“I've got a taxi coming." she admitted, voice hollowed by their cavernous surrounds as she glanced down at the object in her grasp. "I tried to leave a note.” Easing herself from the chair, she walked to the car and stood beside his door for a while, taking the time she needed to show him the old photograph curled in her hand. William closed his eyes and lay his head back on the rest, a great black coat of Afghan lamb obscuring his shape amid the darkness of the car's interior. She slid a penlight from her bag and examined the image herself, scouring again what she could see of its faded detail in unconscious earnest. "I wanted to ask... but... I didn't know how."
His silence was amplified by the suite of incidental sounds around them, the small, random remarks from beneath the hood of the car as the engine cooled, her breathing and the soft creak of her coat as she dropped her hand. When he waited too long to oblige her with an attempt at explanation she turned the small light into the car, passing it over his face in her want of any other measure. It burnt the mitigating character from his eyes and struck their strange colours like a match, his pupils closing into slivers of carbon black against the glare. William spoke and pushed open his door too late; she shied from it and backed into the wall, the tools depending from it clattering and swinging against each other.
“Christabel...” he sighed; Susan shook loose from her stare, clutching the bag around her neck as she pressed past the car and ducked beneath the garage door. He called after her again. Out in the garden the driveway seemed to yawn into another version of itself, twice as long and steeply pitched toward the gates that were some newly distant and forbidding station. She stumbled over cobbles that tilted under her boots, streetlight throwing the gates' curlicue shadows out along the dappled ground toward her while the cul de sac waited, glowing vacant, farouche orange beyond the black iron. From the garage William looked on in the knowledge he would have to stop her, stripping his coat from his arms and throwing it down into the car. She glanced over her shoulder at the emergence of his distant shape and broke into a run, cutting across the drive's meander through the overgrown lawn, the crickets falling silent at her tread, sliding on the damp stone once more underfoot and ripping back the chain binding the gates. Though the links flew in a puff of rust she found them padlocked in a circle; throwing them down, she prised the panels apart, ducked her head into the gap and forced her shoulders between them. The burred metal tore at her coat and snagged her hair and she twisted sideways, pinched between the groaning iron, redoubling her frustrated efforts at William's approach. Curlicue shadow overlaid his hueless features and she struggled angrily, dragging her trailing arm out through the uprights.
"Christabel..." he insisted, closing his eyes against her dread as though she had turned it on him like the torch beam. He caught the right side of the gate and braced the left with his boot so that he could extricate her, but Susan threaded her hands through the bars to anchor herself. "You can't run. If you go now, like this, you won't make it into town..." When he worked her left hand free she jerked it backward, slipped out of his grasp and dived onto the grass, where he reached down for her, earning a fierce flurry from her boots.
“Fuck off!” she cried, curling up and punching at him wildly, drawing her knees against her body even as he lifted her so she could not be made to walk, then sliding through his arms toward the ground. He caught her again and held her so she could not strike out and for a moment she grew still, as though acquiescent. “Fucking let go of me." Susan hissed, drawing in her shoulders. He shifted his hold twice in a wincing effort to balance the strength required to retain her against the prospect of cracking her bones, fighting all the while the seismic desire to comply with her demand. A sound escaped her, a growl that rolled into a snarling little shriek, blown white hot by rage despite the fright that pounded through her body and moved her sides like reciprocating machinery. William set her back down on her feet; as he released her, the flash of silver in her hand and the cold burn of a flesh wound struck him as much with surprise as anything else, Susan lurching forward and turning to stare at the plastic handle of the vegetable knife she had planted in his forearm.
It had been driven backward by the impetus of her escape, the olive-green hilt lying close against his skin. William murmured to himself, sitting down on the grass with the arm in his lap then leaning sideways with his eyes closed, reaching into his pants and tossing a key onto the lawn. He nodded at it when she seemed uncomprehending.
"That's the gate. You left your suitcase in the garage... don't go anywhere without it."
