Dylan Evans stood on the rickety metal walkway at the edge of the quarry. He stared into its cold, black waters far below and wondered what his mother would do to him if she knew he was there. He glanced over at his best friend, Stuart, who gave him a crooked grin. “You gonna go?” Stuart asked.
Dylan nodded, but he wasn’t sure. The whole summer had been like that day: hot, sticky and unpleasant. There were a few families in Winter Falls who could afford air conditioning, but Dylan’s wasn’t one of them. So he and Stuart, and a few other boys on other days, would usually go to the Winter River to swim. It was upstream of the sawmills and had managed to avoid the worst ravages of the town’s industrialization. The thundering falls, after which the town was named, had carved out a vast pool of cold, clear water, and every summer it would be full of people taking a break from the heat. By most accounts, it was the best thing about Winter Falls. Perhaps the only good thing.
It was Stuart who suggested they go to the quarry. His brother had told him about it the summer before, and very pointedly told the boy to stay away, if he knew what was good for him. Being eleven years old, however, Stuart decided that anything his big brother wanted him to stay away from was something he absolutely had to know about. So he talked Dylan into coming out and doing some swimming.
The pond created by the quarry was vast and silent. Nothing swam in it, as far as they knew, and the high quarry walls kept the wind from disturbing its surface. The water was dark and still, and Dylan was sure that if he jumped, he would find the surface as hard and unforgiving as concrete. He curled his toes around the edge of the old steel walkway that stretched above the watery pit and tried to keep his knees from shaking. He was not afraid, oh no. Of course not. Perish the thought.
If he was afraid, he knew that Stuart would only make it worse. His friend knew how to push him, how to make him do what he wanted, and most of the time Dylan was fine with that. Stuart was popular. He was cool and fun and interesting, and if there was one kid in the town who led the others, it would be him. Dylan had no idea why Stuart had picked him as a friend, but he wasn’t about to risk a good thing, even if it did mean taking a trip out to swim in the forbidden quarry.
Stuart gave him a little shove, and Dylan screamed. The sound bounced around the quarry and was almost immediately met by Stuart’s high, childish laughter. “You dick!” Dylan yelled, and he shoved Stuart right back.
The other boy took step back, and found that his foot was trying to step down on thin air. His laugh turned into a terrified yell as he slipped under the broken handrail, twisting to try and grab the walkway before he fell off. Dylan lurched forward, his hand outstretched to grab his friend, but he found that he couldn’t move. The water far below caught his eye, and, in the battle between his fear for his friend and his fear for his life, there could be only one winner. He tried to stretch, to reach Stuart without giving away any of his own safety.
He wasn’t close enough. Stuart was hanging halfway off the edge and slipping, his eyes wide and white. Each breath came out as a panicked whine as he tried desperately not to look down. Dylan tried to reach him again, barely able to shift his feet. “C’mon, Stu,” he said. “You… You can do it. Just… You know, climb…”
“Can’t climb,” Stuart breathed. “Oh, god, Dylan, help.”
Dylan’s voice matched his for sheer terror, and his vision was starting to blur. “Stu, I can’t. You just have to pull yourself up.”
Stuart shook his head. “No, no, no,” he said through gritted teeth. “No.” Despite his protests, the boy lifted an arm and reached out to try and pull himself up. His arms shook and tensed, and his fingers grasped at nothing but air. He slid back, his chest and shoulders vanishing past the edge, and it was this that finally made Dylan move. He jumped forward and grabbed for his friend’s hand. Grabbing him, however, loosened Stuart’s grip, and the boy slid further off the walkway until he was hanging on by his fingertips on one hand and Dylan’s grip on the other.
It took a moment before Dylan realized he was cursing under his breath, saying the kind of words his mother would have beat him for. He tried to move back, but the movement made Stuart scream. He didn’t want to adjust his grip, knowing that his friend could slip out. They stayed in that tableau for a moment, perfectly balanced on the edge of the walkway.
Then Stuart really began to panic.
“Pull me up!” he yelled, and his shrill voice echoed around the quarry. “Dyl, please, pull me up! I’m gonna fall, Dyl, please please please -”
“I’m trying,” Dylan said, gritting his teeth. He took that moment to change his grip, and felt his friend’s wrist, slippery with the sweat of summer and panic, start to slide. “No,” he said, his words washed out by Stuart’s screaming. “No, no, no…”
“Please, Dyl, don’t let me fall!” His voice cracked, and tears were streaming back from his eyes.
