omnibus of untitlement

a place to keep my imaginary friends

The Society of Unicorns & Other Exotic Goats

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one


Flagstaff, Arizona
September 1968

Elizabeth fit her feet into the rut of a forgotten rainstorm, one sneaker before the other down the old dirt road. Just a needle in a record’s scratchy groove, she sang dirges to the dying summer sun and surrendered to the pull of her secret haven. From her perch atop Mars Hill, she’d gaze over town, imagine herself as one of the soaring ravens, and forget real life, find her breath again. She couldn’t remember ever needing it more.

Well-bred young ladies didn’t sneak off campus. Girls who needed to stay invisible to the headmistress didn’t ditch class and head for the hills. But today was September twenty-first, and if she wasn’t in her spot on top of Mars Hill at exactly half past one, the agony would destroy her mind.

Half past one marked one year past the moment she’d lost her guardian, Bebe, the only person she’d ever called her own. She hadn’t been there when Bebe died, but maybe if she could look down at the distant speck of their former home at the exact anniversary moment, Bebe would know. Bebe would help. Things would get better. Or maybe she’d finally feel some closure and cry. She hadn’t been able to cry for a year, and she missed that release.

Approaching the slope, Elizabeth’s rut narrowed, clutching her shoes until they crushed the earth, emerging clad in dust the shade of the rumbling sky. She savored the rhythm, the mindlessness. Closing her eyes, she allowed the rut to guide her steps, tried to ignore the stifling heat.

“One foot, two feet, dust, wobble, dust wobble, dust wobble dust,” she sang in whisper to the rhythm of her walk. Cicadas sang backup, their whine that of a rusted fan, and Elizabeth longed to feel its imaginary breeze. But there was no slowing for the heat. Time was running out.

She continued along the rut, pressure mounting, and found she was hungry for stretches of narrowness, living to smash the sides to powder. She demolished the rut with every step. A little satisfaction. Not much. But some. Dulling a corner of the misery.

A louder growl of thunder made her eye the trees, imagining lightning, craving it. She wanted a storm. She’d hurl herself into it and dance, scream, burn, drown, taking it as commiseration from the universe itself. Some kind of change.

Or, as always, she’d just huddle beneath the boulder’s ledge in her secret spot, watching the storm boil its way over Flagstaff, letting the rain be her tears.

She was so close now.

And then a voice. “No meals to ruin, Bug? Have to destroy the earth itself?”

Shadows detached from the gloom of the woods, sharpening into a group of her classmates as they entered the light. Biting the skin inside her cheek until her vision blurred, she managed not to bolt like a jackrabbit. They’d only chase.

The group’s leader, Trish, pouted, crossing her arms. “What? Has my family sentenced you to dig trenches one shoe at a time?” Trish was granddaughter of the school’s founder. She nodded at Elizabeth’s dusty feet. “Couldn’t you afford a black pair, at least? Some boots? Those pathetic little sneakers used to be white like your dress, right?”

Elizabeth lowered her gaze. The hem of her dress was dark, dust-stained, fading from taupe to white where the clouds of grit hadn’t reached.

Another growl of thunder. Good. But the rain didn’t come for her; the girls did. They surrounded her in their crisp gray and white uniforms, adding a thick blanket of claustrophobia to the already overwhelming heat.

Trish’s eyes crinkled in revulsion. “Just like our Red Chinese to wallow in the dirt like a pig.” She punctuated the last word with a light shove.

The girls laughed, a venomous Greek chorus.

“Total disgrace.”

“Little Orphan Annie!”

“Little my ass! She’s tall as a giraffe.”

“And almost as orange.”

“Except those freaky Chinaman eyes.”

“No wonder she’s always hiding behind a book.”

“Maybe we should get her an even bigger book,” Trish said, shoving Elizabeth’s shoulder.

Fly away fly away fly away fly away… Elizabeth closed her eyes, taut with pressure. She backed away, thought of a song. Tried to send her mind into the music. Tried to shut out the world, these monsters.

Trish nodded. “Like I told you, girls. Doesn’t even talk, just hums. Raised by wolves.” A snort. “And washed-up showgirls.”

A gust of wind from nowhere pushed between the girls, warm at the head, icy at its tail, rattling the trees. Elizabeth felt it draw everything inside her into deadly tightness. “Leave Bebe out of it.”

Trish curled her lip. “Yes, Bebe. That horrible old hag. Crazy. Must be where this one gets it.” A pause. “Not that she was her real mother.”

“Please.” Fire blazed to life inside Elizabeth. The pressure shifted from urgency to something heavier, more focused.

