Winterdim

Chris Howard

1

Nice Suit



Yeah, thanks a wide pile, Uncle Theo, for the bones and blood and unpaid debts. Just what I’ve always wanted. That, and a mouthful of cryptwords I can sift from memory treasure to play in my head:

I turned thrice on river stones, in rolling ice water, and set my feet down in a stream of blood, a bed of bones—and I left the way open for my namesake, the one who will follow me, the one who will take up my debt and pay it. I waved away the world of life tethered to season and breathing, the wet shade of the rooted cone and seed society—all that I will miss. I turned inside and looked over the barrens, someone’s drained life washing up my legs. Where is she, this charmed Queen of Death and Rot? I have followed her to life’s end for one favor and more than one cold kiss.

Those were his final words to me, his namesake—the final words of my Uncle Theodore Balanon, who came into this world way back in 1990, long before the Vanishing. He spent his whole life at the edge of the Viran family, a New England greenpath wanderer, a soul from the Rootworld lost in old New Hampshire. But apparently not too lost or crazy—or old, because my mother and father had thought it was perfectly fine to name me after him.

Actually, it’s Theodora, having hung on to my two X chromosomes. But that’s close enough for me to be worried. Who else in the family’s named after him? Who else could my uncle possibly be referring to?

Yeah, that “Queen of Death and Rot” is going to call in the payment for some favor of my dear uncle’s, and I’m going to be stuck with the fucking bill.

Just dead-finger-wiggling great.

My Uncle Theo’s message had haunted me for years—gloating rulers of the dead, faces rot-slippery and running into my dreams, pulling me down paths I had no intention of following—ever. And the corners of every night forest, which had always been safe, turned on me, and made me shake.

Even I had nightmares, and one of my scariest walks this earth. He or it rules most of it.

It’s standing in front of me, all knobbed limbs twisting into the sky with nets of hanging moss, old bone arms like ancient wood, and it’s laughing. I always have to smirk at that, because only an idiot laughs just before crushing a rival.

That’s a peek at where I will end up, complaining about the final steps in that river of blood and facing my dread.

But let me take you back a bit, and show you where it all started, with the death of Reed’s mother, those bone-breaker concrete steps, and the prismdead guy who’d had good custom tailoring connections. Really bad haircut, but man he could dress.

That’s when I last heard my Uncle Theodore’s words in the wood, his long-ago voice riding the wing rustle of a flight of birds, telling me to follow a bumble bee’s course, a dance and a waver and a buzz-lightning dart for the hive when the bee found my shadow. I ran after it, across the mowed grass field behind Reed Gossi’s house, into the tree shade, tearing through fern curl and aster bloom.

I wasn’t far under the canopy when I heard Reed’s mother scream, and I stopped to listen. It was a strange long scream with choppy silences cut into it, a sharp echoing-off-granite sound, and something with a hammer and chisel knocking holes through it. Then the scream died, and there was a ringing in the air, like an echo coming from deeper in the woods.

I turned to get a direct earful.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but I lost the bee—the path to my Uncle Theo’s call, and the voice from the tree shade had changed to a woman’s pleading, words bubbling in her broken teeth, spilling from her mouth. Andrea Gossi. Reed’s mother?

She told me to fight for her baby, and I turned and ran back to Reed’s house, her sobbing thick and wet in my ears, don’t let them get him.

I ran hard, making tighter fists, and the words gusted out of me. “I promise you I won’t let them.”

Reed Gossi grew up across the back field from me, went to grade school, high school, college with me—I never really liked him though. Too sensitive, too thoughtful, too pale, too...something that didn’t fit with me. Never hungry enough, Reed. He was hard to click with growing up, and I’ve never been a clickable kind of person.

But everything changed after Reed’s mother took all thirteen steps to the concrete basement floor way too quickly, and all the way down she had screamed pain and abuse at the ones who had pushed her. She was too ruined to whisper a word at the bottom.

Then she was dead.

I kicked through the back door, down the stairs, and found Reed on his knees next to her, tears flowing, the ancient phone in pieces, buttons and sharp clear wedges of the faceplate clinking diamond sweetly in his fingers. He stared at me, broken, sobbing that she had smashed it to prevent him from calling emergency services. His own mother had looked him right in the eyes and slammed the phone against the floor with the last of her strength.

I dropped to my knees next to Reed, put my arm around him, told him to breathe, repeating the phrase until it was worn out, that everything was going to be fine.

Reed’s whisper stung me. “I never told anyone. Never thought they were real.”

That’s when I knew I had to become his friend, and perhaps with time, something more.

He pulled away, crying harder, looking at me as if he didn’t know me, like I wasn’t all the way there. He said he was sorry, which I hate hearing from anyone.

He said he didn’t know they were dangerous.