Dylan moved again, trying to brace himself against a railing, but that was when Stuart lost the tenuous grip that he had. His weight started to drag Dylan towards the edge, and the two boys screamed together in terror. The walkway moved a little, and the water below them seemed to move with it.
Stuart had barely a moment before he fell. Whatever word was coming out of his mouth turned into a keening howl of terror as he fell towards the cold, black water. The breath came out of Dylan’s chest in a cold roar as he hit the walkway and watched his friend hang in the air, slowly diminishing before he was swallowed by a loud slap, a splash and perfectly circular ripples that spread across the water’s surface undisturbed.
Time stopped. Dylan lay face-down on the walkway, watching the ripples proceed to the edges of the pond and reflect back again, catching each other and turning that perfectly circular order into chaos. He could hear his own breath loud in his ears and felt as though he was falling as his friend had.
“Stu?” he said quietly.
He wanted to see his friend’s head bob up in a splash, followed by a howl of joy at being alive. He wanted Stuart to tell him that it was an awesome drop, and to challenge him not to be a chicken. To go for it.
But Stuart didn’t come up again. The ripples subsided, leaving the surface of the water flat again, and there was no Stu. Dylan began to be aware that he was crying, and panic, red and hot, was starting to creep in around the edges of his mind. He would have to get someone. He would have to tell someone. He would have to tell Stuart’s mother, who would almost certainly hold him responsible for killing her son.
His thoughts cut off as he saw motion down in the water, and for a moment he thought that he was saved. That all was not yet lost for him. “Stu?” he called out. “Stu, are you okay?”
The water started to bubble, and then churn. The air in the quarry started to get cold and dark, and Dylan began to shiver in the new and unexpected shadow that covered the pond. Below, the water looked like it was boiling, leaping up on top of itself and frothing white on top of the blackness. Dylan tried to stand up on shaking legs, and gasped when he touched the metal of the walkway. It was freezing cold, and he realized that he could see his breath in the air. He held himself and shivered, goosebumps breaking out on his skin.
With a roar, the water erupted, and sent him reeling back down again. A great spout of white, cold water shot up from the center of the pond like a geyser, spraying mist and frost everywhere. Suspended in the geyser, hanging only a few feet away from Dylan and the walkway, was Stuart.
His friend was naked and broken and battered. His arm was twisted behind him, and bones were sticking out of corpse-pale skin that was bruised purple and black. His head hung at an unnatural angle, and blood seeped out of his mouth, only to be sluiced away by the water. Stuart’s body looked like a puppet, held up by strings from below, his limbs moving under pressure from the water, without purpose or life to them.
Then he spoke.
The voice dropped itself into Dylan’s mind and made him scream again, his throat stinging from the effort. It was the voice of nightmares, the sound of a thousand horrible things all speaking in unison. The single word spoke of shadows and worse than shadows. It spoke of death and decay and terrors worse than an eleven year-old should ever have to know. He smelled blood and shit and wanted more than anything else to throw himself into the waters below to die with his friend.
But he couldn’t. He lay on the walkway, transfixed and shivering and screaming until the voice spoke again.
Dylan’s mouth snapped shut and he tasted blood.
The waterspout moved closer, dragging Stuart’s lifeless body with it. Dylan brought his head up, shaking and bleeding, and an animal whimper escaped his throat. Stuart’s eyes were still alive. They stared at him, pleading and begging. Whatever was using his body had not yet let him go, and the mad terror that came through his gaze was more than Dylan could take.
“Tell your people, boy.” Stuart’s mouth moved, but there was no way that voice was coming from him. Nothing human should have been capable of making that sound. Stuart’s eyes nearly spun in their sockets. “Tell your people that their masters are coming back.” Blood began to seep from Stuart’s eyes, running down his face in tiny rivulets. “Tell them to prepare.”
The scream that Dylan had been commanded to hold in had wrapped itself around him and tunneled under his skin, threatening to burst out at any moment but remaining just below the surface. Despite that, despite the terror and the cold, he stood, slowly, on trembling legs, and looked into his friend’s bloody, unblinking eyes.
“Prepare for what?” he whispered.
There was a moment of silence, underscored only by the rushing of water. Then Stuart’s mouth opened, far enough that Dylan could hear the cracking of bone, and whatever had hold of him began to laugh. Dylan’s scream finally erupted, and the two horrible noises blended together into an echoing cacophony there in the quarry. And then, after a horrible, immeasurable time, the laughter stopped. Dylan watched as Stuart’s body went limp, and whatever life it had vanished from its limbs. The eyes went flat and dull just as the waterspout lost its energy, and Dylan prayed that Stuart was dead.