A spark of pleasure lit Trish’s expression. “No real mother would have this ginger half-breed without a salary. Just that lunatic. Ugly, loud, always babbling about Vaudeville…”

“Stop.” But Elizabeth actually found herself wanting the opposite. Her scalp prickled.

“…Then pitching dead right in the middle of town! Took any way out to get away from Miss Elizabeth Cory. Just like her dead auntie. Just like her real mom.”

It happened so quickly. A sudden crouch, one swoop of Elizabeth’s arm, and Trish stumbled, eyes huge, wiping at the spot where a clod of dirt had exploded on her chest. Elizabeth hurled the second one, striking Trish on the face. Looking her in the eye, glad for once that she towered over the awful girl, Elizabeth deliberately wiped her gritty hands down the sides of her dress, leaving twin streaks.

While Trish sputtered, spat, and wiped in revulsion at her mouth, Elizabeth crouched, ready for more. For one delicious moment, she felt dangerous, powerful. Happy. And then the sky split open. A blinding flash of lightning, a deafening roar, and somewhere nearby the crackle crash thud of a falling tree. The girls dropped to the ground, covering their heads, and Elizabeth’s emotion overtook her. When the chaos ebbed, she remained flat on the ground, face in the dirt, crumpled and finally in tears. No release came, though — just fury.

Now the girls were up and pelting her with something much harder than dirt — rocks, by the feel of it. Great chunks of Mars Hill rained down upon Elizabeth, along with fat drops of water from the sky.

As the wind rose, the other girls fled, shrieking, but Trish paused. She said, “What took you so long, freak? Grandfather always knew you’d do something like this.” She kicked dirt into Elizabeth’s ear. “Just you wait.”

Elizabeth felt a blow to her back — Trish’s foot or the biggest rock yet. She lay still until she could no longer hear the percussion of the girls’ retreat, until the rain filled her ears, soaked her dress, and threatened to stifle her with mud.


two


Elizabeth limped back onto the campus of Lefton Academy for Girls after dusk, streaked with mud, ragged and soaked. Her knees stung from scrapes, and her back ached from the assault.

No longer imitating a fan, the cicadas’ hiss now seemed a rattle of bloodthirsty anticipation, an executioner’s drum roll. One way or another, she was in for it. Ms. Johnson, the headmistress, would be beside herself. Rarely did she have anything but impatience for Elizabeth, who added nothing to the academy’s prestige, who was there only because of dwindling loyalty between Ms. Johnson and Elizabeth’s late aunt, old friends.

“If it weren’t for your aunt…” How many times had Elizabeth heard those words? How many times had they shrunk her, stolen the padding from her nerves? She had no merit of her own. One day, she intended to discover her true family history and prove Ms. Johnson and the Leftons wrong.

After today’s fight, Elizabeth finished climbing Mars Hill, but she’d missed the anniversary moment. The world carried on, uncaring. Huddling beneath the rock ledge that formed her secret spot, she’d examined her wounds and watched lights flare and sparkle along Route 66, watched neon signs buzz to life over gas stations, motels, and fast food. From the observatory at the peak of the hill came the sound of nearby university’s coeds shouting, cackling, and blasting The Doors. The smell of sweet, charred smoke wafted down toward her.

Elizabeth’s throat tightened, burned. She’d been an idiot to think of Bebe as a fairy godmother, to think the anniversary mattered in a world like this. There she was, same as ever: a creature without a tribe, a seventeen year old who still felt twelve, searching for a world of fairy tales.

The wind lifted the smell of fried onions and hot asphalt from town below, marbled it through the sweet smoke, and blew away feelings of magic or closeness to Bebe and childhood.

For a long time, she considered not returning to Lefton. Maybe her secret spot could be her home.

She abandoned the idea after the first coyote howl.

Now, she padded past Lefton’s red-brick elementary and junior high buildings, deceptively cheerful with warmly lit windows and bright paper art projects to hide the hostile territory within. Before her rose the white plaster walls of the high school, covered in thorny, flowered vines. Elizabeth tightened her fists. It was around the time she advanced to this building that her Aunt Kate died. Her only relative. She couldn’t mourn her — had never met her. To Elizabeth, Aunt Kate was just the one who paid Bebe, the widow of her former driver, to care for her on holidays.

