Tuesday, April 18, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Nine

    "I DON'T think you can." Finn's words scraped out. "You're burning through those bodies. That's why you want us. And if you take us, we die anyway." She continued ferociously, "You're nothing but pieces of paper."
   "Finn." Christie sounded on the verge of hysteria.
   Finn gently put her hand over his mouth as she met Jintong's burning gold gaze. She didn't dare look at Jack, because she was admitting to something she'd always suspected about the Fatas. "You can't kill us. You need one of us--a human--to do it for you. Flesh and blood."
   "So it's a draw, is it?" Jintong began to move back, step by step, while Jack watched him.
   "I believe so," Jack told him. "The Mononoke and the Skriker won't take part in this. Like you, they're wisely afraid of Reiko."
   "We're as old as she is." Jintong smiled slyly. "And what are these mortals to her?"
   Finn saw the rustling shadows drawing closer and the entire nightmarish aspect of the evening, instead of dulling her into the numb inertia she'd been experiencing since Lily's death, sharpened her. She said, quietly, with a wondering realization, "You need us more than we need you."
   A whirlwind of paper blossoms, leaves, and snowflakes swept over them as she and Jintong regarded one another.
   "Do you see their plan?" This, from the until-then-silent Jade. "The Magician. The Empress. The Hanged Man. The Sun." She cocked her head to one side. Her face was expressionless, but her voice was threaded with despair. "We have lost, Jintong."
   Jintong looked at each of them. The smile became a shadow on his face. "So the trick is on us. But now I know--these two mortals are not meaningless to your family, Phouka." He turned to Finn. "You guessed correctly--we cannot take what is not freely given. There is nothing with which we have to bargain. Beaten by the house, we accede." He bowed, folding into the night.
   "Well, shit," Christie whispered.
   Finn couldn't believe it. She stood very still, marveling at what had just occurred.
   She turned. They were gone, the menacing silhouettes. Only Jade remained, watching Finn.
   As Christie sank to his haunches, his arms over his head, Jade said to Finn, "They will be the death of you, braveheart."
   Then she, too, was gone.
   "What happened here?" Christie's voice was muffled.
   Finn broke her gaze from Jack's to crouch beside Christie. "It's over now. You're safe."
   "They took him." Phouka, Finn realized, was speaking to Jack. "I had no other way to fetch him back."
   "Are you explaining yourself to me?" Jack was staring at Phouka. "Because it's not me you should be apologizing to, cara."
   Finn rose, reeling a little. How could she go back to her somewhat ordinary life after this? She said, "Let's go. Now."
                                                                                      ***
The ride home was quiet, until Christie shook himself and said angrily, "Isn't anyone going to tell me what just happened?"
   Phouka, driving, glanced at Jack, who was in the passenger seat beside her. Jack, one arm on the back of the seat, turned his head and looked at Finn. Phouka said, each word succinct, "Nothing happened."
   "Oh no you don't," Christie began, then sounded baffled. "What did I just say? Hey, where were we going again?"
   "Phouka." Finn wanted to grab the other girl's hair. "What did you d--"
   "Here we are." Phouka swerved into the driveway of Christie's house.
   "Yeah. Yeah. Okay." After Phouka parked, Christie dazedly got out. Finn threw a furious look at Phouka and slid out after him. She heard Jack say to Phouka, "You're going to addle that boy's brain if you keep doing that."
   "Christie." Finn hurried to his side as he walked toward his house. As they stomped up the porch stairs, she said, "Are you all right?"
   "I'm fine." He grinned, but his eyes were glassy.  "See you tomorrow."
   "Christie."
   "Yeah?" He turned as he stepped into the warmth of his house.
   "Are you sure you're all right" Finn was worried about the glazed look in his eyes. "Do you remember--"
   "This weird night out at Max's Diner with the Fatas?" He gazed past her at Phouka and Jack. He frowned a little. "Yeah. See you at school, okay?"
   "Okay." She watched him close the door.
   She trudged down the steps. Jack and Phouka had gotten out of the Mercedes. Finn strode past them, across the street, heading for the wooded lot that led to her house.
                                                                            ***
Jack, watching Finn walk away, said to Phouka, his voice dark, "You used her to get rid of them."
   Weariness dragged at Phouka's voice. "I needed a mortal. She's stronger than you think--Jack!"
   Jack was already vanishing into the weedy lot across the street.
   Phouka cursed.
                                                                          ***
Finn knew he was chasing after her in that way of his, feral and preternatural. She wanted to whirl around and tell him to go to hell, but sensed he may have already been there. She'd just engaged in the scariest game of Rock, Paper, Scissors ever and she couldn't summon the courage to tell one dangerous and damaged person to leave her alone.
