The two of us used to reenact The Snow Queen in the woods behind our house. We’d begin by lying on the lawn, and his cool fingers would squeeze my hand until my eyelids grew heavy and my breathing slowed. Then he would let go.
“Where are you going?” I’d call out as I grabbed his ankles, causing him to stumble when he tried to stand.
“Stop,” he’d tell me. “I don’t love you anymore. I love my queen.” He didn’t want to say such things, he didn’t even like the game, but I loved it and so he indulged me.
After that he would run into the woods. I would count to ten, and then go find him.
Once I found him in a pile of autumn leaves. He’d hidden in the tall branches of the old oak, and then fallen and skinned his knee. He didn’t cry, he never cried, but I did.
Sniffling, I rolled up his pant leg and picked up a yellow oak leaf from the forest floor. It wasn’t medicine, we both knew that, but still my brother let me rub it on his skin. “You found me,” he said.
“I will always find you,” I promised, and my little heart meant every word. It loved him more than it could stand, and so it could not conceive of a world where those words wouldn’t be true.
“I love you, Devi,” he said. I wanted him to call me Greta. Greta was the girl from The Snow Queen. She was the brother of Kai, the boy in the fairy tale who shared my own brother’s name.
Things would have turned out differently if my name really was Greta. She was the bringer of spring. She could suffer the winter and melt the ice around her brother’s heart. She would find Kai regardless of where he’d gone or who’d taken him.
But I’d been named Devi, and so after he was stolen I couldn’t find him, no matter how hard I tried.
No other girl under the age of 18 would be caught dead outside Morrison’s after 5pm, especially when the sky looked like the backdrop from an opening scene of a hardboiled mystery. The used bookstore’s turquoise and mustard yellow exterior had always reminded me of my grandmother’s psychedelic kitchen, and so conjured memories of unconditional love, burnt cookies and salmonella poisoning. Maybe that’s why I chose to spend Friday nights shuffling through the sale books on the outdoor rack instead of getting ready to hit the clubs or crash a party on the East side.
Unfortunately all they had out were the usual suspects—science fiction novels featuring giant reptiles shooting lightning from their bloodshot eyes, techno-thrillers, and old school romances a la Lilac Lovelace’s magnum opus Sweet Savage Sentiments. I skimmed a few chapters before closing it with savage disappointment.
You won’t find him here.
My fingers trembled, suddenly aware of the cold air, and the trashy book almost fell from them. That voice was so lonely and quiet—the voice of a child. I stumbled back. Don’t do this, I commanded, but I’d already shut my eyes, gone completely still, and made my breath as quiet as possible.
I listened for that voice to return. Only the sound of tires, the dull, throbbing beat from the strip club across the street, and my own internal silence responded.
He wasn’t there. It was just my mind playing tricks. I shut my eyes and stood. Don’t look, I told myself as my heartbeat raced. I just needed to keep my face forward, to bury myself in the pages of a book, any book. I couldn’t—
I glanced over my shoulder. Above the line of skyscrapers I could just barely make out the gray silhouette of the West hills. My house was hidden up there, behind the cedars, firs, and gnarled limbs of deciduous trees. Part of me longed to go home, drop my backpack by the front door, and curl up under the quilt on my bed to wait for sleep. But I couldn’t go home. Not yet. Night wouldn’t come for another few hours.
I looked away from the forested heights and returned my attention to the neon-lit heart of the city. The days were getting shorter, I reminded myself. Soon I’d be able to wander past that spot on the bluff where he’d disappeared without seeing every detail of the oak, the crumbling wooden gate, and the wide expanse of gray buildings far below. I’d still know those things existed in the dark, of course, but at least the images wouldn’t seduce my mind into playing that memory over and over—the one of my twin brother being taken by the man in white.
I wiped my sleeve across my eyes. Thinking about it shouldn’t have affected me this much after so many years, or at least that’s what everyone kept telling me.