In her head, Elizabeth heard Bebe’s gravelly voice, saw her waving one of her endless cigarettes. “Your aunt, she was a smart one. Killed two birds with one stone, sending us out here. Couldn’t just kick this old broad out — wouldn’t look genteel. And couldn’t have her dead sister’s brat running around speaking Russian — would expose our dear Miz Katya’s secret past.” Bebe didn’t know more than that, so Elizabeth treasured this one gem of information, even if mentioning her heritage once had brought on all the commie talk, adding to the Red Chinese situation.

Her aunt’s death meant the end of the money. Her tuition was already paid, but Bebe, now without income, went ahead and married that awful Harvey Rausch, traveled with him for years, leaving Elizabeth lonely in the sterile, echoing halls of Lefton during holidays. Bebe returned the summer before Elizabeth’s junior year, but as summer turned to autumn, Bebe was gone — the heart attack in the street that people seemed to see as more of a disgrace than a tragedy.

The world took a slow spin around Elizabeth, and she shook off the memories.

So, if she wasn’t going to live in the mountains, her other alternative was town. But then there was the vision of a Lefton employee finding her, coming to get her and punish her anyway. Even more painful was the idea that they’d never bother to look for her at all. And, if they didn’t, who would? She had no one. Elizabeth clutched her arms, suddenly feeling in danger of blowing away, nothing left to anchor her.

In the long run, it was the horror of that void, that utter lack of connection that kept her from fleeing. They might despise her, but at least they knew her. Besides, she had to come back for her books and Bebe’s locket. They couldn’t have those. If nothing else, she’d go in, and–

Elizabeth scuffed to a halt, feeling the sharp motion in every joint. She’d reached the building. A long rectangle of amber light spilled down the back steps, and Ms. Johnson stood in the open doorway, arms crossed, brow furrowed. Only the highest relief of this expression was brushed by the light inside, the rest was dark, like the shadow that stretched between them, a two-dimensional guard, ready to seize Elizabeth or turn her away.

For a long moment, it was a standoff, neither moving. She wished she were the type to faint. If she could turn off her mind, black out, then she could wake up later and deal with the consequences. But she couldn’t bear the idea of the going through the fire right now. The confrontation might just kill her.

An icy voice emerged from the bulky silhouette. “Miss Cory. You will come with me.” As Elizabeth remained frozen, Ms. Johnson said, “Now!”

Scuttering down the hall in Ms. Johnson’s wake, avoiding the curious eyes of her classmates, Elizabeth had a sudden vision of herself sleeping on a park bench in nothing more than her current rags, cast off from the school.

At the end of the hall, Ms. Johnson paused, back to Elizabeth, shoulders drawn tight, head down. Then she spun, eyes narrowed and glittering, taking in Elizabeth’s appearance. Her dress still clung to her, still dripped water on the tile floors. She wore socks of mud, and her shoes were unrecognizable as such.

Ms. Johnson opened her mouth as if to speak, then snapped it shut again. Passing a hand over her eyes, she drew a deep breath and took a step toward Elizabeth, pointing her finger, but, again, she stopped. She looked frantic for a moment, glancing this way and that as if in search of help, support. She finished by squeezing her eyes closed. “No.” Another glare at Elizabeth’s dress, a quick glance down the hall toward her office, and Ms. Johnson said, “Miss Cory.”

Elizabeth said, “Yes, ma’am,” but all that came out was a hiss of air. Ms. Johnson thrived on taking students to her office, delivering long sermons on behavior and decorum, doling out punishment with the greedy delight of a child hovering over a box of chocolates. Now she couldn’t speak?

Ms. Johnson swallowed and took a breath, closed her eyes. “There is nothing I can say to you right now. I think it’s best if you just go to your room and let me frame my thoughts.”

Nodding, Elizabeth began to turn, not trusting a cat who allowed a mouse to run, but Ms. Johnson stopped her. “I will say this…” Grimacing and thumping her chest again, fumbling for the antacids she was famous for carrying, she shook her head. “I placed a duffel bag in your room. Bring me your keys before breakfast.”


three


As long as she could remember, Elizabeth had wanted to be fat.

“Stars shining bright above you…” Elizabeth’s song was so soft, she could barely hear herself. Not that she was listening. She was lost in the Ottoman Empire, tracing the full, dimpled thighs of odalisques, harem girls, as painted by Victorian artists.

“Night breezes seem to whisper I love you…” Her finger stroked a silken curtain, painted to show the golden threads woven into its folds. For the last time, she pondered the round, shining sweets on golden platters, wondering if they were fruit or some other confection.

