Rain hissed across the cobbles in one of the few alleys blighted and benighted enough not to have been asphalted over. Beneath a hooded light the fine drops formed a cone above a featureless steel door.
The door flew open with a bang and a bald giant turned on his heel and pitched his burden into the alley, where it skidded across the cobbles carving a wave out of the pool of rainwater.
“I told you,” the giant yelled at the sodden creature, “you keep your hands outta people’s pockets! You come back here again, I’ll shut your head in the door.”
He slammed the door just as the creature leapt to its feet, a girl, 96 pounds soaking wet, which she certainly was. She punctuated the air with a series of profanities that verged on the ultrasonic.
The door opened again.
“You gonna get home OK?” the giant asked.
“Fuck you, Shark!”
She pitched a loose cobble against the quickly re-closed door.
The creature’s ratty black hair stood end despite the rain. The face itself was deathly pale and, what with the rain, raccoonish. She wore a St. Vinnie’s worth of jewelry around her skinny neck.
She angrily pulled her outsized leather bike jacket together over a Youth, Inc. baby doll and stalked off down the alley. She stopped to kick a crate behind the Chinese restaurant until the cook ran out, cursing at her in Cantonese to get lost.
As she stepped out of the alley she gave the cook the finger. A delivery truck passing by on the street kicked up a tidal wave of rainwater, redrenching her from head to foot, all the way down to her skin. Dogs howled for blocks around as she cursed the driver. She looked west up Center, ruing the 10 blocks, most of them hills, that she’d have to walk freezing cold and soaking wet.
An orphan who’d run away from her foster parents a year before, she’d been sleeping for the last three months in an undertaker’s spare room, which fit her sense of style just fine. Plus, the coffin she liked was more comfortable than any bed she’d ever slept in.
The mortician, Leo, had as little affection for the law as she did and, never having married or having children, he never felt the need to play dad.
She had taken about a dozen steps up the street when the ring she wore, the only thing she had of her mom’s, felt warm, then suddenly hot. She
shook her hand and walked on. Something tugged on her hand, like she was caught on something. She pulled hard at it but that only increased the sensation. Suddenly she was jerked around by her ring hand and pulled back down the street, heels skidding on the wet ground. She spun around and dug in until she stopped.
The truck that had splashed her was stopped. Two beefy meatheads had climbed out and were leaning over something.
“Nothing we can do,” said the bald one. “Third strike, right?” he asked the younger, skinny one with lank hair that fell in his eyes. “Come on. Listen, there’s nothing we can do but get in trouble.” The bald one jumped up onto the running board and the skinny one pulled himself away reluctantly. Gears clashed and the truck pulled away.
They’d left something behind in the gutter. She peered closer. A yellow thread of glittering cobweb ran from her ring to the crumpled thing in the street. She felt a disinclination to look any closer but couldn’t stop herself. A girl, her age.
She felt uneasy, disoriented.
Leo will know what to do, she thought. She turned again to leave, make her way back to the mortuary. But the cobweb of gold still pulled at her, like a boa constrictor, pulling her closer to the body in the street with every breath. She huffed in disgust.
“Fine!” she said to no one in particular. She stooped to grab the body, awkwardly hoisting it up and surprised when it turned out to be light. She heaved the girl over her right shoulder and made her stoop-shouldered way up the hill.
Leo better be awake, she thought.
That first night she’d slipped in silently through an open basement window. No one else would have fit but she was as thin as a knife blade, always had been. By the dim reflection of a yard light, she saw a series of gleaming objects about waist-high, tables maybe. But when she reached out her hand to one, it was not flat on top but recessed and the inside was soft and satiny. A coffin, she laughed. Perfect.
She pulled herself up over the lip of the black one and stretched out. She had never felt anything so comfortable. She fell asleep profoundly and immediately.
When she opened her eyes a little later, it was a lot later. And there was an old guy in a ratty sweater standing over her, peering at her face through his rimless glasses. She tensed up, expecting him to do something pervy. He didn’t. He just said, quite softly, “Don’t mess up the satin, Coffin Girl,” and shuffled back up the stairs and her eyes, quite alarmingly, closed again and she slept until the sun went down.
When she reached the mortuary at the top of the street, the yellow porch light was on, which it usually wasn’t, and Leo was peering out of a crack in the door, his worn, mustard-yellow cardigan pulled around him against the chill.
“Hurry on, Coffin Girl,” he said, waving her up the steps, “going to catch my death.”
She headed for the Victorian front parlor, with its titanic couch on lion-knobbed feet. If Leo was there, he sometimes brought in tea, a subject he was very conversant in.
She headed for the couch, to lay the dripping body down on it, when Leo shook his head and pointed at the door to the cellar stairs. He opened it and flipped on the switch and she made her way carefully down to the bottom landing. She swiveled to hip the door to the coffin room open.