   She halted. She turned and he was there. She struck him, one hand flat against his chest. He allowed her to shove him against a tree.
   "What are you?" She whispered, more afraid now than she'd been facing off the Zhi'Ren.
   His expression was serious. "Just what you see."
   "Stop." She didn't mean that word to sound the way it did, as if her soul were being shredded. "I don't want this. I don't want to know things. I don't want this world you live in."
   "Liar." The word was almost voluptuous the way he spoke it. "What you said back there was true--we can't get to you unless we're invited."
   "You're saying I invited you?" She still had her hand against his chest, which wasn't hollow anymore--she felt the drumming of his heart. He straightened. He was so close, suddenly, his mouth only a breath from hers.
    He said, "You did invite us, Finn. Maybe you didn't mean to--but we are drawn to lost souls."
   "I"m not a lost soul." But even as she said it, she knew it wasn't true.
   "Finn. I've been one." His gaze was shadowed. "And look where it got me."
   "I don't know what you want from me, Jack." She felt as if she were pleading.
   "You're the one who wants something from me. Don't pretend you don't need to know things, because there's something inside of you screaming. And all of them, my family, can hear it."
   She felt as if the pain twisting up inside of him was bleeding into her. She searched his gaze with her own and saw the anguish behind the shadows in his eyes. She stood on tiptoe, closed her eyes, and kissed him.
   It was like kissing an electric current wrapped in darkness--it jolted her from her head to her toes and shot heat through her, thieving her of breath, but so sweetly, she was scarcely aware of his arms folding around her or her own circling his neck because that kiss had become glorious and neverending.
   Her mouth swept from his. She still had to breathe. For a moment, she didn't know if she was steadying him or he was keeping her from falling.
   "Finn," he whispered against her temple, with his heart beating. "Forget."
   It was an order. Finn knew he'd meant it as an enchantment, whatever Phouka had done to Christie, but it didn't work--
   Then the night was gone from her.
   She sat on the swing, gazing up at the stars. She'd fallen asleep for a second, and dreamed. She frowned, rubbed at her temples.
   It had been a dream in which Jack had not been heartless.
   Something drifted toward her through the air. She reached out, and caught it. It was a leaf, webbed and delicate, made of crimson paper.
                                                                     The End

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Eight

"FINN." Jintong rose with the grace of a viper. Finn fearlessly met his golden gaze over Christie's shoulder. Christie whispered her name again.
   "What do you want?" She let go of Christie but maneuvered so that she was between him and the young man.
   Jintong gently told her, "Two new lives. Jack, doesn't your girl know what we are?" He drew aside his collar to reveal a hole in his neck, its edges smoldering cherry red, shadows beneath.
   Christie whispered, "What's wrong with you?"
   "You can't have us, "Finn told him, almost breathless with mad defiance.
   "The White Cat has already made the deal." Jintong didn't even look at her. He was watching Jack, smiling.
   "Do you think we're giving you tribute?" Jack spoke as Finn and Christie drew back. Finn looked around for Jade but didn't see her. Phouka had risen and was calculating the confrontation between Jack and the Zhi Ren. Jack continued, emanating danger, "You're mistaken."
   "You're nothing but the muscle." Jintong's voice was just as dangerously quiet as Jack's. "The White Cat is Reiko's lieutenant. Her word is law."
   "Finn." Christie sounded shaky. "What is this?"
   "A family feud. Don't worry." Finn looked around for Jade. Where was she?
   "What exactly did Phouka tell you?" Jack didn't take his gaze from Jintong. The tension in the air shimmered.
   "In exchange for the boy and the girl, we'll leave without letting our presence be known." Jintong spread his arms and Finn saw, out of the corner of one eye, quick movements around them. She heard rustling and crackling noises.
   Jack continued in that tone thrumming with violence, "What, exactly, did Phouka negotiate?"
   Jintong slid a glance toward Phouka. "I give you what you want if you leave without causing harm."
   "Finn." Jack spoke without taking his gaze from Jintong. "Have you and Christopher suffered any harm?"
   "You mean aside from psychological damage and nearly getting sliced by mirror shards?" Finn whispered, shivering--not from fear, but from the dark violence Jack's kiss seemed to have instilled within her.
   Jack's smile widened. "I'd call that harm, wouldn't you, Phouka?"
   "Most definitely," Phouka agreed with a droll humor Finn thought completely inappropriate for the situation.
