The trouble with my mother began when I was fourteen. I always knew that she was different from other moms, from the moms of my friends—like Iggy’s mom Beth, who was a happy homemaker and fantastic cook and everyone’s best friend in their cul-de-sac—but I cherished that difference and I was proud of it, I felt like it set us apart, made us special. If she was a little unorthodox now and then it was mostly a good thing, it created a kind of inspired, exhilarating time for us. For example, she took me out of school two months early nearly every year until I was in high school. She wanted to “bring me into the classroom of life” as she always said, which meant long stays with friends of hers from show business in New York, Paris or London. I didn’t know what she was really up to. While she kept us busy with the museums and art galleries and sidewalk cafes in these endless cities, she was executing brief and doomed affairs with the men we were visiting. I didn’t see this other side of what was going on and so I wasn’t aware of how the break-ups were getting worse, year after year, and her state of mind too, a gradually deepening depression drowned in a rising tide of Percocet prescribed for pain and Dubonnet on the rocks.
It turned out that my adolescence was hard on her. When I was fourteen it seemed like, almost overnight, I underwent the metamorphosis from a clumsy, bewildered, unlovely teen into something very close to what my mother had been like when she was cast in her first movies. Yet I was taller than she had been at that age; I was more full-figured, my blue eyes were larger and brighter and more compelling—daily she commented on these things with both a pride and a bitterness. She couldn’t hide the way she looked at me. It was complicated and I didn’t completely understand, but I knew there was loss in it, and there was resentment, and it hurt me.
Then she worsened, abruptly. I would come home after school and she would still be in bed, asleep. Or she would wake me up at Two AM and drive us into L.A. and suddenly forget why she had wanted to take the trip. There were times when she was gone without a word, leaving me on my own for days. I quietly took care of myself in the house, waiting for her to reappear. Sometimes hoping she wouldn’t.
The anger in her was terrible. More than once she lashed out at me physically, taking hold of my hair in a fist and wrenching it. Gouging my arm with her fingernails.
I knew I had to get help but if I spoke to her about the way things were going it only made the anger worse. My mother had isolated herself over the years. Her parents had passed away before I was born so I didn’t have grandparents to call on. She had friends in Park Heights and L.A. but not the kinds of friends we could turn to for the help we needed.
One night I found her on the bathroom floor. She had taken all the antidepressants and painkillers in the medicine cabinet. After the 911 call, after the paramedics came, I rode with her in the back of the ambulance from the house to the hospital, holding her limp, damp hand. I was sure that she was dying. All my thoughts and feelings were scattered in the aftermath of little explosions that wouldn’t stop. Except one thing stayed with me. It played out, in my mind’s eye, there in the ambulance.
It was a scene from a few years ago. When we were happier.
Way past my bedtime and Barbara Bellamy was on fire.
All night we had been dancing like crazy and singing out of tune to all of our favorite songs. At last I fell back onto the couch, red-faced and breathless. She put on the Kate Bush CD. This was something she had always loved to do—performing Kate Bush with uncanny accuracy, dancing exactly the way Kate had done it in the 70s, with the same theatrical exaggeration and the weird, coy sexiness that was also disturbingly childlike.
My mother sang the impossible notes of the whimsical songs in a high, clear voice. She danced in a manic daze, spinning around and around, waving her arms, jumping on the couch and pulling me up to dance with her.
“Oooh yeah you’re amazing—we think you are really cool,” she sang.
I cheered her on. I begged her for more. I loved her to death.
You’re not dead.
You’re alive, Tess. You survived.
Brightness opens my eyes. A blazing, pounding light that fades out from powerful pure white to bruised-blue after-image, swimming.
The accident. I’m in Zach’s car; I’m in the passenger seat. It’s only been moments after everything happened.
There’s a stinging cut on my forehead below the hairline and a frightening wash of blood trickles down from it in a stream across my face. My left foot is twisted down into the compressed wreckage of the front of the car and I suddenly feel afraid because I’m not sure I can feel it, my foot, and I’m not sure I can move it. I try to shift it and another burst of intense white light shatters across my vision.
I have to pull it out. My foot. I have to get it free.
I wrap both hands behind my knee. I close my eyes. I bite my lip. Yank up the leg.
A quick pop. A burst of pain, overwhelming.
I think I fainted.
Opening my eyes again. I don’t know where I am.
Take it easy. Breathe out, breathe in. You know where you are.
Then. I think it’s okay. I think my foot’s okay. It’s swollen and it’s bruised and it hurts like hell but I think it’s okay.
I think I’m okay.
In the passenger seat of Zach’s car, I begin to move around.
I opened the car door and jumped out of the passenger seat of Iggy’s mom’s SUV. It was the first day of Freshman year at Palisades High School. Iggy’s mom was dropping us off. She waved as we went up to the school’s front entrance. When we looked back, she gave us a thumbs up.
“What a dork,” Iggy laughed. She had dyed her hair green for this day, “in order to make the right impression” she had said, and I had agreed to do it too, except I had chickened out at the last moment, which made Iggy say, “Well of course we’re not going to touch that famous Bellamy hair, are we?”