“Wait,” he said, pulling a ring of keys from the pocket of the cardigan. He unlocked the door opposite to hers, a steel door that Leo had never allowed her to enter. Her boots bonged on the short riser of perforated metal steps that led down to the floor. Here Leo did the bulk of his work, cleaning the bodies, repairing them. She’d heard him knocking around sometimes and humming when she was sleeping.
The room was a mate to the coffin room she slept in, rectangular, front to back. But this one had a drain in the floor and several metal tables with large rubber wheels that could be locked. One wall was occupied by floor-to-ceiling bookcase. Sheaves of paper and even what looked like a crystal ball on a bronze base punctuated rows of bound volumes in red and orange leather. A heavy wooden table, pitted and scarred with chemical spills sat against the short wall.
There was only one body already in the cool room, a middle-aged sheriff’s deputy who’d got it from panicked meth-head. He lay against the far wall under a sheet.
By the light of a small gas jet, Leo lit a hurricane lamp, trimmed the wick and set it on the table. No electricity ran to this room. He sprinkled some gemlike yellow and orange substance he took from a small lidded box on the bookcase into the dish around the bottom of the lamp. The heat released a lively fragrance that seemed to chase the shadows back into the corners and relieve the room’s stygian gloom.
“Angel’s tears,” he said, winking and gesturing to the incense. “Now put the body right here on this table.” She put the girl down on one of the metal tables.
“And you lie down right here.” He indicated an unoccupied table.
“Leo, look at the ring she’s wearing.”
“Hush. Just lie down.” She did. He began his funny humming and chanting under his breath, singing or praying or whatever it was. And whatever it was, it, along with the living light from the lamp and the scent of the incense and the glister of the web that ran between her ring and the other girl’s, eased a tension within her she didn’t realize she had. She drifted into sleep.
When she woke, it was in her coffin. Honking on the street outside came in the basement window, along with a sunlight whose tenor and directness indicated late afternoon.
She hopped out of the coffin onto the cold concrete floor. She was barefoot and wearing a high-collared cotton night dress. She froze.
“Leo saw me naked!” She thought about it. Embarrassing. But Leo wasn’t a perv. The afternoon sunlight caught her ring and her ring seemed to reach out for it and capture it. It was more yellow than usual. The ring, the only personal effect she had when she was abandoned at the hospital, had a floral-incised band of some yellowish metal, not gold, that widened gently into an oval on top. A large lemon-colored citrine sat in a raised setting in the center of the shield. She turned her hand slowly back and forth in the sunlight. It struck her as even more beautiful than it normally did.
She poked around underneath the trestling of the coffin until she found her slippers. She shrugged into the dark blue terrycloth robe that hung on a wall hook and headed up the stairs.
Leo was sitting in the kitchen at the yellow linoleum-and-chrome table reading the newspaper. He smiled when she entered and nodded at the teapot. It was still warm. Lady fingers. Uh-oh. Leo only brought out the ladyfingers when something heavy was on his mind.
“Spill it, Leo,” she said, cupping her chilled hands around the paper-thin bone china.
“Your spirit carried you home.”
Coffin Girl stared at Leo, slack-jawed, until he reached over and closed her mouth with a small clack.
“If it had been anyone but you. Listen. Or if you had left your ring at home…”
“You’d be dead now.”
“Wait,” she said. “What?”
“You ever break a bone?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I broke my arm once. I fell off a wall.”
“Well, although your arm is perfectly healed, that place where the broken bone knitted back together will always be the weakest point on your arm, OK? If you strike or bend your arm with enough force, it will break in the same spot. And it will break sooner than someone who never had a broken arm. In much the same way, now that you, eh, died, in a way, the potential for that same break is there.”
“But,” she hesitated. “I’m OK now?”
“You’re OK now, Coffin Girl.” He patted her on the arm briefly, which for Leo was like hugging her and breaking into tears, then took himself off to the sink to wash out his cup.
The next time it happened was the next time Shark threw her out of the Viaduct. She skidded into the corner of the dumpster, opening up a gash on her head, knocking her spirit out of her body and skipping it off the wall behind and down into the depths of the alley where the light didn’t penetrate.
“Oh, no, no, no!” Shark cried, running to the apparently insensate girl and cradling her body in his enormous arms. “I didn’t . . .”
Just then, Coffin Girl’s spirit hit the end of her tether and snapped back into her body. She rolled halfway to the street and wound up with Shark on top of her.
“Perv!” she screamed, catching him upside the head with an outsized handbag containing, among other things, a Maglite the size of her forearm. She stepped over the insensate bouncer and headed for the street.
“No need to tell Leo about that,” she said to herself. Her self agreed.
Summer came in, velvety and humid, just like she liked it. But with it came the Riff Raff. That was her name for them.
The Charleston Section, where she lived with Leo, included the east side of the Hill and all the streets that led down to the water south of Ariadne Park.