A gust of freezing wind blew at my back. I crossed my arms over my chest and stared into Marilyn Monroe’s carefree smile. Ever since I was a kid the front window had featured that famous poster of her standing above the vent, pushing that little white dress over her legs. She looked warm and dry—I was kind of jealous.
The wind roared again. Marilyn’s face didn’t change but her dress seemed to twirl, perhaps due shadow of the twirling poppet nailed from a string on the overhang.
I blinked. Alright, I hadn’t just imagined it. A black doll no bigger than my hand danced in the breeze. Three pins stuck out of its chest, and pasted on its back were two feathers—one red, one white.
I suppressed a chill. That had to be new. Either that or someone was playing a joke on the pudgy, aging clerk; I doubted someone who wore freshly ironed polo shirts with little animals embroidered below the collar was into that sort of thing. Then again, whoever owned the place seemed to collect oddities. There was a dream catcher above the register, and the door to the storage room had been replaced by long strands of glow in the dark beads.
I rested my hand on the doorknob, debating whether or not to go inside. They probably wanted to close early. The only customers they’d get on a day like this were lunatics—well, lunatics and hopeless romantics with a fetish for the smell of dusty old books, which in their eyes probably amounted to the same thing.
My grip on the doorknob tightened. They hadn’t officially closed yet. A light still glowed from the back of the store and no one had flipped around that illegible, handwritten sign in the window I’d always assumed said “We’re Open.”
I glanced down at the florid pink book I still held and decided to check their romance section before I left. They had to have something better than Sweet Savage Sentiments.
Right as the thought entered my mind something hot built up in my throat, increasing in pressure until I could scarcely breathe.
Panic seized my chest. I tried to grip the doorknob but I couldn’t feel the cool metal beneath my fingertips anymore. Not now, I pleaded. It was always my first thought when the headaches started. My head pulsated as if my blood was trying to pump out of my skin. God, why did this have to happen—and so randomly, too? I was going to collapse. I had to get out of there before I passed out on the street. Already the gray, fall sky was blurring into the sidewalk. My palms hit my temple, slick with perspiration. Maybe the clerk inside…
Too late. I fell into the door and the bell above it jingled, signaling a visitor. No, singling me, gasping for breath and flopping around on the pavement like a fish. If it didn’t hurt so bad I would’ve laughed.
Two boots appeared in front of my face, so close I could feel the leather on the tip of my nose. A hand gripped my shoulder and a voice said something, maybe. Then everything faded.
Someone was trying to pound my chest into submission. Okay, okay, I conceded. But whatever was above me couldn’t read my mind. Instead of stopping it dragged something sharp across my collarbone.
Damn that stings. I placed my hand over the scratch and opened my eyes.
My long, black hair was plastered to my face. In between the strands I saw two slanted, yellow eyes staring back. I sucked in a breath as the mass of fur meowed and catapulted forward, pushing its wet nose into my chin.
“You’re finally up. Are you feeling better?” A man’s voice. It sounded contemplative and primal, as if someone were whispering a lament over a dying fire. Or perhaps it only seemed so enigmatic because I was half awake.
“I hope you’re not allergic to cats,” he continued.
Clack. Something was placed beside me. I rolled my head to the side. My temples still pounded lightly and my vision was still blurry. The fact that I was being attacked by kitty kisses probably didn’t help.
“Not allergic,” I croaked. I sniffed the mug on the table and grimaced. “Hate coffee,” I muttered.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a hand reach down to grip the mug and cringed, this time from pure shame. I wanted to explain that I wasn’t normally that selfish, but my tongue refused to move.
Luckily he just chuckled. “Be right back.” His footsteps grew distant and then inaudible, leaving me alone with the sound of the cat’s rhythmic purring.
