By Jean Lowe Carlson
Copyright 2017 Jean Lowe Carlson
First Shakespir Edition
Copyright 2017 Jean Lowe Carlson. All Rights Reserved. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
First Shakespir Edition, 2017
Edited/Proofread By: Jean Lowe Carlson and Matt Carlson.
Cover Design: Copyright 2017 by Jean Lowe Carlson from Pixabay image. All Rights Reserved.
Chapter Graphics: “Typo Backgrounds” by Manfred Klein: http://www.dafont.com/ Free Commercial Use.
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OTHER WORKS BY JEAN LOWE CARLSON
The Kingsmen Chronicles
Goldenmark (Winter 2017!)
Three Days of Oblenite
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1 – Darkling’s Fog
Chapter 2 – Duo Curioso
Chapter 3 – Curses and Crumpets
Chapter 4 – Whiskey and Rouge
Chapter 5 – Menethinne
Chapter 6 – Landwalking
Chapter 7 – The Pale Wraith
Chapter 8 – Driftlander
Epilogue – Never Wear Shoes
About Jean Lowe Carlson
Chapter 1 – Darkling’s Fog
A fresh salt spray dashed up from the rocky berm twenty feet out, dusting over Richard Graden’s oiled mackintosh and moistening his weathered face. Last night’s storm had been a real doozy – a hundred-year storm, they were calling it on the radio. But today had dawned bright and clear, the finest spring day one could hope for in the small town of Oceanside.
The tide pools were choked with purple and orange starfish today, mingling with flotsam and seaweed in their frigid Oregon coastal waters. As Rich hunkered in his black rubber boots with their orange band, he could just reach a starfish with his gnarled fingertips. His arthritic fingers slid off the starfish’s ridges, into the sticky-tack tendrils of an anemone.
It curled up.
Rich Graden smiled.
Though viewing tide pool creatures was one of his favorite activities, it wasn’t why he weathered the frigid spray of this fine March day. There had been some fell storms in Oceanside in the past few weeks, and Rich was looking for items that got dredged up from the bottom. Like brass fittings from sunken ships, iron rings and pulleys, glass floats – that sort of thing.
But as he scoured the tide pool, he saw only the usual. Fiddler crabs, anemones, and starfish. Seaweed washing around like women’s hair in the bath. Rich saw something glint deep in the pool, past his reach. He pulled out his old bowie knife from its hip sheath, the one he’d worn ever since Nam. Still fit from the pushups he did on the regular – despite being sixty-six years old – Rich gripped the yellowed whalebone handle carven with his mermaid mistress and used the blade to poke at the object in question.
It dredged up, swirling silt as it came. Rich felt disappointment. Nothing but an old, flattened Coke can. Rich wiped seawater from the blade onto his red flannel shirt beneath his mackintosh, then slid the knife back into its leather sheath tooled with anemones.
Sadness washed over him upon the heels of his disappointment. Looking up, he gazed out over the crashing waves toward a fog bank rolling in off the horizon. It was glorious out here today, after that helluva storm. A bright morning, it was rare for their quaint coastal town. Kids capered on the five-mile beach that stretched south from the rocky tide pools upon the headland. Massive, ancient tree stumps had been dredged out of the sandbar from the storm, and the youngsters played tag around them now, chasing each other and shrieking above the steady wind. Gulls lifted on the breeze away from a barking dog. Detritus from the storm littered the beach, tourists poking through it, picking up sand-dollars and crab shells.
Mary would have loved it today.
But his wife was gone to her final rest now, these past two years.
She would never enjoy such a day again.
Rich sighed and stood, gazing far out over the swelling ocean at the fog slowly rolling in. He cracked his back and did a few knee bends to prepare for the trek back over the uneven rocks, then set to. Slow and even, his footfalls were carefully placed but not frightened. Rich had arthritis something fierce, and his body was wracked with the diabetes, but he was disciplined about exercise and still did pretty well. Rich gained the stairs back down Darkling’s Cove to the beach with relative ease for a man who had nothing better to do with his retirement than scour rocks and beaches for historic flotsam.
A mother hurried after her small daughter around the edge of the rocky cliff. Their footsteps in the sand lead from the massive sea-cave that burrowed into the headland just east of the tide pool shelf before the rocks dropped off into beach. Normally dry, the hundred-year storm had sent waves crashing all the way up into the cave last night, and the sand was still hard and wet, even though the water had retreated far down now to low-tide.
The little girl skipped up the steps in a yellow polka-dot slicker, an enormous grin on her face. Rich Graden stood aside with a genial smile at the upper landing so they could pass. The little girl ran by, heedless of him, shrieking her glee to the tide pools. The wan, harried mother gave Rich a thankful smile, and he gave an old-timey nod.
“There’s starfish out at that one,” Rich offered, pointing one finger back toward his former perch. “Your girl might like those. Keep her occupied sticking her fingers in for a while, at least.”
The mother gave a slight smile. “Thanks! She is a handful.”
“You folks from around here?”
“No. Portland. Just here for a long weekend. You?”
Rich nodded pleasantly, gnarled hands on his hips, still fairly in shape though his middle was starting to go soft. “Lived here forty years with the missus. She’s passed on two years, though.”
“Oh, well, that’s…” The woman blinked and Rich saw her fidget. People didn’t like to be reminded of death. Too far removed from it these days, he supposed.
“Now, no worries.” Rich saved her with pleasant banter. “If you folks are from out-of-town, better hit up Sara’s Crab Shack for dinner. Hidden gem ‘round here, don’t mind how it looks. But do mind that fog, now. We call that the Darkling’s Fog. It’ll be rollin’ in soon and it’ll darken all of the cove for miles down to little more than dusk. Wouldn’t want to get caught out on the rocks blind, y’know?”
The woman’s face opened and she smiled, though she was still hesitant. Just then, the yellow-clad little girl began a shriek of excitement, and Rich took his cue to be on his way. Though he could have told the mother and little girl fifty things about tide pools and the sea, Rich walked on.
He had never had any children of his own. And now that he was a widower, mothers tended to not trust a man walking alone, even if he was as genial as Rich.
They nodded farewell and Rich began the slow descent back down the weather-bitten wooden stairs. He gained the concrete walk that wound up and over a short cliff-section of the headland with the cave beneath rather than take the stairs directly down to the beach, just so he could smell the coming warm days.
Up in the trees overlooking the cliff, the salal was starting to bud, sticky little pink bells with the same texture as anemones. Rich’s touch lingered upon them as he walked, brushing the thick-leaved verge. The air was sweet in the trees as he crested the rise and started down the other side, with warm-baked cedar and the cool mustiness of coastal moss. But the air changed back to salt and decay as he reached the beach, fresh whips of bull-weed rotting at the extreme high-tide line from the storms.
Rich retraced his steps south along the beach. He was just about to navigate his way up the short span of black rocks to the sword-grass lawn by the parking lot, when he suddenly saw a father with three little girls standing under a massive cedar tree at the far corner of the lot by the beach.
Rich paused for a closer look, his curiosity and caring nature roused.
The family had that dejected, listless look of people fallen on hard times. His first impression was that that all four wore rags. Squinting the distance to make details come clear, he realized it was true. The little girls, between six and ten years old, wore sackcloth dresses so crusted with salt and ocean-grime that they looked like they had lived in a shack by the beach since they were born. Their long hair, all of them a butter-blonde that would have shone had it been clean, was matted and snarled with spray.
Their father, blonde like the girls, was in little better shape. His ancient canvas pants were held up by a length of hemp rope that looked like flotsam from the beach. His grime-crusted shirt was sacking like the dresses of his girls, god knows where he had gotten it, maybe pilfered from one of the warehouses on the wharf that shipped in coffee beans. Though his frame was tall with broad shoulders, and might once have been strong, the salt-worn sackcloth hung from his thin bones. And worst of all, he and his family had the hollowed eyes of extreme hunger, though a strangely expensive-looking amethyst pendant with tarnished silver filigree hung from a leather cord around the man’s neck.
The father scowled at the little girls. Intense daggers of hate or possibly contempt. The girls fidgeted, each clutching an ancient, grimy porcelain doll to her chest and looking at anything but their father. Rich halted at the edge of the parking lot, his boots on the grass, watching from thirty paces away.
“Give them here!” Rich heard the father bark over the rhythmic breaking of the tide. He held out one emaciated, large-knuckled hand for the dolls, demanding. Each girl stubbornly shook her head. The youngest began to cry in soft, woeful sniffles.
“Now.” The father’s growl was husky and threatening. When the girls did not hand over their dolls, he strode forward, catching the eldest by the arm. Rich took a breath, ready to run over on his creaking knees and give the man what-for if he should hit those girls. But the father merely wrenched the doll from the eldest’s hands. Then he did so with the middle girl, then caught the youngest and tore her toy away, too. All three girls were red-eyed, now, sniffling, the eldest trying to comfort her sisters in her bare arms, wearing a scowl of hatred for her father.
Rich felt for those girls. So poor it was heartbreaking, probably living down the beach somewhere, just up the rocks in the forest. Obviously on hard times, being punished for who-knew-what. Probably didn’t have enough to eat, so skinny like that. They certainly didn’t have enough money for clothes, not even from dePaul. Rich stood on a knife’s-edge of indecision, wondering how he could help. Money might do it. Might spare the girls their father’s ire long enough to get them somewhere warm. Or get them a meal.
Rich ambled forward, closing the distance. The parking lot was all but deserted at ten am on a Monday in March. There were only two cars besides Rich’s black Jeep, their owners nowhere nearby. The father’s clear blue eyes snapped up at Rich’s approach. A fierce anger was in them. A simmering, seething anger like a rip-tide. And the way he straightened, tall, regal, stiff – well that was just stubborn pride.
“You folks need a little help?” Rich drawled.
“We’re fine. Go away.” The father snapped, narrowing his eyes at the three girls as if they’d been the ones to summon Rich.
“Well, now. Seems you might be having a spot of trouble. Need some assistance? Money for a bed an’ a meal? A ride somewhere?”
The man’s ice-clear gaze pierced Rich in places that never saw daylight. His gaze flicked to the girls and they cowered together, their blue eyes wide and frightened. His piercing gaze snapped back to Rich.
“You want to help us? Here, take these.” And just like that, the father thrust the three ancient, spray-sodden porcelain dolls into Rich’s startled hands.
He balked. “Now, mister, I can’t take yer girls’ dolls…”
“Give me money for them, then!” The man snapped, impatience and dismissal in his every move. Rich eyed the tall fellow, wondering if he were some kind of addict. Methamphetamines were popular in the backwoods near Oceanside, and the salt-wreaked fellow had the look. Rich was about to give the dolls back and protest, when the eldest child suddenly spoke in a clarion-bright voice.
“Keep them safe. The one in the brown dress is Enithuinne.”
Rich balked, cleared his throat. “Now here, honey. I can’t take yer dolls!”
But the youngest moved forward then, out of her sister’s protection, her eyes suddenly bright. “Keep them! The one in yellow is Jennethrae. Braid her hair. She likes it when you braid her hair, and brush it…” She looked shy then, snuggling back into her eldest sister’s dirty smock and hiding her fine-boned face away.
The father scowled like a thundercloud, but his gaze was troubled and wary as the third stepped forward, the middle child. She walked up to Rich and beckoned for him to lean over. He did, and she held a hand up to whisper in his ear, like children do when sharing secrets.
“The one in red is Telluriae. She speaks magic in your dreams. Listen for her…”
“I can’t take your doll, sweetheart—”
“You must.” Her face was pleading, inches from his. “If you don’t take them, he’ll kill us. Take them. Please keep them safe.”
Something inside Richard Graden went utterly cold, from the tips of his rubber boots to the collar of his mackintosh. He gazed into those pale blue eyes and wondered at what he saw. The girl was too young to have known pain like that, anguish the likes of which old men like himself carried.
But she did.
“Keep them safe,” she whispered. “Promise.”
Rich Graden swallowed. “I promise, honey. I’ll keep yer dolls safe. Can I get you away from your father? Get you someone to help—”
“There’s nothing you can do,” she whispered. “He’s our father, and unto him we were born, for good or for ill. And what he commands, so too, must we do.”
It was an odd way for a child to put it, like she had read far too many Jane Austen novels for bedtime stories. Richard frowned. His head felt muffled and his ears buzzed like his blood sugar might just be low again.
“Just keep them safe for us.” She whispered again, firm.
Richard blinked. His eyes were losing focus. He shook his head, trying to clear the cotton. His blood sugar was definitely low. Time to get back to the car before he passed out. “Well. If this is how I can help. When you can, come find me and I’ll give the dolls back to you. 86 Bowman Street, right here in town. You could walk it. Just about three miles from here, ok?”
“So close!” Her eyes brightened.
She looked like she would have said more, but her father suddenly shouted and she flinched. She moved back with woe in her dear blue eyes and went back to her sisters, cuddling in. The father’s eyes narrowed upon the three of them, then flicked to Rich.
“Get out of here.” The father hissed.
Rich blinked. “Don’t you want any money for the girls’ toys? I’m happy to pay, help you out. Antiques like these probably worth a good deal—”
“Leave us!” The man raged, his glacial blue eyes burning into Rich’s very soul.