By that time, she had “split” a dozen times. The third time was when she panicked. She was cornered shoplifting at Norgren’s, the big department store, by some hair-raising bitch in clown make-up and just reacted without thinking. But the fourth time, it was on purpose. She wondered if she could just make it happen. It took weeks of trying before she succeeded splitting at will and then only for a couple of seconds and a couple of feet.
She told Leo. She told him more the longer she lived with him. He found it interesting, but worrying.
“You’re a little more dead, and a little more alive, than most people,” he said.
She practiced staying split for a longer and longer time at greater and greater distance. The last time, she stayed split for two hours and her spirit made it two and a half blocks down the hill before she couldn’t sustain it any more. She could also make her body move, though more sluggishly than her spirit, and her spirit visible, though it remained less substantial than her body. It was like each was borrowing aspects of the other. The problem was that it resulted in a blinding headache and the inability to use her knees. For every minute she was split she needed three to fully recover.
As she gained more control over both parts of herself, she found she could hear and see, smell and feel, in stereo. More than that, she could sense something more, something else, something other, which Leo, with a grin, called her “dead reckoning.” He said he had it too, a little. But not like her. He said you couldn’t spend as much time as he had around the dead and not learn a few things. But spending time around the dead and being dead yourself, to even a minor degree, are different.
So that was why, one evening when she went dancing to Flowers for Algernon at the Viaduct, that she felt the Riff Raff come into the Charleston Section before she saw them. She stopped cold in the middle of the sweating, pancaked vampires and arsenic ghouls and turned slowly in a half circle, her eyes half-closed, until she could feel the icy burn of their presence full on.
She felt them close the distance until they walked through the club doors, two men and a woman, their shoes perfect. The men, alike as twins, grey suit jackets and red ties and black Homburgs, the woman, a blood-red burgundy sheath dress with a heavy silver chain of rubies in silver surrounds. All were blond, the men straw-colored and razored short and the woman platinum and wavy, and all had the deadest eyes and the fakest smiles Coffin Girl had ever seen.
The men took off their hats and scanned the crowd and the woman pointed. Straight at her. The crowd seemed to part, unaware, opening in an aisle that broadened as the Riff Raff approached. When they stopped, they were still some paces off. The sound all around her had dampened.
“You are a hard young lady to find,” said the woman she immediately named Elsa She-Wolf of the SS.
Coffin Girl looked at the crowd out of the corner of her eyes. They continued to dance, seemingly unaware of the Riff Raff and the strange drop-off of sound.
“Who are you?”
“Think of us as the truant officers that have finally caught up with you,” she said.
She could run out of the all-ages area, thought Coffin Girl, into the beer garden and along the waist-high rail that separated it from the dance floor, down the stairs, past the bathroom in the corridor stacked with cases of beer and out the back exit. Or she could run around the back of the cloak room, into the kitchen of the Greek diner next door, into its dining room and out its greasy glass door onto Florence Avenue. Or she could do both.
Magnus appeared on the mezzanine opposite the beer garden. Magnus was the owner of the Viaduct. He had a mane of white hair and dressed like an extra from Dark Shadows. He wore a smoking jacket and an ascot fastened with a sapphire stick-pin. He carried a walking stick topped by a crystal the size of a golf ball. Unlike his customers, Magnus saw the Riff Raff instantly. His whistle cut through the Flowers’ dirge and he pointed with his stick. Bouncers headed in their direction. By the time the Riff Raff looked away from Magnus, Coffin Girl was already running.
“There!” hissed the woman through bone-white teeth. One of the men touched her shoulder and pointed in the opposite direction.
“Go!” she ordered. They went, Horst running after the figure who was sidling along the rail of the beer garden and Heino toward the one that was heading for the cloak room.
Thanks to Shark, Coffin Girl had become aware that if her spirit suddenly let go when she was split, it would snap back into her body. The greater the tension, the faster the reunion and the more energy at the point of impact.
She tried not to do this because it hurt. This usually involved some involuntary ass-over-teakettling. But she could do it on purpose if she needed to.
Her body, though it was getting harder to distinguish it from her spirit when they were split, shuffled through the crowded beer garden and danced down the stairs at triple-speed. She jumped the last four steps and turned the corner by the restrooms. Three girls shrieked wide-eyed and jumped back into the women’s bathroom as she caromed off the walls of the narrow hallway, skipping out of the way of shoulder-high stacks of empties.
She reached out to grab the bar across the exit door when a hand grabbed her by the collar. Her feet flew out from underneath her and she landed on her back, expelling all the air from her lungs.