I rubbed its sleek coat as my vision cleared. Dim light spilled over the walls from over a dozen candles. The way they were spaced around the room in a circle reminded me of a seance, but that’s where the similarities between this storage space and a midnight ritual ended. Instead of being sprawled across an altar dressed in something sheer and white, I was underneath a woolen blanket on a faded pink couch that smelled of coffee and dust. Bookcases lined the walls from floor to ceiling, and even more books were stacked in tall, uneven piles throughout the room.
Plus the cat that lapped at my fingers was orange and gray, not black.
The footsteps returned from behind. “Here’s some water.” A hand set down another mug and gave the cat an affectionate pat on the head. “Looks like I’m condemned to be eternally bossed around by temperamental women.”
Before I could respond or turn to face him the owner of the voice walked to the leather armchair in front of me and sat.
I stopped breathing. The man—no, not a man, for he couldn’t have been more than a few years older than me—was beautiful in that indie musician or starving poet kind of way. He wasn’t very tall, but long, lean muscles filled out every inch of his frame. His hair wasn’t long enough to hide the silver stud in his left ear, but it still covered most of his angular face. On his left forearm was a tattoo of a goat inside a triangular design, and on his right a tattoo of a Chinese-style dragon that seemed to dance over his skin when he moved.
His eyes watched me, unblinking. They were dark and green, like the forest in late spring after a rain. They somehow seemed as vast and deep as the woods as well; I felt as if I could step into them and disappear.
“Where am I?” I asked too softly, as if I didn’t want him to hear.
“In the back of Morrison’s.” He turned the book he’d been holding over. “You seem to have fainted while reading this,” he said and raised it up.
No, this couldn’t be happening. My cheeks turned as pink as the cover when he cracked open Sweet Savage Sentiments and began flipping through the pages.
He grinned when I gave no verbal response. “Was it really that good?”
A lump formed in my throat. This incredibly cute guy could not be reading that book in front of me. I would have dared him to read that book if it had been something by Laura Kinsale or Julia Quinn. But Sweet Savage Sentiments? With all that throbbing and trembling, and the countless engorged members…
Oh God, I had to get it back.
I sat up. The cat slid down my chest and into my lap, but continued to knead as if it hadn’t been interrupted. “Before you read any more I just want you to know that I didn’t really like it.” I said, and almost winced at how defensive my tone sounded. “I mean, I do like romance novels, but that particular one didn’t do it for me.”
He put down the book and rested his chin in his left hand. “Which ones do it for you, then?”
My chest began to heave. The cat thought that was great fun and began kneading my legs with more vigor, but the rapid clawing didn’t even faze me. How was I supposed to answer a question like that? And how could I have set such an obvious trap for myself? “You’re enjoying this way too much,” I replied, trying to change the subject.
He brushed his thumb over the book’s hot pink spine. I shivered. “Am I the only one…” he lowered his voice and leaned forward “…enjoying it?”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I gripped my hands into compact, deadly fists, grit my teeth, looked him in the eyes…
And laughed right in his face.
He leaned back with a bemused expression. “I didn’t expect that response.”
I choked on the air. “What did you expect, exactly?” I wheezed.
It took a moment for him to answer. “I don’t know. Something saucier, I suppose.”
I shook my head and stretched out my hand. “Something tells me you’ve had enough “sauce’ in your life. Now please give me back my book.”
He raised a brow. “But it’s not your book.”
“Well, I was going to buy it,” I replied smugly. It seemed like a harmless lie at the moment.
“So you weren’t going to put it back, then? Sweet Savage Sentiments does actually do it for you?”
I took a deep breath. I wasn’t going to let him fluster me that easily…again. “For 35 cents it most certainly does. Especially if it prevents a misunderstanding.”
“I just raised the price.” He grinned and held the book above his head as if I would try to jump for it. To my mortification I realized for a second that I had considered doing just that.
I actually huffed. “Do not make me result to underhanded measures.”
It was the wrong thing to say. He gave me a devastating smile. “Oh, I definitely wouldn’t mind.”