Iggy and I had been inseparable since first grade and yet there was a tension between us. For some time I had been poised on the edge of what I thought was the end of our friendship, and it was becoming unbearable. Iggy and her parents had always just taken me in like I was one of their own—I think there were some weeks where “sleep-overs” at Iggy’s house turned into extended stays—and I had always felt welcome and wanted there. And it wasn’t that Iggy and her mom and dad didn’t care about me. When my mother was in the hospital I stayed with them, and Iggy’s mom even sat me down at their kitchen table to talk to me, to make sure I was alright. There was just something that hadn’t been there before. There was a sadness when Iggy’s mom looked at me. It was just as much in the way her dad avoided looking at me. It me realize that they were outside of my life, that they would help me out but only so much—they weren’t my family. And Iggy, she was mostly the same but even she was strange around me, as if she didn’t know what to make of or how to handle me and my crazy mother, and maybe she didn’t want to try.
This change in Iggy and her parents broke my heart even more than my mother’s sickness. And I couldn’t tell them they were distancing themselves from me at the exact time I needed them more than ever.
At lunch break on that first day of Freshman year, Iggy and I were exploring the Pali High campus, munching on sandwiches while we made a circuit of the football field and the athletic track out behind the school building. Finally we made an unspoken decision to establish turf on the bleachers where, for the moment, there were only a few other kids hanging out.
“Don’t look now,” Iggy said, “but here come some Parkies.”
It was Charlie Mill and Kevin Cho, walking past the bleachers. Charlie had an oversized hardcover book open—Iggy said, “Please don’t tell me that’s a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual”—and he was talking to Kevin, gesticulating passionately, probably about something imaginary. Kevin looked up at us and waved when they went past. I waved back and Iggy made a derisive, dismissive sound.
“You know that you and I are Parkies, right?” I said to Iggy, annoyed at her for many reasons. Honestly, we had just played Dungeons & Dragons with Kevin and Charlie a few months ago and Iggy had said that she loved it.
“No way,” she shook her head. “We’re not staying in that club. Parkies are treated like dirt at this school, you know that. Just follow my lead, Bellamy, and we’ll be fine. I have no intention of spending these magical, incomparable, formative years as a leper-like pariah.” I laughed at her sarcasm but I was surprised by her vehemence. I was worried that it was me, more than any other left-over thing from Park Heights, that she was desperate to get away from.
“Let’s listen to some tunes,” she said.
I got out my iPod and we split up the earbuds. I went through the playlist of the songs we loved and I picked out her favorite Elliott Smith. A ghost of a smile came across her face when the three-four oom pah pah of the drums started up—then she was lost in thought as the song played. “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.”
Suddenly she took the earbud out and flung it down, exclaiming, “This song is the worst! I mean come on, it’s too much. Even for you, Bellamy, you sad sack. Delete that stupid playlist and let’s listen to something new.”
When Linna had asked me who my best friend was—she asked it as if she didn’t know what it was like to be human and to have friends—I had said Iggy without thinking. And of course Iggy and I were best friends when we were little. But the truth was that she and I grew apart almost immediately at the start of high school.
Even then, sitting next to her on the bleachers at lunch hour on that first day, I knew that she was determined to be different. She was driven to grow up, to become something else. I admired it. I wished I was more like her. I knew that she was already moving on towards that future, towards who she would become.
I knew she was moving on without me.
Moving. Somehow I’m moving, going forward. It’s difficult but I’m doing it. Stepping with my right foot forward, dragging the left one behind.
I think my left foot’s broken—I can’t put weight on it. I don’t know why but I don’t feel any pain. Maybe I’m in shock. I’m cold and I’m hot; I’m shivering and there’s a sheen of sweat that’s slick on my skin.
Every single moment is a fight. I’m on the verge of shutting down, giving up.
Yet I have to keep going.
I move forward.
No-one is there at the gate to Arcyn. No-one is there in the security booth. Where is Hank? It doesn’t make sense. On the other side of the wrought-iron fence the parking lot is still completely full of vehicles. Everything is dark except for the garden lights that line the path from the parking lot up to the mansion. It doesn’t make sense. It must be three in the morning. Nightfall must be over by now.
Something else is going on. Something I don’t understand.
The gate stands all the way open. Nothing to stop me from going up to the house.
I don’t have a choice. I’m hurt and I need help. I don’t have a choice.
I move forward. I go through the open gate.
The front doors of Pali High banged open as I kicked my way through them.
On my iPod I had Thursday playing. The crashing of the drums like something breaking; the wail of the guitars like anger distilled. “Time to let this pass (the time it takes, the time it takes to let go).”
Fuck those girls.
I stormed out of the school and kept on going. Didn’t matter where. Tears were in my eyes and I wiped them away angrily.
A gaggle of all the girls I hated had been gathered at my locker. I know I should have turned around and gone the other way, but I stubbornly went through them. These girls—I was thankful that Iggy wasn’t there. She did hang out with them, on and off—never with me anymore—but she wasn’t with them this time and I didn’t know what I would have done if she had been there too.
As I came closer I saw that a photo of me and Kevin Cho had been taped up onto my locker. Probably obtained from one of the Yearbook dudes who were basically helpless against the will of these pin-up pretty, merciless harpies. Someone had scribbled a big heart around our faces in red pen, and drawn in parallel lasers coming out of our eyes, aimed at each other’s crotches. It was actually weird enough that I kind of liked it.
“You two look like you’re so in love,” one of them said to me.
“We’re friends,” I said curtly. “Not that it’s any of your business. Like, at all.”
Kevin Cho and I had become closer than ever in the wake of my abandonment by Iggy. And he was spending less time with Charlie Mill. Most of the music I listened to were things that Kevin had introduced me to. Music defined who we were and who weren’t with a razor precision that felt like it cut us out from everyone else.