Richard Graden wasn’t a coward. He’d been in Nam. He’d been shot at plenty of times and even stuck with a knife. But the livid fury within the thin man had the strength of a typhoon and the headwinds of a hurricane. Rich Graden turned tail. Clutching the three porcelain dolls close, he lurched away as fast as he could on his old knobby knees. He didn’t take a moment to breathe until he had slung himself up into the Jeep and clanged shut the door.
Opening his eyes, he glanced to the cedar at the edge of the parking lot. The berm of grey mist had finally rolled in off the ocean, the cedar now partially obscured as the sun blotted out in a thickening chill.
But even from his Jeep, Rich saw that the family was gone.
He just hoped they had somewhere to go.
Glancing down at the three filthy dolls on his passenger seat, he finally took a good look at them. All three gazed at him benevolently with pale blue eyes, their cornsilk-fine hair matted and mussed, their lacy Victorian-style dresses hopelessly stained. The middle one caught his gaze, the one in faded rouge. Her eyes drowsed with secrets, half-lidded and practical. Her full lips pouted, luscious and alluring.
The clanging of the tourist bell, far up by the shops a half-mile from the beach, startled Rich out of his reverie. People rang that old relic for fun when the fog rolled in, the deck-bell of the decommissioned schooner Fearless, inscribed with a dedication for the town’s bicentennial.
Rich blinked and glanced around. His Jeep had become a fog-isolated island. He must have been staring at the dolls for at least ten minutes for the fog to have gotten that thick. His ears swished, a sound like the ocean in his ears. His head still had that strange fuzzed clarity like he’d hiked the beach all day without eating. Passing his hand over his forehead, Rich felt a cold sweat that had nothing to do with the ocean and everything to do with blood sugar.
He was right close to passing out. Ten minutes of staring at a little doll, and he hadn’t even known it. Bad news. His blood sugar must be dangerously low.
Rich popped the glovebox, retrieved his insulin kit. He pulled out a lancet with a shaky, cold hand and popped his finger real fast so it didn’t hurt. Drop of blood on the strip, strip in the meter, wait a moment… 58. Way too low. Rich reached for an apple juice in the glovebox and stuck in the little plastic straw, sucking quickly as he put his kit away.
Blinking a few times, he adjusted to the sugar rise, feeling his dysphoria pass. He glanced at the dolls again, then back towards the tree. The cedar was completely obscured, everything now lost to clinging fog.
If Rich didn’t get a move on, it was going to be deadly driving home.
Richard Graden crumpled the empty juice box and hucked it into a plastic bag around the gearshift. He turned the key with gnarled fingers and the old Jeep coughed to life. He put it in gear and drove, glancing down at the dolls as he turned out of the parking lot and onto the main drag.
Chapter 2 – Duo Curioso
Rich had meant to head on home as the fog swallowed the highway, making tourists creep their vehicles into town along Main Street, fog-lights cutting low through the skirling mist. But rather than drive up out of the fog to the eastern hills towards home, Rich pulled into an angle-in spot of free parking near the red neon glow of Sheila’s Diner by the bridge.
Glancing at the battered antique dolls, they caught him again. So strange, the way they had been crafted to almost stare at him. As if imploring.
But that one with the faded red dress. Still she stared at him, heavy-lidded, secretive. Unnerving, really. Rich shivered, though he was warm enough in his jacket with the heat blasting in the car to keep out the March chill. After a moment, he gathered them up in one arm, then cut the engine and slung himself out of the Jeep.
The sun shone dull like an unpolished pearl as he slammed the door of the Jeep, a flat disk in a chill-swaddled, clammy nowhere. The tourist bell clanged with less frequency as people abandoned the day, going inside to have a meal at Paul’s Crabshack or at Chowder Haven, or simply leave the old town completely and head on home. Picking his way along the sidewalk in the muffled silence, Rich could barely hear cars growl past upon the main highway just twenty feet away. Homey tourist shops were specters in the swaddling mist. Bric-a-brac and seashell-crusted windows in faux-Victorian facades loomed like phantoms of a bygone age.
At last, Rich stepped up onto the familiar swath of wooden porch that marked the Oddities Mall. Pushing in the glass-fronted driftwood doors of The Pirate’s Trove, Rich wound his way through cluttered maritime junk to the back counter. Denver Jones looked up from a coin he examined on a piece of velvet atop the glass counter. He grinned his wobbly lizard-chin, rheumy-red eyes pleased as punch to see his favorite beachcomber. Still upright, Denver straightened his six-three, brittle frame, now only slightly stooped from arthritis.
“Rich, good ta see ya! Storms wash up anything?” Denver warbled, his ancient voice the classic baritone of a bygone radio age.
“Not a damn thing!” Rich murmured, the strangeness of the day muting his usual boisterousness. He set the three grimy dolls on the glass countertop. “But I acquired these today, Denvie. What do you think?”
“Well! Been rifling through dead ladies’ attics? Somebody have a garage sale I missed?” Denver picked up the brown-clad doll with supreme interest, putting an ancient gold-rimmed monocle on and turning the doll over, looking for a maker’s mark upon the porcelain.
“Those dead old ladies are no older than you or I, Denver.” It was a sober statement. Rich wondered at the dark melodrama of his thoughts. He didn’t usually say such things.
Denver missed his mood entirely. He gave Rich a humorous, patronizing look through his antique monocle. “I’m old enough to be your father, you whippersnapper! What are you? Seventy at best? I’m eighty-seven. I know old when I see it, and you clearly are not old, boyo. But these, my fine friend! Now these are old.”
“What do you make of them?” Rich leaned on the counter casually in his mackintosh.
Denver sniffed at the sodden, salt-encrusted garments on the doll. “Well. They’re clearly not twentieth century. Not even 1800’s, I think.”
“Not Victorian?” Rich cut in.
“No, no!” Denver warbled, tapping the ragged cloth of the rouge doll with one spidery finger. “See these corsets on the dolls? 1700’s at least. And these don’t look reproduction, my friend. And look here! There are no maker’s markings, but see how the glaze on the porcelain has that spiderweb cracking? The really old ones do that. Their garments are in bad shape, but the dolls themselves are relatively healthy. You may have a find here, Rich! But I’m no expert on dolls and household items. You should take them over to the Curioso and see what Leopold Jones thinks. Or Hester. See what the Duo Curioso makes of them.”
Rich fiddled with his knobby fingers, twisting his gold wedding band. A kind of dread filled him thinking about going over to the Curioso antique shop. The odd-duck British duo that ran the shop, Leopold Jones and Hester Leavenworth, unnerved him. “Can’t you, uh… call someone in Portland or San Francisco? Send them pictures or video?”
Denver gave Rich a stern look, then lowered his monocle. “Come on. What gives? You like Leopold Jones. How come you don’t want to step foot in his shop, Rich?”
Rich shifted at the counter. “Leopold’s girl gives me the creeps, I guess.”
“Doesn’t she!” Denver gave a short, seal-bark laugh. “Mad as a hatter at tea, she’s a spooky little thing. Weird shop they got, too. But they have fine old books in there, my boy, very old books. And pendants, jewelry, lace, strange statues, household sorts of items. Those two might know what these dolls are worth. I’m sorry to say I can’t really help you. Maritime treasures are my specialty. Hester and Leopold would be your best bet locally. On the entire coast, far as I know. But you might have to drive all the way down to San Francisco to get a real estimate.”
Rich nodded, listening, thinking. Denver pushed the dolls gently back towards him. “Where did you get them, anyway?”
“A family on hard times. They were arguing in the parking lot at Darkling’s Cove. Man just gave ‘em to me. Tore ‘em out of his girls’ arms. He was thin and vicious, like he was on the meth. But then the weirdest thing! The girls said I should take ‘em – take their dolls and keep them safe.”
Denver blinked at him. “Are you taking your insulin, Rich?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Rich waved a gnarled hand. “Go on, make fun. But I swear it happened. And by the time the fog rolled in, they were gone.”
Denver smoothed thin white fingers over the doll in the filthy, salt-faded red dress. “Well. People do weird things when they’re on the meth. You said he had little kids? Damn shame.”
“Damn shame.” Rich echoed, suddenly wondering if his perception of the incident was right. It felt wrong. All wrong, suddenly, and he felt his impression of the strange event shift. Like maybe it hadn’t been just low blood sugar that had made the event feel odd.
He glanced down at the doll in the faded red. “Telluriae.”
“What?” Denver looked up from where he was squinting at the painted eyes of the doll in brown.
Rich shook his head. “The girls told me their names. Each of the dolls. The one in red’s called Telluriae. Damn shame. I’d go back to look and see if they’re still by that tree, but—”
“You’re scared.” Denver narrowed rheumy eyes. “I’ll be damn! Something done scared Richard, mister I-got-knifed-in-Nam-rescuing-orphans Graden! Fella on the meth musta been something else.”
“He sure was.” Rich shivered, thinking back over those glacial blue eyes.
“Damn shame about those kids.”
“Damn shame.” Rich stared at the red doll, it’s heavy-lidded gaze captivating.
Denver slapped the counter, more hearty than his parchment-thin frame looked. The man was all sinew and little else, still strung taught as sail-cord even after all these years. “Well. I’m closing in ten. Fog like this keeps the tourists away and I want a cup of coffee. Takes me a half-hour to amble two blocks to the Hot Pot – this old hip, you know. I better get a move on. You should head over to Leopold’s and see what the Duo Curioso can do for you.”
“I’ll do that.” Rich nodded absently and scooped the dolls into his arm.
It felt good, for some reason, holding them. Like he had been charged to protect them and was doing his duty just like he had in Nam. He slapped the glass counter with a distracted smile, not his usual. Then turned, proceeding out of the maritime-choked shop.
The strange gallery that was the Curioso was only five blocks down, and Rich decided to walk it. Fog swirled around him and he startled a few times as people suddenly appeared upon the sidewalk. Cradling the three dolls close inside his mackintosh, Rich ducked around the fog-isolated tourists hurrying back to their motels, soon arriving at the marble steps of the Curioso Gallery. He hastened up, one hand on the wrought-iron rail, pushing inside heavy, ornately-carven pine doors.
Shaking off his moist mackintosh, he gazed around the rib-vaulted space of the Curioso. Good wood shone around him, glossy by the sparkling yellowed lamplight. A smell of cedar beams eased his spirits, pine flooring, Murphy Oil Soap. A cloisonné bell tinkled as the doors swung shut behind him. Built in 1884, the buttressed space had been a cathedral originally, then a library in the 1930’s. Now a homey shop, the Tiffany lamps and oriental rugs that choked its floor invoked a British mansion’s smoking-parlor.
As for its wares, the Curioso curated only the finest and strangest items. The shop should have been in a big city, San Francisco or Seattle. Or at least Portland, where folk loved the old and the weird. Leather-bound first editions crowded built-in mahogany bookcases upon every wall. Ancient maritime maps were hung in gilded frames. Glass cases choked the gabled niches, full of baubles and ancient jewelry. Antique statuettes and marble busts from Victorian mansions sat next to a display of animal skulls painted with voodoo markings. A carnal display of old Tarot decks with winged satyrs and demons sat inked in faded colors by the skulls.
Rich’s eye fell upon a piece of soft beige leather writ with red symbols in the glass case before him. He bent closer.
Yes, that was human skin.
Rich straightened with a shiver that had nothing to do with the mist. But the owner of the shop, Leopold Jones, was an affable man. The county had gone bankrupt in 2006 and sold the landmark cathedral to Leopold and his immensely odd shopgirl, Hester Leavenworth, the duo new transplants from London. Long-time townsfolk still thought of the quirky Leopold and Hester as newcomers, though they had been settled in over ten years.
As if summoned, Leopold came sweeping around the main glass case in his tan waistcoat and gold watch-chain, with a flourish that only the English could truly achieve. His chocolate-brown skin was unlined by time, though his yellowed eyes and portly belly betrayed both his age and his lavish affinity for liqueur. Which he poured from a decanter upon the counter with panache, offering Rich a teensy crystal glass of port with a genial smile of surprisingly white teeth.
“Richard Graden! To what do I owe the fine presence of the most accomplished beachcomber in town?”
Leopold’s rolling baritone was smooth as a good cigar. Rich accepted the minuscule glass with a smile, his tension easing. Leopold frequented Denver’s shop, and Rich had spent many an afternoon in the back with the both of them, sorting through maritime history and sharing a drink and some talk. Leopold Jones had a way of making a person feel instantly welcome. After all the years, Rich had decided that Leopold was alright.
It wasn’t Leopold Jones that made coming to the Curioso nerve-wracking. It was his shopgirl who was the spooky one.
Spooky, and arresting as hell.
Right on cue, Hester Leavenworth waifed down the corkscrewing marble stairs from the upper gallery to the left of the main display. Her white hand wisped upon the glossy mahogany railing and her dark-smudged jade eyes swallowed all thought, their depths sparkling like the Caribbean Sea. Hester Leavenworth was thin as a starved bird, swaddled in a thick woolen wrap of tartan about her narrow shoulders. Her cheekbones were high and smooth, the fine lines of her early thirties only just coming out, her silken hair so blonde it shone white, long and braided loosely over one shoulder.