   "That's not--" Jintong snarled. His gaze slid to Phouka. "Trickster bitch--"
   "Deal's off." Jack retreated with Finn and Christie behind him and Phouka guarding their backs.
   Jintong's eyes blazed. A wind spiraled around him, making his coat flap. "There are more of us than there are of you."
   Finn saw the tall, shadowy figures fluttering in the night around the temple and fear splintered through her. The figures resembled black paper cut-outs, but the light from the temple's lamps gleamed across flat faces like photographs or paintings . . .
   Christie was snatched from Finn. She screamed and reached out as he was dragged upward by a black kite shaped like a person.
   Phouka cursed and something flashed in her hand.
   The small knife she flung tore a hole in the paper shape of the monster dragging Christie into the air.
   Christie fell. He rolled up, scrambling back. "What the f--"
   "Christie!" Finn lunged and grabbed the knife. And froze.
   Jade had appeared from the temple darkness behind Christie.
   "Finn?" Christie blinked. He whispered, "There's something behind me, isn't there?"
   Finn glanced at Jack, who had drawn a long dagger and was pointing it at Jintong. "You forgot what Jacks are for." Jack spun and went for Jade.
   Jade swept forward.She unfolded a fan of black paper beneath Christie's chin. He went still. Blood glistened on his chin. Jade's eyes were burning black holes in her face. Finn recognized, in Jade, the desperation of something supernatural to survive. A weakness.
   "And you forgot how we can hurt them." Jintong smiled. "Unless you want the boy to die from the worst paper cut ever, you surrender."
   Finn was reminded of Alice in Wonderland's stand-off with the playing cards--
   She dove forward. She grabbed the fan from Jade. The paper crumpled between her fingers, but one sharp edge cut into her palm.
   Phouka grabbed Christie's hand and pulled him away from Jade, who stood staring at Finn. Jack was still, watching Finn, waiting, holding Jintong off with a black knife.
   Finn turned to Jintong. She tried to remember what she'd read in her father's books on Chinese mythology. She couldn't recall anything about Zhi Ren. All she could remember were stories of how to bargain with supernatural creatures. She said, "You can't have us. We don't agree to it, Christie and I. Most of all, we don't belong to Reiko. We're not part of her family."
   "I see"--Jintong straightened, all languor gone--"we've a girl who reads the proper books. You will agree, Finn. Or we'll kill you."
                                                                         *** 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Seven

JACK strode past her and she followed. Cherry blossoms--more paper, she noted with a shiver--were flurrying around them now instead of the false snowflakes.
   A girl appeared kneeling in the center of the pagoda, her kimono a glistening whiteness, her hair  fall of rose-pink around her mask-like face. Jack addressed her with careful respect, "Why are you with the Zhi Ren? They and the Mononoke were never friends."
   The girl moved slightly and Finn's mouth went dry.
   The girl was made of paper, from her robe to her skin, and the voice that issued from her was an uncanny ripple in the air. "We travel together. We, also, are outlaws."
   "Is that why you look like them?" Jack's sweeping gesture indicated the paper girl's entire being.
   "We tried to warn you. You must continue no farther."
   "Oh and why is that?" Jack leaned slightly forward, mocking intense interest.
   "We don't want to make enemies of the Ban Nathair."
    "The Mononoke. A Skriker. You all travel together. You're a Family. And there is already a Family here. By stealing Phouka, you've absolutely made an enemy of Reiko."
   "Phouka Fata came for the boy. She broke covenant law."
   Finn's heart jumped. Foreboding swept over her. Christie . . .
   Jack said with gentle menace, "What boy?"
   "The boy with the red curls. The poet."
   "No," Finn whispered as Jack began to curse venomously and softly.
   Then Finn was striding toward the pagoda and the paper girl. "No. Not Christie. He had nothing to do with this--"
   "They waylaid him on the road." The paper girl's eyes were midnight in her mask. She turned her attention to Jack. We want no trouble. We will not be part of this."
   A wind swept over them and the paper girl came apart, unraveling, leaving Finn and Jack facing the pagoda. On the other side, the path continued through a grove of cherry trees.
   "Christie!" Finn ran forward.
   "Finn." Jack caught her in the pagoda. She twisted to face him.
   "No. You don't get to tell me what to do. It's your world that's taken my friend and you're going to help me get him back."
   "Phouka tried to get him back and do you see her succeeding?" Jack had her right arm in a steely grip. His gaze was savage. "This whole thing has gone sideways and, as usual, you're running headlong into it--"
   "What do you want me to do? Stand here, useless, while you go on alone?"