“Birds singing in the sycamore trees…” Memory tried to intrude. It had taken her all night to build up a flimsy amnesia, a thin wall of denial. “Dream a little dream of me.” She forced the part of her mind that wanted to think and worry into the shape of the song, a favored survival technique. The future was blank and terrifying. Right before her, there was beauty, safety, warmth. She poured her heart and imagination into those women. Those lucky, beautiful women. Everything about these paintings, including the abundance of dimpled flesh, spoke of plenty, of being valued, treasured. Loved. These women seemed as precious as the luxuries that surrounded them. All very much wanted.

These women were never going to snap, dry up. Blow away.

So Elizabeth wanted to be fat. Fat and pale and wanted. Valued. Loved. Maybe the Victorians had it all wrong in their romantic vision of the Orient, but she pined for it anyway.

“Miss Cory! Have you no ears?” The boom of Ms. Johnson’s voice at her elbow frightened her into stumbling forward. In doing so, she overbalanced the podium, and, as she watched in horror, it crashed to the floor, spilling its contents, sending books skittering throughout the previously silent, echoing reading room — so beloved that Elizabeth had always been eager to visit it even though it stood just across the hall from the lion’s den, Ms. Johnson’s office.

Elizabeth dropped to her knees and began picking up the books, mourning bent pages, straightening paper jackets.

Ms. Johnson grunted her way the floor, gathering books and occasionally despairing, “A gift of the Astors! Such a rare binding. And this, from the Balfours. Such good donors. Such admirable daughters.”

Elizabeth cradled a book of Renaissance sculpture in her lap, stroking its pages and murmuring, “Goodbye. I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to hurt you.” When she looked up again, Ms. Johnson was sitting back on her haunches, hands on her thighs, staring.

“To a book,” Ms. Johnson marveled. “You’ll say it to a book, but not to a person.”

“I am sorry about yesterday, Ms. Johnson.

“Yes, well. Too little, too late. I’ve tried to pass you off as quirky to our other parents, but I think you just crossed the line into deranged.”

Ms. Johnson was clutching her chest again, swallowing hard. Elizabeth heard the sound of footsteps, and after a moment, a group of girls walked by. Silence reigned until the girls were gone.

When Ms. Johnson resumed, she tried to lower her voice, but her fury was clear. “I worked so hard. Kept you out of the orphanage, young lady! Put my job on the line. But now! Now that you’ve injured their little baby girl. Well… Now it’s all for nothing!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Just twelve years of hell with no reward!”

“But I didn’t hurt her.”

Ms. Johnson froze, staring. “There were witnesses! Ruined clothes! Pebbles in her hair! What were you thinking?”

Elizabeth didn’t reply for a moment, too distracted by the image of Mars Hill’s rough cinder stones nesting in Trish’s teased hair, occasionally tumbling down like gumballs in a gleaming blonde machine.

Ms. Johnson wrenched the last book from Elizabeth’s hands and dumped it on a nearby table. Elizabeth fought the urge to reach for her odalisques. “Well, what’s done is done. To my office, Miss Cory. We’re out of time.”

They crossed the hall, Elizabeth dragging her duffel bag full of books and clothing. Ms. Johnson closed her door, motioning Elizabeth across the rug to a stiff chair by her desk. Ms. Johnson waited until Elizabeth obeyed, then sank into her own chair, reaching out to lift a framed photo of a tropical lagoon and slam it face down on the desk. Breathing deeply, Ms. Johnson sat taller, tightening her jaw, folding her hands on the desk before her. “Miss Cory… Oh, hold on.” The woman reached for a glass candy dish, removing an antacid and chewing before resuming the lofty tone she used when chastising students. “Miss Cory. Although I’ve tried my best to keep you here at Lefton Academy as your aunt wished, tried my best to give you a consistent environment, a steady home, your actions have now made that impossible. And this makes you vulnerable to outside interference.”

Elizabeth waited, staring, trying to understand.

Ms. Johnson grunted, fumbled in a drawer. “For the past year, we’ve had repeated inquiries from a man in New York. A perfectly ghoulish man. What did he call himself?” She wrinkled her nose, shook her head. “Barrister. Think that was it. Philip Mortimer, Barrister, Esquire, Et Cetera. He seemed to feel that was a fine joke. He works with the lawyer for your late uncle. And he’s been perfectly tenacious in his efforts to take you from us, bring you ‘back’ to New York.”

“But…” Elizabeth’s mouth worked, trying to force the question of why.