Dylan watched his friend’s body plummet to the water for a second time. He watched the water churn and settle, the ripples go out and in and out again. Soon, the pond was as flat as it had been when they arrived. Dylan watched, and Stuart did not come back.
But Dylan waited nonetheless.
Ensler pushed the door of the glasshouse closed and the sound of howling wind cut off. He brushed water off his rain coat and shifted the bag on his back. “You sure this is a good idea?” he asked Kent. The plants seemed to tower above them, their purple-black leaves almost invisible in the darkness. Wind and rain pounded against the great glass walls, and the occasional flash of lightning punctuated the darkness.
“Absolutely,” Kent said. He reached into his own bag and pulled out a glowstone. The crystal glowed faintly in his hand, a soft yellow light that was just enough to see by, and Kent’s wild grin was nearly as scary as the battle of the elements outside. He pulled off his rain poncho and tucked it under his arm. “The whole academy is shut down for the storm, and only an idiot would come out here in this weather.”
Ensler raised an eyebrow, but it went unnoticed in the darkness. “So we have a few hours, then?”
“Absolutely. Come on.” Holding up the glowstone, Kent navigated through the paths. Great black leaves brushed against them, soft and leathery. They moved long, weblike vines out of the way and walked through halls filled with sleeping flowers. In the daytime this place would have been beautiful, and full of students learning about the diversity of flora that Barrowmill Academy’s master gardeners were able to make thrive. At night, they provided utter blackness and perfect cover. Kent had stolen a key from the biology office, just as Ensler had borrowed the other equipment they would need from the applied theology labs. As always, they were in it together. Hopefully this time their experiment would result in more than a near expulsion and some time in the local jail.
Kent stopped in the desert garden. It was a spacious room, full of compact, water-preserving plants, and it was – of course – hot and dry. He put his bag on the ground and set the glowstone on a rock. “Here,” he said. “We’ll do it here.”
“I’m still not -”
“Oh will you quit with what you’re not sure about?” Kent said in a half-laugh. “I have the books, you have the stone, we both know what we’re doing, and by the time this storm blows over we’ll have made history!” Even in the dim light, Ensler could see his eyes glittering with ambition. “They’ll build us our own labs. Maybe a statue.”
“Yes, of course, a statue.” Ensler opened his own bag. “Let’s get it done then, so that the sculptors can get to work. You know they like to get a head start.”
“Ha. Ha.” Kent pulled out a large book and another glowstone. From his own bag, Ensler took out a large, heavy object wrapped in a pale blue cloth. When he unwrapped it, he held a great crystal the size of his head. It was perfectly clear and colorless, almost perfectly symmetrical. When the lightning flashed through the windows, the stone held on to it just a fraction of a moment too long. Ensler put it down, very carefully. “Kent,” he said. “If anything happens to this thing, they are going to use our skins to bind the booklets they hand out to new students to explain why they should never do what we did.”
“Bah,” Kent said. “By the time we’re done they’ll be too busy offering us professorships.” He sat cross-legged on the dirt and started flipping through the book. “Bring it over here and make yourself comfortable,” he said.
Grumbling, Ensler brought the stone over and set it down in front of Kent. They had flipped a coin to see who was going to go through the process, even though they both knew who it would be. Kent was the one who had the most facility with this kind of thing, the most willpower to see it through, and if anyone was silver-tongued enough to talk the universe into doing what he wanted, it would be him.
Ensler, on the other hand, was very good at doing what Kent asked him to do. It was, as Kent often said, what made them such good friends.
While Kent looked through the pages he’d marked off, Ensler took off his raingear and folded it next to a small grouping of cactus. He removed his shoes and his socks, and then started stripping off the rest of his clothes. “You know,” he said, “if anyone does come in, they’re definitely going to get the wrong idea.”
“What idea is that?” Kent murmured, not looking up.
Ensler shrugged. “Me on the ground in my underclothes, you hovering above me. A romantic thunderstorm.”
Kent laughed, but still didn’t look up. “If that’s what they think we’re doing, then that’s the least of our worries.”
“Yes, I know,” Ensler sighed, sitting down. “Statues. I just hope that mine is wearing pants.” He lay back on the warm dirt and stretched out with his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes and tried to center his thoughts. Another reason why he was the one to go first was that he was much better at being focused and still, which would end up being a vital part of this procedure. Kent was far too chaotic, had a mind that never stopped spinning and moving and dashing from here to there. Ensler put his arms by his sides and started to count his breaths, imagining energy flowing into and out of his body. He felt thoughts come across his mind and let them flow away. He didn’t consider them, didn’t dwell on them.