"You made me do that!" she shouted, wide-eyed. Her militating stomach forced her hands onto her knees and grasping them, she disgorged at some length onto the grass. He watched her wander on across the yard amid shades of sunken blue endowed by the ascending moon, toward the pale corner of the house, where she struggled out of her coat and turned the garden hose on her face. Water streamed from her chin as she doubled over.
Susan trailed a long shadow as she returned, lifting a hand to shield her gaze from his injury.
"Please, just... pull it out..." she whispered. William used his left hand to slide his wallet from the back of his jeans.
"Take some cash." he sighed. "Find a hotel... go straight to the airport in the morning. Fly home... don't stay in town, and don't go to Opal. If you need more money, I'll get it to you."
He did not spare her the sight of the knife while he worked it from between the long bones of his arm, though he wiped it quickly on the ground in a manner that struck her as oddly, selectively furtive; she dropped to her knees and reached around him, leaning over the arm he used to fend her off. William thwarted her increasingly exasperated inquiry until she sat back and regarded him with a look of reproach, at which he shook his head, unable to refuse, and handed over the knife, watching her grimace at the substance she discovered on the blade. It possessed the telling density and texture of her own blood though it seemed a pale frozen blue, even in the darkness, other, more allochromatic hues suggesting themselves when she turned toward the street light. Susan looked back at him while the cogs of revelation clicked and crawled forward; still on her knees, she beckoned gravely for his wrist and he allowed her to examine the wound. Its punctured margins revealed skin that graded subtly into a flesh that like his blood held no fixed or definite colour, but seemed to alter with the angle of her view like labradorite. She glimpsed silvered articulation and screwed her eyes closed, exclaiming quietly.
Lifting the blood on her hand to her face, she discovered it was the source of the verdant, perfumed notes attending him and thoughtlessly pressed her finger to her lips.
"It's sweet..." she whispered furiously, wiping her mouth on her hand.
"What were you expecting?" he sighed, watching her catch the fifty dollar bills that had flapped from his wallet in the breeze and replace them, slowly and absently. "Finished wigging out?” William ripped up a fistful of lawn and used it to wipe his arm. "I know this is fucked. You don't have to look at me like I'm a velociraptor."
Behind the gates the taxi she had ordered slowed, its lights sweeping through the figured iron and swinging toward them. Susan sat, staring silently, until the driver struck his horn, causing her to start; the impatient summons made little impression and she left the car to roll away without her. In the lawn the crickets raised their courtship ode once more and the darkness settled between them as a patient and conciliating intermediary. A thousand orphaned, severed notions floated in her head like petals shaken from a branch while dew soaked through her dress where it was pressed to the ground by her legs, joining the water that still lingered as a dark stain on her breast. He reached behind himself and took the handgun from the back of his trousers. Her jaw fell at the sight of it.
“It’s a nine... it won’t drop me, but it'll rip me a new one and I hate being shot.” he assured her. Climbing to his feet, William took her hand and set the weapon in it, but Susan let it drop into the turf.
“What are you still doing with this? Throw it away."
“I can’t, it's Ed's. His Glocks are his children. There’s stuff you need to know, and after that... wherever you want to go, I’ll buy your ticket.”
Her dark eyes fell to the weapon, then rose to survey the house.
"If I come in, you have to do as I say. Exactly as I say." He shrugged wearily and she picked up the gun, allowing her rigid, almost gauche grasp of it to ornament her warning. "I mean it... don't touch me, don't try to stop me going... and speak English." William nodded, glancing down at his wound again, and picked up her bag until he saw that she was jealous of its custody and gave it over to her. "Not inside." Susan insisted, nodding away from the porch. "The garage... we can sit in there." Small bats dived from their diurnal roosts within the sagging eaves and fanned out over the garden; she heard the patter of their flightpaths overhead but did not look up, following him closely toward the unlit house. The pistol's weight and small, dull shape dampened the anxiety attending its possession; she stooped beneath the garage door and looked from it to the back of his head, slowing to a halt. “Sit down...” she told him, indicating the chair. He did so, letting his arms rest on his legs.