Reed looked past my shoulder, said he used to be able to see them with his eyes closed, and that was the only time he knew they were there—a well-lit room, fire glow coming through his eyelids, the pinkish-brown backdrop of dreams, and then something darker would move in front of the light. When he opened his eyes, they were gone. Not gone like they were never there. Gone like a hole in the air, as if they got a signal the moment before his eyes opened, and they disappeared.

I just smiled, ran my fingers along his cheek, and nodded soothingly, as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. As if it was difficult to believe him—but I did. As if I hadn’t carried one or more of the dangerous things around with me for most of my life, fed off them, and let them use me, nurse me, even talk through me.

Following Reed to his feet, I dug my fingers into his arm to stay in contact. He dropped the pieces of the phone, shaking words out of his mouth like broken candy. “Sh...shall...”

I glanced up the basement stairs, sensing something wrong—just a tingle up the arms. Turning back to Reed, I nodded, encouraging him to speak.

His teeth clicked together, then parted with a burst of will. “Uh... shall...”

I set my tone low, warm morning soft, “Tell me, Reed.” I leaned closer, my fingers gliding along his throat, reassuring, a soft tug at his hair. “Come on. Say it. You shall...what?”

Then I felt a punch of energy through his skin and I let go. His body snapped rigid, his voice coming out in a stiff rap of syllables. “Shallow-dweller, don’t follow the rivers, but come in through port land.”

“Oh, great.” He already had something trying to possess him, use him, and it was trying to communicate with me. Riddles. Can’t they speak plainly? I always ask that even though I can’t myself—speak plainly. I lost the ability years ago. Drove the professors at school shiver-mad.

Whatever was at the other end of Reed’s mouth dropped the link. Reed blinked once, his shoulders slumped, eyes rolled up to whites. He fainted, his body folding limply, a loose rolling weight to the floor, and I kicked my legs apart, felt my soles grip the concrete, bracing my body. I caught him under the arms just before impact, elbowed his face aside so the bruises wouldn’t show. His head rolled back, a soft thump he’d feel later, but nothing that would require a scan or physical.

If anyone was going to touch him, it was going to be me. I let my fingers slide along the sleeve of Reed’s shirt, over cotton folds, the rough pads of my fingertips catching fibers, and I let go of him, tugging a few threads loose, absorbing them to use another time.

I turned at a noise upstairs, my heart thumping hard in response.

The bad guys were here. The best I could hope for now was as few questions asked as possible, and keep the bruising to a minimum. The worst...well, the worst is what happened.

I stepped forward, put myself in front of Reed.

There were three of them, two muscle guys who’re probably used to beating the shit out of women like me, led by a tall pale guy in a blue silk suit who bent forward—almost in half—to take in the rest of the basement through the gaps in the stairway railings. He wanted to determine if I was alone.

I could overlook the bad haircut, a stiff, uneven buzz of silver gray. Very nice tailored clothes, very expensive. He might be worth dealing with. I was thinking of warming to him, and then he looked my way and I saw his face, quarry cut cheek hollows and lots of teeth, too many of them, too small for his mouth. He was prismdead, a “gone-over”—as in gone over to the other side and come back to make our lives miserable.

He smiled, a creaky wooden puppet smile. And the canker even knew my name.

“Miss Viran?”

That meant at most I had a few seconds to distract him. “It’s Thea.”

He tilted his head to one side, looked gravely at me as if he had orders to use surnames only, and he was an orders following fellow.

Still, I headed him off with a butcher’s smile. “You call me Theodora—or worse, Teddy—and I’ll kick your fucking teeth in.” Then I turned it into a snarl. “Every last one of them. Understand?”

The three of them had the sense to look relieved—combat was probably an acceptable alternative. The prismdead guy had obviously picked up my name, but only a trace off my skin history, close proximity stuff he’d caught in the air. It was clear he didn’t really know who I was.

And these were low ranking quick response guys. For a moment I wondered if they were the ones who had tossed Andrea Gossi down the stairs? We didn’t have time for questions, and I couldn’t afford to allow Reed to fall into the hands of the higher order types.

So, I killed all three of them, the prismdead in the nice suit first. What else was I going to do? I had a promise to keep, Reed’s mother begging me, don’t let them get him.

The big tough guys cried like babies. Really pathetic. Can’t stand that.

I dragged them heels thumping down the stairs, arranged them neatly on the concrete. I fetal curled, letting my roots and vines play at their feet while I meditated and kickstarted the urge. Took a few minutes with everything going on. A few more and I smelled the sweet blossoms of home. Then I sucked the life from their cooling bodies, spun down their organs and bones into raw materials, whispering the hard-times mantra through the adrenalin shivers and blood drool, “Free shine, feather water, leaf pater, store for later.”

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