Her nominal spirit, after dashing around the back of the cloak room, ran through the short hall to the side door of the diner. On the other side of the door was hung once-white Naugahyde saloon doors. She barged through into the kitchen, startling the Peruvian dishwasher, who squealed and tossed a grey plastic tub full of spatulas and warming trays into the air. She shot down the aisle between the prep table and the serving counter, gaining traction and speed on the perforated rubber mats. Her pursuer banged the swinging doors so hard one cracked and fell off its hinge. He shot down the opposite aisle, by the stoves, knocking Makis and his assistant cook out of the way to a chorus of Hellenic profanity, rounding the end of the heating table to block the door from the kitchen into the dining room. He grabbed her by one hand and used her momentum to slam her into the wall. He held her there stunned. She gasped raggedly for a moment before blinking the pain away and focusing. She looked at him. And then smiled.
Like the last eighth-inch of a bullwhip, Coffin Girl’s spirit cracked and shot back along the golden web that had played out from her body. The force of her departure had the same effect on Heino that striking the bass string of a guitar on which a fly was resting would have on the fly. He sling-shotted against the support poles of the warming counter, dinging its head-high shelf, and onto the mats, which piled up beneath him as he spun under the bottom lip of the pizza oven and wedged there.
If you had been sitting in the beer garden you would have seen two servers, trays full of beers and mixed drinks puffed out of the way by the passage of an invisible train. People were blown off the stairs and the girls from the bathroom got sprayed with the foam from a case of broken beer bottles before they staggered bawling back into the bathroom.
She reunited with her body with the force of a bomb in a dumpster. The reunified Coffin Girl struck her captor like meteor, propelling him into the long steel push-bar of the door, telescoping his arm into his shoulder and blasting the door open. She rag-dolled 50 feet through the gravel to land on her feet. She took off running, wobbly but exhilarated, flipping Horst off and screaming with laughter.
Coffin Girl hadn’t let the Riff Raff get her down. Nights she spent dancing at the small number of all-ages clubs and discos that favored her brand of music. Days, she helped out around Leo’s place or nosing around in used clothing and junk shops and sometimes, like now, sitting on the rough stone of the seawall, blowing on a paper cup of tea and watching the ferries criss-cross the Sound.
Given that the majority of the habitués of the clubs she hung out at were the sons and daughters of privilege, of stock brokers and doctors from the island, who were slumming for a while, and she was the real deal, 100%, down to her boots, she had a sense of personal moment for the first time in her life.
She had even picked up some friends along the way. She couldn’t talk to them about the splitting, which was OK, because there was plenty else to talk about. Wilson was a homeless kid with a skull-and-bones fixation, Robin, a fat girl with an evil sense of humor over an essential sweetness, and Gabe, short for Heliogabalus (uncharacteristically, his real name, which she knew because he’d shown her his driver’s license), whom she had a little bit of a crush on.
Most of the people who ran in Coffin Girl’s circles looked like raccoons who’d run face-first into bags of flour, then gotten tangled in the costume-jewelry tree at a head shop. Gabe, however, had fine features and wore pipe-cleaner slacks, pointy black Italian shoes, fitted suit jacket and skinny tie.
A lot of dating in her circle, for the girls anyway, was a stealthy endogamy. The boys, if they were interested in anything but cultivating an air of world-weariness, were more likely to be interested in each other. No so Gabe, though. She could tell. Problem was, so could all the other girls. But he didn’t bring them a rose, like he did her when they met one night at the Blue Bulb.
The rose sat in a jam jar on Leo’s kitchen table, deep red against the cheery yellow of the walls. She turned it this way and that admiring it.
“You should think about staying in more often,” Leo grumbled, uncharacteristically.
Her toast screeched to a halt halfway to her mouth, which hung open.
“It’s dangerous. That’s all I’m saying.”
Leo never told her what to do. Never made her go to school or eat right. Nothing. Just led by example. It was an example she often took. But not always.
“Those three in the club.”
“The Riff Raff?” She snorted. “I’m not afraid of them.”
He rapped his spoon impatiently on the table.
“You ought to be. You well ought to be! They are very dangerous.”
“If they’re so dangerous,” she said, faltering somewhat, she didn’t want to leave and was afraid he’d agree, “then why would I stay here? It’s not exactly Fort Knox around here. I got in.”
“You got in because it was OK for you to get in,” said Leo cryptically. He stood up. “Come with me. I’m going to show you something.”
He led her to the top floor of the old house, to the back bedroom nobody used. The door protested on unused hinges when he pushed it open. He pointed to the opposite, outside corner. There yellowish crystals had been wired around a loop of thin reddish branch and hung from a set of four molly screws set in such a way as to cover the outside corner at an angle.
“Rowan,” he said.
He led her into the other corner rooms on the top floor.
“Bone,” he said, pointing to a concatenation of polished white cylinders on golden wire. “Iron,” he said in another. “Silver” he said in the last.
“In all four corners, on every floor, from the attic to the basement, this house, is protected.”
“Holy Crap!” said Coffin Girl.