Ms. Johnson nodded. “Thoroughly suspect, if you ask me.” Elizabeth noted her eyes darting toward the overturned photo again. “Anyway, I held him off as long as I could. My inclination in this situation would be to go through proper authorities here in town. Unfortunately,” Ms. Johnson stood, “your aunt was not a fan of proper authorities. Your documents, your paperwork — all snarled, some of it shady, and this Mortimer knows it. It’s the reason he didn’t know about you until last year. Now he’s ready to hold that over our heads.” She scowled at the manila envelope in her hands. “My head. I was just trying to help. Your aunt was bent on hiding your Russian blood. Emphasized your American father, claimed you were born in West Berlin, not East.”

“I was born in Germany?” This doubled what Elizabeth knew of her origins.

Ms. Johnson tossed the envelope onto her desk and wiped her fingers on her sleeve. “And half smuggled to this country. I suspect more than a few dollars were thrown here and there in the process. Mostly there.” Another dark look at the overturned photo.

There was a knock at the door, and Ms. Johnson walked toward it slowly, still facing Elizabeth. “The Leftons want this dealt with cleanly. No court time, no delay, no money spent. They’re slow, but when they move, they move decisively.” She opened the door to reveal the school secretary and a man in a dark suit and driver’s cap. “They inform me you are to become the ward of Philip Mortimer, Barrister, Esquire, Et Cetera, since he’s already waiting in the wings and ready to cross all the Ts, dot all the Is.”

The man took Elizabeth’s bag and helped her to her feet. Ms. Johnson beckoned when Elizabeth didn’t move, but Elizabeth didn’t know if she could. Every extremity felt numb. She’d expected to leave Lefton, but she’d never expected to leave Flagstaff altogether. To leave Arizona. This was rejection and banishment on a scale she could barely comprehend.

Ms. Johnson seized Elizabeth’s wrist as she shuffled toward the door, forcing her to speed her step. “The Leftons’ driver will take you to the airport.” Elizabeth fumbled for the manila envelope Ms. Johnson pressed into her hands. “You’re a big girl. You can handle the flight on your own. The Mortimers’ driver will meet you on the other side.”

Elizabeth turned back once in the hall, still in shock. This was it?

Ms. Johnson nodded, icy. “Safe journey.” Then she slammed her door, leaving Elizabeth alone with the courier of her new life with this barrister and his mysterious intentions.


four


Sometimes she fancied she saw it — the tight, straining coil inside. Not just a spring, a spring on a trampoline, on top of it all, a great hand. As each new emotion arose, that giant hand would press down, condensing the spring, depressing the trampoline, and keeping her feelings in check.

Don’t react, don’t hope, don’t hurt.

Through this method, Elizabeth long ago mastered the art of equilibrium, of suppressing her highs and lows, of hiding her heart, even from herself. It was how she got through. As long as that giant hand flattened her emotions, then her mind was free to detach, go about its business.

Unfortunately, this flatness of emotion fell to pieces if the routine was broken and she became nervous – if in this nervous state she was given a shock. At that point, the invisible hand would slip, the trampoline would launch the decompressing spring, and all that suppressed emotion would burst forth in the form of either tears or giggles – insane amounts thereof. She tried to stem the tide of this resulting Cory Hysteria (as her classmates dubbed it) but only to minor success.

Standing in the lavender-scented foyer of the Mortimer house for the first time, the pressure built with each beat of her heart, which was pretty much the only sound in the dusty silence.

Her new home… She still couldn’t wrap her mind around it. How was she supposed to act in this house? What did she do now?

Life at Lefton had been regimented. Everything about this house spoke of its difference. Nothing was linear, nothing solid or predictable. The ornate red-shingled Victorian was a mass of curves, florals, doilies, chaos. It said that anything went, that everything went, and Elizabeth felt like a small child in Grimm’s forest.

Soon she’d see goblins peering around the moldings, eyes in the wallpaper. Then Mary Poppins would slide down the banister.

She swallowed a laugh. The coil pressed lower.

A hand touched her lower back, and Elizabeth jumped. Minor shock, no hysteria. It was just Ms. Graber, the Mortimers’ tiny, gruff house manager. She led Elizabeth upstairs to a bedroom Ms. Graber called The Chalet, explaining that Mrs. Mortimer had a penchant for naming things — the rooms, the furniture. Across the hall was The Alhambra. Downstairs the sofas had names like Chaucer, Silver, Tonto, Trigger.

Elizabeth said, “Does the house have a name?”

Ms. Graber twisted her mouth. “It refused to take one. They just kept slipping off until she gave up.”

Leaving her with that confusion and a welcome to explore at will, Ms. Graber left — errands in town, she said. Elizabeth remained standing.