Her gaze was vacuous, yet tremendously alluring. And from those haunting depths, she looked through Rich. Straight through him and back out the other side, reading things no one else could possibly fathom.
“Richard Graden!” Hester breathed his name in the best midnight skin-flick voice Rich had ever heard, her pale lips falling open. It gave him chills and butterflies both, and things low in his groin stirred that hadn’t really worked in years from the diabetes. He knew he flushed even as he shivered, then shuffled his rubber boots.
Hester had quite an effect on a man.
“Submerged treasures come to light…” Hester breathed. Rich saw that she gazed at the three dolls in his arms. She reached out with spectral fingers to touch them but paused. Uncertainty flashed through her coal-smudged eyes and wariness knit her pale brows.
She pulled her thin hands away. Her eyes flicked to Rich, intent. “They’re cursed.”
“What?” Richard startled so badly, he nearly dropped the dolls.
“Now, now!” Leopold moved his rotund bulk forward, diffusing the tension with a pat to Rich’s shoulder. He beamed at Rich in his wide-cheeked, affable way. “Hester, darling! You’re scaring the poor man! She can be dramatic. Curses upon items are often not all as bad as they seem in movies. Usually just a negative imprint from some past event. Not to worry! But we should go to the back parlor and sit down, I think!”
Richard allowed himself to be steered by the enigmatic Leopold, back behind the long glass counter of oddities and beneath the twin mahogany staircases of the upper gallery. Past the red velvet rope and behind a silk screen, Rich found himself in a lovely little tea-parlor in the rear of the building, what might once have been rector’s quarters.
“Now. Sit down!” Leopold ordered in his no-arguments British way, gesturing to an overstuffed antique velvet chair. “And let’s hear all about these dolls you’ve found!”
Chapter 3 – Curses and Crumpets
Richard repeated his story to Leopold, who nodded affably throughout, pouring tea and setting out cookies and crumpets upon a little gilded table. The shop was quiet beyond the recessed parlor, grey fog swaddling the day to silence. Hester was as eerie as the fog, gazing through Rich as he recounted his morning, her bare feet tucked up beneath her charcoal pencil skirt in her tweed overstuffed armchair.
It seemed incongruent to Rich, that Hester wrapped her shoulders yet always wore bare feet. The woman sipped tea from a china cup and saucer, those green eyes staring through Rich, glittering with distant knowledge. Now and then her gaze would flick to the dolls upon a mahogany side-table, and she would rub her neck beneath the tartan wrap, rifling the collar of her fitted white blouse and jangling long necklaces of jade and rose quartz.
Rich was describing the three blonde girls when Hester’s gaze went long, snapping to the dolls and staying. Her lips had fallen open. Her breathing was soft and shallow, the teacup and saucer in her hands forgotten.
Leopold held up a thick brown hand, bringing Rich to silence as he peered at Hester. “Hester, love. What are you seeing?”
“Auras.” She murmured, her glassy stare upon the dolls. “The dolls have auras…”
Leopold sat his rotund bulk forward, rapt. “What do you mean they have auras, lovie?” He turned to Rich with a conspiratorial movie-fake whisper. “Cursed or blessed objects often have auras, an extension of the person’s energy who imbued them with their will. It’s part of how we identify touched objects from the usual antiques.”
“Auras are real?” Rich blinked at Leopold.
“Of course, my fine fellow!” Leopold wore a patronizing British gaze, as if Rich were the last to find out that earth was really round.
“Well… can you see them?”
“No, no!” Leopold chuckled. “I’m the money-man. And I know my antiquities. I worked at the British Museum for twenty years, did you know that? No. Hester has the gift to curate the arcane items we sell.”
“You sell cursed objects to tourists?” Rich was scandalized.
“Of course not! Anything too dangerous goes behind glass until the right person comes for it.”
Rich narrowed his eyes on Leopold. The man wasn’t even looking at him, but watching Hester intently. Her pale lips were moving, as if she was seeing something, reading a text to herself.
“Hester?” Leopold prompted.
“Shh.” She hushed, her attention fixed upon the dolls. “They’re speaking…”
Gooseflesh prickled Rich’s skin. The hairs on his neck raised. A cold shiver went down his back and he remembered something he’d been told earlier, out by that cedar tree. “The middle child said her dolly spoke in her dreams. The one in red. Are you… hearing it?”
Hester had cocked her head and closed her eyes, lips moving silently. “It’s like the ocean speaking,” she sighed, her head moving in subtle figure-eights.
“What do you hear, sweetheart?” Leopold prodded, rapt.
“Dolphins!” Hester’s smile quirked, amused. She gave a small, girlish giggle. It made Rich’s neck prickle more. He was just about to stand and take his dolls elsewhere for appraisal, when Hester’s green eyes opened and fixed upon him.
Chips of emeralds could not have burned with more fire.
“They say thank you.”
Rich blinked. “Who does?”
“The dolls. They were afraid for their lives, but now they are safe. They want to thank you.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” Rich’s mouth hung open.
“Oh, no joking, I assure you.” Leopold interjected, his pudgy brown hand settling to Rich’s arm, forestalling him from rising. “Hester is in tune with many realms, of which we can’t even conceive.”
“But you said the dolls were cursed!” Rich protested.
“And they are.” Hester’s green eyes drove into Rich. “Very cursed. But curses aren’t always as they seem.”
Hester shivered, like a dog shaking itself awake from a long sleep. And just like that, her strange trance broke. She sipped her tea like any normal woman, her eyes the clearest Rich had ever seen them, almost blasé. “In any case, they’re yours now. Take them home, give them a bath, clean them up. New dresses for each. But red for the one in red, brown for the one in brown, and yellow for the one in yellow. They like those colors.”
Rich blinked slowly, incredulous. His day was turning far too weird. That’s what he got for coming to hear advice from Hester Leavenworth. Leopold was alright, but Hester… Should have just phoned somebody in San Francisco for an appraisal, maybe driven up to Portland.
His gaze settled to the doll in red, perusing her pout that knew too much. Damn thing looked almost smug, pleased with herself and far too secretive. Rich’s head felt fuzzed again, his vision too sharp. He had a sip of black tea to clear his mind and fortify himself against a sudden shivering.
He’d been out too long rambling over those tide pools. Blood sugar was probably low again.
Reaching out, he took a cookie.
“How can a doll tell you what it wants?” He murmured, half to himself, thinking about how insistent the girls had been that he take them.
Hester shrugged. “It’s just what I heard. Take it or leave it.” She sipped her tea nonchalantly.
Rich rubbed a gnarled hand over the back of his neck, trying to brisk away the chill that lingered at his nape. “Guess I’ll have to take them down to San Francisco to get them appraised—”
“Don’t sell them!” Hester’s shriek was violent in the small, low-ceilinged parlor. She almost dropped her teacup, and it rattled violently as she set the saucer aside. Her brand-hot eyes pinned Rich. “You mustn’t sell them! They’re yours now. You accepted the responsibility of protecting them, and now you must do as you’ve sworn! You gave a promise. You promised.”
Rich almost heard that middle child with her woebegone blue eyes in Hester’s low insistence.
“I did promise.” Rich was rattled, shaking to his bones from his startle. Hester was far more than spooky. Damn woman pulled a man into tatters. He fiddled with his wedding band, reached out for another cookie and then took two.
“Well. I’ll take them home, I guess.” He sighed. “Find them a shelf in the den. Until those girls come back for them, maybe. Someday.”
Hester settled back, relief sluicing her thin features. She closed her eyes and tucked herself into a small ball, her head resting upon the armchair’s back as if suddenly exhausted. The smudges beneath her eyes looked more pronounced than usual.
“Aaaand… that’s all for today.” Leopold announced, rising from his chair and taking up a tweed wool blanket, unfolding it gently over Hester. She curled up, cuddling it close without opening her eyes. Leopold gestured for Rich to pick up his dolls and follow. Once they were back out in the vaulted cathedral of the main shop with its towering bookcases, Leopold spoke.
“Hester gives very accurate information, I’m afraid, Richard. I know you’ve never seen her for a tarot reading, but you ought to heed what she says. If she says not to sell those dolls,” Leopold glanced at them uneasily, fiddling with his gold pocket-watch on its chain. “Then I would take them home and keep them safe.”
“Can’t you just appraise them for me?”
Leopold gave Rich a long, meaningful English look. “I wouldn’t dare.”
That chill fog stole up Richard’s nape and he shivered again.
Leopold gave him a pat on the hand and a patronizing smile. “Go home. You don’t look well, Richard. Too many surprises today and none of us are as young as we used to be!”
Rich nodded his thanks, then turned and left, tucking the three dolls securely under the lapels of his mackintosh and shrugging out into the creeping fog.
Chapter 4 – Whiskey and Rouge
Fog swirled around the windows as Rich sat with his feet up in his favorite recliner in the den, sipping a Jack Daniel’s neat. He’d donned a red and white flannel with his jeans once he got home, this limpid chill getting into his rheumatic knees and crawling deep into his back. And now he sat staring at the dolls, the three of them lined up where he’d put them upon the driftwood bureau next to the TV hutch. Normally, he’d be spending a foggy afternoon watching Longmire or Lonesome Dove or Hell On Wheels, but he’d not even turned on the television.
Rich sipped his whiskey, gazing at the dolls.
The one in rouge gazed back at him, secretive and alert.
He blinked. The light seemed different. Rich gazed around at the floor-to-ceiling windows that edged his wraparound porch, then knit his brows. Glancing at the grandfather clock by the front door, he had a hard blink. Sitting up straight, he lowered the recliner’s footstool, resting his elbows on his knees.
“I’ll be damned. Could’a sworn that clock read one-thirty not a moment ago…”
It now read two-fifty-six. His gaze slipped to the dolls. He rose, crossing the rag-rug slowly, swirling his whiskey. Stopping right before the driftwood bureau, he stared at the dolls near eye level upon the shelf.
“What are you three doing to me?” He murmured, sipping his drink.
They sat there, inert, gazing back at him with honest blue eyes, all except that one in rouge with her heavy lids and sultry pout. None of them said a word. But that was right, wasn’t it? Dolls didn’t talk.
Hester back at the Curioso was just nuts, thinking they did. She had visions, auditory hallucinations. Bipolar. Wasn’t that what the doctors at the hospital called it? Rich had heard she took medication on the daily. A lot of Rich’s buddies had gone bipolar after Nam. Went along with the PTSD. Head cases, all of them.
Hester Leavenworth was just a head case, after all.
But still, the doll’s faces were arresting. Lifelike, like they might just open their little rosebud mouths and start speaking. Peering at each doll, Rich noted their differences. The one in brown was the soberest. She seemed dutiful, with flat pink lips and plain eyes. The one in yellow was cherubic, her little lips turning up in a cupid’s bow smile, with dimples in her cheeks, her eyes bright with mischief. But the one in rouge captivated Rich. Drowsy and seductive with her full, pouting mouth, this one seemed to dream even as she stared at him. As if her thoughts were closely guarded, secreted away.
His to find only if he stared at her hard enough.
Bing, bing, bing, bing. The grandfather clock by the door chimed four o’clock.
Rich blinked, hard, glancing to the clock. It hadn’t chimed wrong. There the hands were, the slender, long needle on the twelve, the short fat one on the four.
“What the damn…?!” Richard Graden breathed.
He shook his head and paced to the kitchen, setting his whiskey upon the blue-tiled glass counter. The fluorescents over the stove were on, but it wasn’t enough light in this strange shrouded day. Rich ambled through the house, throwing every switch against the fog-isolated evening.
His beach rambler was soon lit from stem to stern with a cheery glow, illuminating nautical antiquities acquired over the years. A spoked steering wheel from an 1890’s frigate, the High Lady, was his especial prize, in its trophy place above the television. But there were glass floats in all colors fashioned here and there into lamps, with brass housings and rivets. Rich had a steamer-trunk from 1875 that he kept extra blankets in. And his kitchen table was a full section of decking bound in brass from a ruined sloop he’d found washed up nearly twenty years ago.
He sat at that table now, unzipping his second insulin kit and flipping it open flat on the well-polished wood. He did the ritual once more. Poke the finger, take the blood. More pokes in one day than he’d had to do in a long-ass time. His blood sugar was normally better controlled than this. Changed his diet so strict and everything years ago, just so this shit didn’t happen.
98. Good enough. Rich closed the kit and pushed it away. Well, diabetes was not going to explain his lost time this evening, not like it had this morning.
His next thought was that he was having a series of strokes.
But Rich knew about strokes, oh, yes he did. Mary had had them at the end, and each one had taken her away from him just a little bit more. First it had been weakness of her left hand and trouble standing without reeling. Then she’d had one where her vision got all blurred and she had trouble breathing. Then, finally a big one that had paralyzed her entire left side. And once the pneumonia got into her paralyzed, asthma-weak lungs, it had taken her only days to die.
Rich gazed at their wedding photo on the wall. Mary was radiant. She would always be radiant. Her copper hair shone even though the photo was black-and-white, and her smile lit the room, pushing back the oncoming night. A kindergarten teacher for over forty years, Mary had taught Rich how to smile again after he’d come home from war, blasted-out and fucked-up.