Coffin Girl, Gabe and Robin leaned against the wall at Atavism, listening to Ernest and the Borgnines play. It was the record release party for their single, “Borg 9 from Outer Space.” Coffin Girl clutched the 45 to her chest.
“Leo’s got a ‘Victrola,’” she explained.
“Cool,” said Robin. Robin had gotten herself and Coffin Girl in by producing two flawless pieces of fake ID. They stood with two yellow Sidecars in sugar-crusted martini glasses, trying to appear world-weary, which was difficult because the drinks were like candy. Delicious, delicious candy.
As the audience clapped with exaggerated ennui, Coffin Girl surveyed the crowd through her drink, turning them all into an Andres Serrano photograph, murky and submerged, not to mention yellow. The yellowiest yellow in Yellowtown. She was starting to feel the drink.
“What’s wrong?” asked Gabe.
The Riff Raff had suddenly appeared at the side door, all three stock-still and staring in her direction, their hair glowing red-gold in the light of the exit sign.
“Who are they?” asked Robin, following her gaze.
“The living dead,” said Coffin Girl. “Either that or we are.”
She turned abruptly to run out the front, reasoning that her friends would probably be let alone if the Riff Raff were after her. Heino got there first, impossibly fast. She shot a look back over her shoulder. The Horst still stood at the one exit. Elsa, She-Wolf of the SS, was gliding across the dance floor to cover the other.
She headed for that one now, hoping to reach it before Elsa did. Gabe fell in behind her but Robin held her back with one arm and took point. She started to object but Robin just shook her head and pointed. Elsa had turned back at the edge of the stage to block the exit just as the Borgnines launched into the thunderous hurdy-gurdy of “Bodacious Uliet.”
Robin turned sideways to Elsa, looking like a small black battleship wrapped in purple bunting, and cupped her hand, as though she were holding something. She raised her hand and the bare yellow bulb that lit the stairwell beyond the exit shone through her fingers. From Coffin Girl’s perspective it looked like she was holding a rough ball of hazy yellow light.
As she closed with Robin, Elsa laughed derisively, a saw-edged laugh that cut through the music and seemed to part the noise around them.
“Out of my way, hedge witch,” she said. The fingers of both her hands were describing strange shapes, off-putting to Coffin Girl’s eyes. Robin reached out and clapped the blonde on the chest with her open palm. To Coffin Girl’s shock a blaze of yellow light flashed across the woman’s torso accompanied by a concussive boom that tore apart the unnatural silence she’d created. Like water past a breached dam, the music raced in, foaming over the broken boulders of the woman’s will. The force propelled her backward against the door jam, ricocheting her into the gear-choked gully between the side of the stage and the wall.
Heino ran toward them. At the last moment, Gabe lunged backward, bending deep like a fencer, and lashed out with his fist, knuckles flat, right in the solar plexus. The twin stepped back, winded but not undone, and fumbled for something behind his back.
He came up with a shiny, nickel-plated automatic, but before he could use it, Gabe stepped in again, wrapped his fingers around Heino’s gun-hand and pulled it toward him, like they were going to tango. Instead, he turned his hip, using Heino’s momentum against him, and slammed an elbow into his temple as he passed.
Gabe herded the girls out the exit door. Shark began to explain that the emergency exit was, in point of fact, only for emergencies which did not include a simple desire to leave quickly. Robin explained they were running from a nut with a gun and described him. He looked hard at Coffin Girl then finally nodded at the door and went inside, pulling a leather cosh filled with lead beads out of his back pocket.
Wadded up like abandoned coats in a horseshoe-shaped booth at Steve’s Broiler half an hour later, the three friends leaned over cheap ceramic coffee cups full of hot tea and gazed out the plate-glass windows onto First. Wilson was waiting there for them, nursing a soda.
Coffin Girl was not used to being the weirded-out one in any group but she made an exception for this one.
“What,” she said, “is a ‘hedge witch’?”
Robin and Gabe exchanged looks.
“Untrained,” said Robin with a shrug. Gabe grinned.
“But powerful,” he said. “Everybody’s got their something, you know. Wilson has a highly developed sense of intuition, which is why we went out with you tonight. He had one of his little moments.”
“You? . . .” she inarticulated to Gabe.
“I study, I learn,” he said. “It doesn’t do to talk too much about things like this in an unprotected space.”
Coffin Girl watched as a dish of blackberry cobbler valiantly but vainly fought a rearguard action against Robin’s depredations. Wilson turned up his glass and she could hear the clack of ice cubes against his teeth. Stirring milk into his with soft dings of his spoon, Gabe stared out the window.
A block away, hidden behind a dumpster, three figures, hardly more than ragged shadows, stared back.
“Well,” she said, “I have something to tell you.”