   "I don't know what Phouka's intent was in bringing you with us, but I'm beginning to wonder."
   "Wonder what?" Finn jerked free. She ran down the pagoda steps, onto the path, with Jack beside her.
   "What she's up to. She knows this was a set-up. Why drag you into it?" He seemed to be speaking to himself.
   Finn halted, because they had emerged from the cherry trees into a forest of black bamboo. A red temple like those follies in large gardens rose before them. In front of it was a pool of black water. Upon the water glided swans of white paper, life-sized origami like the Mononoke girl. To either side of the temple, bound to its pillars, were kites constructed into the images of gold and black bats. Finn marveled at the terrifying, impossible beauty of it all.
   Phouka sat on the temple steps, her head bowed.
   "Phouka!" Finn moved around the pond, Jack a smoldering darkness at her side. "Where is Christie?"
   Phouka lifted a bleak face. She said calmly, "I've negotiated."
   Jack, his gaze on the shadowed interior of the temple, said, "Just how have you managed that?"
   "By promising something else." A shadow languidly emerged from the temple interior; a young Asian man in a black three-piece suit, his hair a golden mohawk. He leaned against one of the pillars. "Hello, Jack."
   Jack's expression was grim as he studied the new arrival. "I know you."
   "You know me." The young man's eyes flared inhumanly golden. "And you know Jade, though we look a bit different now."
   There was a wavering of shadow and light and Finn flinched as a girl appeared before them, very pale in a cocktail dress of green silk, her hair a sleek, black fall around her face. Jack whispered, "Jade."
   The Asian girl's burning, dark gaze fell upon him. She raised one bare arm and Finn gasped when she saw holes in Jade's skin, like burn marks with darkness beneath.
   "You remember"--the young man with the golden mohawk sank to a crouch--"what you did to her?"
   Swift as a flicker of insect wings, the girl was suddenly close to Finn, whose skin crawled as if she stood before a giant wasps' nest. Finn gritted her teeth and said to the girl, "Where is Christie?"
   Jade cocked her head, an inhuman thing trying to understand.
   "That's enough." Jack's voice was low as he gently drew Finn back from the creature. "I do remember you, Jintong. And your grudge is against me, not anyone else here."
   The young man nodded as if considering this. "But you've changed since San Francisco. You're a real Jack now. Ironic, isn't it?" Jintong rose. "Leave it to that Rangda bitch to Jack an exorcist."
   Finn glanced at Jack. Despite her fear, she felt she'd just gotten a clue as to who he was.
   Jintong said, gently, "Come on out, pretty boy."
   When Christie stumbled from the temple, Finn lunged toward him. Then Jack was, impossibly, in front of her. "No--"
   She dodged him and raced up the steps. Christie blinked dazedly when he saw her. She flung her arms around him, which was usually not something she'd ever do.
   "Finn . . ." he murmured.
   Jack cursed. "Now he knows your name."
                                                                           ***

Monday, March 27, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Six

A PAPER kite shaped like a black bat fell at Finn's feet. She stared at it. "Jack?"
   Her heart slamming with panic, she glanced back at the path ahead. Before her, two birch trees formed an arch. Beyond that was a darkness drifting with what appeared to be snow. She couldn't see Jack. To either side was pitch black. Only the way before her was lit.
   A light flickered to her left, revealing a fork in the path. Another series of lamp posts blinked on along that side, revealing a grove of red maples. She moved to the edge of the path, and noticed pieces of square paper hanging in the maples. "Jack . . ." Her voice wavered. I'm alone. "Are you there?"
   A piece of paper drifted to her feet--a photograph. She picked it up. She didn't understand, at first, what she was seeing--a Polaroid of a boy and a girl slow-dancing at what looked like a prom.
   The girl was Finn. The boy was Jack. Her hand shook.
   She walked toward one of the closest trees. She snatched down another photo; of her and Jack, sprawled beside the pool, in the sunlight.
   Angrily, she tore down yet another Polaroid, of her and Jack and Christie and Sylvie sitting in a diner, talking, smiling.
   Another photograph drifted toward her and she almost tripped over her own feet to catch it.
   Tears blurred the black and white image of Finn and her sister--Finn, in a black gown, Lily in white--sitting, surrounded by relaxed looking wolves. As Finn stared at herself and Lily staring back, she almost gave up. This mockery, or dark magic, or whatever was happening was gutting her with its impossible images of her and Jack and what might have been if he wasn't a Fata. And the picture of her and her sister in some other place, queens of wolves and darkness, opened up an unhealed wound.