You loved her very much.
Richard blinked. He glanced at the dolls upon the shelf. The red one held his gaze, her heavy-lidded eyes watchful and secretive.
“The fuck?” He breathed, staring at it intently. “I did not just hear a doll speak…”
The doll did nothing.
Rich narrowed his eyes upon it.
The doll did nothing.
Rising with a sigh, Rich scrubbed his gnarled hands through his thinning white hair. He went to the fridge, opening it and poking through leftovers. Finally settling upon yesterday’s meatloaf and roasted green beans, he ate standing at the tiled countertop, then covered the pan and shoved the rest back in the fridge. Mary had always insisted on Rich taking his hurry and plunking it down at the table long enough so they could eat and have a chat. But there wasn’t a reason to eat at the brass-bound table in the kitchen anymore. They’d never been able to have children, no matter how hard they’d tried.
But now Mary was gone, and Richard had no one to share his table with. And he didn’t really feel like going out and looking for anyone, either.
Picking up his whiskey, Rich sipped it. Set it down. Twisted his wedding band. Sighed. His sigh seemed to echo in the quiet room, susurrating as if repeated by three soft voices. Rich turned, gazing at the dolls sidelong from the kitchen, picking up his tumbler and swirling his whiskey.
“What do you want, huh? What do you want from me?”
Rich stalked from the kitchen past the grandfather clock and the front door. Moving closer to the bureau, he swigged a sip of liquid courage. He shouldn’t be drinking whiskey. Too much sugar. But he needed one right now. Lonesome in the fog-shrouded house, the sun going down, chill seeping along the floorboards and down his collar.
Creepy little dolls. Damn, how they watched him. Rich shivered again in his thick flannel shirt, sipped to have the fire wash down his gullet, flaming his belly and cheeks.
“So she said you’re cursed, huh?” The dolls gazed at him, maddeningly silent. Rich lifted his whiskey glass to the red-clad one, stroking her fine jaw with one gnarled finger. “Was it a curse that made that mean daddy force his girls to get rid of you?”
Rich was saddened, suddenly, thinking of those three little girls. How ragged they had looked, their sack-for-dresses homely and soiled. He couldn’t help those girls. Couldn’t take them away from a drug-addicted and abusive father. Not without the state, not being a stranger as he was. Couldn’t even find them again, probably, most likely living in a driftwood shack somewhere up in the forest, squatting on public land.
They had looked as pathetic as these three little dolls. So forlorn all in a row, so long since they had been properly cared-for. And suddenly, Rich’s heart opened in sympathy. He couldn’t do anything for those girls, but he could do something. And maybe something was enough to make it kind of right. Rich could help those girls by taking care of their forlorn little toys, until they came back to get their little dollies.
With the determination of booze simmering in his chest, Rich scooped the dolls up off their perch, hugging them close to his flannel. Shuffling off across the den in his wool socks, he padded to the bathroom behind the second-floor stairs. Flipping on the light, he set his whiskey tumbler on the blue glass tile by the bathroom sink, then laid the dolls out on the countertop, inspecting them by the bright incandescence.
They were filthy. Grime coated their fine-cracked porcelain. And their garments, once European-style ball gowns, were little more than rags. Too big to all fit in the bathroom sink, the dolls would need a lot of water to soak off that salt. Rich sipped his drink, then went to the bathtub and knelt upon the thick bathmat using his old fart’s grab-bars, starting the water in the tub and blocking the drain.
Rising, he went back to the dolls.
Handling each carefully, he stripped their garments away. White porcelain limbs, perfect elegant little porcelain necks, their slender bodies sewn of sturdy tufted silk. Not the bodies of girls but of women, breasts and hips and everything. As he stripped away their garb, a feeling akin to embarrassment grew in Rich, as if the dolls could hear his thoughts about their womanliness. As if they were listening, watching him stare.
But that was silly.
See? Just cloth-stuffed bodies with porcelain head, arms, and legs.
Rich took them to the filling tub and shut off the tap. Placing them in the water, he doused each doll, rubbing the porcelain with lavender hand soap and squishing soap through their wretched bodies. Squish, squish, squish, over and over, even massaging soap into their tangled blonde hair with his fingertips. The hair was silkier than it looked. Real hair, cut long ago from real girls. Brown muck dispersed outwards from the dolls. Rich changed the water, soaped the dolls again, and changed the water once more.
Finally, the water ran clean. The dolls’ fine-cracked porcelain shone, their glossy paint vibrant. Their blonde hair was luminous, the sacking bodies nearly white once more. Satisfied, Rich rose, leaving the dolls floating to soak a little longer in the sudsy water, to see what could be done about the garments.
Laid out upon the blue glass countertop, he could see the garments were done for. The lace and fine silk was tattered and too badly worn. Still, he filled the sink and tried his best. But the ornate dresses shredded to ruins in his hands, their once-fine silk unable to withstand the rigors of children’s play and time.
Rich squeezed them out with a booze-drenched sigh and tossed the garments in the trashcan.
So much for that.
But a thought came to him suddenly, of vibrant new fabric. Remembering his wife’s quilting supplies, he moved out of the bathroom to the hall, then to the guest bedroom on the first floor. Rich ambled in, flipped on the light, and hauled one of Mary’s plastic storage bins off the closet shelf.
He didn’t know how to sew, but at least he could get each doll a piece of cloth in her favorite color to be swaddled in. Safety-pin something on and call it good. After digging a bit, he finally located three pretty swatches; one a yellow paisley, one a demure brown with taupe stripes, and one a rich blood-red Balinese print.
Suddenly, his ears caught the sound of splashing water inside the house.
Rich froze in a ready crouch, hackles rising. Alert. All his senses whipped keen like he was back in the jungles of Nam.
Whiskey-buzz banished, he felt an intruder in his house, felt it to his bones. Sumbitch had gotten through the front door and was stealing his dolls right out of the tub! Rich’s thoughts flew to his shotgun by the fridge. Three paces to the bedroom door, six around the back of the stairs to the kitchen. The shotgun was loaded and clean. He might make it if the guy was still in the bathroom, which it sounded like he was, water sloshing in the tub as the intruder fished out the dolls.
The bastard thief must have been listening to his conversation with Denver from behind the junk at the Pirate’s Trove, thought he could get a high-value score. Well, fuck that. Richard knew what to do with intruders. He pulled the whale-bone knife from his belt-sheath – he could still give the bastard what-for.
Sliding forward in a stealthy crouch, he moved to the edge of the doorframe… when a tinkle of laughter suddenly came.
And then a playful screech.
Rich paused, his back to the wall, his gnarled hand upon his knife. His head felt thick and full of cotton, his eyes hyper-focused. Listening, he slid around the frame with a litheness long-ingrained despite rheumatic joints. Moving soundlessly over the floorboards in his socks, he stepped to the bathroom and slowly pushed open the door.
Three naked girls in the tub looked up. Their skin was luminous, white alabaster. Their hair ran straight down their backs and over their shoulders in runnels of pure sunlight, wet and clean. Three pairs of pale blue eyes gazed at him, beaming. The youngest cuddled close to her eldest sister, while the middle child sat straight and proud apart from the other two at the end of the tub.
The same three girls from the beach.
“Thank you for saving us, Richard.” The middle girl’s voice flowed like wind on a salt-bright day. Rich saw that she clutched the heavy-lidded doll close to her chest. Her cheeks flushed, and she lowered blonde eyelashes.
“Do you have anything we can wear?”
Chapter 5 – Menethinne
It had been more than odd, finding clothes to fit three little girls.
Three little girls who had appeared out of nowhere.
The youngest wound up in a pair of Rich’s workout shorts with a yellow t-shirt. The eldest got a pair of jeans, which fit her if Rich rolled up the cuffs and cinched a belt, plus a brown collared dress shirt, rolled up at the wrists. The middle one got sweatpants and a red plaid flannel similar to the shirt Rich wore.
He was fond of red flannel.
The dolls had been dressed, too, toga-style with safety pins, in the quilting swatches Rich had found, the appropriate color for each. And now the girls were happily chirruping, occupying Rich’s brass-bound kitchen table. Ravenous as wild dogs, they devoured his leftover meatloaf, green beans, the shepherd’s pie, the last of the ice cream, a few bags of chips, and anything and everything else they could get their little alabaster fingers on.
The youngest one, Jennethrae her name was, same as her dolly, drank another sip of sugar-free soda and burped loudly. All three girls tittered. She looked up at Rich with imploring blue eyes. “Will you braid my hair? I hate it when it’s down.”
Rich’s heart palpitated and he coughed, startled from where he leaned against the countertop, shakily sipping a second whiskey.
The eldest gave him a level gaze. “Jennethrae likes having her hair braided.”
“Please?” The youngest wheedled. “I do love it ever so much!”
Lurching from startle, Rich set his whiskey down and moved to the unoccupied driftwood chair at the table. “Well… sure honey. I guess I could braid your hair.”
What could he say? What could he do? What would he do? What the fuck was going on? How did the girls get here and where was their father? Rich avoided answering the myriad practical and impractical questions that tumbled through his mind. Instead, he sat at the kitchen table. The littlest girl scrambled into his lap without hesitation, sitting patiently with her back towards him, cradling her doll.
Rich’s gnarled fingers hesitated over her glossy curtain of sunlight. But he had braided his wife’s hair a million times at the end, when she couldn’t do it herself. His rheumatic fingers set to, fashioning a French braid. He was good at French braids.
Focus on the small things. They keep you sane.
“Are you going to keep us?” The middle child, perhaps nine years old, gazed at Richard with heavy-lidded, careful eyes.
“He can’t keep us, Telly,” the eldest admonished, a spoon of vanilla ice cream poised at her straight, no-nonsense mouth. “We have to go back.”
“I don’t want to go back.” The middle one murmured with a sultry pout. “I like Richard, Enith. I’m going to stay with him.”
“Father only sent us with the Driftlander as punishment, Telluriae.” The eldest announced matter-of-factly. “He didn’t know you’d be able to speak to Richard.”
It did not escape Richard’s notice that all three girls were named the same as their dollies. Rich said nothing, listening, trying to curry out what was going on as he silently braided the youngest child’s hair.
Telluriae’s heavy-lidded eyes flashed at her older sister. “I can speak to whomever I choose.”
“I know you can.” Enithuinne admonished. “But though Richard seems like a very nice man for a Driftlander, he’s not the savior you think he is. He put us in water just like you urged him to. But now we have a whole new problem, not just father’s wrath!”
“Father’s awful,” the youngest whispered, just as Rich finished her braid and put in an elastic. “I can’t go back to that! We made a pact to bring the storm to escape him for good. Even if I wither up here and die, I’m not going back to him, ever. I’d rather go back into the doll and sit on a shelf for eternity!”
It was a tirade of complex language to come from such a little girl. But as Richard straightened Jennethrae’s finished braid he noticed that she weighed more on his lap than he thought. Her hair had grown by inches, too, and as she turned to glance at him, he saw that her fine bones had lengthened into those of a girl perhaps nine years old rather than six.
Richard blinked. His heart concussed his chest.
His eyes whipped to the other two. The eldest stood pouring through the fridge, pulling everything out, even the condiments and pickles. Astonishingly, she looked to be nearly thirteen now, leggy like a weed. And the middle child had grown rapidly as well and now looked nearly twelve. Just on the edge of height, she bent to unroll her sweatpants at the ankle to get more length, then stood, stretching. Richard heard bones pop and crackle in her spine and wrists.
“How long do we have?” The youngest slid off Richard’s thigh to standing.
“A day,” the middle one answered promptly. “The aging will slow soon, but speed up again toward the end of our hours.”
“I don’t want to become a dried-up old hag,” the eldest announced, her fingers in the pickle-jar, nearly empty. Rich gaped, noting that she had matured even further in a mere minute. Leggy and tall, she filled out into a beauty of seventeen even as he watched. Combing honey-gold tresses over one shoulder, she devoured three more pickles. Rich had heard teenagers could eat, but this was insane! The jar empty, Enithuinne fished in the fridge, opening a jar of sauerkraut and setting to.
“Will you help us again, Richard?”
Telluriae’s wind-haunted voice called him, resonant like a sea breeze through hollow bamboo chimes. Rich’s gaze snapped to her. His heart thudded, captivated by what he saw. Nearly as tall as her sister now, Telluriae was hauntingly wan, her secretive eyes heavy-lidded and lovely, her mouth full-lipped and careful. Cresting adulthood just like her elder sister, she now had small breasts beneath her button-up flannel, her collarbones elegant, her frame narrow but curving with lean hips.
She stole Richard’s breath, not a girl anymore, but a woman.
He knew he was staring. He couldn’t quite help it.
“I know we’ve asked much of you…” Her blonde eyelashes fluttered down, demure.
And suddenly, Richard realized he was being seduced.
The hairs rose at the back of his neck. He stood from the table with a shiver. Backed up towards the grandfather clock and the front door. Maybe he would run. Maybe he needed room to fight. The three girls turned to regard him, honey-blonde beauty in triplicate, each as different as their dolls. Each now, fully mature. They had grown up right before Rich’s very eyes, the eldest nearly twenty, the other two not far behind. They watched him, sober and adult, just like the dolls now huddled in the center of the brass-bound table.