Another of the girls said, “It’s so nice that you found someone who’s, you know, a little chunkier….”
“…like you’ve been getting lately,” a third one finished.
I rounded on them. “Is that really the best you could come up with? Fat-shaming? I mean, where’s the racial slurs? What about his crazy suicidal dad and my crazy suicidal mom—that one’s obvious. You guys are really phoning it in these days.”
I tore the printed photo down and crumpled it up. I couldn’t even remember why I had come over to my locker in the first place, and the third period bell was ringing, so I whirled around and made my way out of there.
“Is it true that you gave Miles Tryniski a blowjob backstage at Twelfth Night?”
“What?” I stopped. Didn’t turn around.
“That’s what Miles told everyone!”
I put my head down and just kept going.
“She didn’t deny it!” was what I heard behind me. “Did you see that? She didn’t even fucking deny it!”
And I kicked open the doors of the school and I was walking fast.
Miles Tryniski had played Malvolio in our production of Twelfth Night. For weeks during rehearsals he kept asking me out and I kept on saying no. His pestering of me had become a full-time endeavor, to the point that I had started to really dread the sight of him in the hallway or out on the bleachers at lunch time, waiting for Kevin and me. Then one night, backstage at the performance, he made his move. He grabbed me with some force. Pulled me into him and kissed me in the grossest way possible, his tongue like a jacked-up slug in heat. I let it happen; I extricated myself from his octopus arms; I came out from behind the stacked flats to take my place for the next onstage cue. That was all that happened. I’d gotten away and I’d left him there and I hadn’t even thought about it again, though after that night he had stopped bothering me. Which was great.
Now this shit.
I walked for hours on my own. At some point I realized I was actually walking home. I’d come down the back streets from the school to the Wellness Centre. Then I was climbing the hill up Beech Boulevard, slogging it up the slope slowly.
Sophomore year at Pali, up until now, had been me thinking I was immune to the social pressure crucible of high school. Other things were more important to me than my reputation. It was just that, every now and then, it felt like everything was set against me. Life at home with my mother was getting more difficult all the time and life at school was often just as bad. I knew that Kevin felt like this too. It was worse for him. And he had his father to deal with. The suddenness of that loss had left behind an irreconcilable hole in his life.
I had climbed Beech Boulevard into the section above the Wellness Centre where there were stands of trees on either side of the road. If you didn’t look back towards the city you could imagine you were far away from it, on your own in a forest where no-one could find you.
It was a particular fantasy of mine. To be left alone far away. Given the freedom to find out who you are without anyone trying to put you in your place.
I left the road, going into the trees, finding paths that were familiar to me—every kid who grew up in Park Heights knew these backwoods routes from the town down to the Wellness Centre and back up again. This was our backyard. The rightmost path led northeast into the trees, eventually coming out into a clearing just below Coma Jump. Iggy and I had gone there often, years ago, with the morbid ambition of hopefully finding a body—not that we ever did—then trying to scare each other as the light left the sky. We were freaks.
In the woods, on my own, I finally had to laugh.
Fucking Miles Tryniski. What an idiot.
The woods are on my right. Where I was attacked. Where I stabbed a man to death.
I don’t have the strength to go there. It was why I had wanted to come back to the estate. To see what I had done, to have no doubt that I had done it. To claim responsibility for it.
Is he there? Is his body still there? Lying face down in the dirt?
He can rot.
I keep going. Keep on moving up the path toward Arcyn, toward the house.
There’s no-one here. No-one in the dark.
Zach is here with me. He is. Helping me, keeping me going.
“You must be so pissed off,” he says, laughing.
I try to speak but I don’t have a voice. Rough, raw throat; swollen tongue in a mouth full of blood.
“I mean,” he says, “a lot has happened tonight. It’s kind of unbelievable how many things have happened to you in, like, just a few hours.” He grins. Something is wrong with one of his eyes, the pupil has slewed off to one side and it doesn’t move. And why is he talking so fast. “Will, that asshole, he slapped you hard! And then that man held a knife to your throat in the woods and you, what did you do—for real—you stabbed him to death! Seriously! What a night—and it’s probably not even over yet. I would say it’s definitely not over. Who knows what’s going on here at Arcyn. Nothing good. Oh, and I somehow forgot that we had a car thrown at us!”
I shake my head. Right foot forward, left foot dragging behind.
“Yes,” he says slowly, “yes that’s what happened, don’t try to deny it. And it wasn’t any ordinary accident. Think about it. You know what you saw. That Mercedes Benz was spinning in the air. It came down right on top of us. My older brother Jason and I were in an accident a few years ago and it was nothing like that. I was learning to drive and someone ran a light and hit us. But what I’m trying to say is that it happened in slow motion. There was time for me to think of all the things I could have done differently, right as the accident was taking place—there was so much time to think! Tonight… well that car exploded right at us. It was crazy! You know something? I think you’ll really like my brother Jason. I think the two of you are going to get along extremely well.”
I can’t look at him. Something is wrong with his face.
“You and I had potential,” he says. “We did. You and Jason are going to have more than that. Especially considering how sad he’s going to be. You’re a beautiful person, Tess. You’re going to help him through it. I know you will.”
You have to go back.
Go back. You’re in the car. After the accident.
Open your eyes.
Zach is dead.
His body is broken. Mangled. Torn apart in the driver’s side of the obliterated car.
I look through the punctured sheet of metal that guillotines the space between us. One side of Zach’s face is untouched and the other is smashed into ruin.
Get out of the car.
