face the hurt in his eyes instead of looking away. I was so bad at this, but then it wasn't like I really had a lot of experience. I've made lots of dear and close friends over the years, but you could count my serious relationships on one hand.
"I should go," he said.
I didn't say anything. I thought he should go, too, but I didn't want to make this any worse than I already had. Better to say nothing.
He stood up. I started to roll my wheelchair away from the table, but he shook his head.
"It's okay," he said. "I can find my way out."
He shook his head. "There's nothing more to say, really, is there?"
"No, I guess not."
So I sat there in the kitchen and watched him walk down the hall. He got his coat from the hook by the front door and put it on. A moment later, the door closed behind him and I was alone in the house. The Professor was off visiting his friend Lucius. Goon—properly Olaf Goonasekara, the Professor's housekeeper—was also out. None of my friends would be dropping by because they knew I was spending the evening with Daniel.
I wished now that I'd let one of them in on what I'd planned to do tonight. I hadn't because I was sure they'd try to talk me out of it. I'd probably have let them talk me out of it. But I knew I'd done the right thing.
At least I thought I did.
I stayed in the kitchen, staring down the hall and not moving for a long time, before I finally turned the wheelchair around and rolled it into the refurbished greenhouse at the back of the house. Sophie and I shared the greenhouse as studio space. The long work tables held a barrage of art supplies: tubes of paint, palettes, brushes, sketchbooks, pencils, charcoal. We each had an easel set up and there were canvases everywhere, leaning against the walls and crammed under the tables. The room smelled of turps and the geraniums that Goon wintered on shelves along one wall.
It was easy to tell who worked where. My area looked like a hurricane had hit it, and the paintings were all big, blocky pieces without a lot of details. Sophie's was perfectly organized, and her paintings were far more accomplished than anything I've been able to do in years.
Messy though my area was, I didn't really do that much in it because I hadn't been able to paint properly since the accident. And no, don't feel sorry for me. I was alive, wasn't I? I could still move around. I used the wheelchair in the evening because I was usually just so tired by that point, but most of the day I got from here to there by walking. Okay, shuffling, with a cane or two, but I was still mobile. A lot of people didn't even have that. I used the chair when I went to rehab, or if somebody took me out so that we weren't forced to go at the snail's pace I could manage, but I wasn't trapped in it.
Not like I was trapped in my inability to make art—or at least the kind of art I wanted to make. The art I once did make. Nowadays my best art took place in my imagination.
I had an art gallery in my head holding all the paintings that the Broken Girl I was couldn't paint anymore. At least not with brush in hand. The accident left me with a right arm that had no strength, and I couldn't stand for very long at an easel anymore. Trying to work sitting down was very disconcerting after a lifetime of being able to pace around my canvas. And lately my left hand, which I'd been learning to use, had developed a little tremor that the doctors couldn't explain. All I knew was it made detail work impossible. I could do broad strokes—big, painterly canvases—but the work I loved, the intricate paintings, were still out of reach.
So I did them in my head.
They took just as long as the physical ones did, but I didn't begrudge the time. What did trouble me was that I couldn't share them and that made me feel like I was talking to myself because I'd always seen the creative process as a conversation. Music needed listeners. Books needed readers. Art needed viewers. Not so much during the process. But for sure when it was done—or at least as done as art ever was. I always had to force myself to finally let go or I could fuss with a painting forever, even if the painting only existed in my head.
I know, it's weird. But I'd always had an active imagination, and my whole life I'd been out of step with most of the world. After the accident, that didn't change.
I hated how my life was divided in two by an event over which I never even had control.
One moment, I was walking along the side of a street. The next, I'd been hit by a car. When I came to, I was in a hospital and parts of my body no longer worked as well as they once did. How was that for a wake-up call? But at least I woke up.
I didn't know what I missed the most. Dancing and bounding about, going for long rambles when the city's asleep, when it's just me and all the wild and wooly spirits of the night out there on the streets. Or my painting. My art.
It was all one and the same, I guess. I'd always lived my life like it was this great big messy canvas that was never going to be finished, but that didn't stop me from trying to experience and fill every square inch of it. Now everything felt separate. Everything took concentration. Things I used to just do without thinking. Standing up. Walking across the room. Getting dressed. And painting...
It was hard for me, doing these big sloppy paintings. The only way I could do detailed stuff was when I used this paint program that Mona put on one of the Professor's old laptops for me, but it wasn't the same. Nothing was the same.