These creatures were not little girls.
And never had been.
“What are you?” Richard’s voice tumbled from his lips, breathy, scared.
The middle beauty, Telluriae, approached Richard carefully, her heavy-lidded eyes seeing much. She reached out, settling an elegant hand to the center of his chest. Her touch was warm. Seeping, hot like coals.
“Richard,” she breathed, her voice winding through his dreams like ocean wind. “We need you, Richard. We need you to help us get back to the sea. Our home.”
They were from the sea.
It all made sense somehow. In some bastard twilight universe. Him seeing them on the beach. Their ragged clothes, like they had been dressed from a shipwreck fifty years at the bottom of the ocean. Their haunting sea-blue eyes with hair like sunlight glimmering upon water. Their smooth, flowing speech, like the cresting of waves upon a distant shore.
Richard sat down hard on his recliner in the den. He longed for another whiskey, but his decanter was in the kitchen, and there were three sirens at his brass-bound table, staring at him.
“What…? How did…?” Richard swallowed, lacing his gnarled hands together, gripping them to stop his shaking. “Are you mermaids?”
The three young women exchanged a look. It was the middle sister who moved forward, selecting a dainty perch upon the arm of leather sofa. She gazed at him with full lips pursed and golden brows knit, her drowsy eyes thoughtful.
“Richard. Our kind are called Menethinne. We’ve never had scales, not like your mer-legends would have you believe. We live in the deepest oceans and rarely come to the surface, only when there are no Driftlander prying eyes.”
“Driftlander.” Rich rolled the strange word through his mouth. “You mean humans.”
Telluriae held him with her steady, heavy-lidded gaze, and gave a nod.
“But,” Richard struggled with this bit of revelation. “Those dolls. Hester said they were cursed. You’re cursed. How did you get cursed?”
“Long ago, my sisters and I were careless,” Telluriae sighed in her hollow-reed voice. “We enjoyed abandoned strips of beach where we could walk in our land-forms, just as you see us now. One tiny, lonely bay was our especial place where we would play in the surf and lounge upon the rocks. But we neglected to observe the beach thoroughly. We didn’t realize there was a hovel high upon the cliff, just out of sight of the strand.”
“A hovel? Was it the person who cursed you?” Rich had laced his knuckles again. He unlaced them, trying to stay calm and listen.
“A vicious witch lived there.” Telluriae stood, hovering near Rich’s recliner and holding herself, looking lost. “She thought we had seduced her beloved, a mariner who would walk alone along the beach at night beneath the moon. It wasn’t true. He was taken by a clever wave and drowned one night, when we were not there. But she blamed us all the same. One afternoon, she set a trap for us, a net. And when our father and mother heard our cries in their minds and came for us, she had a trap ready for them, too. She hauled us all ashore and right upon that beach. And then she cursed our family, and bound us into Driftlander objects.”
Rich’s gaze flicked to the dolls. Telluriae nodded. “For years, my sisters and I sat upon the witch’s shelves, trapped into idle lives as dolls, listening to the wind moan and the sea churn. Helpless. Our father was bound into an amethyst pendant and our mother into a dainty porcelain vase. It amused the witch to see us punished. And when that was not enough, she sold us off one by one to passersby upon the cliff-road. For centuries, we were separated. Until finally, a man with the ability to hear us, feel us trapped in our prisons began to collect us. He found me first, then with the help of my dream-messages, found my sisters, then our father. But he found our mother too late. Her vase had been smashed in a mansion in Venice, and thrown out with the refuse.”
“We never did find her,” the youngest chirruped sadly.
“Mother’s dead, Jenne.” The eldest was stern, pragmatic but not unkind. “And father’s gone mad because of it, and now he’s trying to kill us.”
“What do you mean?” Rich ached for a whiskey more than ever. His hands had begun trembling, and it had nothing to do with blood sugar. He laced his fingers again.
Telluriae gave him a subtle look. “To be trapped in an idle piece of jewelry for ages and lose all hope of ever getting out, much less of finding your family, then to be reunited with all except your wife. And to find out she’s been destroyed, as a vase? It was too much for father. His rage has mastered him ever since.”
“How were you finally returned to the sea? To your regular forms?” Rich ventured, trying to sort it all out.
“A ship our collector sailed upon went down in rough seas while venturing from Seattle to San Francisco. We were in a box in his luggage, newly shipped over from Europe.”
“Our box broke as the water poured in,” the eldest interrupted. “That was the curse, to be trapped until we were immersed in water once more. And so we were released from our talismans. But our talismans remained, even though the water restored us. And we found that even in the depths of the sea we could not be parted from the talismans.”
“The dolls.” Rich blinked with comprehension, his hands falling idle. “They hold your souls.”
“Something like that,” Telluriae continued. “Everywhere we went in the sea after our release, we still had to go with our talismans, carrying them with us.”
“Or?” Rich ventured.
“Or we fade out. It used to frighten us, not knowing what would happen once we faded out completely. But now we know. When we are separated from our talismans, we fade until we are gone. And then find ourselves trapped within the talismans once more until immersion in water restores us.”
“How long does that take?” Rich eyed her.
“Moments.” Telluriae eyed him back.
Rich breathed out, stilling a tremor that went rushing up the back of his neck. “So when you gave your dolls to me on the beach… you disappeared after that. I looked back, you know. Out the window of the Jeep. You were gone. I thought you had walked back down the beach, but… I lost time staring at your dolls.”
A smile quirked Telluriae’s luscious lips. “Separated from our dolls, we faded out by the time you shut the door of your machine. And by the time you looked at us in the seat next to you—”
“Your souls were already back inside the dolls.” Richard breathed.
Telluriae nodded, a regal dip of her chin. “You heard me calling, Richard. I knew you would.”
“I lost time.” Richard murmured, transfixed.
“You were listening. To me. To the language of the sea itself.” Telluriae’s drowsy eyes held his, their blue crystalline.
Rich could almost feel her mind washing over his, whispering. He cleared his throat. “How did you find out? About fading into the dolls when they’re taken away?”
Telluriae lifted one honey-blonde eyebrow. “Father separated us from our talismans, many years ago. Just like he did again this afternoon.”
“So he… when he was angry today…?”
“He still punishes us for our recklessness on that long-ago beach. For what happened to mother,” Telluriae whispered, dire. “Many years ago, when we were finally back in the sea after we were freed, his rage was terrible. He—” Telluriae stopped, turning her face away.
“He beat us. Mercilessly.” Enithuinne finished, stoic.
“We planned to run away from him, from his madness.” Young Jennethrae, now full-grown, took up the tale, her bright voice dimmed. “But he heard our plans and stole our dolls while we slept in our oceanic beds. He took them to a cave along this coast, buried our dolls in the dry sand far at the back. So we would never leave him. We faded from the ocean’s depths and found ourselves trapped inside the talismans, above any but the highest storm-tide. For countless years we were trapped in that cave. Inside our porcelain, here at your beach.”
“Darkling’s Cove,” Richard murmured. “Here at the headland. It’s said to be haunted.”
Telluriae nodded. “And though we could sense our surroundings and whisper to each other, we could do nothing at first. But then we realized that even trapped inside our dolls we could push and pull the winds and ocean, things we can do in our natural form. At last, my efforts to weave wind and sea to bring us a vast storm were fruitful.”
“That storm last night. A hundred-year storm. It washed the tide high enough to release you from the sand at the back of the cave. Restoring you to your natural forms.”
“But father hears our thoughts,” young Jennethrae chimed in. “Nothing we think or feel is secret. He came with the storm, trying to take our dolls again. But our storm was too strong. Stronger than we had planned, uncontrollable. It ended up washing us all out of the cave, including father, and threw us high up the tide-rocks with our talismans. Leaving all of us stranded.”
“Well, can’t you just throw your talismans back into the water, then go in after them?” Rich wondered why they’d not sought the most practical option. “I don’t see how you’re stranded here…”
The three young women exchanged a look.
“The curse prohibits such action,” Telluriae sighed. “We cannot return our talismans to the sea by our own hand, nor by our kin. And when we are released from our talismans upon dry land, we age quickly. We have but a day to return to the sea. Or die trying.”
Richard blinked. “But can’t you just walk away from the talismans? Leave them behind?”
“I told you,” Telluriae sighed, “we fade. If we move too far from our talismans, our bodies fade like mist, and our consciousness returns to our doll. We made a choice to give our dolls to you and fade, in the hopes that you could hear my whispers and liberate us. Somewhere away from our father.” Telluriae’s gaze drifted past Richard’s shoulder, staring at the shelf he had placed them upon earlier.
“Alright, then.” Richard squared his shoulders, taking a steadying breath. “What part do I play?”
“A human can throw us back into the ocean,” her eyes moved back to him. “Before we age too far.”
“So that’s it.” Rich finished, tense, angry. “You messed with my mind to help you. Just when I thought…”
He couldn’t say it. It was a useless hope in his old heart. Seeing them there at his table, three young women of light and laughter – it was almost like having a family. A family he’d never had but always wanted. Rich swallowed hard, denying the tears that pricked the corners of his eyes.
Telluriae made a fidgeting movement and he looked up. Her eyes pinned his, pleading. She licked her lips, nervous. Scared. “I feel your pain, your life… your loss. How you long for a family such as ours. But this curse. We cannot stay. I don’t know if we’ll even live to see the sunrise, Richard. If we do…” She licked her lips again, trembled. “Such a rapid and horrible death!”
Richard blinked down at his hands, laced together. He gazed at their gnarled, bulbous knuckles. And saw suddenly how they must see him. Old. Worn. Terrifying to a long-lived, ever-young race. A smooth hand reached out, gripping his. So very warm.
“I’m sorry. That was callous of me.” Telluriae murmured.
“No.” Rich shook his head. “I’m on the out. I know it. The diabetes is eating me up and my ticker ain’t so good. I got old when my wife died. Some things… just age a man real fast.”
Telluriae squeezed his hand.
“Well, then.” Rich cleared his throat, then looked up into her pale blue eyes. “I gotta get you three gals back into the sea. And if you’re growing like weeds, we don’t have much time.”
Chapter 6 – Landwalking
It had taken time to get the young women bundled up properly and into the Jeep. Like the girls had been Rich and Mary’s own daughters, they fit effortlessly into Mary’s old things from storage, things Rich hadn’t had the gumption to part with yet. Three pairs of sneakers had been found. Three pairs of her old jeans fit them like gloves, accentuated their lithe curves.
Mary had been slender with good hips and the girls were the same. No paunch had ever affected Rich’s barren wife, not until the very end after the strokes, and her flannel shirts clung to the three daughters they’d never had. Wool socks, three of Mary’s windbreakers, three sets of gloves, three lambswool hats. Three small hiking daypacks to store each girl’s doll.
Mary had always been an outdoors-woman, and her extra gear came in handy now.
Three flashlights, one for each girl, and three belt-knives had been Rich’s idea, though the girls had balked at clipping a weapon to the waistbands of their jeans. And three whistles for the fog, too, worn around the neck by a lanyard.
Now, they were all bundled into the Jeep, the family Rich had always wanted.
But never had.
He glanced at each young woman through the rearview mirror as he turned over the key and the old beastly Jeep coughed to life in the swaddling fog. Telluriae occupied the passenger’s seat. Rich caught her pale eyes in the hushed darkness as he flicked on the headlights and put it in gear. Slinging his arm across the seat, he twisted to watch where he was backing up, even though it bit his back to do it.
“So I return you to the beach, take the dolls, and huck ‘em all into the water? Just like that?” He began to make conversation as they drove.
“Just like that.” Telluriae gave a subtle smile, her heavy-lidded eyes appraising.
Rich set the gearshift into first and the old beast crunched over gravel towards the road. The Jeep jounced across potholes and past the properties of his neighbors, their looming shapes mysterious in the swirling fog beyond the headlights.
“So if I throw your dolls back in the sea, you’ll go back to being… what?”
Telluriae looked around. “What we truly are. This form you see now,” she gestured at her body, “this is a temporary landwalking form. This is how we morph when we’re ashore.”
“What do you look like when you’re in the sea, if you don’t look like mermaids?”
Her lips quirked. Her pale eyes flicked away, full of secrets that would never be shared.
“So what about this curse, then?” Rich signaled and turned onto the paved road, towards town.
Telluriae gazed out the window at the fog. “The curse remains. In five hundred years, we’ve not found a way to break it. All we wish for now is to escape our father and return to the sea.”
“And if no-one throws your father’s pendant into the ocean, he’ll age and die. So that’s it for him?”
Telluriae nodded, her full lips set. “That’s it for him.”
“And you’re ok with that?” Rich blinked, incredulous.
Telluriae set her jaw. Rich could see it in the back-glare of the headlights through the fog. “Father has descended into madness. Reason no longer touches his heart. Besides,” she drew a deep breath and sighed, “we cannot throw his talisman back into the water.”
“But I could.”