Like leaves on a stream, he told himself, and then let that thought go as well. The noise of the storm faded, the rumble of thunder eased away.
After some time, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “It’s time,” Kent said quietly. Ensler just nodded and refocused on his breathing, coiling his thinking mind into a quiet and compact shape.
Kent set the large crystal in front of him and cracked his knuckles. The books were open to the right pages, he knew the words and the glyphs. Everything should work. He opened a small jar of oil and recoiled at the smell. It was acrid and bitter and green, but it was what the procedure called for. “I’m putting on the oil,” he said to Ensler, but his friend didn’t answer. By now, he should be at a state of mental calmness that would make this much easier. He dipped his finger in the jar and put a smudge of oil on Ensler’s forehead. Then his throat. Heart, then stomach, then just a few inches below his navel. Kent chuckled at the thought of being discovered at this point. Like he’d said, it would be the least of their worries.
Ensler’s breath was slow and even, and he looked like he was asleep. Kent put the glowstones in front of the books, checked everything again, and took a deep breath.
The idea was very simple. The crystal that Ensler had “borrowed” from applied theology was a communicator, an artifact left over from a bygone age that – allegedly – allowed instant communication between two people anywhere in the world. Since no one had ever found another one, they couldn’t really test it out, but their best researchers were pretty sure that was what it did. And so was Kent. His own research over the last four years had led up to this moment, and it was only his unfortunate reputation for abusing academy property that had kept him from being able to experiment properly. That, and those pesky laws against human experimentation.
He had convinced Ensler, though. He showed him his notes and his theories and brought his friend around far enough that Ensler would be willing to liberate the crystal from the app-theo offices. Kent wasn’t kidding about what would happen if this worked. With greatness, anything could be forgiven, and the two of them were about to become great.
Kent cleared his throat and began to chant. The language was a lost one, an ancient tongue that had died out a thousand years ago, known now only to people like him, who collected trivia like magpies. He knew the forms of the words, and their pronunciation was self-evident, but their meaning was unclear, disconnected from the world that Kent knew, and that was vital to their success. He needed the words to mean what he wanted them to mean, and nothing else. He focused his intent and his will on the words, and poured his desire into them as he held one hand over his friend’s body and the other over the crystal. He chanted with more energy, more force, and felt his throat go raw and his chest hurt. The muscles on his arms were locked and rigid, and he brought them down until they just barely touched their subjects.
His breathing was timed with the lightning and the wind outside, and he forced nonsense words out of his mouth like they were bitter and poisonous. He felt sweat run down his face and his cheeks and forehead burn. Then, with a final, gutteral invocation, he dropped his hands and created the link.
The world went away.
In his left hand – or what he thought of as his left hand – was a void, a hole in the no-space in which Kent hovered, a hole that was a door that was a bottle.
In his right hand – or what he thought of as his right hand – was a coiled pink light, pulsing and shining. It looked slippery and alive, like a great serpent sleeping. It looked like something gigantic, thousands of miles away, but it sat in his palm like it belonged there.
He brought his hands together, gently, and put right into left, the sleeping serpent into the bottle of infinite size.
A shock ran through him, a great concussive wave, and he opened his eyes.
The dry garden was undisturbed. Ensler still lay in front of him, still breathed steadily, but not like he had before.
The crystal shone with a soft pink light, and Kent laughed out loud. He got up, ignoring the pins and needles in his legs and danced around, raising his arms to the still-thundering sky. “We did it!” he yelled over and over again.
The voice came from the crystal and from everywhere around him. He knelt down and took the stone in his hands. “Ensler? You there?”
[[Kent,]] the voice said. [[Kent. This is amazing!]]
Kent put the stone down and started laughing again.
[[Seriously, Kent, you should try this! It's... It's like... I have no idea what it's like, Kent, but it's amazing!]]
Kent sat up and dug through his bag. “Ensler, you ready for part two?” He pulled out ten sealed envelopes.
[[You bet,]] he said. [[The entirety of time and space is open to me, so give me your best shot.]]
Kend chuckled. “Okay. Number one. What did I put on the roof outside the medieval history offices?”
There was a pause, and then a loud, startled laugh spun through the air. [[I can't believe you did that!]]
“C’mon, Ensler, what is it?”
[[It's that little dog figure that Dr. Chelira keeps on her desk. Kent, no number of statues is going to save you from her when she finds out.]]
“We’ll see about that,” Kent said, tearing open the envelope and looking at the card inside. Ensler was right. “Okay, number two: I wrote something on a random desk in the fourth form arts class. What does it say?”