I didn't know what I was doing in the studio right now. I should have been in the kitchen, cleaning up the mess Daniel and I made before the Professor came home. Or worse, if Goon came upon it before I got the chance to tidy. Goon was invariably grumbling and cranky at the best of times, so I tried not to give him anything concrete to complain about. I lived here on the Professor's sufferance and generosity, and I knew I shouldn't abuse the privilege.
But I couldn't make myself go back into the kitchen. Not just yet.
I was...I want to say sad, but that wasn't really it. I did feel sad, but I also felt relieved, and guilty, and kind of mean spirited for breaking up with Daniel the way I just had. It really did come out of the blue for him.
I sighed. Well, right or wrong, the deed was done.
It was dark, here in the greenhouse. The only illumination filtered in through the door behind me, but it wasn't strong because all I had lit in the room beyond was a small table lamp. When I looked at the walls of windows, I could easily see past my faint reflection to the gardens beyond. I'd like to roll my chair out there, look at the stars and breathe in the night air, but I knew it was too chilly to go as I was and I didn't have the energy to go back inside and get a jacket. It was mild out there this evening, especially compared to the winter that was still a visible memory at the back of the garden where patches of snow vied for space with the first green shoots of tulips and crocuses. But it wasn't T-shirt weather.
This past winter had felt relentless. It started to snow right after Halloween and the snow stayed on the ground, thick and deep, until just recently. I was tired of it. Tired of the weather making it harder for me to get out of the house. Having to wait for the ploughs to come before I could take my wheelchair out onto the sidewalk.
I lifted my left hand and held it up in front of my face. The tremor wasn't so bad today. I lifted my right hand and slowly made a fist, uncurled my fingers. It was like walking was for me these days. I had to think about it.
Another sigh escaped me.
I was also tired of feeling sorry for myself, but I guess that was what Broken Girls did. They sat around feeling sorry for themselves. They broke up with boyfriends that anybody else would have been delighted to have.
I needed some distraction and considered my options. I wasn't in the mood to fight with my art, either physically or with my paint program on the laptop. I could check my e-mail, but that held no appeal. I could watch TV or a movie, but I'd done far too much of that over the winter. I could read a book, but even that was a chore. Hardcovers wore me out because of their weight. Paperbacks needed to be held open unless I broke the spine, and in this house, that was like a capital offense.
So I plugged the headset into my cell phone. Wendy was working tonight at the paper. Sophie was with her boyfriend Jeck, and Geordie had a gig. But I knew Mona would be home, and even if she was drawing or inking one of her comics, she could still talk while she did it.
I tapped in her number, and she answered before the first ring ended.
"Please be someone interesting," she said.
I laughed. "Oh, right. Put the pressure on me."
"Oh, hello, Jilly. Sorry about that. It's just that I've been getting telemarketers and crank calls all evening."
"Isn't that an oxymoron?"
"Only if you're a telemarketer."
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Trying to ink a page that I loved this afternoon and now find spectacularly boring. Or maybe it's just that it's Friday night and even though Lyle's out of town, I still feel I should be out doing something."
"I know the feeling."
"I thought you had Daniel coming over this evening."
"I did. But he's gone now."
"Why does that sound foreboding?"
"Did it? It wasn't meant to."
"What happened? Did he get called in to the hospital?" She paused, then added before I could answer, "Except nurses aren't on call, are they?"
"I suppose they can be."
Now I paused. I looked out at the dark garden again, at my faint reflection on the windowpane, a small woman in a wheelchair.
"Except I asked him to leave," I said.
"No, it's okay."
"I'm coming over," she said.
"You don't have to—"
I didn't get to finish because she'd already hung up.
* * *
I hadn't locked the door after Daniel left, so Mona was able to walk right in and find me in the greenhouse studio. The Professor didn't like me leaving the door unlocked when I was home alone. It wasn't so much that we lived in a dangerous neighbourhood. He just got nervous because it was me, in my wheelchair, or hobbling about with the aid of a pair of canes. It was also why he'd gotten me the cell phone, which he insisted I always keep close at hand.
"Jeez, gloomy much?" Mona said as she came into the darkened room.
She shed her coat by the door and took off her cap, ruffling her short blonde hair so that it stood up around her head. Her usual inch or so of dark roots were missing, which only meant she'd taken the time to dye her hair recently.
"There are some candles by the laptop," I said. "Along with a box of matches."
Mona smiled. "That is so you. Working on your laptop by candlelight."
"Remember my first computer?"
"An Etch-a-Sketch board attached to the back of a typewriter does not a computer make."
She found a couple of candleholders, stuck candles in and lit them.
"There we go," she said, setting them on the worktable closer to where I was sitting.