They stood around a makeshift fireplace of broken bits of brick and cinder block in the middle of a great abandoned machine parts factory. The fire burned on the polished concrete floor, its smoke, blue in the moonlight, sucked out through a jagged plane of milky broken glass in one of the great, multi-paned metal windows that ran all the way down the side of the building that faced the slough. On the floor around them Robin had scrawled weird symbols with a burnt stick.
Anymore, and for quite a while, magic, for lack of a better word, has been the province of the unattended, like us,” Gabe said. “Why do you think so many street people are mumbling to themselves? They’re not all gibbering about how the university psychology department and the Russians are after them. Although, that’s another story. Most of them are where they are because their gifts are either unappreciated or have attracted undue attention. Either way, they’re of more danger to themselves than to others. So, meeting us was a stroke of good fortune, though, given your situation, it was inevitable you should have come across some of us. But some are better than others. To be honest, our meeting wouldn’t have happened without Wilson. He was like a sheep dog, finding Robin, nosing her in such a way that she’d meet me, then herding us and you together.”
“It’s time we take the Riff Raff out,” Gabe said, after a long silence.
“How do you know?” asked Coffin Girl. “Maybe they won’t come back.”
“I know because Wilson knows.”
Wilson grinned and winked, then pointed at her, between bites, with one of the breadsticks he found in a dumpster behind an Italian restaurant.
“You know how we met?” Gabe asked her. She shook her head.
“Wilson met Robin first. He had a feeling he should be in such-and-such a place. And when he got there, he recognized that Robin was the one he was there for, and what she was.”
“I just thought she was interesting,” said Wilson. He sat down cross-legged by the fire. Robin sat down, legs stuck out in front of her, and touching his.
“Sometime later, Wilson had a feeling. He and Robin needed to go up north. They were going to meet someone. It was important. Robin said why not. They should go to a certain café on the beach, Wilson said, at a certain time, just in time to see me involved in a dispute that wasn’t my making.
“After some time living together, mostly camping on the strand, Wilson stuck his head up one day and said, ‘It’s time!’ Just like that. Like it was the most normal thing.
For what?’ I asked. He didn’t know, he said, but we made our way here anyway. Wilson’s not magic exactly. I mean, that’s a stupid word anyway.”
“It’s not either,” said Robin.
“But it’s misleading,” he said. She shrugged. “All we know is that whatever memory is, what Wilson has is the opposite of that, but it’s related to it. And I haven’t ever seen him be wrong. He only says something when that feeling is real. And he knows when it is.”
“He makes it sound like I know what I’m doing,” said Wilson. “I don’t. I just got a feeling, I say so. If I don’t do what the feeling says, I get scared, sick almost.”
“Like the Riff Raff is dangerous and will be back,” said Coffin Girl.
“Nah,” said Wilson. “Anybody could tell that.”
“Like we need to deal with them,” said Gabe. “And that we need to do it tonight.”
“Like that, yeah.”
They approached Atavism in a diamond formation. Gabe was on point, Wilson followed and Robin was on Coffin Girl’s right, nearest the street.
Coffin Girl experience a mix of trepidation and anticipation. The latter was due to the fact that the act scheduled to perform was Zombie’s Got a Hall Pass, one of her favorite bands.
The walked right past the bouncer who seemed for all the world not to see them. They sprawled over the lower benches of the old wood bleachers that served as seating in the all-ages area of the club.
“What are we doing?” asked Coffin Girl.
“Just waiting,” said Gabe.
The club started to fill up with freaks, zombies, vampires and all-purpose weirdies, the usual crowd. Some of them Coffin Girl knew and waved at, others were greeted by Robin and Wilson. Eventually, the dance floor was filled with milling youth and the house lights went down as the stage lights went up.
Coffin Girl saw that Robin’s collar tabs were rhinestoned with bits of yellow glass. Gabe wore a yellow stickpin in his tie and Wilson had a yellow metal star on a cord around his skinny neck. They all caught the light in a pleasing way.
“There,” said Wilson, pointing to the right of the state. A moment later, Elsa walked out.
“Honestly,” Robin said. “She doesn’t have another dress?” She hopped up and lit out across the floor with no hesitation, making small, complicated movements with her hands.
“And…cue goons,” said Wilson, pointing at the entrance with one hand and the opposite side of the stage with the other, while looking at neither.
“Stay with Coffin Girl,” Gabe said to him, jumping off the side of the risers and heading toward the twin who appeared at the foot of the stage.
Robin and Elsa met at in the middle of the dance floor. The band struck up and music rushed over them. Robin gestured and the noise seemed to flow around her like a river around a rock. All around them the crowd pulsed and jumped. Elsa and Robin circled one another and the crowd pushed out, as though they were dancing together and the crowd were giving them room.
“Hedge witch!” spat Elsa. “I hate you so much.”
“That’s an awful dress,” Robin replied. Then she shot a refrigerator-sized chunk of darkness at the blonde. It hit her like a bus, folding her up and sending her sprawling, outlined in deep purple sparks
Horst pulled a knife from his belt and lunged at Gabe.