My breath caught in my chest. Misunderstood artsy types weren’t supposed to smile like that. They were supposed to glance at others condescendingly and ooze sarcastic witticisms. I felt like this guy was going to wiggle his eyebrows and ask me to “wrassle.”
If he had I might’ve even taken him up on it.
I looked down, suddenly uncomfortable with being in such a small space with a man I didn’t know. Even if he did work at Morrison’s. Even if he did have a soothing voice and just one look at him made me go weak in the knees.
Actually, especially because of all those things.
My torso tensed. I glanced left just in time to see a fly soar into the candle on the stool next to me.
The inside of its abdomen glowed like embers, then burst, feeding the flames as if it were an oil-soaked wick. Heat spread across my cheeks from either the fire, or my blood, I wasn’t sure. My throat went dry as that small, fragile body disintegrated.
Then the flame returned to its normal, subdued dance, as if nothing had happened.
My arms tightened around the cat. A sickening image seeped into my mind—one of it leaping from me and burning to ash before I could react. In return the kitty purred and licked my fingertips, but that gesture gave me little comfort. I couldn’t forget that almost soundless, pointless death. Hypnotically I stared into the flames and wondered why they still seemed so beautiful.
“You haven’t had any water,” the man said slowly, breaking the spell.
I nodded and reached for the glass. My trembling fingers almost knocked it over, but on my third try I got a good grip and took a sip. It tasted a bit metallic, but familiar. I shut my eyes.
“Did that bother you?”
I knew exactly what he was talking about—the fly. I nodded and tucked my chin into my chest, wondering why he’d asked. Obviously I’d been upset. In fact, I still was.
I set down the cup. Why did my throat still feel so dry even after that sip of water? Why did he ask that question when I was obviously upset by it?
“I’ve never understood it,” he began. “When people do it we glorify them, and yet when an animal does it, or a creature even more insignificant, like a fly, we either laugh at their stupidity or feel pity because we believe their sacrifice to be pointless.”
“Do what?” I asked with a hoarse voice.
“A man killing himself in the pursuit of his dreams is no different than a moth flying into a flame. Like Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, or…” he picked up a complete volume of Keats’ letters beside his seat, “insert-your-favorite-Romantic-poet-here.”
“Keats is one of my favorites,” I said absently.
“Mine too.” He looked down. His voice sounded distant then, as if a millennium of sorrow were contained in those two words—just as a Romantic poet can transcribe years of tragedy in a single phrase or stanza. Then he continued: “It’s inconsistent, don’t you think? We should either reduce humanity to the level of the insect when it comes to heroic or romantic yearnings, or ennoble the fly.”
He glanced up from the candle, back at me. I couldn’t read his expression. His eyes were guarded, or at least they seemed so behind his dark hair. They captured the image of the fire like a mirror—a reflection of a gold and red dancing on the surface of a green pool.
His finger slid over his bottom lip. I couldn’t tear my gaze from the fluid movement. There was something conspiratorial about it, as if he were about to impart a secret of great importance.
“Do you want to get something to eat?” He asked.
My heartbeat hammered in my neck. My limbs froze. The kitty noticed the change in my demeanor immediately. She stood and started rubbing her head against my stomach with a vengeance. “What?” I croaked, suddenly tongue-tied as the cat’s tail tickled my chin.
“I wouldn’t feel right letting you stumble home after my merchandise caused you to collapse on my doorstep. I need to make sure you’re safe.”
Oh, that was it. He thought I might sue him or the place—he wasn’t asking me out or anything. I leaned back. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not actually your doorstep?”
“Yes it is. I own the place.”
I raised one of my brows. This pierced, tattooed guy with ripped jeans and a tight black t-shirt was the owner of a store where the average customer’s age was at least 55? “How old are you?”
“Not too old, in this incarnation anyway.” He smiled again. “I recently inherited it.”
“Lucky you,” I said, and resumed petting the impatient cat. “I love this place, and am glad it went to someone who wants to keep it open instead of selling it to a developer.”