Can’t scream—get out!—can’t move—get out of the car!
I give the passenger door as hard a shove as I can. It falls away from the frame of the car with a crash like the accident’s echo aftershock.
I spill out onto the road. I crawl away.
Hug my knees to my chest.
The car looks like an insect smashed under a boot. Whatever wasn’t crushed was ripped into pieces. All of it except the passenger side. Right where I was. I don’t know how it happened but somehow it’s undamaged, where I was sitting. And I’m alive.
The Mercedes is on the other side of the road. There’s a trail of shattered plastic and metal debris strewn along a path where the car rolled over and over before coming to a stop upside down.
I can’t see anyone in it. There’s no-one in the Mercedes.
What does that mean.
I make myself get up from the road.
I have to get help. Have to find someone.
Start running but my ankle gives out with a snap and I fall.
I slipped in the surf and lost my footing, falling forward, flailing into the water. A graceless moment for the ages. Then a sizable wave came down over me and the force of it was surprising, if only momentary, like a firm hold on the back of my neck pushing my face into the sand at the bottom. Then it released, and I broke the surface of the ocean for a breath.
After a long swim I headed back to my strip of solitude—a beach towel pinned down with rocks at the corners, a sun umbrella, my iPod, a trashy paperback splayed words-down on the sand—where I stretched out and let the sun pour heat down onto my skin.
I put my earbuds in and thumbed to Shuffle Play All. What would the world give me to listen to at the heart of this serenity?
OMD. Yeah perfect. “All I need is co-ordination—I can’t imagine, my destination.”
I was sixteen and all summer after Junior Year I spent nearly every afternoon at the beach. My mother was at home and she usually slept during these hours, giving me just enough time to get out of the house and capitalize on the California advantage.
The first time I had come to the beach had been accidental. I was driving the Roadmaster around without a destination, simply driving to give myself an escape from being at home, being with my mother. And I found I was heading to the ocean, and I pulled in at the parking lot of Santa Monica State Beach, and I got out and walked around.
I laughed at the sight of all the tanned girls with long legs, Queens of the Beach in their skimpy bikinis and their fixed, phony smiles, their effortless diffidence. They are so not me, I thought, not me at all. Except later, going over it, I realized that underneath my contempt was a kind of jealousy. How nice it would be to have nothing to think about. How sweet to be uncomplicated.
Then I just started going to the beach, on my own, every day. And I fell in love with it. Unhurried, unharassed—bored, even—I found a measure of contentment. Floating in the ocean; stretched out on the towel, on the sand: in a strange way it was a tiny rebellion against who I was becoming, this girl who was responsible, who could be counted on, who looked out for and looked after others.
At that time I was crazy about acting. After the Twelfth Night production wrapped I had been depressed and sullen for weeks until I realized that being in the play had done something to me. I had loved every second of it, rehearsals and performances, Miles Tryniski notwithstanding. Then in Junior Year we did Guys and Dolls and it was the same thing. I couldn’t wait to see what production we’d do in Senior year. Until then, there was a summer program at the Arts Nexus. I lived for it—for workshops and improv competitions and staged one acts. I was obsessed with the profession, reading all the books I could find on it, watching movies every night until late, going to theater in L.A. whenever I could. Since I was looking after my mother it hadn’t occurred to me yet that one day I could choose to start a career doing this very thing that I had fallen in love with.
That summer, on that beach every afternoon, I let myself dream. Dreaming of a future that would never happen gave me freedom from the present.
There wasn’t much teen angst in my life. Not like Kevin, who wouldn’t have made it through high school without our Zero Hours, I don’t think. At school, in my life, I was quiet, watchful, shy. I don’t know if I was waiting for things to begin, holding myself back until they did, or if it was just who I was. A lot of this had to do with my mother. Not just with my responsibilities in looking after her, which took up most of my time outside of school—but with who she was and how she’d raised me. I was waiting for the sickness that preyed on her to show its signs in me. Not just the crazy but the other things too: her legendary impulsiveness and passion, her temper tantrums. I was afraid of all of this. I was watching for it.
In my daily life, looking after my mother, I drifted. I detached myself from the routine. Then, in those sun-soaked stretches of afternoon spent on the beach, I felt the substance of myself return from the outside, sinking down into my body with a welcome weight.
I don’t know how it works for other people. For me, keeping a hold on who I am is the hardest thing there is. There are moments that come to me in which I’m present—it’s me in there, me at the center, looking out—and then time moves forward like something I’m losing. That feeling fades. The moment erodes. It takes more and more effort, until the next moment comes, to live up to the self that I’d just pieced together from that last quick glimpse. And that’s what it’s always been like. Except I used to have more of those moments, or at least I knew how to recognize them for what they were. Maybe I was better at taking what I needed from them. Maybe it’s something that’s easy when you’re young and much harder to do once the adult world shuts down imagination.
I had to work hard to feel alive.
All I could see in my own life was a shadow of myself, losing its shape.
My shadow lurches ahead of me, thrown forward from the garden lights on either side then shrinking down to meet my footsteps.
It feels like I’ve been hobbling up this path for hours.
And here’s Arcyn’s ridiculous fountain. No splashing stream from the cherub’s upraised trumpet: the water is undisturbed. Except now I see ripples lapping at the fountain’s marble lip as if, on the far side in the dark, someone just tossed in a coin.