There was another pause, and then, [["Ensler Ayandar is dreamy?" Really, Kent?]]
“Yeah, but do you know whose desk that is?”
There was a tone of wonder in Ensler’s voice. [[Osaha? Kent, she'll kill me!]]
“Nope. She’ll be jealous and she’ll end up just flinging herself into your arms. Or bed. Whatever. Next one…”
They went through the other envelopes, Kent asking Ensler questions that he shouldn’t be able to answer. In his heart, he knew that it wasn’t scientific enough – there were other explanations for how Ensler could answer the questions, but for now it would work. He could refine the procedure later when they demonstrated it to the world.
Kent dropped the envelopes back in his bag. “There you go,” he said. “I’ll have to make a few changes when we do it for real, but otherwise I’d say we have proof of concept. You are officially a disembodied mind, with all the privileges and responsibilities thereof.” He leaned back and nudged Ensler’s body with his foot. “What do you want me to do with this thing?”
[[Very funny,]] Ensler said. [[I happen to like my body, and if I don't have that then there'll be nothing for Osaha to fling herself into.]]
“Well, she could appreciate your new vast intellect,” Kent said.
[[Osaha doesn't do intellect, and that's not why I'm interested in her either]] Ensler said. [[Besides, it's still got some good years left in it.]]
“Fine,” Kent said. “You should be able to pop right back in. It’s where you really belong, so once you get close enough to it, you should just…” He made a sweeping gesture.
[[Okay,]] Ensler said. [[Give me a minute.]]
Kent lay back on his arms and thought about what they had just done. They had separated the mind from the body, the thinking being from the animal self. They had opened up new vistas of experience and exploration to humanity and, on top of all that, had proved the dual nature of intelligent beings, something that philosophers had argued over for centuries. Statues? Hell, they probably wouldn’t stop at anything short of naming a city after them.
[[I can't find it.]]
Kent sat up. “What do you mean you can’t find it?” He looked at where Ensler’s body lay. “It’s right there.”
[[I know,]] he said. There was a thin note of panic in the voice now. [[But I can't find it!]]
“You found a tiny dog statue on the roof of a building across campus, Ensler, you should be able to find this.”
There was a pause. [[Kent, I can't! It's - it's just not there!]]
Kent stood up and then knelt by Ensler’s body. He patted it on the cheek, then pinched the arm and then slapped it. “You in there yet?” he yelled into its ear.
[[Dammit, no! I'm not in there, Kent!]] Waves of low-grade panic filled the air, and Kent had to tell himself that the panic wasn’t his. Most of it, anyway. [[Kent, what do we do?]]
“I’m working on it,” Kent muttered.
The rain was quieting down, but there was still the occasional flash of lightning. [[Break the crystal!]] Ensler said after a while. [[Maybe if you break it...]]
“No,” Kent said, turning pages in one of the books. “It might work, or it might untether you from this world completely, leaving you a disembodied mind with no way of communicating with the rest of us and wandering through the universe for the rest of eternity.” He turned a page. “That’s not what we want.”
There was nothing in the book that would help him, but he had to do something. This whole thing had come from his theories, his ideas. By all rights, Ensler should be sitting up and having a good laugh right now. He had planned for things to go wrong, just not quite this way. He started at the glowing crystal, trying and discarding ideas. Maybe if he did the rite again, only backwards..?
[[Kent?]] Ensler’s voice sounded small.
“I’m working on it,” Kent said again. He looked at his friend’s body, breathing steadily on its own. “I’m working on it.”
As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.
Green hair isn’t something you can hide easily in high school. Evelyn Pierce certainly tried, but she found that trying to go from a deep, mossy green back to her normal blonde was asking for more than modern cosmetics could offer. The new tint ignored the bleach utterly, and she knew she wasn’t goth enough to pull off dyeing her hair black. So green it was.
She got complaints from teachers, who called her parents, who said they had no idea what was going on. There was no history of green hair in the family, of course, and they were as concerned as anyone.
Compared to what else was happening, though, green hair was the least of Evelyn’s problems.
The real trouble started in biology class, as it so often does. The project was simple: clone a plant. Take a cutting, put it in some agar in a tube and try to cultivate cells from it. Each student pair did just that – plant, cutting, agar, incubate. Evelyn was paired with Rachael Decker, which made life easier. Rachael was a rarity in high school – someone who was incredibly popular, but at the same time genuinely nice. She didn’t care who you were, but rather treated everyone with basic human decency.
