Thirty-four

After my abortive bath, I went to bed but only slept for three hours.  I woke from a restless, dreamless sleep that did nothing for my newly trebled anxiety.  The window was the brightest thing in the room, a pale gray square.  The wind made the frame creak, and a rivulet of cold air was getting in.  I listened to the miserable sound of the wind straining against the house.  The feeling of being watched was still there too.  I grabbed my penlight from the nightstand and shined it around the room.  Nothing, not even a cat.  That didn’t soothe my crawling skin.

I decided to get up and find some electricity so I could read.  I didn’t want to leave my warm cocoon for the unexplored depths of Lexi’s house, but staying in bed and jumping at shadows all night was no alternative at all.  I cursed the cold again, draped my afghan over my pajamas, and put two pairs of socks on my feet.  Armed with afghan and Clive Barker book, I headed downstairs.

I heard Eddie snoring as I passed his room.  It was the only familiar sound in a symphony of creaks, groans, and the constant rustle of the wind driving against the walls of the house.  I didn’t want to turn any lights on.  I decided that the kitchen would be a good place to read, and walking there in the dark would make me feel better about the house, too.  I already liked the feel of it, in some screwed-up mystical way.  It felt alive, much more alive than the hotel rooms Eddie and I had been living in.  The creaks and groans were spooky but I wasn’t going to let the unfamiliar shadows frighten me.  I would walk in them until they no longer held any mysteries.

At the bottom of the steps I smiled with the thrill.  Taiisha’s voice rose in my head: She likes it.  She likes being scared.  My smile died. 

I heard her behind me.  There was no mistaking that chuckle, that scornful intake of breath.  My skin stood up in alarmed goosebumps, and I turned and ran.  I ran in a blind, stupid, senseless panic, not seeing anything.  There was a howl in my mind, but I didn’t voice it.  Somehow I crossed the foyer and fled into the ballroom.

In the middle of the ballroom I tripped over my own feet and fell.  When I hit the floor I curled into a ball, expecting to be hit, arms crisscrossed over my face.  I wound my afghan around myself, hiding beneath the knitted yarn like a child.  My throat was tight from a scream withheld too long, but I didn’t let it out.  I closed my eyes and willed her to be gone when I opened them.  This had never worked in the past, but sometimes I couldn’t help it.

I couldn’t bring myself to open them for several minutes, but no one hit me.  The house was silent, except for the rushing sound of snow and wind buffeting it.  The wood floor was cold; a draft ran chilly fingers through the spaces in the afghan and found my bare legs.  When I finally opened my eyes and peeked out from under the blanket, Taiisha wasn’t there.  There was nothing but black shadows and gray light from the luminous snow outside, and my breath wheezing hysterically through parted lips.  I closed my mouth and forced my breath through my nose, slow.

Jesus, I was hiding under an afghan in the middle of a huge ballroom.  If Taiisha had been there, she’d have kicked the fuck out of me for being stupid.  My heart wasn’t in it, but I threw the afghan off and stood up.  Nothing struck me down.  No one came howling at me out of the dark.  Even the crawling sense of being watched was gone.

As the panic left me, I got cold again.  I put the afghan around my shoulders again and continued through the ballroom into the kitchen.  It was my destination, so I went there.  I had dropped my book somewhere in the dark and didn’t want to look for it, but I turned on the lights and sat down at the kitchen table as if to read anyway.  I just sat and looked at my hands, not seeing anything.  At some point I dumped the sugar bowl out on the table and finger-traced a reasonably poor likeness of Taiisha in the powder.  She was in my head and that helped to get her out.  Getting out didn’t help; I was still in a big old creepy house in the middle of nowhere and I was expected to kill someone.  The thought skipped through my head and repeated itself, like a scratched record.  I finally got it to go away by thinking fiercely:  But I don’t WANT to kill anyone!  Whether I was talking to Taiisha or myself, I wasn’t certain.

I was still there when the sun came up.  The gray of the snow falling in the windows grew steadily lighter until the day was as bright as it was going to get.  The sky was white-gray.  When I looked out the window I saw nothing but snow and leafless black trees frosted thickly with white.  I realized that the sky was so pale because it was completely filled with snow, almost opaque with it, though there was little wind.  I got cold just watching the snow fall; it was almost up to the windows in some places.  My afghan was warm, so I kept it wrapped around me.

The daylight roused me a little bit though.  The world had shifted around me slightly, and it was going to take a while for me to get comfortable with this new position.  The problem was that I didn’t really have the luxury of being unsettled.  Not when Lexi might betray me to Eddie over breakfast.  Not with Taiisha still out there somewhere waiting for me to kill Eddie and prepared to kill anyone I talked to in the meantime–she could be killing Ian and Zheng right now, in fact.

Thirty-four

I go downstairs via the folding hallway staircase.  I can hear Doctor Edward out there now, and the hall staircase is noiser.  I want noise.  I hear Nikki call my name from the foyer, and smile again.  The gang’s all here! 