“You really think I should keep it open? I’ve heard most people don’t read anymore, and those that do prefer ebooks. I could probably sell it for a good price and settle down—”
“You can’t seriously be thinking of selling!” I felt my cheeks get hot. I took a deep breath, swallowed “I mean, Morrison’s has been here forever, and…”
“And?” He repeated when I didn’t finish.
I sighed. “And I just realized you were teasing me.”
“So why don’t you tell me more about how happy you are that this ancient, crumbling building is still in place? We can head over to Dixie’s next door.” He stood and parted the long strings of glow-in-the-dark beads that hung over the door with a dramatic flick of the wrist. “I’ll pay.”
“That offer is tempting, but I have homework.” The words were out before I could stop them. I almost hit myself in the head. No, that wasn’t what I’d meant to say. I mean, I did have homework, but I could do it later. Or just forget about it.
I bit my lip. Maybe I hesitated because stuff like this never happened to girls like me who wore secondhand clothes every day.
“What subject? I’ll help you.”
I looked at my lap to hide my smile. I couldn’t believe he’d actually offered to help me with homework. I told myself he probably didn’t mean it, but I couldn’t stop that giddy, warm feeling in my stomach.
“History,” I told him.
“Good, I know a lot about history.”
I shook my head. “Alright.”
He grinned. “You’re easy, I like that.”
I didn’t really have a response. I guess I was easy.
Then he was on his knees in front of me. “Come here Princess,” he cooed.
My pulse spiked. I wondered if I should I slap him or “come here.” Then I realized he was talking to the cat.
He cradled her in his arms as she squirmed and hissed, then set her down on a lavish purple pillow accented with golden tassels. “See what I said about temperamental women? You aren’t going to give me that much trouble, are you?”
”I don’t intend to,” I replied.
“Yeah,” he said wearily and looked away as we made our way through the maze-like rows of bookshelves to the front of the store.
“I just realized I don’t know your name,” I said.
“It’s Oz,” he responded without turning around.
I couldn’t help but smile. “As in The Wizard of…?”
This time he did turn and nod with a smile.
“No need to make that face with me. My name is Devi,” I explained. “I don’t really look it, but my grandmother was from India.”
“It’s a beautiful name,” he said, and leaned against the door.
The last light of day peeked through the space between his body and the door frame. Lovely, I thought. It was my last coherent thought.
Pain. It pierced my skull, pumped through my veins, burned like acid as if it were liquidating my body. I couldn’t see. Couldn’t think. I barely even felt the sting as my knees hit the tile floor.
“Stop. Stop,” I screamed, and to wiggle through the doorway. Tried to get away. My arms twisted and convulsed like they had popped out of the ground in front of a tombstone in a B-horror movie.
“Hey.” The voice sounded distant, like it was a memory of mine from long ago. The only thing that felt real was the pounding, the nausea, the blood as my teeth sank through my tongue. I whimpered. Even my throat was on fire.
And then something touched my shoulder, and it stopped.
I felt nothing but the chill from the white tiles beneath my palms, the cold bite of autumn wind on my cheeks, and something warm gently rubbing my back. Even the taste of blood in my mouth was gone.
“Easy,” Oz said, and pulled me to my feet with those same strong hands that had so sweetly petted that cat and given me water. He held my shoulders as I gained my balance. “Are you okay?”
No, this couldn’t be real. This had never happened before. Nothing ever made the pain stop but running as if the devil himself was on my heels.
“What did you do?” My voice wavered. Fear, I realized. It crawled through my limbs, made any movement other than shaking impossible.
He swallowed. For a split second the smile on his face faltered, and he looked down. “What do you mean?” He asked evenly.
My breath came in short, rapid bursts. He was hiding something. Every cell in my body knew it. And yet the very instinct that recognized it prevented me from calling him on it.
His grip on me tightened. I shut my eyes and asked that same question again with different words: “How did you stop the pain?”
Copyright © 2011 Katherine Pine, all rights reserved.