Across the estate all the tents stand empty now, tables folded and chairs stacked on the grass. Discarded paper plates and napkins flutter in the breeze, hopping across the grass like wing-clipped birds. The front of the mansion is still brightly lit, floodlights above the double doors and the entrance portico intense with a brilliance that hurts to look at.
I stop. I’m exhausted.
Rest here. Lie down by the water. Someone will help you.
I look at the water.
There is something beneath the surface. I stand fixed, staring, as something begins to rise from within it. Dark water cascades down the sides of a head of hair, then a face—eyes, nose, mouth—then the body, rising and turning towards me.
It’s the woman in white. How is this happening. The two endless streams of her impossible dark hair flow down into the fountain’s pool and billow out in a cloud of deeper ink black. Her hair, her skin, her white gown: dry, unaffected by the water that washes out in waves from where she’s risen and where she stands.
“My dear girl,” she says. “How you persist.”
Now she moves closer, gliding across the water. I can’t tell if this is real or not. Was she real when she spoke to me in the mansion, earlier, before I left Nightfall, before I went into the woods?
“Perhaps I was wrong,” she continues. “It appears there might be strength in you, after all. And what is it that you’re doing now? You’re going to confront Linna? To find out the truth about her and her family?” She laughs softly, unkindly. “How little it is that you know.”
There’s something in my mind. A word. A name.
“Yes,” the woman says, “you may speak it aloud.”
“K—Kss—Kissss,” my broken voice hisses.
The woman in white is right next to me. She steps down from the fountain, bare feet onto the grass. Her hand snakes out and touches the side of my face. A cool, firm touch that makes me close my eyes.
“It’s as I thought,” she says. “You’ve been protected. One of my brothers has moved against me, without sanction.”
Now I see the accident again. I see it clearly for the first time, as if the pain and the shock and the horror of this night has lifted just long enough for me to remember it right. The Mercedes had been hurtling toward us and there, at the side of the road, was the woman in white, her feet above the ground, her hair floating weightlessly in a cloud, as if she was underwater. She lifted her hand and the Mercedes exploded upwards, spinning. She brought her hand down and it crashed down onto us.
“Kismet,” I hear myself say.
“Yes, that’s right. Well done. This can’t be easy for you, not with your past and your present converging, as they are, within you. My name is Kismet. I am one of the Iyrin. Once, long ago, we were also called Apkallu—and in these last days we have now become known as Watchers. Knowledge of us remains in your inherited memory, archetypes in the collective unconscious. Mortals,” she smiled coldly, “seem to especially dwell upon my two sisters and me. It is true that we are more lovely than the others.”
“What—what are you?”
“We were there in the long gray dawn before time began. We helped to shape the world at the moment of its creation. We were there at the beginning, and so it is our responsibility, now, to guide this broken work—this flawed, tired world—to its imminent and merciful end. You are a part of that now.”
“You tried to kill me,” I whisper.
“You lived. Not so the boy, unfortunately.”
“Why did I try to kill you? You weren’t wanted, dear girl. You weren’t a part of my work. But that’s changed now. Linna changed it and now I’m forbidden to hurt you. I’m afraid that you’re here and there’s no going back. In fact you’re at the center of things, tonight. I have something for you.”
In her hands she holds up a bracelet or an armband. It is a thing of breathtaking beauty. Two shining strands entwined, gold and silver. The clasp is a delicate work in white gold depicting the head of a snake with cut-stone eyes of lapis lazuli. The snake eats its own gold and silver tail.
“An ouroboros,” she says. With a swift movement she undoes the clasp—the snake releases its tail—and she slips the bracelet around my wrist, moving it further up onto my arm.
Too large at first. My arm sinks to the ground from the weight of it.
Suddenly it burns me. Or it feels like burning. The bracelet shapes itself, turning and writhing—narrowing down, constricting across my skin. I claw at its surface hopelessly with numb, unfeeling fingertips. All at once there’s no clasp, no snake’s head eating its own tail, just a band made of two entwined strands of silver and gold that perfectly encircle my arm, midway up between elbow and wrist.
“That should help you, when you need it,” Kismet says.
I stare at her, dumbstruck. Her expression darkens.
“Go on now,” she says, “don’t just stand there foolishly. Everyone’s waiting for you. The Cynosure has already begun. Go on up to the house now.”
I turn to look at Arcyn. There’s something dark around the entrance, something that wasn’t there before.
A shiver goes through me as I understand what it is.
A crowd of people. They’ve come out of the house. All of them, every single one, dressed in long, dark, hooded robes. They congregate silently in the entrance portico of the mansion, watching me, waiting for me.
When I turn back, Kismet is gone. There’s no sign she was ever even there. Except the bracelet she gave me, cold where it presses into my arm.
Like someone lost in a dream, I do the only thing I can. I walk forward. I walk to the house.
I go towards the ending.
It was the end of childhood. The end of adolescence and the beginning of all that comes after.
I gave my mother another hug. “I’m not going far,” I said. “Honestly I’ll visit all the time, I’ve got the Roadmaster, I’ll be here like every weekend, and if you need me for anything, you’ll call and I’ll come right over.”
My mother was fiercely trying not to cry, wiping the tears out of her eyes with alarmingly sudden, angry gestures. “I know,” she said, “I know all of that.” Her mouth moved and she made the smacking sounds of her tic. Tsck, tsm.
“So don’t be upset.”
“I’m not upset,” she said, giving me another hug. “I’m happy!”