My reflection was stronger in the window now, the garden behind the panes turned into dark mystery. A faint hint of cedar rose from the scented candles. Mona fetched Sophie's chair and rolled it over so that she could sit near me.
"Do you want something to drink?" I asked.
"What do you have?"
"Tea or coffee that you have to make. Juice, pop and beer. Or we could open a bottle of wine."
"From Bramley's cellar?"
The Professor kept a decent wine cellar, though it was Goon who stocked it, coming back from the wine store with boxes of rare vintages that he happily stowed away in the basement. Goon wouldn't say a thing about me sharing a bottle with Mona, but he would know. He had such a radar for that kind of thing that he'd probably know the moment he came into the house.
"Where else?" I said.
"Red or white?"
"Be right back."
I listened to her in the kitchen when she got back from the basement, taking glasses from the cupboard, rattling around in one of the cutlery drawers to find the opener, the pop of the cork when she pulled it out.
"To Bramley and Goon," she said when she got back, clinking her glass against mine.
"To generosity and good taste," I said.
Mona smiled. "Same difference."
We sipped our wine. As usual, it was exquisite.
"So, what happened?" Mona asked. "Or would you rather not talk about it?"
I shrugged. "There's not much to say. Daniel was perfect and so I broke up with him." I gave her a considering look. "You don't seem surprised."
Mona shook her head. "I'm only curious why it took so long."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
It came out more snippy than I'd meant it to, but she'd caught me by surprise.
"I'm sorry," she said. "That was rude of me."
"No, it was rude of me."
She smiled and offered her glass to me.
"To us, in our rudeness," she said.
I clinked my glass against hers again and we had another sip.
"But what did you mean?" I asked.
"I don't know. It's just...you know when you see a couple and they're so obviously right for each other?"
"Well, I didn't get that from you and Daniel. I mean, you're right. He is perfect. Handsome and kind and generous. But it always seemed to me that whatever light he had was reflected from what you cast."
All I could do was look at her.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's just..."
Her voice trailed off as I shook my head.
"God, what are you?" I asked. "Psychic? That's exactly how I felt. Well, I don't mean the light business, but it's just...whatever music we listened to, it was what I was into. I chose the movies we watched. He only read books by authors I'd recommended to him. He never seemed to offer me anything of himself. He never even really talked about himself."
"For...what's it been? Two years?"
I had another sip of my wine, then tapped the arm of my wheelchair. "Well, I've been kind of distracted."
"Okay, but that's still weird," Mona said. "I mean, how could you, of all people, let that go on for so long?"
"I don't know. I just did. And then, when I started to think about it, I got lazy. It was less complicated to just go with the flow. I mean, dealing with all that I've had to, it was...just easier having this one nice thing to look forward to, even though it felt sort of hollow."
Mona nodded sympathetically. "I know what you mean. I've stayed in relationships that weren't bad, but they weren't particularly good either. They just were, and they kind of wear you down so you don't really have the energy to deal with them the way you know you should."
"I thought you'd think I was crazy to break up with him."
"Nope. I don't think anybody will."
"Oh, god. Did everybody feel the same way?"
"It's not like what you think," she said. "We were happy if you were happy. But we couldn't help but think you'd need more intellectual stimulation than it seemed you were getting."
"Daniel isn't dumb."
"I didn't say he was. He's just not..." She smiled. "One of a kind, the way you are."
"I'm being serious here. You never could take a compliment."
I shrugged, but she was right. I don't know why, but they always seemed suspect.
"You know what the real telling point was for me?" I said.
She shook her head.
"I never told him how I'm damaged goods."
"Oh, please. You met him in intensive care. He was there when you were brought in. There's probably nothing he doesn't know about what the accident did to you."
"I mean, from before," I said. "When I was a kid. All the trouble I got into, living on the streets and all."
She didn't say anything for a long moment. Just topped our glasses and set the wine bottle back down on the worktable.
"That is telling," she finally said.
I knew what she was thinking.
"I was going to bring it up a bunch of times," I said, "back when I realized that we were getting serious, but then I got uneasy because he'd never talk about himself."
"It doesn't mean he was a bad guy," she said.
"It's just...some people don't have interesting lives."
"I could have done without a lot of my own interesting bits."
"You know what I mean. Some people don't have a story. They just drift through their lives."
"Everybody's got a story."
Mona nodded. "But the point I'm trying to make is that they're not necessarily interesting—not even to themselves. So they latch onto somebody whose life is more interesting, or appears more interesting, because that adds some luster to their own."
I didn't want to feel that way about Daniel. Not because it'd make my staying with him for a couple of years even more pathetic, but because of what it said about him. Except it seemed to be true. Unless he had some dark past like I did that he'd wanted to keep from me the way I'd kept mine from him.