Had she been wishing for change? So much dust billowed in her life right now, she couldn’t focus, found it hard to breathe. Not two days ago, she was scuffling along that rut, on her way to disaster. Yesterday morning she was packing her bags then huddling in the raging headmistress’s office.

And now?

She looked around.

Now she didn’t know where she was, other than Stonebriar, New York. She rather suspected it was a new world altogether. The Mortimer driver’s hateful news channel had crackled and faded along with graffiti and fast food signs as they climbed the mountains, and when they made the drop into the misty rock-covered village of Stonebriar, reports of war and unrest cut out altogether in favor of classical music, leaving more air to breathe, room to think.

And then the final turn up the road to her new home. Five miles from town and a quarter mile above the fog, the Mortimer House rose like the brightest autumn leaf in the woods surrounding it. Red turrets soaring, gilt and stained glass sparkling, the grand Victorian defied the mossy weight of the village below.

Inside, however, the house had weight. Looking around The Chalet, she found a room with dark wooden furniture, heavy olive green curtains, and a small marble fireplace. A red and white Persian rug covered most of the floor. The bed was enormous – not as wide as the one she’d spotted in the enviably book-filled Alhambra, but so tall it required a small set of stairs to mount.

After her long solo flight, she’d expected to meet the Mortimers, but the house was empty, and she felt like its newest ghost. She also felt ungracious because The Chalet was a bit too heavy, suffocating her, emphasizing her own flimsiness by its contrast. Bebe always said to enjoy the view from the top of Upper High Hog when it came along, and the room was everything she’d dreamed of as a child, but it didn’t feel quite right.

Drifting to the window, she found a line of trees to the north. At the center of its rough-textured curve stood a pair of great gnarled oaks, entwined over a small dirt path, a fairy tale welcome, an ancient, organic arch.

Wrestling with the grinding, protesting sash, she uncovered an inch or two of screen, and surprisingly sweet air puffed in, shimmying the brocade of the curtains. She heard birds, wind, and somewhere the whinny of a horse.

Taking a deep breath, she smiled. That felt right.

Shedding the sweater and wool skirt she’d changed into at the Phoenix airport, imagining autumn in the Catskills to be chilly instead of a balmy eighty degrees, she pulled on a pair of sandals and a pale green shift. Loosening the sensible low ponytail she’d adopted for travel, she let her hair fall free, its squiggles brushing against the small of her back, her scalp relieved of taut pressure.

There was a tray on a nearby table, bearing roasted chicken, odd tiny grapes of green and red, and a small cake iced in darkest chocolate. Elizabeth hastily devoured the cake and left the room.

After an embarrassingly long fumble to find her way out of the house, Elizabeth reached the arching branches. She’d never seen such trees. Flagstaff trees were vertical, simple in form — aspens and pines, widely spaced like columns in a bright hall. The trees before her now were multi-trunked, curving, dark, and leafy.

The sun was warm, as was the breeze, but when she passed beneath the first set of branches, the air grow cooler, damper. The smell was hypnotic — a smoky, musky, ancient scent. Frankincense. Myrrh. And maybe a touch of Bebe’s cedar treasure box.

The sound of water caught her ear. Turning a bend, she saw the source, a broad creek bed whose dark water glittered as it rippled around stones.

As she followed the path, the trees grew taller, thicker. Light dimmed; sound hushed. Here and there, long sparkling fingers of sunlight penetrated the tree tops, illuminating a stand of greenery or a patch of tumbling creek water, reminding her of paintings she’d seen of cathedrals. She heard small crackles in the shrubbery but never saw the feet that created them and started imagining gnomes, leprechauns, talking mice. She paused frequently to peer into a hollow tree’s gaping doorway, to trace the nose on a tree burl’s face, or to hear the rhythm of the tree song so she could hum along.

She’d just noticed a shift in both the angle of the light and the key of music from the birds when she found the side path, the sort of narrow track made by deer. Briefly, she felt guilt over her long stay in the woods, considered returning to the Mortimer house, but the path’s curving trajectory was too appealing, leading down toward the now-distant creek’s babble and a particularly magnificent cluster of trees. She followed.

The path wound on and on, never quite reaching the water. She’d just decided to turn back, nervous about how far she’d gone, when she came around a bend and found herself at the edge of a small clearing with one heavy finger of sunlight poking down to touch the earth. Beyond this spotlight was a mammoth, sprawling, grasping shape. A tree? It was hard to tell. She shivered.