Everything with my mother had changed after the production of The Glass Menagerie in my Senior Year. My drama teacher had chosen to do The Glass Menagerie only because, as he had said, we had an unusually talented group of actors at Palisades who needed something substantial to work on. I auditioned for and got the part of Laura Wingfield. It’s a role that doesn’t have a ton of lines, not compared to her pushy mother, but Laura’s onstage for most of the play and all of it’s about her, really. I was so caught up in rehearsals for the production that my marks suffered in the rest of my classes. But I was happier than I’d been in a long time. I felt more than ever like myself, even as I was inhabiting the role of someone else.
Everyone in Park Heights seemed to have come out to see the production. I would hear about it from Mona Wrightson, from Jenny and Karen, from Mrs. Markova when I delivered my first Green Machine order to her house—”You’re Laura Wingfield!”—and my mother talked about it constantly, for months afterward. It was a pivotal moment for us.
She had begun to improve. For the first time we talked about what I would do after graduation. My mother had only one thing in mind: I would get my own place in L.A. and I would go for it, I would pursue all the roles that I could in theater, film, commercials, television. For the first time in years she began to take control of her life. She interviewed and hired a part time care worker to come to the house. With Devin Hanlon’s guidance she enrolled in classes at the Wellness Centre. She was determined to remove herself as the sole hindrance to my potential Hollywood career.
And so the day came when I moved to my apartment in L.A. After the tears and the hugs, my mother had watched me go and she’d turned back up the walk and gone into the house, on her own.
On the way out of Park Heights I slowed the Roadmaster down and, on a sudden impulse, pulled over at Crazies. Even though I had just told my mother that I wasn’t going far—it was true, I really wasn’t—it felt to me as if I was absolutely never going to be coming back here. Not true, as it turned out. But right then, leaving home was overwhelming. I needed one last Jumbo Smoothie.
Then, back in the Roadmaster, Jumbo Smoothie in hand, I searched through my iPod—connected to the Roadmaster’s tape deck with a cassette adapter—for just the right song. Finally. I drove as the Cure began to play. “Inspire in me the desire in me, to never go home.”
I thought of that night with Kevin Cho when we’d listened to this Cure album all the way through for the first time instead of working on our school project. I thought of Iggy and her mom and dad, sitting with me at their dinner table, laughing over some silly pun Iggy had come up with on the spot.
I thought of my mother.
I hadn’t told her that I was in The Glass Menagerie. I hadn’t told her anything about it. She didn’t seem well enough, at the time, to bring it up, and I had no intention whatsoever of asking her to come see it.
The standing ovation at the rise of the final curtain was a shock. All through the performance I had been completely unaware of the audience.
And there she was, my mother. Shouting, stomping, jumping up and down. In fact, Devin Hanlon had picked her up and had driven her to the school and he was there next to her, applauding.
I was angry. I didn’t want him there. I didn’t want her there.
Then my mother made a break for it. She knocked over the people in her row as she scrambled out from the seats and sprinted up the stairs at the side of the stage. When I went over to her she embraced me with a strength that made me start to cry.
“Oh Tess,” she said. The whole auditorium could see us but our voices didn’t carry over the applause. “I can’t believe it. When you were holding up that little glass unicorn and you said, 'See how the light shines through him,’ I just lost it. Everyone was crying. Even Hanlon!”
“You liked it that much?” I said.
“Are you kidding? Tess. You’re amazing, honey. I didn’t know you were amazing.” She broke out of our embrace and held me at arm’s length, blinking away her tears. “You and me. We’ve had it rough, haven’t we?”
“No, Mom, it’s alright,” I said.
“It’s not alright. I know it’s not. We’ve had a hard time.” She lit up with a sudden smile that once was famous. “But look at the two of us. Even with everything we’ve been through, we’re still just amazing!”
I pulled the Roadmaster out onto Beech Boulevard and drove down to L.A., leaving Park Heights behind.
Who was I going to be, out on my own?
Everything that I had dreamed about was happening now.
I was terrified.
I’m terrified of the people in the robes yet I walk toward them as if I’m in a trance, magnetized, drawn forward, one foot in front of the other, left foot dragging behind.
Don’t know how I’m still doing this. I’m emptied out. Broken apart.
The people in the robes begin to move as if they share one mind, flowing down from the entrance of the mansion out onto the lawn to meet me. The hems of their robes sweep across the tops of the grass with a sound like whispering. They flow out and flow around me and I’m swallowed into their midst.
Faces I don’t recognize. Deep within the hoods, eyes alight with purpose.
Then hands reaching out to me. Hands taking hold.
They bear me up.
I’m lifted from my feet and I’m carried forward. Borne up the marble steps of the portico toward the doors of the house, which open.
Before we go inside we stop and I’m set back down onto my feet. I struggle to stand.
One of the robed people comes forward, in their hands a parcel of white silk. They unfold it. It’s for me.
For the first time I realize that my mother’s tiny black dress has been slashed and ripped and it’s nothing more than a rag that barely covers anything. Zach had given me his jacket but I don’t have it anymore—Zach is dead—and I haven’t been wearing it since I got free of the wreckage of the car.
The hands of the people in the robes rush over me and the remnants of my mother’s black dress are removed from my body, straps slipped down from my shoulders, a whisper-touch of fabric against my ankles. A part of my mind rebels against their touch but I do not move. Hands pull my hair back, gathering. My bra is undone, underwear pulled down, taken off. Hands lift up my arms. Cloths soaked in soap and hot water wash me down. Water is poured out from an urn held up by two of them, poured over my head, over my face, through the length of my hair.