She didn’t answer, and the other women in the backseat were silent. Rich’s eyes flicked to them in the rearview mirror. Each stared out the windows into the velvet fog, their pale eyes haunted. Rich knew that look. He’d had that look for a while after Nam, before he’d met Mary. He went back to watching the road, leaving it alone. But as he slowed for the stop sign that suddenly loomed up out of the fog-isolated road, it hit him that killing their father wasn’t the true problem.
“Seems to me that’s not a very good solution.”
“Excuse me?” Telluriae’s pale eyes flicked to him.
“Your problem. It’s not just that your father’s got violent PTSD and you’re leaving him to die.”
“Nevermind. But your problem is that you’re still cursed.” The Jeep idled at the stop sign. No one was about. Rich put it in neutral, thinking. Fog whirled about the truck like writhing specters, sent spinning from the chugging of the engine.
Telluriae’s secretive eyes pierced him. They narrowed.
“There’s nothing we can do about the curse.” The eldest, Enithuinne, spoke suddenly from the backseat. “We’ve not found a cure for it. We’ve come to the shore seeking help from humans before, but the woman we found failed. She was barely able to throw us back before our time ran out.”
“Can’t hurt to try once more. Or ask, anyway. I know someone who might be able to help.” Rich argued stubbornly. Mary had always said he was an ox when he wanted to be, and he wanted it, now. “Seems a shame to leave you all bound to those awful dolls forever.”
“Our curse cannot be broken.” Enithuinne argued.
“But what would it hurt to try?” Rich turned, eyeing the eldest. Her practical mouth was set, her small eyes narrowed and angry. He had a feeling he knew who was the driving force behind this particular argument of leaving the curse alone.
“I don’t want to be trapped in the doll forever.” Jennethrae piped up suddenly, her womanly cupid’s-bow lips not laughing, her very blue eyes flicking to her eldest sister. “If Richard knows someone who might help us… I say we try. Just once more.”
“Who do you know that can help us with the curse, Richard?” Telluriae murmured.
His gaze settled upon the thoughtful woman in the passenger seat. “How much do you recall your surroundings when you’re in the doll? Do you remember being in the Curioso Gallery?”
Telluriae closed her eyes, drew a deep breath through her nose. Her chin lifted, as if smelling remembrance upon the air. Her eyelids fluttered rapidly, still closed. “The smell of good cigars,” she murmured. “Port. Well-polished wood, like a ship. Musty leather-bound books. I hear the creak of old boards. The rasp of a boot over marble. A clink – glass tumblers set upon a glass table. I hear voices, two male with a rasp of age, one with an accent of the old country. One female, low like the rush of the ocean…”
“Vaulted like a cathedral…” Jennethrae suddenly spoke from the backseat. Rich glanced around, to see her eyelids fluttering in a similar trance. “I feel space. Ad warm touch of dry air, a room well-cured by radiators. I feel glass beneath me, smooth, cool. The warmth of a heart. I feel cuddled close inside a warm jacket, touched by gentle hands with old calluses.” Jennethrae’s cupid’s bow lips curled up. Her eyes opened, and the look of pleasure she gave Rich made him shiver from head to heels.
“It looks like a cathedral.” Enithuinne spoke at last. Her eyes were wide open, staring at nothing. “I see leather-bound books in stout shelves, oddities in glass cases, items of the arcane. They have spell-talismans, sisters, a number of them. And the woman, she looks… touched.”
Telluriae’s eyes snapped open. She turned in her seat to see her elder sister. “Touched. Like the witch who bound us?”
Enithuinne nodded, blinking, coming back to herself. She sighed, and Rich heard a heavy, ancient exhaustion in it. “But we worked with that other touched woman once before and it almost meant our deaths. I was so old when she finally got us into the sea. I remember how my body hurt, my knuckles, all bent, curled in, useless. I couldn’t open my hands. My chest would barely breathe. My heart, Altruithne! It was hardly beating.”
Telluriae reached out, clasping her elder sister’s gloved fingers. Jennethrae cuddled close. Rich saw silver tears drip from Enithuinne’s pale lashes. She swallowed hard. “One night,” she whispered. “If we have no progress before sunup, then I want Rich to throw my doll back in the sea. Even if you two don’t come. I can’t… I can’t do that again. I age so much faster than the two of you.”
Jennethrae petted her eldest sister’s loose rivers of gold. “We know. We won’t put you through that again. Let’s make a pact. By sunup, we all go back into the sea if Rich’s friend can’t help us. And we’ll try to break the curse again another time.”
Telluriae clasped her sister’s hands fiercely. A fire lit behind her secretive eyes. “We won’t leave anyone behind, Enith, and we won’t let you die alone. We all go together.”
Something clenched in Rich’s heart, watching them like that. So tender, so fierce. So much ancient hurt in the lines around their three pairs of lovely eyes, pale in the reflection of the swirling fog. He faced forward, determination stilling into his chest, his heart, his stomach. A vigor the likes of which he’d not felt since Nam settled into his limbs. Pains in his back and knees and knuckles were banished for another time.
These orphans needed rescuing.
And he was the man to do it.
Rich slammed the Jeep into gear and revved it out through the drowsing fog, making a right onto the highway toward town rather than a left toward the beach. It took little time to reach the old town via the highway. Rich drove like a madman in the fog, speeding to save time, something he never would have normally done. In minutes they were parked in front of the Curioso Gallery, the glimmer of light coursing from its tall stained-glass windows, the spire lost far above to fog and darkness.
The lights in the cathedral were bright around him as Rich leapt up the marble steps, pounding upon the old pine doors. The clock on his cell phone had read ten-thirty when they’d pulled into the angle-in parking, not too late for callers in an emergency. At last, Rich saw Leopold glide into view from behind the main counter, his rotund chocolate bulk swaddled in a richly-brocaded burgundy smoking robe. He moved towards the doors, his yellowed eyes blinking round with surprise to see Rich through the glass panes.
Leopold threw the bolts on the door and swung them inward. “Richard! What brings you back so late?”
Richard made a gesture to the three women surrounding him in the mist-thick dark. “Can we come in, Leopold? I need your help. And Hester’s.”
“Hester’s sleeping.” Leopold’s yellowed eyes were wide with fascination as he backed away from the doors, gesturing them all inside. Rich saw his eyes flit with fascination from one young woman to another as they entered. “But I suppose a glass of toddy wouldn’t hurt. How do you all know one another…?”
It was the least chatty Rich had ever heard Leopold. He turned and bolted the doors behind the girls, leaving Leopold still gaping at the three honey-blonde beauties who now shed hats, coats, and gloves inside the warmth of the Curioso. Leopold’s thick chocolate hands shook as he reached out to grip Rich’s arm.
“Relatives of yours, Rich?” Leopold’s yellowed eyes were very round, his voice hushed.
“I think you know who they are.” Rich murmured.
Leopold nodded soberly. His gaze flicked between the young women. He licked his lips. “But I thought you said they were girls you saw on the beach?”
“I see.” Leopold was silent a long moment. An awkward hush filled the cathedral-like space, expanding high into the vaulted rafters. “And the dolls?”
Telluriae patted her backpack, slung from one shoulder. “Rich says you and Hester can help us.”
Leopold licked his lips again. He tried to speak and the sound got stuck, only a squeak. He cleared his throat. “You look just like your doll, don’t you? The red doll. Cursed. I see it now.”
“And we will be forever unless someone can help us.” Telluriae confirmed. “Richard thinks that might be you.”
Leopold swallowed. “Perhaps. I’ll go wake Hester. Richard, please help yourself and the girls to a glass of toddy. I’ve got it warming in the kitchen beyond the parlor.”
Just then, as if summoned from beyond the grave, the waifish Hester moved out from behind the screen beneath the twin staircases of the upper gallery. A long silk nightgown of pale green draped from her lean body, a color that matched her haunted eyes. She wore nothing beneath, the silk clinging to pert little breasts, smoothing over shapely hips, puddling around her feet as she floated forward. Unbound, her hair was that luminous shade of ash-blonde that glowed like angel’s feathers where it ran in a river over one shoulder.
The three girls at Rich’s side were honeyed beauties, but Hester was otherworldly. Her dark-smudged jade eyes were serene as she glided towards the group. She did not seem surprised to see the three young women surrounding Rich. Hester came to a stop in front of Telluriae, and her pale, thin hand lifted up to cup the younger woman’s face.
“I heard you speak the language of oceans,” Hester sighed. She shivered, then moved close, her lips lifting to Telluriae’s full mouth. Their lips met, lingering, before Hester pulled away. “You taste of oceans, too…”
Telluriae gazed down at the petite Hester, her pale blue eyes wide. “What are you?”
But Hester gave no answer. Suddenly, Rich saw a side of Hester he’d never seen. Her gaze focused hard, swinging around to him with a piercing keenness. Predatory, her spring-green eyes shone feverish in those smudged sockets.
“You did well to bring them here. I can help them. Come. Do not fear the darkness.”
Hester gripped Telluriae by the wrist, yanking the younger woman forward. There was wire and strength in Hester’s tiny-boned frame, Rich saw now. How could he have missed it before?
As Hester marched Telluriae toward the center of the room and started shoving glass cases many times her size away to clear a space, Rich suddenly felt like he’d entered a war zone. The air thickened, shivering like the whine of bullets. He found he gasped for breath as his eyes swung to Leopold, and what he saw there was not a comfort. Affable Leopold Jones was shivering, his yellowed eyes round, his plethoric face ashen.
He swallowed hard as he met Rich’s gaze.
“Help me get the drapes, Richard,” Leopold murmured, nodding to the heavy swaths of forest-green velvet that hung from brass runners at every high-gabled window. “We’re going to see fireworks tonight.”
And with that, Leopold Jones trundled his rotund body into action, jogging to the nearest window and yanking closed the brocaded drapes. Rich followed, working his way around the room as the tiny Hester shoved increasingly gargantuan pieces of furniture away from the center of the room, clearing a massive circle upon the marbled floors.
Chapter 7 – The Pale Wraith
Hester was magnetic. Everything about her burned with fevered energy as she traipsed the room, unlocking case after case and pulling out the strangest items. A hawk’s talon with a wing-feather fetish. A tiny picture-glass in a gilded frame of the kind women once carried in their purses. A headdress of bones that clattered as she tossed it unceremoniously to a tabletop. And throughout it all, as she gathered items like a mad magpie, her green eyes blazed.
Rich had never seen her like this. He’d never known she could be like this. Something about it was so heathen, so raw, that he felt his blood boil. Urging him to get close to her, to touch her, to be a part of whatever energy rioted in Hester’s thin veins.
He held himself back with everything he had. Sidling close to Leopold, now mopping his brow with a purple silk pocket square as his eyes darted nervously after Hester, Richard murmured low. “What the fuck is going on?”
“Hester’s going to work some magic.” Leopold promptly replied. He gripped Rich’s arm, hard. “Best not tell anyone about this. People don’t know that true witches exist, much less that there are creatures out in the world that are anything other than fully human, like your girls here. But you’ve seen some things now, so we can show you a bit more and I’m sure you’ll keep quiet. Won’t you?”
A plea shone in Leopold’s yellowed eyes.
“Sure as shit I’ll keep quiet.” Rich replied. “Long as no one gets hurt.”
“Good man.” Leopold squeezed his arm. “And no one will get hurt, I think. Hester’s not a darkworker. And neither am I.”
“You’re a witch, too?” Richard blinked, turning to the shopkeeper.
“No, no, dear man!” Leopold gave an affable smile. “I’m her familiar. She keeps me close to draw on me if need be. We make a good team. I eat for two! And I quite enjoy it.” Leopold patted his rotund middle, elegantly swathed in its burgundy smoking robe. “Ah! She’s ready.”
Richard turned, watching the melee. Hester had gathered the young women into a circle and was pacing around them, waving the hawk-talon and some lit incense through the air in arcane patterns. Her body jittered, shivering in a choreic manner that made her twitch, small gasps coming from her lips. Her eyelids fluttered so badly that Richard was fairly certain she wasn’t watching where the hell she was stepping, and was going to trip over rugs or furniture.
But Hester somehow managed to keep her circle precise in the center of the shoved-out furniture. Setting the talon and incense down, she took up the bone headdress and put it on. Immediately, she was blasted by an energy so immense that she staggered. Richard nearly went to her, but Leopold clamped a strong hand upon his arm. Shivering, Leopold was sweating badly as Rich looked upon him, his yellowed eyes bulging with strain.
“No, Richard,” Leopold grated. “Leave it to us. Stay out of the circle.”
Richard gasped at the change in Leopold. The man looked haggard, diminished somehow despite his bulk. He was fighting like hell, fighting something Rich couldn’t understand. “What’s happening?” Rich hissed.
“She’s opening a channel to the woman who made the curse… hold on…” Leopold could barely get it out, he was wheezing now so badly. Hands upon his knees, he doubled over, so that Rich reached out to steady the man. Leopold halfheartedly waved him away.
“YOU BITCH!” Hester’s shriek was sudden and cutting, rebounding off the gabled eaves and slicing through the electric air. Rich’s head snapped up. Hester had leveled her finger at nothing and was screaming. Righteousness poured from her every sinew, her posture unassailable, her haunting face twisted in fury. “How dare you curse these innocents! How dare you curse them with your vile suppositions!!”