No one knew how she managed. But if there was any better person to have to work with when your hair was turning green, Evelyn didn’t know her. All Rachael said when she saw it for the first time was, “Wow! That looks nice!” And that was it. From anyone else, Evelyn would have suspected sarcasm. But not Rachael Decker.
The results of the experiment were, for most of the pairs, fairly ordinary. Lots of fungal infections from improperly cleaned equipment, a few that showed some sign of growth.
Evelyn’s had exploded. It broke through its glass tube and sent blind tendrils all through the incubator, infiltrating other experiments and completely ruining half the class’ work. Mr. Peters, the bio teacher, was amused, if anything. “Looks like we have a success,” he said, carefully disentangling the thing from all the others. He handed it to Evelyn and Rachael. “What’re you going to name it?”
Rachael laughed, but Evelyn didn’t even hear him. She was too busy listening to the horrible thing she was holding in her hands as it screamed at her. It was… crying. Like a horrible, twisted baby. And no one seemed to notice.
She dropped it and ran out of the bio lab. She went to the nurse, who called her parents, who took her home. As they drove, the whispering voice of that thing tickled her mind, and wherever she looked she felt like she was being watched.
She missed school the next day, and the day after. She wouldn’t leave her room – going to the living room with her mother’s potted plants was painful enough, and when her father mowed the lawn she nearly went mad. The grass screamed at her. The begonias begged for their freedom. She couldn’t even take a shower – as scrupulous as her mother was about cleaning, there was still mold somewhere, and it spoke to her in a horrible black voice that made her teeth hurt.
After a few days, her mother poked her head into the bedroom. “Evey, honey? You have a visitor?” Everything her mother said sounded like a question. It always had, and it always bugged Evelyn, but not now,
“I can’t, mom,” she said.
“She says it’s important? It’s your friend Rachael?”
The thought that Rachael could make everything better was stupid, she knew. Childish. No one could make things better, not ever. But it planted itself in her, and took hold. If she could talk to anyone, it would be Rachael. “I’ll… I’ll come down,” she said.
She brushed her hair and changed her clothes for the first time in two days. Rachael wouldn’t mind if she smelled a little.
She heard them as she walked down the stairs. Her mother was a big believer in houseplants and kept them all over the place. Every room had green, growing things in it and until this week Evelyn thought they were nice. That they added some life and some freshness to the house. Now she could hear their voices as they strained for sunlight, called for water and ached in the pots that were provided for them. They wanted to be outside, to have their roots in deep soil and to be able to feel the breeze, to host insects and to be wild again. All of that in a cacophony of noise in her head that was so very loud. By the time she was in the living room, she was whimpering, and didn’t even notice that Rachael was there.
“Evey?” Rachael asked, putting her hands on her Evelyn’s shoulders. “Evey, are you okay?”
All Evelyn could do was shake her head. She wanted to speak, but she couldn’t unclench her mouth.
“I’ll leave you two alone?” he mother said. “If you want anything…?” She left, looking worried.
Rachael guided Evelyn over to the sofa, next to a sprawling philodendron on the side table that was singing, of all things. Singing! Evelyn whimpered as she sat. Rachael sat next to her, her hand on Evelyn’s knee. There was a rubber plant on the other side of the sofa that was growling something Evelyn couldn’t make out. “I know what you’re going through,” Rachael said.
Evelyn wanted to laugh, but that seemed like a very bad idea. What had Rachael gone through that was like this? What had she had to endure? The pitch of the plant noise ebbed for a moment, and she could sense a change in the room. An attention that wasn’t there before. A quiet, definite attention.
They were listening to her.
“Sometimes, life just gets weird, y’know?” Rachael continued. “But I want you to know I’m here if you need anything.” She leaned in. “Is it those guys from the swim team? Because they’re just assholes, and you know it.”
Evelyn shook her head again, but thinking of the laughter and the taunts she got when her hair changed just made it worse. She could feel something uncoiling inside her, something horrible and deadly. The plants had fallen utterly silent. Except for one of the spider plants hanging in the large bay window. It was laughing.
“But in order for me to help you, I need to know what’s wrong.” Rachael tilted Evelyn’s face up to look her in the eyes, and she smiled. She had such a pretty smile. She had red hair that set off gold-brown eyes, and those eyes just looked so honest. So sincere. Evelyn heard her own voice in her head, cutting through the silence. You can tell her, she thought. She’ll believe you.
Evelyn relaxed, and the thing inside her lashed out. The plants in the living room burst into life, their tendrils and leaves exploding outwards with a sound no human ear had ever heard before. Under that quiet roar was a louder one in her mind, a cry of freedom and rage. They had been given a horrible vitality that Evelyn knew was coming from her, flowing from her, but she couldn’t stop it. She didn’t know how it started, and stopping it was like trying to stop a river.