The white silk gown or dress, unfolded, shaken out—they hold it up in front of me. They are going to put me into it.
These strange people continue to work on me wordlessly, washing my body, washing my hair. Ointment applied to the cut on my forehead, the cuts along one side of me. The warmth of the water in a pool around my feet swirls red with the blood and brown with the dirt that they work to clean out of my skin.
I stand among them, naked.
Barbara Bellamy kicked away the pooled, discarded minidress—the tight black dress that had won her more than one magazine spread—and she crossed the opulent room to the bed, slowly, allowing the man who waited for her to take in her naked body, to savor the sight of her, which she knew was splendid.
He wasn’t one of her usual lovers. He was younger than she was, not much more than a boy. He was handsome. He was wealthy and powerful. Throughout the night he had made his intentions clear. “I have to have you tonight,” he had said, and the words moved her the way unbridled male desire always did, putting her into focus, centering her in the frame.
She was always slipping away into a terrible darkness. It was the secret of who she was. Mostly she kept the darkness hidden, but of course Amen Auf der Nacht knew it well, knew her well, which was why she loved him and would have given anything to him, her body and soul, if he had wanted it even a little.
She didn’t know if the darkness was a part of who she was or if it was something from the outside. It had been there as long as she had been old enough to be aware of it. As long as she had been old enough to understand the innuendo of the things men said to her and how they looked at her. Even before that, there was a vague memory from when she had been a child, when she had been taken into an Uncle’s room or a friend of her father’s and the man had closed the door behind them and locked it.
Her big break came when a talent scout found her in a shopping mall in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Her family had been given money. A chaperone had been hired, a distant single Aunt. Barbara was brought to Hollywood and groomed by the talent agency, then the studio, as a future star of the screen. At the same time, even at that young age—as the chaperone, the Aunt, looked the other way, well-paid to be absent—she was given to powerful men as if she was a reward for their success. She was used as if her only value came from being possessed.
In Ohio, growing up, she had struggled with having patience, with controlling her emotions. She had a speech impediment. A registered therapist helped her to suppress the tics that were involuntary in her speech: he was expensive, and her parents never allowed her to forget the money that was spent on her. Barbara’s mother made her father beat her for being flirtatious. They wanted her out of the house. She was failing at school because school was hard. When she left for Hollywood she never went back, never graduated, was happy to leave the indignity of Ohio behind. She hated the way everyone—her parents, her teachers—went out of their way to make her feel less than she was.
For a time, in L.A., she was certain that this was what she deserved, the exaltation and the unending celebration of her beauty. Then, when it became apparent no-one was going to cast her in anything more than the first few movies—there were qualities that she lacked; there was, in her, a detachment from reality that the camera seemed to reveal—when the advances she had been given were running out and the men who kept her had begun to pass her on to other men after a week, after a few days, she understood that she could have stayed in Ohio, she could have chosen differently. If she had been treated as less than she was by her parents, her teachers, now she was less than nothing.
Amen Auf der Nacht appeared one night at a party. He followed her around relentlessly, staring. She was afraid of his strange mask-like face, the sheer size of him as he lumbered after her. She asked people she knew to make him go away. Still he kept on finding her. Just staring right into her eyes as if he could see every part of her at once, laid out. At last she shouted at him and pushed him away. He did nothing. She slapped him in the face. He didn’t move. Then she broke down before this implacability—fell apart suddenly and completely, weeping like a child as the terrible darkness she had long held at bay took hold of her; Amen Auf der Nacht, whose real name was Heinrich Moller, picked her up in his arms and carried her to his car, drove her to his house, put her in the spare bed where she slept for days, exhausted. She was seventeen.
From that day on and for years after, she lived with him. She starred in his movies. Sometimes she made advances toward him, after dinner, on holidays, and sometimes they kissed—but it never led to anything and he never once came to her bed at night. He said that he loved her. She knew that she loved him. Yet there was no consummation of their common-law marriage. Over time, Barbara began to see other men. Eventually and reluctantly she moved out of his house into her own place, her own life.
In 1997 a young man named Lenny Dukis came into Amen Auf der Nacht’s Venice Beach townhouse and shot him twelve times. The police pursued the man in a high-speed chase which resulted in the death of a bystander. From the confession it was revealed that Dukis had ties to neo-Nazi organizations and Christian anti-gay hate groups. Dukis was given a life sentence and, in the first month of it, hanged himself in his prison cell.
Barbara struggled to recover from the shock of this event. At the funeral she felt bereft and alone, even as she held her three month old daughter close to her, who looked up into her mother’s face with her infant’s abstract devotion. Barbara looked down into Hienrich Moller’s open grave and saw within that hole in the earth the gathering darkness of her private despair.
It was always there for her. Always it would be.
Even much later in her life, after Tess had moved to L.A. to start her career—Barbara had convinced herself that she had never felt better—suddenly there it was again. In a strange new form. Everywhere she looked, she saw Heinrich. She knew he was long dead but there he was, younger, the same man who had fixed his attention on her at the party, when she was seventeen—this man who had saved her from the world. His kind eyes behind the slack, expressionless face. She saw him everywhere; only when Tess came back to live with her did she understand that everything had fallen apart, once again.
Only when she started going to the Circle did she stop seeing Heinrich in every corner of every empty room.
Before the murder; before the funeral—exactly one year before—it was a night of abandonment and Barbara slipped off her best black dress for the beautiful young man, the son and scion of a great Hollywood family, there in the bedroom of his luxury Beverly Hills mansion. The two of them were drunk on the most expensive wine in the world. They had everything anyone could want. It was their night, their world, their past and present and future.