And then she heard it. A low moan. A growl. Coming from the Medusa shape beyond the light. Elizabeth stumbled, meaning to flee, but then the noise shifted, became a higher keen of sorrow. A lost child. Was it a wild cat? Some kind of trick? Recklessly, she took a step forward, circling the patch of light, staying in the dark until the light was behind her.

The shape was a tree, a multi-armed towering giant. Eyes adjusted, she could see it clearly. It wasn’t sinister; it was glorious. She could imagine the Swiss Family Robinson building their house in its limbs. She could picture it as the home of elves. She could–

She couldn’t breathe. Something moved in the tree. Something tawny. And bigger than her. She went still, and it moved again. A pair of legs swung her direction. Human legs. Bare feet rising to brown pants rising to a young man’s bare chest rising to — she gasped, suddenly understanding what breathtaking meant as her lungs seized.

The boy sat on a massive branch, sorrowing at the treetops. He had lilting features, a full pouting mouth, and great, long-lashed eyes that shone violet-blue even from her distance. Topping this was a tousled mop of pale hair. She thought of angels, of elves. His beauty was marred only by the dirt streaked on his face, the leaves and twigs ornamenting his hair, and his expression — wild with misery. The long-fingered hands that held his balance on the branch were clenched, white-knuckled. His mouth was drawn tight, and, as she watched, he squeezed his eyes tightly, too. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Another unhappy noise, and he fingered his right forearm.

She stood, frozen, not knowing what to do.

After a while, the boy relaxed. His breathing slowed and she saw one corner of his now softened mouth twist upward, rueful. He ground a fist across his eyes then ruffled his hair, knocking bits of debris to the ground. Shaking his head like a dog, he dislodged even more. He laughed without sound, watching it fall. And then he froze, eyes wide.

Elizabeth realized she’d laughed, too.

She tensed, ready to run, but before she could move, the wild boy was on his feet, one hand resting on the trunk of the tree, the other rising to shield his eyes as he scowled into the dimness. Elizabeth leapt backward but only managed to place herself in the center of the spotlight, blinding herself. She stared, exposed, and then she scrambled sideways, aiming for the shadows but instead falling, tangled in something that scratched and pulled at her hair.

Then it was gone. She was free and looking up into wide storm cloud blue eyes with an exotic tilt, a confused expression. The boy was at her side, holding the fallen branch that had tripped and tangled her. He was far too pretty. Again, she questioned her grip on reality.

When she did nothing more to alarm him, his shock shifted to curiosity, then delight. She couldn’t move under that gaze. He dropped the branch and took a step, grin fading to a wondering smile. Unable to help herself, she began to echo his smile, then she noticed the forearm he’d been touching in the tree. A thick scar curved from the inside of his wrist to just below his elbow, a shallow S. Ugly. No elf or angel would have a mark like that.

He seemed unable to speak, and before she could do so, a distant male voice called sharply. Her wild boy turned, alarmed. He gave her one more glance, then with surprising speed he was gone, just the faintest rustle of the underbrush betraying his flight.

Elizabeth stood, and as the forest resumed its normal rhythm, she grew less sure of herself, more certain she’d imagined the whole thing. He was too luminous… but also primitive. Maybe there was a tribe of wild men in the Catskills.

She covered her eyes and took a deep breath, laughing. She was losing it. Maybe she’d taken a rock to the head and was actually still in that muddy rut on Mars Hill, unconscious and hallucinating.

Walking back to the Mortimer house, throwing occasional glances over her shoulder toward where she’d seen the boy, she muttered to herself. “Barristers, Victorians, ghosts, elves, and savages. Good gravy! This is 1968, dummy. You’re almost eighteen. Wake up.”

But she wasn’t sure she wanted to awaken. If she’d found a haven from real life trauma, then so be it.

Returning to The Chalet, house still deserted, she glanced out the window at the woods, closed her curtains against the midday sun, and went to sleep, wondering if she’d always be alone in her enchanted castle, in her fairy tale woods, away from the jangling world. It was almost a pleasant thought.


five


The first thing she did was fall out of bed.

Opening her eyes to the purple light of dusk, Elizabeth couldn’t remember who she was, where she was, and, forgetting the little staircase, swung out of bed and crashed to the floor, hurting her already bruised and scraped knees, bumping her nose so she saw stars.

But, this close to the floor, she heard noises downstairs. Voices.

She wasn’t aware she was digging her fingers into the rug until the fibers poked beneath her nails. She’d grown used to the haunted house, and, now that it was occupied, it felt like another house altogether. Another move, another change.

And people to meet. People she needed to keep on her side — something she’d never before accomplished.