   "Jack!" she shouted. "Jack, you left the path!"
   She looked down at the photographs she held. She wanted to take them with her.
   She let them go.
   A hand emerged from the dark and grabbed hers.
   She yanked with all of her strength and Jack glided back onto the path. He stumbled--the first time she'd ever seen him graceless, and it was frightening--then steadied. He said, low, "Where's that goddamn kite?"
   "What happened to you?" She moved after him as he stalked up the lamp-lit path.
   He grabbed the bat kite. As if he were searching for something, he carefully tore it apart. He let the pieces drift away.
   "Finn." He stood with his back to her. "Just now. You saved me. I was in the dark. I heard you call. I don't know what would have happened, if you hadn't . . ."
   "They're not your family, are they? The ones we're going to see." Terror flickered in her brain. "What's happened to Christie?"
   "That's what we're going to find out." There was a dangerous note to his voice, almost a growl.
   Finn inhaled and exhaled slowly.
   "You need to tell me." She spoke carefully. "What is happening."
   "You wouldn't understand."
   "That's what you're going to do?"
   "Finn." He faced her, his eyes wide. "This isn't your world. This is a between place. The laws you're used to don't work here." He stepped past the arch of birches and turned, holding out a hand to her.
   She didn't even think about it. She gripped his hand and allowed him to pull her past the arch. She was beginning to feel like Alice chasing the White Rabbit.
   She stepped into a snowy landscape, but the snow that fell, the tiny flakes, didn't melt when they met her skin They weren't cold. Wondering, she caught a handful and stared down at tiny and exquisite pieces of paper shaped to resemble snowflakes. She lifted her gaze.
   Round lanterns of white paper hung in the birches--it was as if the world were lit by little moons. Yet beneath all the beauty was a humming darkness that Finn could only sense with the same foreboding she'd had in childhood, knowing there was a monster in the closet.
   Finn knew they had no choice but to continue, as snowflakes of glittering paper fell around them. They wouldn't be allowed to go back. Jack didn't need to tell her that.
   She firmly grasped Jack's hand as if to anchor him, to keep him from flitting off into the darkness on either side.
   The full-length mirror that appeared on the path before them was a baroque confection of gold fauns and nymphs around a tarnished pool of silver. Finn halted abruptly. Jack swore, and, before Finn could avert her eyes, an image emerged from the cloudy silver--a young man with black hollows for eyes, writhing hair, and white skin.
   "Jack." She glanced at him, saw him transfixed by his reflection.
   She didn't look back at the mirror. She fell to one knee and scrabbled in the grass beside the path until her fingers closed around a rock the size of her fist.
   She twisted up, to her feet, and flung it.
   The mirror broke like any mirror. Jack tightened his grip on her hand and yanked her away. The pieces swirled up. She and Jack flung their arms up over their faces. She winced as she felt a few pieces razor past her, into her clothing, across her skin.
   Then they were standing amidst shattered glass and Jack was scrutinizing her. He reached out, gently pushing her hair back from her face. The shards had sliced into his temple, his right cheek.
   "I'm all right," she said. "Can we get to the end of this?"
   "Finn, in order to survive this, you need to believe it. This is not a dream."
   "I gathered that, Jack, back in Mother Hubbard's building. And in Tirnagoth, when I saw the ghosts. And after I met most of your family--what is that?" She moved around him, staring at the white pagoda that had appeared within a frame of cherry trees blossoming a spectacular pink.
   "That"--Jack turned and the nothing-can-hurt-me-because-I'm-a-badass attitude was back--"is not good."
                                                                                ***
   

Monday, March 20, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Five

"THERE was someone in here with you?" Jack set the satyr's head down on a dusty table.
   "Yes. What is this place?"
   "A broken place, where things slip between the cracks. And now Phouka has fallen into one of them and I've got to fetch her back, along with your poet boy. I'm taking you to the car--"
   "No." Finn couldn't imagine sitting in the Mercedes, alone beneath the flickering street lamps, waiting for Jack to return.
   He moved closer. Shadows clung to him like black liquid. "If you come with me, you do as I say. Am I clear?"
   "Stop yelling."
   He pointed to the grinning satyr head. "That was standing outside the door, trying to get in. I broke it. Are you beginning to understand you've stepped through the looking-glass, Serafina?"
   Staring at the grinning stone head, Finn felt a rush of nauseating terror, which she swiftly quelled. "I'll do as you say, okay?"
   He stepped close to her. "Kiss me."
   "Are you kidding?" Heat shimmered through her because the shadows were sharp on his face and his eyes were beautiful beneath a forest of lashes.
   "I can take that fear away--just this once. Until this is done."
   Her breathing quick, she laid her hands on his chest, felt the faint drum of the heartbeat she had missed one day in a panic. She daringly pressed her mouth to his. He kept his hands beneath her elbows as if to steady her, as if to keep the kiss nothing more than a formality. But it became more than that; her body responded in a flash of heat and luscious desire. She leaned into him as his darkness swept through her, igniting ferocity, fearlessness, and a hunger for discovering what might be best left unknown.
   She stepped back so she could breathe. She caught the lost, desperate look on his face before the expression of disdain for everything around him returned. He could do that, she realized, a little hurt and a lot angry; shut off what he'd been feeling.
   "Well?" His voice was a taunt.
   "Let's go," she said.
   They left the apartment, stepping over the shattered limbs of the satyr statue. "What would it have done if it had gotten me?" She felt the question appropriate for this surreal night.
   "Ripped your heart out."
   She wished she hadn't asked. She was disoriented, with the taste of him, smoke and roses, lingering on her lips.
   They descended the stairs to the entry hall where Finn could hear a song--Eternal Flame--playing in someone's apartment. It was as if the lunatic building were mocking her. She resisted giving it the finger.
   The old woman stood before the doors. She looked pissed. She pointed at Jack. "You broke the covenant, killing the Veneno."
   "Well, the Veneno would have broken Miss Sullivan." Jack smiled, his eyes dark and wild.
   The fiery butterflies Jack's kiss had breathed to life within Finn made her tilt her head with the same disdain that was Jack's mask.
   The old woman's blackberry gaze met hers, briefly. She pointed at Finn. "Don't trust him, girlie."
   "The Zhi Ren have brought trouble to this house." Jack spoke with that seductive lilt to his voice that meant he was angry. "Mother Hubbard. Tell me where they are."
   "You are not to hurt anyone else from this house, Jack."
   His smile flashed like a knife. "As long as they don't try to hurt me or Finn."
   Mother Hubbard turned. The front door flew open. Finn flinched again. The woman pointed. "Beyond the lamps. That is where they are. That's where your friend was taken."
   Jack looked at the two flickering lamps as if they were the doorway to hell. He glanced back at Finn. His shadowy expression made her feel terror and exhilaration. He spoke to Mother Hubbard politely. "I don't want to walk between the lamps. Is there any other way--"
   "Between the lamps." Mother Hubbard stomped into her apartment and slammed the doors shut.
   Jack turned to Finn. "You stay by my side. You don't leave me. You don't--"
   "--leave the path? I won't. This has gone wrong, hasn't it?"
   "Very much so." He strode out the door and Finn kept pace at his side.
   As they passed between the two lamp posts, she expected something to happen. The paved path beneath their feet was crumbling from explosions of dandelions.
   "Can you tell me"--Finn glanced away from the forest surroundings to stare at the mysterious young man beside her--"what we're walking into?"
   "I would if I knew. Would you tell me why you unwisely decided to accompany Phouka on this adventure?"
   "I came for Christie."
   As they passed two unlit lamp posts, the lamps buzzed and clicked on. Finn and Jack continued onward, the lamps switching off, leaving the path behind them in darkness. Finn didn't dare look back. They passed another set of lamps that blinked on, humming with electricity. Finn's shoulder blades twitched.
   A piece of paper drifted past. Then another. They came to the end of the lamp posts, where poppy- red paper lanterns shaped like pumpkins hung in the trees, and these were no less eerie than the ancient street lamps.  As leaves fluttered past, Finn plucked one out of her hair. It was made of paper, a red tissue gilded at the edges. She caught another. "Jack . . ."
   He'd already snatched a leaf from the air and was gazing at it. He whispered, "Zhi Ren."
   The term sounded familiar to Finn, but just as she was about to ask what he meant, she heard a girl singing in a language that she recognized as Japanese because her friend Sylvie had taught her a few words.
   Something cracked beneath her foot. Lifting her sneaker, she saw red berries, shattered like glass. There were more berries in low bushes with shiny dark leaves. "Jack, what is this place?"
   "A bad one. But we can't turn back." He looked over his shoulder. Finn did the same. The paper lanterns had been extinguished. The path behind them was clotted with darkness.
   "Jack--" She turned back.
   Something swept out of the dark. She shouted as Jack stumbled, and reached for him.
   He set one foot off the path. The darkness swallowed him.