Susan came forward to stand beside him, a careful, critical absorption slowly submerging her stiffly-held suspicion, untroubled by the creeping stink of the oil infusing the concrete or the hunched shapes of the antiquated mower and grounds equipment sulking in the corners. The streetlight divided their surroundings, its wash of dim sard red lying beneath the floating plane of shadow cast by the garage door. She picked up her torch from beside the car, and standing at his shoulder allowed her hand to select a length of his hair, finding it cool and heavy, like unworked silk, letting it slide between her fingers as she drew it back from his ear and the white length of his neck.
"This could be a dream. I don't feel awake." she confessed.
“It’s adrenaline... you get a spike, then a hole. You’re in the hole.”
“You sound like your brother." She frowned. "Is he your brother?”
“Do you think I would put up with his shit if we weren’t related?” William mumured, surprised by the nature of her reservations. Distraction kept her from challenging the assertion but she took the torch from under her arm and trained its beam on one side of his face, sparing the other when he grimaced slightly. The pupil of his left eye contracted once more in its disquieting fashion and she repeated the process, watching its movement with the passage of the beam until he closed his eyes against it. An idea offered itself suddenly, like something flushed with bioluminescence.
"Are you..." The question almost twisted out of her grasp, its implications pinned beneath a flimsy syllable. "Good?" She grimaced herself, closing her eyes. "As in... good or evil?" He replied with a glance that might have preceded a smile until he saw that she was utterly intent upon his answer.
"Less evil than a snake, slightly more evil than an owl."
"Why are you like this?”
“I don't know, I'm not a scientist. Ed can probably tell you... put a gun on him.”
Almost before he had stopped talking she put a finger to his lips and lifted the uppermost to peer at the row of shell-white teeth behind them, pointed like those of some oceanic predator, marveling at the way in which they became his features so much more than the counterfeit he had always worn. She touched the tip of one tooth, turning her hand and drawing her fingers down over his cheek, discovering which aspect of the sensation pleased her most.
“You don’t have a beard..." she remarked, incredulous. Though they seemed composed of the same elements, he was like a work begun with fidelity as its intent that had wandered into glorious and subversive deviation in the absence of an exemplar. The ear behind which she had pushed his hair was both like and unlike her own, its shallow fluting gently backswept; she picked up his right hand, its supernumerary nature naming her an agent in her own deceit. When she passed her fingers over his nape she found that his hair ended in a narrow little mane shaped like the peak of skin bared so knowingly by geisha. In the wound on his arm no dark, contrasting pigment conveyed uncomfortable carnality, the site impressing no lasting taste of the knife. It had closed almost entirely and referred her to her own arm, which she shook in an attempt to dislodge the sense of surreality still adhering to the scars. Susan murmured, then walked backward, looking behind herself. “Take your clothes off.” she told him quietly. "Everything."
William glanced at her, then leant down to unlace his boots, eager to preserve the small degree of trust he had regained. Rising slowly with the same concern, he pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it onto the chair; her gaze followed his hands, then rose to his face while he unbuckled the belt slung round his dark jeans, using the brilliance of the torch light to shelter her expression as he shed them. There was neither pride nor swagger in his lack of modesty; he wore his own flesh with the ease of something blessed with a form that obliged such tranquility. Nothing of his dissipation was evident in his body, the hard, utile condition formed around his height and spacious structure conveying instead a provocative and almost sinister impression of strength. His ability to consciously reserve this formidable aspect was undone by the torch, its beam erasing all such diminution and bringing him into alignment with his fearsome brother. He was crossed with a scattered wealth of spectral scars and cicatrix, largely faint and faded though densely hatched in places. Lost by day, they were unaccountably evident in darkness, the fading seal of the brutality he had both meted out and borne, like the line that descended his back. She let the pistol fall with her hand. For all the difference and adversity written over him like scripture, to her wondering gaze he was as beautiful as something made to please her, his flesh answering so many tacit notions that they were satisfied before she could name them. Susan spoke again to herself and moved closer, playing the light along his arm and down his side.