“What the hell?” Rachael stood up and started at the plants, then at Evelyn, who was rigid on the couch. “Evelyn, what’s-” She was cut off as the long stems of a large porthos plant whipped around her neck, cutting off her breathing. The long, grassy leaves of the spider plant whipped around, binding her hand and foot and lifting her, twisting and writing, off the floor. The great, stiff branches of a jade plant held her up, lifting her nearly to the ceiling.
From the couch, Evelyn was helpless. She saw her friend in the air, wrapped in twisting, choking green, and she couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. She tried yelling in her head for the plants to stop, to let her friend down, but they couldn’t hear her – or wouldn’t.
Please, she implored them. Please let her go!
The mad chorus of voices surged, voicing primitive, needy thoughts. The room was filled with the sound of rustling leaves and the smell of steaming, living soil. The plants were happy, she realized. Happy for the first time in their lives. They were calling out – sun, water, soil – over and over again, like a chant, like a ritual – sun, water, soil – getting louder and louder and ignoring the screams in Evelyn’s head to stop, to put down her friend, to please just stop!
There was a loud snap.
The plants went quiet. For a moment, Evelyn thought that maybe one of the branches had broken, that they had pushed too far, too fast. But she heard the plants and knew that wasn’t so. They were murmuring, whispering, quiet. The leaves and vines and tendrils, so alive and vicious just a moment ago, went limp, and Rachael’s body fell to the floor. There were cuts all over her arms and neck where the leaves and vines had sliced into her skin. Her head lolled on a broken neck and rested awkwardly on her shoulder.
Finally, Evelyn was able to move. She dropped down beside her friend and begged and pleaded and sobbed.
The plants watched, and whispered.
Dominic Glover gave his eyes a moment to adjust as he entered the tavern. The bright South Dakota sunshine gave way to a dim stuffiness, heavy with the smoke of cheaply rolled cigarettes, spilled whiskey and unwashed bodies. There was no piano player in a place like this, and no pretty girls trying to earn a little on the side. No card game going on in the corner. Just working men, down from the only silver mine in fifty miles, eating better food than they could make themselves in their tents and lean-tos. There wasn’t much talking. What was there to talk about?
He stood up to the bar, which at least was clean, and signaled the keeper. “Gimme a whiskey,” Dominic said, and hated himself for it. It would kill him one day, that was for sure. It had been trying to kill him for a long time. Came pretty close, too. But not today. After the… incident in Harmony, after letting Cordova dance out of town the way he did, Dominic managed to keep himself to a drink a day. That was enough, or so he kept telling himself. Any more than that, and what little career he had left would be gone, and probably the only place left to go from there would be right into the barrel of one of his own guns.
The keeper put the glass in front of him, and he slid a silver coin across the bar. “Keep it,” he said, not looking at the man. He gave himself a moment to look at the drink, to tell himself what he was doing.
Just the one. Just this one, old man. You’ll have this, and you can get to what you came here for. Just this, and you can start putting your life together. Just this, and you can find Roman Cordova and finish what you should have finished in Harmony.
He gingerly picked up the glass, willing himself to feel it in his fingertips, to feel its barely perceptible weight in his hand. Just this, he thought.
The liquor went down quickly, leaving a cold burn that ate its way to his stomach. As frontier whiskey went, it was pretty bad. But it was good enough. Dominic squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them again, he knew what he had to do and how.
He raised his hand to signal the keeper – these men were always the best place to start for information – but stopped when he heard a voice from behind. “Well, I’ll be dipped in shit. If it isn’t Dominic Glover, the Scourge of the Badlands.”
Dominic felt his chest tighten when he recognized the voice, but didn’t turn around. The voice was deeper than he remembered, stronger. But there was no other voice like it. “And if I’m not mistaken,” he rasped, “I believe I am talking to Santos Osegueda.” He took a deep breath and smiled. “The worst horse thief in three territories.” He turned around.
The young man was admirably clean, as he had always been, and it made him stand out. He had unruly black hair and sun-dark skin, and a smile that he never hid. He went and grew up, Dominic thought. And he grew up good. “How’ve you been, Santos?” he asked, leaning back on the bar as casually as he could.
“I can’t believe you’d bring up that horse, Dom,” Santos said, slapping him on the shoulder. “I was twelve. What did I know about horse theft?”