A Leonard Cohen song played from the house’s built-in, top-tier sound system. Barbara felt like the music was a kind of smoke and she swayed through it, sultry and irresistible, wrapped within its incandescence. “Fire, make your body cold, I’m gonna give you mine to hold.”
She climbed onto the bed. Tess’s father reached for her body.
Hands reach for me.
In the white gown, a white train of ghostlike silk trailing on the ground behind me, I am pushed forward. The doors to the mansion have opened wide.
I go into Arcyn.
Within the house there are two rows of people standing shoulder to shoulder, on my left and on my right. Not dressed in robes but in formal attire, suits and ties and evening dresses—like all of us were at the Nightfall fundraiser. These are not the same people though, I don’t recognize anyone.
All of them, every one, staring at me. There is no sound.
The two rows of people, on either side of me, form a passage or an aisle that extends into the house from the front door, through the entrance foyer where Linna and I had discussed a painting only a few weeks ago, then rising up the left-hand staircase as it climbs to the mansion’s second storey. Some of the people are smiling joyfully; some crying openly; some with closed eyes as if in rapture; some with stone-hard expressions on time-worn faces.
The people in the robes do not enter the house. The doors close behind me.
As I go forward between the lines of people they being to reach out for me. Not to bear me forward as the others had done, but to touch me gently. Fingertips on both sides brush against my shoulders, my cheeks, the top of my head. Many of them take in hand and then let go a length of my hair, still wet, that the robed people gathered into a straight fall down the back of the gown, a stark black against the gown’s cloud white.
The people murmur words as I move past them. Some in whispers; some in the tone of religious prayer. “…give us this blessing so that we may see the multiform-all through the one….”
“…reveal to us your glory and your power, undiminished at the end of time….”
“…only in you may the weak become strong, the broken whole….”
In the wake of my progress the two lines break apart and the people follow. Like the robed ones outside of the house, they are a multitude with one mind, moving together, close behind me but careful not to step on the train of the wedding-white gown.
I climb up the stairs.
The Severands are there at the top of the stairs.
Linna in a sweeping, floor-length dress from another century, a dress as black as raven’s plumage and iridescent like a pool of oil. Every inch of fabric on the bodice and both black sleeves are covered with patterns in intricate profusion: spirals, circles, mandala, hyperbola. Her blond hair spills in a surge of luminous gold against the high black collar. She has been crying for some time. Tears shine on her cheeks.
Marius Severand to the right of her, impossibly tall, wearing some kind of medieval surcoat, a falling wave of black satin over the silver gleam of polished armor. He bows to me as our eyes meet. My god, his eyes. My whole body responds involuntarily, trembling in a fever of fear and awe at what those eyes contain.
A falling outward from the earth to the stars. Judgment. Compassionate melancholy.
Will standing to the right of Marius Severand, attired in a handsome black suit, an ink-black tie. His hands are clasped, down in front of him. Eyes cast down to the floor as if he wished he was anywhere but here.
Then Will raises his head. He opens his eyes. There is a radiance.
All at once I see them, the Severands. I see them as they are. A murmur goes through the crowd. Many of them fall to their knees.
Will stands in a column of blue light that lifts his feet from the floor. Weightless, unbound, there is an energy that courses through him, a destructive force of lightning only barely held at bay in the tightness of his fists, in the set of his jaw and the iron in his entirely opaque, black eyes.
Marius Severand stands in a whirlwind. Thousands of shards of cold black shapes, shreds of darkness—a tattered maelstrom eating at the air around him. These shapes, these silhouettes—there are faces. Eyes, mouths that open; then crooked arms and grasping hands. So much of the mass of darkness clings to him, thick like a mantle across his shoulders. Suspended in the air in front of him there is an immense, heavy book, a tome wrapped in chains. When it opens a ray of illumination strikes into the darkness like a shaft of morning sun through a break in a storm’s wall of clouds. The whirlwind of dark shards recoils from it.
Linna. The brilliance that shines from her is blinding. Yet it flickers. It radiates out from her, from inside the stiff, baroque dress like a molten, golden fire poured out from the lip of a black vase. The light is a power that dissolves all distinctions in its intensity. Then a shadow passes across her like an eclipse, extinguishing everything, before it recedes, before the light rekindles. This happens over and over again, outside of time: the diminishing of the light, its return.
I have fallen to my knees, too weak to stand.
I understand it now. The Severands—Linna, Will, Marius—they are not human.
They’re what Kismet is. They’re angels. They’re gods.
Oh what do they want with me.
I am nothing. I’m no-one. There’s nothing of worth in me.
The three of them. They stand above me, looking down.
All I have is confusion. Pain. Fear.
Everything that I am. Everything I wanted to be. My struggles to understand myself, to become myself.
I don’t know what any of it means.
Are they going to take it all away from me?
It’s already happened.
I am no longer myself. I see that now. The things that I’ve done tonight, the things that I’ve seen—they’ve already changed me forever.
No matter what happens to me now. Nothing will ever be the same.
I can never be who I was.
I can never go back to my life.
Say goodybe to it.
Say goodbye, Tess.
Marius Severand beckons me to come forward.
I rise from my knees.
Linna reaches out her hand to me.
I climb the last of the stairs. I go up to them.
The Watchers are waiting.
© 2017 by C.D. Miller
“I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
But must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?”
—Leonard Cohen, Joan of Arc