It's a weird thing, and it all happened so long ago that sometimes I just like to pretend I can forget. And really, when is it the right time to tell someone how you were abused as a kid, shuffled from foster home to foster home, became a junkie, sold your body...
"So, what are you going to do now?" Mona asked.
I raised my eyebrows. "Well, I'm not going to get involved with another guy any time soon. It just never seems to work out for me."
She nodded. "Yeah, it's weird how this kind of thing leaves you feeling so vulnerable, even when you're not the dumpee."
"I think I'll be happier as a spinster—you know. I can be the mad old lady living in the back of the Professor's house."
Mona laughed, but it didn't reach her eyes. She didn't try to jolly me out of my mood either. Instead, she refilled our glasses, and we let the conversation drift to topics that didn't carry as much emotional weight.
I don't know when we finished that bottle and opened another, but we were well into that second bottle when the conversation inevitably came back to me and my messed up relationships, except now we were being silly and giddy about it. We started making a list of all the people we knew who were single, straight, and available.
"Well, how about Jonathan at the Half Kaffe?" Mona said after we'd already listed everyone from Bernard Colbert, the stuffy head librarian at the Lower Crowsea Branch of the Newford Public Library, to the twenty-something and way too handsome Frank Jee who delivered take-out from his dad's Chinese restaurant on weekends.
"I always thought Jonathan was gay," I said.
"I don't think so. He used to hit on me all the time when I first started going to the café."
"Okay, then what about Goon?"
"Oh, please." Then she grinned and said, "What about Geordie?"
That sobered me because of all the guys in the world, I wouldn't let Geordie be made part of a drunken joke.
"No," I said shaking my head. "It'll never be with Geordie."
"Why not? You guys are best friends and, I'm sorry, but everybody knows you carry a torch for each other. You're just never single at the same time."
I knew it was the wine talking, but she wasn't far from the truth.
"We had our chance years ago," I said, "but we didn't take it and I'm glad we didn't. You know that."
"Besides, he's got a girlfriend. A fairy queen, no less."
"Who lives in a shopping mall and calls herself Mother Crone."
"That's just her speaking name. Fairies all have two—their true name and their speaking name."
"So, what's her real name?"
"I don't know. But Geordie does."
"Still," Mona said, "they can't be that serious. She never goes anywhere with him."
"I don't know. We don't really talk about her."
"But if she wasn't in the picture—"
"Geordie and I still wouldn't get together," I said. "Not like that."
"But you're best friends. It's all so When Harry Met Sally."
I sighed. "Life's not a romantic comedy."
"More's the pity."
"And think about it. You're right. Geordie and I really are best friends. So if we did get together, what would happen when we broke up?"
"You guys wouldn't break up."
"Every relationship I've ever had has fallen apart. Every relationship he's ever been in has broken up."
"Who just vanished on him."
"Mona, let me ask you this," I said. "How often do you get together with your ex's?"
She pulled a face. "Like, never."
"Exactly. I don't want that to happen with me and Geordie, and I know he feels the same."
"But what if it didn't?"
"Do you ever see the girls he goes out with?" Before she could answer, I did for her. "They're all gorgeous. Mother Crone's a knockout. Tanya's a movie star. And remember Sam?"
"You're gorgeous, too."
I shook my head. "No, I'm old and broken." I lifted a hand to stop her before she could argue what was such an obvious and plain fact. "I'm not saying oh poor me. It's just how it is. And I can live without a guy in my life. Trust me. It can be a real relief sometimes."
"I guess. It just seems sad."
"It doesn't have to be. I've got a bunch of great friends. And I've gotten to the point where I'm pretty much comfortable in my own skin, even if some parts are a bit worn out and don't work as well as they should anymore."
Mona gave me a slow nod. "And you can't force love anyway."
"Nor can you plan for it. It happens or it doesn't."
Mona picked up the half-full wine bottle, but I laid my hand over the top of my glass.
"No more for me," I said. "I don't even know if I can get out of my wheelchair with all I've had tonight."
"I can help."
"You should stay over," I said.
"I'm not drunk."
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Which one of you?" she asked, grinning.
* * *
Mona fell asleep almost immediately, but I lay awake for a long time on my side of the bed, staring up at the ceiling. I didn't think about it often, but Mona had put it in my head and the wine wouldn't let it go away.
How different would our lives have been if we had gotten together all those years ago?
And if we were to get together now, could we make it work?
I wasn't ever going to find out because it wasn't something I'd ever ask him. But I couldn't help thinking about it now as I lay here, trying to sleep.
Dust Jacket Art