“An occulted Nazi officer’s knife?” Gabe said, rolling his eyes. “You creatures would be dangerous if you weren’t so predictable.” He turned to avoid a second lunge, turned again and staggered his opponent with a blow to the neck. Horst sliced open the back of Gabe’s hand with a twitch of his wrist and smiled.
“Oh, no,” Gabe said, dead-pan. “Poison. I’m going to die.” The twin’s smile grew puzzled.
“You really don’t know what I am, do you boy?” asked Gabe. He laughed, then he swiveled at the hip and caught him with a left hook to the floating rib. The twin answered with a jab to Gabe’s groin, leading him to drop his right. He came in high, stabbing Gabe halfway to the hilt under his right collarbone.
Wilson flinched and jumped up.
“Stay here,” he told Coffin Girl. He ran down in front of the bleachers to interpose himself between Coffin Girl and Heino, who had spotted them and came at a trot, reaching behind him for the automatic.
Wilson was no fighter. Not in the traditional sense. He didn’t have the instinct for it. All he had was the ability, just before a fist or a bottle or a knife or a bullet hit, to be just slightly somewhere else. So he just was where Heino wasn’t and wasn’t where he was, driving him into a furious lather that quickly became blood-flecked, then mostly blood and then the twin was flat out on the floor and Wilson was trying to push him under the bleachers with the toe of his Converse. He kicked the gun to the far side of the floor where it disappeared under dozens of dancing feet.
Elsa stole the air from Robin’s lungs with a black cast that seemed to also steal the light out of her eyes, collapsing its waves before they could fully form. Her suffocating form crackled with a net of black light and she went down on one knee.
Robin grabbed at her own shirt collar, which began to glow with a glassy citrine light. She tore it free and used it to slash at the black strands that snaked out of Elsa’s fingers. She spun the blade-like collar into Elsa’s face. It flashed and Robin saw the grave behind the pretty contrivance of Elsa’s makeup and side-part wave.
But Elsa shook it off and gathered into her pale hands a hank of the black stuff that issued from her black cast and, with a couple of deft motions, fashioned a collar of her own, which she tossed over Robin’s head. The collar flattened and started to spin, the distance between its edge and Robin’s neck decreasing.
Coffin Girl felt a bumping in the risers and looked down. Heino had come around and was squirming out from under the bench. He grabbed Wilson’s ankles and pulled, sending him backward. He fell, cracking his head on the floor. He pulled himself the rest of the way out, crawled over to Wilson and put a knee down on his chest.
“No!” shouted Coffin Girl, watching her friends lose their grip on their various fights. “No, no, no, no, no! No!” Her friends.
Leo had warned her against too much splitting and so did Gabe.
“You don’t want to get caught out there,” he’d said. “Not for anything, not for anyone.”
“Even someone as talented as you can only move so far in that direction,” Leo had said. “You go any further, you stop being you.”
Her friends, the only friends she’d ever had, we’re going under. They were going under because she wasn’t helping. And that was already a way of not being her. And this dithering wasn’t her either.
She looked into the middle ground and tried to unravel the force that made her a monad. What was wrong? She wasn’t splitting. She closed her eyes and forced it. Still in one piece. She looked around to see each of her friends going down under the onslaught of the Riff Raff’s attacks. Wilson collapsed and fell onto to the bleachers. The twin turned to her and walked in long strides, one arm outstretched.
‘Oh, no, please don’t let Wilson be dead.’
The twin grabbed her by the hair, pulled her head back and slammed it against the bench.
She reacted with pain and anger. She instantly split in two, spinning Heino like a top. The she split again! The physicalized anger gave her the power. She split three additional times until there were dozens of her.
Several of her stayed to kick Heino in the ribs and the head, a constant attack that never let up, like the Borgnine’s drummer on a run-up. The others she sent off, some to help Robin, some absorbed the blows and deflected the knife thrusts and slashes meant for Gabe. But most she sent out to thread through the dance floor and to describe circles around the Riff Raff, complicated patterns like a three-dimensional cat’s cradle. The webs that joined oneself to another began to hum like instrument strings in tension. And it hurt. Through all the webs all the Coffin Girls felt the physical pain of being stretched and separated, pulses of pain with each heartbeat. The interior of Atavism was a mosaic of golden lozenges that hummed dangerously under the clash of the music and the crowd.
Then, born back off balance by the force of the spinning collar, Robin reached out to steady herself on something and clutched one of the threads. Like an electric fence, her hand spasmed closed around it. A pulse of citrine energy, edged in purple, shot into the web.
Magnus, the club’s impresario, appeared at the rail of the balcony, his head moving back and forth like a big cat seeking a scent. Finding Coffin Girl, he saluted with his cane and looking into her eyes, lowered the cane’s crystal knob until it touched a strand of the web. A pulse of electric yellow, trailing an after-image of blue, poured out.