The girls blinked in the center of the circle, wide-eyed, crowding close to each other. Telluriae’s eyes snapped to Rich, and in their bright blue, Rich read fear.
“No! I don’t think so!” Hester shrieked again. “You come back here you hussy, and face what you’ve done!” Hester’s thin hands shot out, gripping like talons, as if holding something Richard couldn’t see.
Leopold went to his knees at Richard’s side, moaning in pain.
“I’ve got you now!” Hester crowed triumphantly. “I’ve got you, and I’m not letting go until you show me the secret to their curse! Show me, or so help me, I’ll tear your soul into itty bitty pieces and you’ll have to scavenge through the universe for epochs to find it all!”
“Faster, Hester!” Leopold cried, down on his knees, shaking with palsy. “Faster, dear one!”
Hester’s head cocked like a raptor, as if she had heard him though she didn’t look over. But she did tighten those fingers into crueler talons, pulling whatever it was that she had caught close. “Tell me.” Hester snarled. “Now. Or I start tearing.”
Hester made a ripping motion with her talons.
Suddenly, the cathedral around Richard erupted into otherworldly howls. Howls like beasts on fire, like cats drowning, like men being burned alive in Nam. Rich fell to his knees under the force of that assault, hands clamped to his ears. The three sisters had done the same. The air in the cathedral surged with a hot wind, thick and sulfurous. Leopold sobbed at Rich’s side, retching on hands and knees, his head hanging and spittle dripping from his thick lips.
All of a sudden, Hester went very still.
The ghastly howling in the room ceased.
Very slightly, her fingers eased. “That’s it? So simple! Well, why didn’t you say so before…!” Hester released her talons. “Begone, bitch. And if you ever curse anyone ever again without getting the whole story, I will hunt you down, so help me I will.”
She cocked her head, as if having an imaginary conversation. “No. You’re wrong. Well, you didn’t even ask your dead lover, now did you? You never even asked if he’d been seduced by these young sea-maids! Go ahead, I’ll wait. Go on and ask.”
Hester had crossed her arms over her thin chest and was now tapping one bare foot against the polished floorboards. Leopold had begun to recover at Rich’s side. The man was up, smoothing his smoking robe, wiping spittle from his lips with his pocket square and languorously mopping his brow. He glanced at Rich and winked congenially.
“Oh, ho!” Hester suddenly crowed, her face beaming. “I told you! So now you see. You are entirely at fault. Live with that deep in your black-hearted soul. It’s not up to me to punish you. But beware, you dark bitch. If I feel you doing magics this heinous ever again, I will come for you. It’s been ten years since The Pale Wraith hunted evildoers, but don’t think me quit of this world just yet. My new familiar is strong and growing stronger every day. Very soon, I might take him out for a test drive and come get you. Boo!”
Suddenly, Rich saw something dive for the rafters. A shadow, like a massive bird passing over. Except that it came from right in front of Hester and whipped upwards, fast, as if it was afraid. The heat in the room washed away. The air suddenly eased, like lighting flickering away on a fast, cool breeze.
Hester put her hands on her hips and laughed.
The three young women stared at Hester as if she’d grown seventy heads.
“The Pale Wraith?” Telluriae’s voice shook. Slowly, she sank to one knee and bent her head. Her sisters did the same. Rich watched, astounded, as Hester slowly paced forward, then set a gentle palm to Telluriae’s brow.
“Child,” she murmured in her usual smoky death-knell voice. “Oh, child. Do not fear me. I am here to take the pain away, but not through the Veil for you three. Not today.”
Rich watched as the sisters breathed out their tension. Rich felt it go, felt them place their trust in the tiny woman. His gaze flicked to Hester, wondering what she was.
Wondering what the mer-girls knew.
“The curse placed upon you,” Hester continued, “is linked to anger and loss. It is an emotion-linked curse. Simple, yet complex. As long as you feel anger for your plight and loss for the life you once had, the curse will bind you to your talismans. You must give the anger up. And the feeling of loss. Let all difficult emotions go, and the talismans will become nothing but pretty little dolls, just baubles for a shop shelf. Come now, place your hands upon your hearts. Feel you inner rage, your anger, your suffering. I cannot do this for you. You must let it all go and forgive. Forgive the one who captured you. Forgive she who imprisoned you. Forgive your mother for dying. Forgive your father for his madness. Forgive all… and be released.”
Shudders had taken the three sisters, hands upon their hearts. Upon their knees, they began to rock back and forth with eyes closed, elegant faces turned upwards. A keening sound like oceans came from young Jennethrae. Telluriae took it up, tears beginning to track down her face.
And at last, stone-hearted Enithuinne broke into tears, her head whipping from side to side as if she denied her own release. But her voice joined the others anyway. A surge of sound wove through the room, sighing like waves breaking, moaning like whales in the deep. A ringing arose, as if the cathedral was an underwater temple sunken in the days of Atlantis, the chamber filled with sunlight and shadows among the waves.
Slowly, the sisters sung, and their song held the haunting pull of sirens. It called Rich to come, to be cleansed. To drown out his sorrows and abandon everything to the waves. To fling himself from a height into that mystical darkness. To drink deep of soothing water until he swam with the stranger things that slipped through the depthless fathoms.
To let go of everything that haunted him since his wife’s death.
Her face, her smile, her laugh. The way she cocked her head when they conversed about life and humanity. Her warm presence in bed that he missed so at night. Kind arms around him and sweet lips pressed to his, the loss of which sent him wandering the tide pools day after day, hoping to soothe her absence by the cool salt spray.
To let go of wishing for just one more kiss.
One more kiss he would never have.
Rich sank to a velvet chaise. His face fell to his gnarled hands and he was sobbing. Sobbing out forgiveness to himself. For holding on to only death. For not allowing himself to return to life. For remaining inside a shell of his former self, not reclaiming his heart after his wife’s loss.
For living inside a husk.
Inside a doll of his own making.
The thought sobered Richard Graden, cutting off his sobs. Space opened up around him, warmth and loving flowing back into his heart. He gasped to feel its presence, to feel love come back to him with forgiveness and life. And deep inside, where there had only been an ache before, he was now filled.
Filled and complete, even in the absence of her he had held so dear.
Rich looked up, tears sliding down his cheeks. A beaming smile lit his face. Telluriae met his gaze, beaming her own joy back to him, her heart smiling at him like new cherries. She lifted the backpack near her feet, unzipping it, retrieving her doll. Lifting it in one hand, she brought it down hard – smashing its porcelain face into the polished floorboards of the Curioso.
Porcelain shattered, skittering across the floor. Telluriae gave a cry of triumph, throwing her head back in ecstasy. Eyes wide, her sisters fumbled for their dolls and did the same. Porcelain ricocheted around the room. All three sisters sat now upon their knees, heads back, breathing softly in a cathedral that echoed with silence and the sweet ease of release.
“Good god.” Leopold’s very British curse was hushed. “I do believe their curse is broken. Well done, everyone!”
“Broken it is,” Hester murmured. Something in her voice sounded spent, though still strong. Richard’s gaze swung to her, watching as she lowered herself into a Victorian velveteen armchair. Putting the heels of her hands to her eyes, Hester rubbed hard, yawned. “Broken, but only for the three of them. Not for the fourth.”
“Our father’s still cursed, still joined to his talisman.” Enithuinne’s voice was harsh in the quiet.
“Yes, dear one.” Hester yawned again, blinking heavily. “He resisted the ceremony. His rage still holds him – I can do nothing to release it if he does not wish to let it go. And now I must rest. Three thousand years of calling evildoers to heel takes its toll. Go to your father. Help him, if you can.”
“All we have to do is convince him to give up his anger? His loss?” Jennethrae quipped hopefully.
“All?” Hester murmured, as if to herself. “She says all, like it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, when a heart blinds itself in pain. Go, child. Go and see if he can be saved.”
With that, Hester yawned so deeply that her eyes closed and her head fell back. Within moments she had her bare feet up on the chair, curled into a little ball and snoring softly.
Chapter 8 – Driftlander
Darkness swirled through the night in the parking lot beyond the Jeep. Sounds of the ocean surged through the car now that the engine had been cut, the block cooling with a rapid ticking as Richard and the three sisters sat silent, watching the midnight beach.
“So you’ll just walk right in?” Rich murmured, glancing sidelong at Telluriae.
“We’ll just walk right in,” she murmured, her gaze fixed upon the surging waves where they stirred the thick fog, opening up now to a high, bright moon. “Our curse is broken – nothing holds us anymore. Not to our landwalking forms, not to any talisman… nothing.”
“So you’ll go, then?” Rich could barely grate out the words, his throat was so tight. His eyelids prickled, and he blinked back tears.
Telluriae looked over. Her lovely lips smiled, her heavy-lidded eyes peaceful. “Richard. Would you keep us from our home?”
“No.” He growled, using the cuff of one flannel sleeve to wipe his damnable eyes. “You should be where you belong.”
She smiled. As if his pronouncement broke some spell that held them together, the girls were suddenly pulling door handles and pushing open the car doors with a clang of old metal. Rich sat alone in the Jeep until the silence was too deafening, and then heaved open his door also, slamming it shut behind him. The sound was swallowed by the fog, still lingering in the parking lot.
But the beach had cleared to moon-drenched glory, silver washing its endless sands. Timeless, it stretched on, breaking at the black rocks of the headland. But even as the moon swallowed the sky, Rich felt a brisk, cold wind rip the air.
Following the girls to the beach, he clutched his mackintosh tight, ducking into a wind that now whipped his lapels, arising out of nowhere. He could see whitecaps on the water; the waves surged high, higher. A vicious storm was rising, eating the quiet of the night. This one had ferocity behind it, and Rich knew it was going to be a doozy. Alarm rose in him even as they gained the sandbar.
High above, the moon faded. Looking up, Rich saw thick, black clouds roll across the night sky, covering it like a pronouncement of doom. The stars died. The moon was lost to view, the heavy clouds red-tinged underneath where they touched the coast and swallowed the town. The wind raged, roaring now in his ears. Rich had left his beanie back in the car, and his ears chilled fast as the temperature dropped nearly to freezing.
The three girls had turned to each other, alarm in their faces. They shouted to each other in the rising storm, but thirty paces behind, Rich couldn’t hear through the high wind. He jogged up, his knees protesting as he struggled through shifting sand to the wet hard-pack.
“Why did you call up a storm?” He called out to the sisters as he neared.
“We didn’t!” Jennethrae’s face was pale in the darkness, her eyes round with fear. Wind whipped loose hair around her face.
Rich neared, jogging to Telluriae’s side just in time to hear her say, “Father!”
Turning, Rich gazed where her eyes were fixed. She was staring at the headland, at the tide pool cliffs black and forbidding now as the night raged darker and darker.
“Your father?” Rich yelled to the screaming wind.
“His rage calls the storm!” Telluriae yelled back. “He felt us arrive at the beach! He’s trying to prevent us from going back into the ocean, from escaping him! We’ll be wounded by waves this strong, maybe even killed! We can’t enter the water!”
On the beach, enormous waves now crashed and crested, devouring the sandbar. Rich tugged her arm, pointed at the waves, thirty feet and rising.
“It’s not safe here!” He roared. “We have to leave – get to higher ground and wait it out!”
“No!” Telluriae yelled back. Turning to Rich, she gripped his arm, hard. “I’ve spent too many years running from him! I won’t fear him anymore! I won’t fear his rage, nor his madness, nor his storms!”
Suddenly, Telluriae turned on her heel, dashing along the surging line of the ocean toward the headland. Her sisters shrieked. Rich cursed. There was nothing for it; she couldn’t face a madman alone. Picking up his old rheumatic joints, he heaved himself into a sprint. His bones ached and ground; his body jarred with pains. But Rich kept his eyes fixed on Telluriae as she dashed up the beach, and he gained ground by the time he saw her race up the stairs to the rocky tide pools.
Dodging enormous tree stumps that hulked like leviathans rising from the deep, Rich skirted long ropes of bullweed and tumbles of driftwood to gain the stairs. His ticker was exploding as he raced up, his breath rasping as he forced it deeper into his burning lungs.
Telluriae was out upon the far tide pools; Rich could see her honey-pale hair swinging in what was left of the darkening moonlight. And out where the waves crashed into dangerous spray, he saw the black form of a man, raising his arms to the power of the ocean.
Rich hardly felt his old bones now. Dashing over rough volcanic stone, he leaped jags and runnels of water as cold spray scoured his cheeks. Eyes fixed upon Telluriae, adrenaline and fear coursed through him. She had arrived near her father. As Rich surged closer, he saw the man strike out, hitting his daughter in a vicious backhand that sent her sprawling upon the gleaming black rocks.
He heard Telluriae’s cry, ripped to him upon the wind.
With a roar, Richard Graden was taken by a red rage he’d not known since his army days. The storming night was the darkness of the jungle and the sea-spray was a hail of bullets. And he was dashing ramming-speed for the man who had taken those orphans and now trained a gun on him.
He hit the girls’ father with a shoulder in the chest. Slamming him down to sharp, slick rocks, they scrabbled in the wet, waves surging at the cliffs and drenching them. Rich fought with the man for dominance. He finally got the man pinned, giving his hand time to flash to the sheath at his belt.