Elizabeth wound her hair into a knot to contain its chaos, then changed into a dark brown dress, her only adornment Bebe’s gold locket on its long chain. She went to the rear stairs. Stepping softly on each tread, trying to lighten her weight by leaning her hand on the polished rail, Elizabeth slipped into the back hall, listening, knees wobbly.

A glance revealed no corseted or long-whiskered occupants, as she’d imagined the Mortimers. Nor did it reveal Ms. Graber. Elizabeth despaired. Ms. Graber would have been her escort, bridging the gap between ghost and guest. Adrenaline flashed, drummed relentlessly on her throat, in her ears.

The lower hall was a different world, post dusk. The grand Victorian seemed positively subterranean. Wall sconces did little good, were no more than frosted glass moons casting weak islands of light on the runner — an endless flying carpet trampled into submission by a century of feet. In between, colors faded to charcoal. She couldn’t make out any detail at the far end of the hall.
Somehow, that gave her the horrors. Being the ghost, being alone, finding elves in the woods — none of that traumatized her. But the darkness and the feeling of being in someone else’s home — someone who was there but out of sight — that stole her breath.

Elizabeth forced herself toward the doorway to the grand hall and held her ear to the wall. The voices were loud, just out of sight.

This was it. She’d longed for a fairy tale world of her own, and now she’d find out if she was worthy of such adventure, if in this new world she’d finally find home or if she’d be no more acceptable than before. The risk terrified her. For the moment, she held hope that might never return, a pocket full of gold that, once spent, could not be retrieved.

Her eyes fell on the velvet curtains framing the foyer doorway, and she held her breath. It might be a fairy tale, but the entrance was a stage. And if there was nothing else Bebe tried to teach Elizabeth, it was how to enter a stage.

“Sock it to ‘em, Turtle,” Bebe would say. “No matter how hard you’re clutching the curtains backstage, when it’s your cue, you throw back them shoulders. Lift your chin and cram more life into those old peepers than ever before.”

Elizabeth went to the curtains, unable to see much besides the grandfather clock she’d noticed that afternoon — it seemed to have grown – and she clutched the deep red velvet, thinking of it as part of the method, a step in the spell.

Somewhere nearby, people laughed.

In her head, Elizabeth heard Bebe’s voice again.

“It’s like meeting a new dog for the first time. Gotta show the audience who’s boss. Slouch onto the stage, and you’re nothin’ but a cleaning woman for them to fling trash at.”

Elizabeth threw back her shoulders, rose to full height, and pasted on a vivid smile. Then she adjusted, wanting to be friendly, not maniacal.

It was going to work.

She stepped from the curtains, ready to perform…

And found an empty room.

That knocked the air right out of her fragile charade.

The voices were in the parlor — and not adult, as she’d hoped. She knew how to please adults. What she heard were teenagers, and Elizabeth knew teenagers to be the most bloodthirsty predators in this realm or any other.

Resting one damp hand against the clock’s side, she reminded herself — this was a new state, a new coast, a new terrain, new everything.

She’d think of these as a new species of teenagers.

And so they seemed.

Most of what she heard came from a boy whose tone was mischievous. He spoke of kings and queens, knights and dragons. A harpy. That last drew a snarl, and the boy’s voice sounded a bit out of breath amid shuffles and thumps, but the overall tone of the room seemed friendly, happy.

“Not content to scar the features of those who dared look upon her grotesque countenance…” Another scuffle, a giggle, a girl’s growl, and the boy laughed. “The harpy bulleted toward our hero, bent on stealing his prize.”

A girl spoke. “Harpies don’t have bullets, Mutant!”

“Our wise hero, however, knew better than to bear one prize only.”

The girl’s growls became a muffled shriek.

“In stealth,” said the boy, “he’d stolen the harpy’s treasure and held it now aloft, awaiting the foul creature’s move.”

In her fascination, Elizabeth lost track of her fear and was halfway across the foyer when there was a cry, a crash, and the illusion of another world shattered to the tune of The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari.” The shock of that was followed by fright as a young man in glasses walked into the foyer, thumb planted between his eyebrows, head down. The sinking that started with the Beach Boys went into full plummet. This was neither a Victorian ghost nor a crusading knight. Just a guy with sandy, slicked-down hair, a madras shirt, and ratty jeans.

He raised his face, yawned, and stretched.

This was it. He’d see her any second now.

Sure enough, he turned her way.

She braced herself.

And nothing happened. The boy looked right through her with utter calm.

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Written by Caroline

September 26, 2011 at 11:37

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