The twin Gabe fought started to slow, as though he were tangled in brush. Gabe kicked out from where he lay, pegging Horst in the crotch. He touched his tie tack with one hand and rested the wrist of his other lazily over a strand of the web, imparting the strand a gout of gold, shadowed in red.
Wilson still lay unmoving on the bleachers. His body started to slide glacially under its own slight weight. His shoulder caught the edge of the last bench and turned him over languidly. As he rolled, he fell into one of the webs, dropping a great gout of emerald-edged, champagne-colored energy into it.
Like a revelation, Coffin Girl’s awareness of what she could do grew and clarified. Like a wave hitting a seawall and running backward, she caught all the pulses of energy that her friends had loosed into the web. It flared around her, lighting up her ring and sharpening her vision. Every one of her aspects grounded and recharged.
She raised her arms above her, grabbing a thick strand of the web and gave it a terrible snap, sending a powerful wave out into the black wall that ran behind mortal life. She brought one arm around over the other in a tai chi-like movement of in-gathering and pulled the glittering golden net in, along each and every one of its almost infinite branches, lozenges and angles, reclaiming the power. The net sifted through the glistening black wall and caught the Riff Raff, pulling them out of their source of power, diminishing them more and more the closer the web came to Coffin Girl’s central aspect.
She was hurricane of power and the Riff Raff could fight against it no better than a fisherman in a dory could fight a tsunami. Around her a corona of blackness roared, lit from behind with a golden fire. She was the event horizon of a black hole. It took hours, centuries, moments, for the net to resolve, for its algorithm to cycle through the variants and sum to a hard zero in her ring. She could hear the Riff Raff scream in a kind of spiritual Doppler shift as they folded down into tighter and tighter space, smaller, in the end, than the smallest point on a line. And there, at the point where the last strand of the web folded into itself the Riff Raff was sheared off into nothingness.
For a moment, all was silence. Then, from an incalculable distance, like suspended walls of water held up out of a river’s bed, the noise of the place rushed back in, and Coffin Girl washed out, on a black river, into a sea of blackness, under a black sky lit with ebony stars.
Coffin Girl sat at the kitchen table, wrapped in a Donald Duck comforter over a pink terry Hello Kitty robe that Robin had altered by taking out the “o” and adding a spider web across the back with a Hello Kitty that bore some resemblance to Coffin Girl in the middle. She brushed some crumbs off the table and took a bite of toast, then made a face and washed it down with tea.
“You like that boy?” Leo muttered. “That ‘Gabe’?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.” He snapped his newspaper to the Metro section and read a bit. “He asked for a job.”
She looked up and cocked an eyebrow.
“Yes, here. I don’t know if I much like him. Bit big for his britches.” Leo made a big play of turning the page. “Yes, I’m considering it. Won’t be around forever. Oh, and your friend Wilson is better. Walked around some yesterday, I guess. Your friend Robin is nursing him.”
And with that, Leo concluded what had to be the longest speech he’d made in the year that Coffin Girl had known him. He read the newspaper for a few more minutes. Or pretended to. Then he set it down purposefully, turned in his chair and opened a drawer in the sideboard behind him.
He laid a black and white photo in front of Coffin Girl.
“Your friend Robin has fast fingers. Took this off that woman at the club.”
The photo was about nine inches high and six wide. It was of a dark-haired woman. She wore a high-necked light-colored dress with a darker coat over it. She was holding the coat together below the neck with one hand. That, and the wisps of hair that had escaped the gather at the back of her head, hinted at a breezy winter day. A forested land fell off behind her into a plain cut by a meandering river. Over her right shoulder on a rocky hill stood an octagonal stone tower with crenelated parapets and a steep, conical roof of black slate.
On the ring-finger of her right hand the woman wore a beautiful piece of ring of filigreed metal, with a large light-colored gem set in an oval field. Coffin Girl’s breath caught in her throat. She looked at her ring, then back at the woman’s. She turned the photo over. “Walker” had been written in faded ink. She turned it back over and looked at the woman’s face, then at her ring again, then her face. Then at Leo.
“I know.” He let the implications sink in. Then he rose and walked around the table, offering Coffin Girl his arm.
“You’ve been through so much and you’ve still rested so little. I think it might be good to rest some more.”
Coffin Girl stood next to Leo, stiff as a board, before collapsing into him and burying her weeping face in his cardigan. He stiffened for a moment, before embracing her. He held her while she cried.
Downstairs, he tucked a black blanket around her and lowered the bottom lid of the coffin. He wiped an errant tear off her cheek with the cuff of his sweater.
“Good day, Coffin Girl. Pleasant dreams.” Then he closed the top of the coffin and went upstairs to work.
[Photo by Nabokov via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)]