Rich’s knife was out before thought; pressed hard up under the father’s pale throat.
“Hurt those girls again, and it’ll be the last thing you do!” Rich snarled, shoving the knife up so hard under the man’s chin that the father gasped, stretching his neck out.
“Richard!” Telluriae’s voice was shocked and shrill. Far away through the booming waves, Rich heard the screams of the other sisters as they ran up.
“No!” Richard roared over the wind and spray, into the father’s haughty face. “He doesn’t know how good he has it! He doesn’t know how amazing you girls are, how kind, how lovely – and loving! He doesn’t appreciate how much you still love him even now, even with everything he’s put you through! But I do. I wanted a family; I wanted that kind of love, so help me God I did! But I couldn’t have it. I couldn’t have a family. But if to God I had, I would have loved the shit out of them. No matter what happened in our lives! No matter that my wife was taken from me far too young! No matter that I miss her like crazy each and every day! No matter that I can’t get her eyes from my soul, or her voice from my ears! She haunts me, fuckitall! But if I had daughters like you – daughters like he has – then my wife would live on! In all of your beautiful faces, she would live on. And that’s not a curse – it’s a blessing.”
Rich took a hard breath as his storm raged out. The father had gone very still beneath him, his gaze pinned to Rich. Their eyes connected with an electricity more powerful than the crashing of the waves as spray doused them. The father’s austere face had opened in shock, his lips fallen open.
Suddenly, the father shuddered. And with that shudder came a wrenching cry, the sound gulls make upon a lonely cliff. And then he was shaking, sobbing, renting from the inside out and the outside in.
Stunned, Rich pulled his knife back. Rolling off the man, he pushed to standing though he kept a ready crouch. But the father was broken. He lay in the wet, runnels of water cascading around him as the waves crashed. But even as Rich watched, the dark began to brighten, the moon returning. The wind gusted lower, waves falling away from the headland until only the occasional spray misted their faces. As Rich watched the father sob his broken heart out upon those black rocks, he also saw the rage inside the man scour away, just as the spent storm leaves the tide pools fresh and renewed at dawn.
The father sat up from the wet. Arms around his knees, he hugged himself, gasping. Crowding around him, his three daughters hugged him, held him, pet his bedraggled golden mane and cooed their love in his ear. He reached arms out, gathering them in, holding them in a crushing embrace so fierce with love that Rich blinked back a sting in his eyes.
“My girls,” the father cried, croaking out his misery and love to the sighing ocean, “my beautiful girls! I’m so sorry… so sorry…”
Rich could hear them, murmuring soothing phrases of forgiveness to their father as they huddled tight in a knot of love and release. He turned away; this moment was not his to witness. The storm was past and the girls were safe.
And they were not his.
Tears washed down Richard’s face as he stared at the beach, glimmering with fresh wet under the moon. He let them fall; he needed to cry for his dead wife. He needed to cry for the family he never had but always wanted.
He needed to cry for himself, to let it all go.
A gentle touch came upon his arm. Rich wiped hastily at his eyes with his flannel shirt cuff, turning. Telluriae stood at his side, her eyes luminous beneath the shine of the moon.
“Richard,” she reached out, stroking his hair, matted and wet. “My incredible Richard.”
Stepping forward, Telluriae lifted her lips to his. She tasted of salt spray and oyster, cool wind and night. Richard lifted his arms, holding her for the briefest moment before her lips eased from his. Moving back a touch, she stared deep into his eyes, knowing.
And then slipped out of his arms like the sea, turning back to her family.
Richard watched them go. The four of them, stepping to the sea-cliff at the edge of the tide pool shelf. He watched them disrobe, leaving their clothing in neat piles upon the black rocks under the moon. And then he watched them dive into the quiet ocean, graceful as dolphins, until it was only him left upon the rocks, contemplating the empty sea where they had gone.
With a sigh, Rich settled to a seat by the piles of clothing. His mackintosh was soaked cold and clinging, too much wet inside of it from the crashing of the ocean earlier. The moon rode a cold March sky, the night silent now but for the lull of the ocean. With a sigh, Rich laid his head down upon his wife’s old clothes. Bunching a thick cable knit sweater up under his cheek, he stuck his nose in the sodden wool and inhaled, hoping for a trace of her scent.
But there was nothing.
Nothing except the sweet-salt tang of the ocean and the taste of his own tears.
Dawn blinked Richard awake, the cry of gulls raucous in his ears. He sat up, blinking away the heaviness of sleep. And startled, to find a young woman sitting next to him upon the stone.
Wearing only a flannel shirt pulled close over her nakedness, Telluriae laughed as he startled, then reached out, combing back a lock of his mane. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Ignoring the aching chill in his bones, Rich reaching out one gnarled hand to take her smooth fingers. “I’m glad you did.”
They sat in silence a long moment, until at last Telluriae spoke again. “You should live, Richard. You have been cleansed and released, just as we have. You should find something to live for, and enjoy your life again.”
“I don’t have much of a life left.” Rich coughed, feeling an ominous rattle in his lungs. He’d stayed out here all night. Pneumonia was a killer of the aged, and he’d pushed himself too hard last night. Far too hard for an old, worn-out man.
“You’re not old,” Telluriae’s mystic blue gaze was upon him, an enigmatic smile upon her lips. “Nor are you worn-out. Your heart is strong like the deepest currents of the ocean, and that is all a man needs to return to life.”
Reaching out, she set a palm to his chest. Suddenly, Richard felt a honey-warm blessing flow from her body into his, rolling back his pains. It poured through his old bones like fresh water, calming heated aches, soothing joints long given over to agony. And suddenly, he felt ease move through his sinews. Like his joints had been given new pulleys, they moved without creaking. He turned toward Telluriae, his lips fallen open in astonishment as her hand fell away. She reached up, stroking back a lock of his hair.
Which was thicker, and longer.
“There,” she sighed in a voice like the flowing sea. “For you, whom I adore. My driftlander. Go with my love in your heart, Richard. The love a daughter would bear a father who has done everything for her that he could. Who cared for her when all was lost. Who helped her in her time of deepest need. Go with my love, like a daughter of your own, but more deep and complex than a daughter could ever love you. You have a child now, Richard. You have three. And they will remember you always, far beneath the waves. Live now. Be free of your pain. Do not watch the ocean for the rest of your days.”
She clasped his hand, pressing something into it. Then rose, shedding the flannel shirt to the rocks.
And with one smooth dive, she returned to the sea.
Richard stepped to the edge, watching the waters surge. Dawn crested golden fingers out over the rocks, lighting the flowing ocean as it eddied and surged. Suddenly, he saw a flash of gold in the water – a long coil of sinew and fin as delicate as sea foam. Without scales but shining bright as the new dawn, luminous tendrils fanned out around its lithe body. And then those tendrils flared like the most delicate anemone Rich had ever seen, and the golden flash was gone, curling deep into waters black and unknown.
Rich watched the churning water for a long moment, but the gold did not return.
He gazed down to his hand, opening his fingers. To see the silver amethyst pendant, glinting wet in the bright rays of the new morning – his knuckles around it strong and hale, utterly free of the wretchedness of time.
Epilogue – Never Wear Shoes
Richard Graden was young again, like he hadn’t been in years. Walking back along the rocks, his joints moved with ease and flow, the confident, upright amble of a man still in his prime. Running a hand through his hair, he found it thick not just with salt spray, but with strong fiber and luster. His mackintosh was too warm for this fine spring day, so he cast it off and tucked it under his arm, not worried about needing that hand to catch a fall on the sharp, uneven rocks.
And his knuckles, well.
He flexed his hand around the amethyst pendant, a smile touching his lips.
Drawing in a lungful of air, he held it at its peak – feeling alive, feeling hale. And then he let it out in a strong, bright laugh that echoed the crashing of the ocean.
Rich didn’t feel like beach combing today. He didn’t care about flotsam and drowned ships. He didn’t care about finding oddities to fill his empty life anymore. Picking up his pace, Rich jogged down the stairs to the beach. He hit the beach at a run and kept running. His breath was free and easy. His steps were loose and fluid. His heart pounded a steady rhythm, strong with life.
Richard arrived at the Jeep in the parking lot with a laugh. Families were arriving with the warming morning, pouring out of vehicles beneath the pines and ready with pink pails for castle-building, beach chairs, coolers, and sundry. Rich’s smile was infectious and was returned by startled moms who blinked out of their hen-herding reverie to beam back at him.
Jumping into the Jeep, he heaved closed the door. Turning the key, the old beast coughed to life, and for the first time, Rich thought he might need a new car. He threw it into gear, backed out of his spot, and hit the road.
On the highway, the mist had cleared. The day was bright, cars moving in the morning hours and starting to clutter the two lanes. Rich approached the turnoff to his house when he suddenly had the feeling he didn’t want to go home. His house was empty and it would only remind him of emptiness.
He passed the turnoff and continued into town.
Not knowing where he was headed, Rich passed the downtown shops at the requisite 25 mph crawl, when he saw the tall cathedral spire of the Curioso Gallery. He hit the brakes, almost sending the car behind him into his rear bumper with an irate honk. Rich pulled his Jeep hard into the angle-in parking before the Curioso and bounded out of the car. He took the gallery’s steps two at a time and hammered on the locked door whose sign still read closed.
He waited a moment, but then the lock clicked and one of the big double-doors pushed open. Rich had half-expected it to be Leopold, but it was Hester who had come, blinking big, startled green eyes in the morning light.
God, she was beautiful. Not like Mary’s steady brightness, but ethereal in a way all her own. Rich felt his groin stir, felt himself flush. Her eyes sparkled like emerald grass in the morning sunshine, and the bruised color around them only made her mystery sharper, more amazing.
Hester began to smile, her eyes roving him. Rich knew he looked younger. Maybe twenty years younger. He gave a lopsided grin, blushing more.
“Well!” She breathed. “Richard Graden!”
Goddamn. Best skin-flick voice he’d ever heard. Rich shuffled one foot, tucking his fingertips into his front jeans pockets. He cleared his throat. “Hester. I…uh. Would you like to get a coffee… sometime?”
Her elegant eyebrows rose, but her luscious lips smiled more. “Let me grab my wrap.”
She moved away from the door, back into the dim shop. Morning light filtered down from the high-gabled windows, lighting dust motes inside. Richard lingered at the door, sweating now with nerves. A date? Hester? What was he thinking! He wasn’t prepared for this. What if he was a bad date? What if he wasn’t funny enough, or engaging enough, or—
All thought dropped from his mind as Hester re-appeared, her tartan wool wrap slung about her narrow shoulders. Her simple green dress was belted at the waist, the skirt flowing around her knees as she walked, every bit of the ensemble showing her delicate bones and fey curves. She moved like a dancer walking across time, and those emerald eyes were ancient as she moved to the door, holding Richard’s stare.
She moved out of the door, turned, and locked it with a key, then faced him. Rich’s gaze flicked down, noting she’d come out without any shoes. Barefoot as ever, her arches were shapely, her ankles narrow, her toes tiny.
“Um,” he cleared his throat again. “Don’t you need shoes?”
“Shoes prevent us from feeling the pulse of the earth, from feeling life,” Hester murmured, gazing at him with ancient mystery. “Don’t you want to feel your life, Richard? Now that you have a chance to do it again?”
He stood there, shocked, mulling it over. And then with a swift, decisive motion, Richard kicked off his shoes and tugged his socks off, leaving them in a pile on the Curioso’s front steps. The marble stairs of the gallery were chilly beneath his soles, but warming with the promise of a new day.
Standing tall, he faced Hester, meeting her gaze.
“I want to feel my life again,” he said decisively. “I want to be alive again.”
Hester beamed. Reaching up, she set a warm hand to his cheek. “Then shall we get a coffee?”
Richard’s heart sang. He offered his arm like a gentleman and Hester took it, very proper. But as they stepped down the stairs of the Curioso together, barefoot, Richard knew they were anything but.
“Never wear shoes again, Richard.” Hester pronounced in the best skin-flick voice Richard had ever heard. “And only go to the ocean when you want to dive in, rather than watch for the ships that pass you by on the shore.”
Richard couldn’t agree more.
ABOUT JEAN LOWE CARLSON
Award-winning author Jean Lowe Carlson writes adventurous epic fantasy fiction with a dark twist. Her raw worlds remind one of Patrick Rothfuss, George RR Martin, Robert Jordan, and Stephen King. Jean holds a doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine (ND), and has a keen awareness of psychology and human behavior, using it to paint vivid characters set amidst nations in turmoil or societies with riveting secrets. Exciting, challenging, and passionate, her novels take the reader upon dire adventures while exploring deep human truths. In 2016, she was the recipient of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Finalist medal for her dark fantasy “Tears”.
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When a retired veteran acquires three mysterious antique dolls combing the beaches of the Oregon coast, a dark curse is revealed that will change his life - and force him to become the hero he never knew he was. A contemporary dark fantasy set on the Oregon coast, Darkling's Cove hearkens back to the classic feel of Stephen King short stories. "Richly set and beautifully told, Carlson paints a story filled with love and tragedy. She captures tortured emotions perfectly and leaves you wanting more." - Chris Patchell, author of In the Dark