                                                                          ***

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Four

THE fourth floor was illuminated only by the moonlight settling across three black doors and a satyr statue near a window. Finn moved forward, listening, and told herself there was nothing to be afraid of.
   Something glided past. She glimpsed it in her peripheral vision. She turned, backing up against a wall. Again,she found no one there.
   A door opened, revealing a lavish apartment with a chandelier scattering light over expensive furniture. She peered at what looked like a black line down the middle of the doorway.
   The line wavered and expanded and became a silhouette of a person, the mouth an O, the eyes slits.
   I'm done. Finn turned--
   --and found a wall where the stairs had been. Her mind blanked for a second, unable to deal.
   She heard a grinding noise behind her, like stone sliding against stone. There was a deliberate sound, as if something heavy had stepped forward. She pictured the satyr statue, moving.
   Don't be stupid. Turn. Just . . . She turned.
   The hall was as it had been.  All the doors were closed. The satyr statue remained a sentinel against the window, its shadow stretching across the floor.
   Someone grabbed her hand and she yelped.
   The blonde young man from the third floor stood on the stairway. The wall had disappeared.
   "I told you not to come up here," he whispered. "The ones up here have allied with them."
   "What--" Finn wrenched her hand away and told him: "The people I came with are up here."
   "No they're not." He looked terrified. " Get down from there."
   She wasn't listening--she was staring at the wall that had appeared behind him in the darkness.
   He twisted around and swore. As he backed up the stairs, she saw a tattoo of moth wings, gorgeous and luminous white, across his shoulders. He said, "We've got to go."
   She began to back away.
   He ran up the stairs to one of the apartment doors--the one with the shadow in it had closed. He pushed at the first door he came to. As it opened, he slipped in, and Finn--glancing at the impossible wall on the stairs, then at the satyr statue, made a decision--she dashed after him.
   The apartment was deserted. Moonlight streaked mildewed walls and warped hardwood. Torn papers drifted in the corners like pale leaves. She closed the door on whatever menace was in the hall.
   The tattooed young man was trying to shove one of the windows open. "There's a fire escape outside."
   The dream-like terror of the night was creeping over Finn like a drug. At first, she couldn't move. Then she ran across the room to help with the window.
   "I'm Finn," she said.
   He looked at her, his face halved by shadow. "Moth."
   "Moth. Can you please, please tell me what this place is?"
   "You've come to a between place and they hate flesh and blood."
   Finn did not like the sound of that. "Who's 'they?'"
   "The ones who are nothing and night." Moth stepped back from the window, his face bleak. "It's nailed shut."
   "That wall . . . what is it?"
   "It's a Mononoke. From a Japanese family. They like to pretend to be objects." Moth walked to another window and began to tug at it.
   Finn couldn't process any of this nonsense. She wanted to sag against a wall and put her hands over her face. Where was Christie?
   Something crashed against the door. She and Moth went very still, hunted creatures sensing the beast at the threshold.
   Finn swung around, seeking a weapon; a stone, a piece of wood . . . anything she could use--
   The door flew open.
   Jack walked in, blood-streaked, his eyes black. Like some male version of the biblical Salome Finn had learned about the one month she'd gone to Sunday school (and only because, bored, she'd read the juicier stories of the bible,) he held a head in his arms.
   As he stepped into the moonlight, Finn realized he was carrying the head of the satyr statue. What she'd mistaken for blood on his skin were only streaks of shadow that vanished as the moonlight blanched him. He rubbed his chin on the top of the satyr's head and said to Finn, "I thought I told you to stay?"
    Finn gritted out, "I did stay downstairs, but something happened. Moth--" She turned.
   Moth was gone. The room was deserted but for her and Jack. She felt an astonished fear and a twist of regret.
   Something glinted on the floor. Finn crouched down and picked up the moth key. She whispered, "He's gone."
                                                                    ***                                                                   

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Three

   FINN peered into a hall, saw three apartment doors with numbers on them: 3,7, and 9. The stairway railing and the lamps were of a twisting metal that resembled vines.
   "Why isn't this ordinary?" she whispered.
   "Just remember some things are not what they seem." Phouka stepped in. Jack and Finn followed. Finn, glancing up the stair, saw a skylight in the ceiling, a stained-glass image of a red rose.
   A diminutive old woman with silvery curls stepped out of one of the apartments, an empty basket hooked over one arm. Her eyes glinted. She tugged up the collar of her fur coat and moved past them. Her shadow on the floor writhed. 
   "Mother Hubbard." Phouka spoke without turning.
   The old woman halted. She looked over one shoulder and no longer seemed so harmless.
   Phoua spun on one boot heel and smiled at the old woman. "Aren't you going to greet us?"
   The old woman's voice was younger than her face. Finn thought she had a Greek accent. "Why should I welcome you, white cat, and this one?" She glanced at Jack, who smiled charmingly at her. "And you bring a child here?" Mother Hubbard pointed at Finn, who felt like a kid caught out after curfew. "You two are worse than I took you for."
   "You just hurt me deeply, Mother." Jack touched his chest with the fingertips of his left hand. In his black sweater and pea coat, his dark hair tangled, he looked elegant and dangerous.
   Mother Hubbard snapped. "I don't want anything to do with your family. None of us do. I'll greet you, fine, to not cause trouble."
   "You've a pair of new residents?" Phouka prompted.
   "Upstairs. Fourth floor. I didn't know they were going to be kissing Reiko Fata's ass or I wouldn't have let them in." Mother Hubbard left, slamming the door behind her.
   "Charming as always." Jack whirled to face Finn. There was a hectic glitter in his eyes. "Stay here? Phouka and I'll just run up and meet and greet our guests."
   Finn hissed, "Where is Christie?"
   "We'll get him." Jack halted on his way up the stairs with Phouka in the lead. He pointed at Finn, his brows slanting. "Stay."
   She wanted to retort that she was not a dog, but as Jack and Phouka continued up the stairs, she resentfully sank down onto the bottom step. She noticed pieces of paper scattered on the stairs, almost indistinguishable from the carpet's maroon pattern. She picked up a red paper butterfly.
   An edge of the paper sliced her finger. She flung the butterfly away and resisted the urge to stick the wounded finger in her mouth.
   She stood up. She wandered to the mirror over the table that held a taxidermied fox, dusty and ragged. Her reflection was distorted, almost black and white. She combed leaves from her hair, smiled when she heard children's voices from one of the apartments.
   Out of the corner of one eye, she saw something big move.
   She whipped around. There was no one behind her. She breathed out. She turned back to the mirror.
   --and yelped. She pressed her hands over her mouth.
   Because what she saw was not her reflection, but a thing that looked like her, its eyes black hollows, a wreath of alien flowers set on its hair. It wore a gauzy dress. Blood ran from its wrists--
   Finn turned and bolted up the stairs. "Jack!"
   She reached the second floor. A lamp glowed on a small table. The wooden floor was scarred with age. There were three apartment doors, a television playing very loudly beyond one of them.
   Finn breathed in and out. Had Mother Hubbard said the Fatas's guests were on the second floor?
   "Can I help you, miss?"
   The polite, cockney voice made her head jerk around. In the shadows, sitting in a chair leaning against the wall was a man in a suit. He also wore a plastic dog mask. Finn didn't want to talk to him, but she had to. "Did two people just come up this way?--and why is that TV so loud?"
   "They went that way. And the TV's so loud because he's eating. You don't want to hear him eating."
   The sudden buzzing in Finn's ears made her back toward the stairs.
   She hurried up to the third floor. The buzzing in her ears vanished. She again felt that thrill, of peeling back the veil of the world that had taken her mother and her sister and revealing it to be false.
   The third floor was brightly lit, the silhouette of an oak tree visible through the uncurtained window. Ragtime music came faintly through one of the apartment doors.
   She set one foot on the next flight of stairs leading to the fourth floor.
   Someone snatched off her moth key necklace from behind.
   She whirled. The hall was empty, the three apartment doors still closed. A shadow crossed the light beneath one of the doors.
   She saw the moth key necklace glinting in the middle of the floor and dove for it.
   The key slid across the floor, beneath the door of the closest apartment. 
   As the door slowly creaked open to reveal darkness, Finn backed away.
   "What?" A young man's voice called drowsily from within. "Who's there?"
   A tousled blonde head popped out. The young man extended one hand, fingers draped with a silver chain. "Is this your necklace?"
   She approached cautiously. The young man watched her, gray eyes hooded. She said, "It's missing the key. There was a key on it."
   "The key to your apartment?" He continued to hold out the chain to her. He wore a pair of old jeans and nothing else.
   "No." She accepted the chain, watching him. Shadows sharpened his cheekbones.
   "I just woke up." He leaned against the door frame. "I think I'm supposed to help you."
   "I don't think so." She began to back away toward the stairs. She regretted the loss of the pretty moth key, but she didn't feel like talking to yet another weird tenant of this building.
   "Don't go to the fourth floor," he called after her as she ran up the stairs, her sneakers hitting the carpet in a rapid staccato. She wasn't about to trust him.
                                                                                 ***