Monthly Archives: February 2014

Still as Stone

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Photo: Flickr/Carly Jane

Photo: Flickr/Carly Jane

It’s not the cold that gets to you first, though that’s part of it. It’s not the hard stone or the wretched smell of unwashed bodies and blood. It’s not the dark corners or the scuttling rats that scratch their way through the walls. What really gets to you is the damp—the humid air that clings to your face and hair, the constant drip, drip, drip of water falling from the ceiling. You can’t shake it, can’t avoid it—and how could you? In Beacon Hill, there is no escaping the sea.

After a while, though, you learn to ignore it. You can dismiss the way your hair sticks to the back of your neck, the way your breath seems to hang in front of you in a cloud. You can ignore the smell of salt and fish that constantly filters from the docks where men and women offload crates and boxes.

What you can’t ignore, though, is the pleading.

Alexa stood outside the door to the room, hands folded behind her waist as she remained perfectly still. The cold seeped through the metal and leather plates strapped to her body, sinking into her bones as she did her best to shut out the sounds of whimpering from behind wood and stone, the sounds of things snapping.  After all, she couldn’t do anything about it; why should it matter to her? You are the monster, after all.

Time inched by slowly, seconds sliding into minutes. Alexa shifted her weight from one foot to another, a hand briefly fluttering to her pulled-back hair to smooth down pale strands. Muffled screams echoed through the hallway, fading away to fainter sobs. It seemed like an age before the door finally swung open. Alexa caught a brief whiff of piss and sweat, a small glimpse of a huddled figure strapped to a chair—and then a man stepped outside.

Alexa nodded briefly, respectfully. You always need to show respect; be polite. “All done here, sir?”

The man glanced toward her with a faint smirk, removing a pair of leather gloves. James was dressed fashionably, his periwinkle vest complimenting his blue eyes and pale skin. Reddish hair fell boyishly around his ears, loose strands curling at the back of his neck. He handed the gloves to Alexa, and she pretended not to notice the fresh blood that now stained them, “All done for now, Rook. You can clean up here, and then I’ll meet you upstairs.” His nose wrinkled as a brief look of disgust crossed his features, “You know I can never stand the smell for long.”

Alexa nodded, keeping her face blank as she folded the gloves, “Yes, sir.” Still as a stone.

“Good.” James watched her for a moment, his eyes roving over her face. Trying to guess what I’m thinking, I expect. Good luck to him. He never was good at reading her. If he was, I would have been floating face down by the docks long ago.

There was a brief moment where his eyes connected with hers, where they hardened faintly. Then, he offered her a quick smile and abruptly turned, “I’ll see you soon, Rook.” His back retreated down the hall, footsteps fading into the distance.

Alexa felt her muscles loosen slightly, holding back the sigh of relief that threatened to escape her lips. After all, the work wasn’t over. Far from it—it had only begun.

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The boy couldn’t have been more than fifteen. Clothes hung loosely on his thin frame, hiding the cuts and bruises that no doubt riddled his body. His hands were bound behind him, tied behind the metal chair he sat in. His fingers were probably broken at this point, if the snapping Alexa had heard was any indication. Those would have to be fixed before the next session. She briefly made a mental note to have the doctor come in to see him. Business as usual. Fortunately, it looked as if he had passed out from the pain, his head slumped forward in a way that Alexa knew all too well. It would spare him a few hours of suffering, at least.

Alexa walked over toward the wooden table next to the boy, green eyes flickering across the bloodstained metal tools. They glittered faintly in the candlelight—sharpened, dangerous. It looked as if James had used the pincers—and a few of the knives. Deftly, Alexa picked up a folded cloth resting at the side of the table. It was stained red-brown, fresher spots showing where James had no doubt wiped his hands—but it would serve. She picked up the first knife and carefully began wiping away the blood.

That’s when she heard the sharp intake of breath—a faint gasp. The knife dropped from Alexa’s hands, clattering to the table as she spun around.

The boy’s head had lifted, wide blue eyes staring out from a tear stained face. Shaggy blonde hair swept across his forehead, clumping in damp patches. Alexa noted that tattoos curled from beneath his shirt, spiraling up toward his neck. A Bay Walker. His breathing was harsh, ragged as he watched her warily.

“Are you going to kill me?”

Well that’s one way to start a conversation. Alexa looked back at him, keeping her face expressionless as she replied, “Now why would I do that? It would spoil all the fun.”

The boy visibly shrunk back, and Alexa felt her heart squeeze slightly. It was always harder with the younger ones—to keep up the act. She turned away, picking up the knife she had dropped before she continued cleaning. Just don’t look at him.

“Are you…going to hurt me more?” His voice sounded tremulous—afraid. It should be. After all, he’s facing what he thinks is a monster. For a moment, Alexa briefly wondered what she must look like to him. Intimidating, probably. Then he spoke again.

“I thought…you’d be taller.”

Alexa didn’t pause in her motions. He was expecting a physical reaction; it would be more unsettling if she didn’t give it. Instead, she replied tonelessly, “Most people who say that usually find themselves with one less ear come morning.” She set down the knife, picking up the pincers. She held them up, making a show of examining them before she started cleaning them with a cloth. “Fortunately for you, Mr. King was very strict with his orders.”

The boy fell silent, and Alexa felt something like relief wash through her. She continued with her task, making sure to avoid looking at him as she wiped down blades and mallets. It’s so much easier when they don’t talk.

“…I miss my mum.”

Fuck.

The boy’s voice trembled as he spoke. Alexa could imagine the tears glistening in his eyes, the way they’d slide down his dirty cheeks. It wasn’t that unusual. They got like that sometimes—they felt the need to talk. But she couldn’t remember the last time there had been someone so young—so vulnerable.

“She…she probably doesn’t know what happened.  I didn’t mean none of it, you know. It was just we’d all heard his sister wasn’t all right in the head. And Will got his hands on a bottle of the good stuff and was sharing. And I made a comment while he was walking by the docks. I swear I didn’t mean it. I just…please. I want to go home. My mum’s got no one else, and…well I know you’re not exactly the person to ask this. But if you gotta kill me, can you at least tell my mum what happened? Please? Please? Please?”

He continued. Alexa tried to wall out the sound of his sobs—the cries of a boy not-yet grown. She tried to pretend that he wasn’t there, just like she pretended with all of the others. Still as a stone. Alexa rested her black gloved hands on the table in front of her, closing her eyes.

I’m so going to regret this.

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Sneaking someone out of a torture chamber is harder that you’d expect. Alexa could have waltzed outside with him, of course; it’s not as if anyone would have stopped her. After all, who would detain ‘Rook?’  The problem was that if she did that, James would find out—and that would mean the boy would end up worse off than he started.

The problem, in other words, was finding a way to get him outside without being seen—and then making sure he knew how to get out of Beacon Hill as quickly as possible.

“This way.”

The two of them skirted the hallways of the large building, keeping to the shadows. Alexa had left her usual armor behind—the dark outfit that looked so intimidating as she loomed in a corner. Instead, she had thrown on a dark green coat and hat, tucking her pale hair beneath. Far too distinguishable otherwise. They dodged workers and ducked into rooms, holding their breaths as they waited for people to pass by.

The boy followed her dutifully, unquestioning—and Alexa was grateful for that, at least. It would have complicated matters further if he asked about her motives. He’s probably just happy to get out of here. I don’t blame him—I would be too after a “chat” with James. It didn’t help that he was limping, though—and she had told him to keep his mangled fingers out of sight beneath his too-long sleeves. If she could just get him outside, though, he could probably find his way home.

Or maybe he’ll just be caught again.

“What’s your name?”

The question was quiet—no more than a murmur. Alexa didn’t bother to glance over her shoulder at the boy as they paused next to a doorway. She didn’t hear anyone at the moment, but that didn’t mean that someone wouldn’t come up on them at an inopportune moment—and she hadn’t led the boy this far to have him get caught. Besides, names complicated matters.

“It can’t be ‘Rook.’ That’s not a girl’s name.”

Alexa rolled her eyes and glanced over her shoulder, hissing at him quietly, “If you don’t shut up, I’ll change my mind about cutting your tongue out.”

The boy stared at her with those wide, blue eyes. For a moment, he looked surprised—and then stubbornness replaced it, “You don’t mean that—not really.”

Alexa repressed a sigh, turning to look down the hall again. That’s the problem with an illusion. It works well until someone finds that it’s as insubstantial as air. Instead, she spoke quietly, “It’s my last name. If you want to get out of here, then shut up.”

She darted forward, not pausing to see if the boy was following. They skirted a few more doors, and then Alexa had her hand on the one that led outside. She exhaled slowly, glancing toward the boy once more. They’d made it—hopefully without being seen. But that didn’t mean he was safe.

She lowered her voice again, whispering instructions to him quickly, “Listen to me closely. You’ll step outside onto one of the docks. From there, grab a ferry to wherever your mum is and get on the first ship out of here. I don’t care if it lands you straight in Old York—just leave. And don’t plan on coming back any time soon.” She paused for a moment, her eyes roving over the bruises that stood up against the boy’s pale face. “Change your names, too.”

The boy stared at her for a moment and then slowly nodded. He looked as if he was about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, he grasped the door handle, pulling it open. The smells of salt and sea and fresh air greeted them as the sounds of the docks floated on the breeze. For a moment, he stood still. Then he glanced at her again, “You’re not as bad as they say.”

Alexa raised a brow, “You’re right. I’m much worse.” She grabbed his shoulder and shoved him out the door, quickly shutting it behind him.

Much, much worse.

__

To call James’ room “lavish” would have been an understatement. It was practically exorbitant in the amount of wealth it showed. Books—real books—lined shelves that were carved from driftwood. Tattered, pre-fall rugs lined the floor and faded pictures hung against the cracked walls.

James himself stood next to one of the windows, his back turned to Alexa. He always starts like that—with his back turned. I wonder if he thinks it makes him seem more dramatic. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the pane, catching the faint highlights in his hair as he spoke, his polished voice sounding out through the room, “I assume everything is cleaned?”

“Yes, sir.” Alexa remained at the door of the room, hands folded behind her back as she watched him. She was back in her usual outfit, dark armor strapped firmly on her body once more. “Was there anything else you needed?”

James turned his head to look at her, “Nothing at the moment, Rook.”

Alexa nodded, “Then I will be downstairs, sir.”

James nodded, eyes boring into hers. Alexa stared back for a moment and then turned slightly, readying herself to leave. Don’t give him anything to use—no emotion, no feeling. Just leave. He can’t know, after all.

His voice stopped her.

“Although…” He paused and then took a step toward her. Alexa felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end as he took another step. She fell still. Careful. She could hear her own breathing in her ears, and she suddenly remembered how very adept James was at using a gun—and how useless she was with any weapon.

“Yes, sir?”

He took another step, eyes still locked on her as he continued speaking, “I did think I saw something peculiar outside. I could have sworn I saw our mutual friend running down the docks—but that was probably just my imagination, correct? You wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Still as a stone. Alexa pushed down feeling, thought, emotion. She willed her eyes to remain blank, for her body not to betray her, “If you wish, I can go downstairs and…”

“No, that’s not necessary.” Another step. They were about three feet apart now—any closer would be uncomfortable. Alexa remained still. “You are my oldest…friend, Rook. And I realize that sometimes things…slip. But I am afraid that we’ll have to bring the mother in, now—and I am afraid that you’re going to have to watch.”

Still as a stone.

“You see, I don’t really condone this sort of behavior. It’s positively unruly. I appreciate the good heartedness of it, of course. But you should remember where your loyalties lie, Rook.”

Still as a stone. “Of course, sir. Is that all?”

James nodded and waved one hand, “Yes—for now.”

Alexa  bowed her head slightly and turned—slowly, deliberately. Still as stone. She’d taken a few paces before his voice stopped her once more.

“Rook?”

She turned slightly, glancing over her shoulder to see that he was watching her again. His eyes roved over her body as he smirked faintly, “Color suits you. You should wear green more often—though I suppose that would defeat your entire purpose. Black looks more intimidating.”

Alexa felt the bottom drop out from her stomach. For a moment, she felt her mask shift, felt how her features morphed to fear and disgust. She watched as James’ face lit up in a way that made her feel sick.

Alexa quickly bowed her head and murmured, “Thank you, sir.” Without further word, she walked from the room, heart pounding in her chest.

I need to run.

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We are not always the beasts others think that we are. But that doesn’t mean that we still aren’t our own kind of monster. 

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Paths

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Photo: Flickr/Gary J Wood

Photo: Flickr/Gary J Wood

I’ve always considered myself the shadow, the mask, the reflection. I never thought that others would see me—take notice. Now that I’ve been dragged into the light, I’m not sure how to react. What do I do when I am finally revealed? And how can they not cringe away when they see what I really am?

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“Do you ever think about it?”

The sounds of voices crowded her in the warm room, pressing in as she leaned forward against the table. The drink made her head swim, blurring colors and faces as she took another sip; a cool burn trickled down her throat, settling in her stomach as it spread through the rest of her body. You shouldn’t let yourself get this drunk.

Alexa’s lips curled in a faint smile as she set the glass down on the wooden table in front of her with a faint clink. Her green eyes traced the grain before flickering toward her companion. She studied him for a moment, trying to get a read on his face. Curiosity there. Maybe sadness? I’m too drunk for this. Alexa shook her head slightly and glanced back down at the table.

“No. That is, not really. I don’t think I could ever have children. I don’t want them.” She wasn’t thinking clearly. Her mind wandered as her stomach flipped nervously. Do you actually think about it? She turned the thought over, carefully. Had she ever thought about it? Or was she telling him a lie? No. Not really. You never think that far in advance, do you? Not unless you have to.

Alexa glanced back up at him, noting how he watched her—how his brown eyes bored into her green ones, unjudging. He knows you better than most. She placed her hands on the table in front of her, gloved fingers spreading out against the wood as she spoke, “There are two paths that you can take—or at least two main ones.” She traced one finger against the table to show a line, “There’s the one that’s most obvious—the one that most people take. The goal at the end is security, in a sense. It’s a partner you can love. It’s a home where you can be safe. It’s children and a family. It’s the goal that a lot of people have—including Rosemary. And that’s fine…I even respect them for it.”

Alexa paused for a moment, staring at the table. It seemed to be tipping slightly, and she quickly braced her hands against it. Way too drunk. She exhaled slowly, closing her eyes for a moment before continuing, “But there’s another path.” Alexa pressed one finger against the table, indicating another trail across its surface, “The main one changes you. Having children changes you. You can’t just rely on yourself—you have to rely on others. And you become more selfish and less selfish all at once. I don’t…it just doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t think I could ever do it. But the second path—that’s the one where you remain as you are. You exist to help those that choose the first path, and yet you are also free.”

Are you really free? You seem trapped.

Alexa felt his eyes on her as she fell silent.  The chatter continued around them—meaningless noise that whirled, ebbed and flowed. Bodies moved, entering and exiting the House with blasts of chilly air that made her shiver. Finally, he replied, voice lowering slightly, “We’re different. We do what’s necessary.”

Mirrors and parallels. Alexa glanced toward him once more, eyes tracing his bearded jawline, his eyes, his lips. He watched her, eyes softening slightly as he studied her in turn. He’s a lot like you, you know. She nodded and then replied, “I know.”

__

The candlelight flickered along the walls, casting their faces in a dim glow. She turned toward him as she tried to find the words, as she tried to explain. She felt cold wash through her body as her heart beat, as her insides churned, “I’m…really messed up in some ways. I’m not even sure I can have a relationship like…this. I need to take some time to sort myself out.”

He looked back at her, understanding flickering across his features as he nodded, “I just wanted you to know what you mean to me. You deserve so much more.”

She glanced downward, not meeting his eyes, not telling him what she knew.

I don’t deserve anything. You’re the one who deserves more—so much more.

Mirror

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Photo: Flickr/Petras Gagilas

Photo: Flickr/Petras Gagilas

The moon shone brightly in the clear sky, silvering scrubby trees and dry grass that whispered in the night. In the distance, a coyote howled, the mournful sound echoing across the flat plains and dusty trails that wound their way through the dry landscape. The smell of smoke still drifted on the wind, the scent of smoked meat mingling with spices.

Alexa sat on the ground, knees pulled up to her chest as she watched the campfire’s remaining embers flicker and die—bright points of light that sparked and flared occasionally with the breeze. She could hear the others around her, quiet breaths sounding amidst the gloom. Most of them had decided to sleep inside the wheeled caravan nearby—House and Aladdin curled up in each other’s arms, Rosemary snuggled beneath quilts.  Mickey and Feargus remained on watch outside, staying awake as the others rested. They probably assume I’m asleep, too. From her position, she could see the guards within the dark—faint outlines next to the horses.

But sleep wouldn’t come. It’s that moment when you begin to drift off—that feeling of weightlessness, as if you have no body. Alexa turned her face upward instead, eyes tracing the starlight above. The brilliant orbs stretched from horizon to horizon—clear, endless.

That’s when she heard it—the quiet sound of a footstep, the sound of someone who didn’t want to be heard. Alexa’s body stiffened for a moment and then she forced herself to relax. Carefully, slowly, she placed a hand on the hilt of her sword, listening again.

There was another footstep—this one nearer to the caravans where the others slept. The hairs on the back of Alexa’s neck prickled. It could just be one of our own stepping outside for a minute. She cast a quick glance toward Mickey and Feargus, but they seemed to be unaware—watching for any threats in the wastes instead.

Alexa stood, muscles protesting faintly as she drew her sword quietly. She kept her breathing easy—calm, collected—and stepped silently toward the caravan. She couldn’t see anything—no figure, nothing wrong. She could just be paranoid. I’d still better check. After all, it was better to be safe.

She found herself outside the covered wagon with its warped boards and worn wheels. Retractable steps led upward, providing easy access inside. Normally, a door would block the entrance, a metal lock keeping precious cargo safe. Normally, she wouldn’t be able to just walk through.

The door was open.

Alexa’s breathing halted for a moment, heart thudding in her chest. No.  Adrenaline suddenly washed through her as she leapt up the stairs, no longer caring if anyone heard her. Please no. Her stomach plummeted as she stepped inside, as she drew a sharp intake of breath. Her vision swung wildly as she stared at the scene before her.

Blood. She’d seen it before, but never so much in such a small space. It dripped across the wooden planks, seeping into blankets and sheets. It spilled over cots and prone bodies. Aladdin’s pale arm was flung over House’s slim form, his fingers splayed outward as his brown eyes stared upward at nothing. An effort to shield her from the attacker?  It hadn’t worked. Rosemary didn’t look like she had even woken up. Her face seemed almost peaceful amidst her chestnut curls as a stain spread across her still-swollen stomach. Alexa didn’t need to check to see that the babies were dead. Too much blood.

Alexa felt sick, her gut churning as she braced herself against the wall of the wagon. Her body numb—as if she wasn’t even there. Something in the back of her head told her that she might be in shock, that she should take a moment to assess the fact that Rosemary was gone. Her limbs trembled slightly as she stared at a small stuffed animal that had fallen to the floor. Black button eyes stared back at her, glimmering.

Then her body was in motion. She was down the stairs and out the door, feet pounding the dirt as her breath rattled in her ears. Mickey and Feargus. She darted past the campfire and toward where she’d seen them last. They’ll help. We’ll track down the…

She slipped, her footing sliding out from under her as she stepped in something slick. Alexa’s arms flailed for a moment as she skidded, body adjusting to keep her on her feet. She paused for a moment, catching her breath—and then her breath stopped completely.

Mickey.

The world crashed around her. There was nothing but the darkness and the moonlight and the feel of slick blood underfoot. Then there was rough stone, breath in her lungs, sharp air that stabbed her exposed skin.

And then there was a figure in the darkness—a slim body running away from the caravan. Alexa stared, wondering how far she herself had run, wondering how much time had passed.

She decided it didn’t matter. Instead, she took off after the figure, arms pumping at her sides. Her hair streamed behind her, sword flashing out as she held it. You won’t get away. She was gaining on the figure—the woman. She could see how her target’s pale hair was pinned back, how her dark jacket flapped like black wings behind her.

Close enough. Alexa leapt, arms reaching for the other woman. The target glanced over her shoulder, briefly, eyes widening in surprise. Then Alexa tackled her to the ground.

They were suddenly kicking, biting, scratching. The woman’s hair came loose from its intricate knots, falling around her face as they struggled. Alexa knocked a knife from her hands and then held her own blade to her target’s throat, chest heaving.

For a few brief moments they remained still, staring at one another, breathing hard. That’s when Alexa realized who she’d caught—who had killed them all.

Alexa screamed silently, eyes focused on the thing in front of her. Green eyes stared back at her—eyes that pierced her, eyes that knew, eyes that hardened into stone. Familiar eyes. The eyes of a monster.

Her eyes.

Alexa woke up.