I run down to the front landing, nocking an arrow and thinking that I’m doing exactly what Marion did, except that my bow is probably not going to explode in my hand.  The similarity does not deter me.  Nikki’s at the base of the stairs.  About two steps behind her I can see Doctor Edward, Ian and Gray. 

Nikki’s eyes go to my bow and she stops cold, hands held out to her sides.  A broadhead arrow is a scary thing indeed. 

“Oh, kee-rist,” Ian says.  He sounds more exasperated than concerned.  Maybe I should have just rammed his Explorer.

“With all that can go wrong in your day, isn’t it nice to know you can depend on your car?” I say to Nikki.  My mind feels very far away, but the angry-snake is in charge of everything else, and we know what we’re doing with the bow.  “Life is pretty pathetic when your own hallucinations lie to you,” I say quietly.

“I didn’t lie to you,” Nikki says.  “I’m on your side.”

I want to believe her, but the arrow doesn’t waver.  I decide nonetheless that I won’t shoot her.  I want to shoot somebody, that’s for sure.  Ren would.  My father would.  Our cars have been stolen, and somebody wants shooting for that, goddammit.  Bert taught me not to go around starting fights, but he also taught me to draw my lines, and not to hesitate to jump on anyone who crosses them.  I don’t need to feel badly about that; I don’t have many lines.

“Lexi, stop this, this instant!” Ian yells.  His voice booms in the high-roofed foyer.  I wonder if he was ever a school bus driver.  It’s nice of him to call attention to himself, at least. 

“Pugsly,” I say to Nikki.  We watched the second Addams Family movie a few days ago; she’d never seen it.  “The baby weighs ten pounds.  The cannonball weighs twenty pounds.  Which will hit the stone walkway first?” With that, I tweak my aim quickly, just a squitch to one side, and release my arrow toward Ian.  The heavy bowstring lets go and the arrow vanishes.  Nikki ducks, curling, but she isn’t in any danger.  There’s a whack of impact, Ian howls and Doctor Edward skitters toward the library.  Gray doesn’t move.  The arrow’s buried in the front door next to Ian.  It went most of the way through, and probably trashed the tip.  Oh, well.  I need practice; I was trying to hit him and I must have missed by six inches, dammit.

It’s a good feeling anyway.  I’d shoot at him again, but he’s babbling about getting the cops and scrambling out the door, pushing Gray out of the way and I can’t get another arrow nocked quickly enough.  I could shoot him in the back as he goes out…nah, that’s okay.  He won’t be back.  I can imagine him flailing down the steps, even though I can’t see him, and the Explorer cranks to life.  Tires spin in the snow; Ian didn’t even wait for anyone else who might want to escape.

Escape.  Escape from me.  I am a thing to be feared, and it feels good.

The others are looking after him, except for Gray.  I’ve aimed my second arrow just over Nikki’s head, at her, and she knows it.  Oh, it feels good to be mad in all senses of the word.  I smile, and the smile says, You promised to kill me, remember?

Nikki’s looking back at me and judging by the look on her porcelain-mask face, she can’t believe I just shot at Ian.  She says, “I’m still on fractions.”

She remembers!  Nikki can play my game.  I want to laugh, but don’t.  A sociopathic Wednesday Addams face is a perfect one to maintain when aiming an arrow at someone.  “Which one do you think?” I manage Wednesday’s emotionless inflection with eerie precision, thanks to all the rage in me.

“The cannonball?”

“Very good.  But which one will bounce?”

“The baby?”

“There’s only one way to find out.  Ready?”

Nikki looks honestly worried; she’s playing the game better than I thought she would, and is picking up on the symbolism.  She doesn’t trust me enough, though, and breaks character.  “Lexi, come on.  It’s me.  It’s Nikki.”

I know full well who she is, dammit.  I am not crazy, I’m mad.  There’s a difference.  I switch to Pulp Fiction.  “Are you calling me from a cellular phone? Who is this? I don’t know you.  Don’t come here.  I’m hanging up the phone.  Prank caller! Prank caller!”

I release, because I want to put one in Gray while I’m still pissed enough to do it. 

I’m not sure how she does it, but Nikki deflects the arrow.  She ducks and her hand goes up and I can almost see the arrow fly off course as it skates off of her palm.  It goes into the chandelier and before I can wonder why she’s protecting Gray she’s all over me.  I didn’t see her cross the distance between us, had no idea someone could move that fast in fact, and suddenly the bow is gone from my hands and I’m getting the beating of my life and being flipped through the air and being strangled at the same time.  When I hit the ground I’m not angry any more.  There’s no being angry when fighting Nikki, apparently.  There’s no emotion at all, in fact, just hurting.  I get to the ground and have completely forgotten where I am because of the pain in my stomach, and head, and arm, and neck, and feet, and my head keeps hitting the floor, ow, ow, everything’s getting fuzzy…

It’s stopped.  How long ago did it stop?  I open my eyes, and see Gray, who smiles and touches my neck, and then everything goes away for real.  I think, I really should have shot– but don’t get to finish the thought.