“Not a whole lot.” He looked at the young man for a moment, and broke. A smile cracked his face and he held out a steady hand. Santos, never one to hold back, grabbed the offered hand and pulled Dominic in for a hug. A few pats on the back and a few sidelong looks from the miners, and the moment passed. Dom nodded to the bar and signaled the keeper again.
“Two whiskeys,” Santos said, before Dom could say anything. The keeper nodded and grabbed a bottle.
“Just the one,” Dominic told him. “Gimme a beer.” The keeper nodded again and went back to the cold storage closet.
Santos raised an eyebrow. “A beer?”
“A beer?” He whistled softly through his teeth. “So the stories about Harmony are true.”
Dominic looked at him. “Stories?”
“Yup. Legend has it you nearly broke the bar the last night you were there. Sheriff would’ve arrested you if you didn’t scare the hell out of him, and on top of all that… You let Cordova slip away and you’ve been off the bottle ever since.”
“I didn’t let him slip away,” Dominic muttered. “I was distracted.”
“Three girls would be distracting,” Santos said. “Or so I imagine. Often.”
Dominic chuckled, and Santos held up a finger. “That’s one,” he said.
“Your record is five, if I remember.”
“I think I can break it.”
“Not today, you can’t.”
Santos started cracking his knuckles. “A challenge then, old man?”
The keeper came out of the cold closet and put an already sweating bottle down in front of Dominic. The whiskey came a moment later. Santos flipped a coin in the air, caught it, and handed it over. “It’s on me,” he said. He tapped the glass against the beer bottle and downed the whiskey in one gulp. A quick shudder, and he said, “Christ, that’s shitty whiskey.”
“It is indeed.”
They turned around and leaned back against the bar. The miners were starting to finish up their meals and head back out to work. Dominic didn’t envy them in the least. His was a rootless life. No family, no friends to speak of, and all the risks that came with a lifetime of bounty hunting. But it was all better than going down in the dark, mining metal so someone else could get rich. Not that he couldn’t think of better lives than the one he lived, but in this part of America, better lives were few and far between.
He took a pull off the beer bottle. “So what brings you to Ridgebourne? Seems a little out of your way.”
Santos looked at him sideways. “I’m collecting,” he said.
Dominic sighed and passed the bottle to his other hand. “You’re collecting.”
“Yup.” Santos pulled a bar stool over and sat down. “I learned a lot, jobbing with you all those years. After we split, I thought I’d try my hand at it.”
“I’d hoped that you’d learned collecting is no good life for a man to live.”
Santos turned to him. “You were good at it,” he said, his expression straight. “And you are the best man I know.” He paused, perhaps hoping to let that sink in. “Anyway, I put what I learned from you to work, and it turned out I have the knack. Been doing this about three years now, and it’s keeping me out of trouble. Mostly.” He glanced over, but there was not even a smile.
Dominic nodded. “I see.” He took another pull off the beer bottle and asked the question he already knew the answer to. “So who are you after?”
There was a long silence, and Santos’ innate cheerfulness went dim. After a minute, Dominic decided to be the one to break it. “You realize that bringing in Cordova isn’t going to be like rolling over a two bit highwayman. Don’t you?”
“I know what kind of man Cordova is,” Santos said. “I’ve been following him, keeping track of him. Honestly I thought you’d pick him off in Harmony, but…” He shrugged. “Anyway, I know where he is, and I’m going to pick him up.”
Dominic didn’t look over. “By yourself?”
The smile was back in Santos’ voice, and Dominic knew what kind. “Well, that was the plan. I figured I’d go in there, guns a-blazing.” He mimed a few shots, blew the top of his fingers and holstered imaginary guns. “I mean, even a stone-hard killer like Cordova would tremble at the might of the legendary Santos Osegueda, roller of drunks and pickpockets.”
Dominic let out a small laugh. He couldn’t help himself.
“Two.” Santos waved the keeper over and ordered another whiskey. “But I figured that just in case my terrifying reputation doesn’t precede me, I could bring yours along as a backup.” He stood back up and held out a hand to Dominic. “So what do you say, old man? Partners?”
“Partners,” Dominic muttered. He emptied the beer bottle and set it on the bartop. Santos was young, so young. When he looked at him, he could see the skinny kid he had been. Utterly fearless, not nearly bright enough, but with a kind of endless self-confidence that everything would work out in the end. The young man standing before him was very much the same, and Dominic could tell that he’d yet to see what kind of pain the real world could deliver when it was determined to make a man’s life hell. The glint in his eyes, the stiffness in his spine showed that Santos Osegueda had not been broken yet.
But he would be.
Dominic took the young man’s hand. “Partners.”