"What are these?" she asked, touching a finger to a scar on his waist.
"Wear and tear." He struggled obviously with elaboration, and she closed her eyes, inquiries sabotaged by the rush of physical association and the willow-green smell of his skin, by the acquiescence she had so easily commanded. His voice held the softest qualities of weariness. “I don’t have a birthday or a passport, avai'sahdi, but everything else is pretty much in order." He smiled briefly. "I checked this morning.”
She set the gun on the hood of the car and sat down in the driver's seat, keeping her gaze on the ground while he pulled his clothes back on.
“Lilian... does she...”
“No, and you cannot tell her.”
"How can she not know?" The question answered itself quickly. “Who else does?”
“Others know, but... I’ve only ever sat one other person down and spelt it out, and he had a head start anyway.”
“So... but... why me?”
Frowning slightly at the question, he looked down, buckling his belt.
“You asked me. And I trust you.”
“I just stabbed you." she reminded him, lifting a hand to her face, filled with whelming regret as he sat beside her on the car. As though reversed within reflection he was returned to her as the stranger in the orchard, still nameless and shaded by the pear trees but completed. William reached out and touched his thumb to her lip, drawing it down over her chin in a gesture of tender, reconciling affinity. She felt his hand slide beneath her own, his fingers aligning around hers in an oddly comforting enclosure. His wound had fused into a nacreous souvenir.
"Il niir si'vai'isha." The sound of the words made her look up again. "I am sorry."
"I'm sorry. You shouldn't scare me... I take it badly."
"Don’t leave, Christabel. What would I do?”
“Weren’t you doing it this morning?” she murmured. The alignment of his natural teeth made his smile intensely risqué and threw its clemency awry, but she returned it slowly, still holding his hand.
"You can't leave anyway. You might not believe this now, but I'm really not the worst thing you could run into." he promised.
Susan caught the slim bole of a wilding fir, then William’s arm, using both to negotiate the last stretch of darkness before the crest of the hill overlooking Commoriom Drive. He passed his hand before his mouth, requesting silence, and indicated a small hollow, halfway down the slope amongst the sunbaked scrub beneath them. Standing beside him on a fallen log, she leant out in her effort to perceive what he had attempted to delineate, watching him manually emphasizing its position in the shadow of the cloud-caught moon. Where he could see the long, dark vehicle, the tracks worn into the lank grass by its restless occupants, and the pale little flecks of their discarded cigarettes upon the ground, she could find only the vaguest suggestion of solidity. But when the wind had freed the moon, its cold light crept in a broad front along the road and hillside, stripping out the shadows; the Range Rover was revealed, the reflections in its window glass a hard and telling white. Someone inside the vehicle had lit a cigarette.
"Shit!" she whispered, ducking down despite their seclusion. Susan sat with him beside the log upon the dry pine needles, bringing her knees up to her chest as she frowned to herself. William took a flattened packet from his jeans, gazing into the darkness that had welled around the feet of the surrounding trees, all the questions she would ask him laid out like the down-turned cards of a mnemonic game. She accepted a crooked cigarette, almost relieved to see that he enjoyed no more of a grasp upon their circumstances than she did. “What are they doing?” she asked.
“Yanking their junk while I tackled you on the lawn. Freak police... they would have probably picked you up on your way into town. Governmental."
"I thought you said I was the only one who knew."
"I said you're the only one I've told."
"Then how do they know?" He shrugged. Susan frowned again and glanced back toward the slope, incensed. "You'd think they would have done something to help me, the bastards."
He smiled blackly as he lit his cigarette.
"That's not their job."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce