When she found me, I was broke, shoeless, and I had no choice but to go with her. The bus ticket that Dori bought me took me from Nashville to Las Vegas, where two punk girls stole my boots in the rain.
The storm blew up out of nowhere. Both it and the robbery were short and intense. The sun had gone down, and they came at me out of the black downpour in the middle of a parking lot. I screamed once, but the bigger girl hit me in the stomach, knocked my wind out. One of them knocked me down and tried (and failed) to take my bag, the other yanked my Doc Martens off and they ran in opposite directions. Thunder and the hiss of violent rain drowned out any noise.
The storm ended within half an hour. Without shoes I couldn’t get into a hotel or a casino, even to try to steal a new pair of boots or a towel from one of the shops. Soaked to the skin, I walked for most of the evening. I had a little bit of money, so I got dinner from a walk-up fast-food place and sat on one of the picnic tables to rest. My feet were cut and bloody by then. I had taken my socks off so I wouldn’t ruin them.
I don’t know how long Taiisha sat there before I noticed her. She was an expert at being nondescript. She had parked her car at the far end of the lot and sat on the hood watching me. She was wearing sunglasses, even though it was well after dark. When she saw I was looking at her she stood up and crossed the lot. She looked predatory, like a tiger poured into a human form, ready to lash out at anything she felt compelled to kill. My immediate urge was to put the last of my fries in my bag for later and leave. Fast. But she was too intent on me. I was instantly certain that if I ran she’d follow.
“You’ve had enough, haven’t you?” she asked when she was about ten feet away and still approaching. “All worn out.” I opened my mouth to tell her to piss off, and she hissed me into silence. “I’m here to take you away from this now.” She placed her hands gently on my collarbone, one on either side of my neck, and smiled. Her voice was like ice water, but she was smiling sweetly. “You remember me, don’t you? Say you do.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. My jaw worked with a thin, almost inaudible whine, but words wouldn’t form. I closed my eyes and opened them again. She didn’t disappear.
“Don’t you have a voice?”
“Your attention for the next ten seconds of your life, child. Ten seconds. Do you hear? Do you understand?” She took one of her hands away from my collar and held it up in front of my face, fingers splayed. She began to curl and uncurl her fingers, like a cat kneading a blanket. “Ten seconds of your life, no great loss. Whether they’re the next ten or the last ten is your decision.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Taiisha,” she said. Her face didn’t change, but her gentle smile did, imperceptibly, and I was looking Death in the face. “Now you run,” she hissed, releasing me and stepping back.
I didn’t need to be told twice. Something in her voice fired off a flare of terror for my very existence that I had never felt before. I spun, grabbed my bag and started running across the parking lot. My bare feet slapped the wet pavement, sending red spikes of hurt through the tender soles. I didn’t look back. I didn’t know where I was going, but when I let my flight instinct take over it didn’t matter. Something inside told me I was running from every demon that had ever chased me, all at once. I could have outrun a helicopter.
I almost made it to the street before my ten seconds expired. I hesitated for a fraction of a second, looking for oncoming traffic before I ran straight across the boulevard, and that was where she caught me. Her cool hand fell on the back of my neck and squeezed. Her fingers tightened like a noose and she pulled me up and back. My feet left the ground. As I went down, I heard her say “You listen good, my love.”
I don’t remember hitting the ground.
I awoke to find myself blindfolded and lying on my back. My hands were tied in front of me. The air had changed. The wet, urban smell of Las Vegas was gone, replaced by dry, sandy air that I didn’t recognize at all. The absolute silence told me I was nowhere near the city, or any city.
“Awake,” Taiisha said. I hadn’t moved, but she knew I was awake. “You can feel the ropes, I’m sure. Don’t squirm.” I didn’t. “You’re with me now, and you’re lying an inch from a thousand-foot drop.” My breath went shallow at the thought of the fall, of being so close to falling so far. Taiisha laughed. “Yesss, you’re scared,” she hissed. She was speaking from above me somewhere. I couldn’t tell by the sound of her voice which direction the fall was in. “I’m going to roll you over in a moment. You choose the direction. Left or right? I’ll count to five. One.”
She was going to roll me off a cliff. “No! Oh God, oh fuck, please–“
“Shut up! No whingeing. You choose which way. Two.”
I lost sense of which direction was left or right. I couldn’t think about anything except the awful weightless feeling of falling through empty air, a thousand feet down, unable to do anything but scream and wait for the final violent smack. “Please,” I whispered.
“Stop it,” Taiisha said. “Don’t whinge. Don’t ever whinge. You choose now. Three.”
“Choose! Or I’ll stab you and roll you off the cliff! Four! Choose now!”
My feet wanted to creep to one side or the other, to feel something, anything. I was frozen, though. Even if I hadn’t been tied, I was too afraid of moving and inadvertently plunging myself into the unseen chasm.
“Choose!” Taiisha yelled. I heard and felt her feet hit the ground, right above my head. She had jumped down from wherever she’d been perched.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Answers later. Choose now. Do you want to die? Is that it? Are you ready to die? To fall? Is that what you want? Five! Over the edge with you then!” Hands grabbed my shoulders.
“Left! Left!” I screamed. She lifted me, snatched the blindfold off as she spun me to the left, then let go. I didn’t have time to register where I was and when I started dropping I howled in terror, tearing something in my throat, convinced that I had chosen the cliff.
The scream stopped abruptly as I hit the ground on my belly, knocked my breath out, and got dust in my nose.
I screamed a second time when I looked back and saw I was indeed two feet away from the edge of a cliff. We were somewhere in the Grand Canyon. She had not been bluffing. I squirmed as far away from the edge as I could, almost to her feet. I expected her to be laughing, but she lounged on a rock, perfectly emotionless.
“You chose good that time,” she said. “You survive on luck. That’s all. Most people in this world can’t even run away from a threat. Too fat, too frightened, too stupid. But not you, not any more.” She stood, stretched her arms, and looked out into the canyon. “I’m going to make it better for you, Kerry.” Taiisha squatted in front of me and smiled at the surprise she saw in my eyes. I didn’t know how she knew my name…my middle name. No one had ever called me by my middle name before. It was as if she had renamed me. “You’ll have new choices soon,” she said. She took off her sunglasses. Her eyes were pale gray.
I started to cry.
She slapped my face lightly. “Don’t whinge. You’re safe, there’s nothing to cry about. Now up,” she said, helping me to my feet. “Stand and shut.”
Without warning Taiisha pushed me violently backward. I twisted and threw out my tied wrists in a futile effort to keep from falling and hit the ground elbows-first, looking out over that bottomless chasm again. The impact on both my funnybones sent my hands and arms into a different plane of existence. I could see them, but they were talking to themselves. “Stand up! Shut up!” She seized my wrists, pulled them up over my head, and yanked off the cord that bound them, wrenching my arms painfully. “I don’t like to repeat myself. Up,” she said, and I stood up. “Knew you’d learn fast,” she said with a hint of a smile.
That was how it began. I didn’t have a choice but to learn fast. She taught me by example; a fist or a kick or a hard heavy object would be aimed at me and an instruction barked. If I did as I was told, I didn’t get hit. If I hesitated, I did. I learned not to hesitate. I learned to obey Taiisha’s commands without thinking, to avoid injury. The second or third time she repeated an attack there were no instructions yelled. I had to remember what to do. Taiisha said it allowed the things I learned from her to become instinct rather than choreographed maneuvers. What it meant was that I had to learn fast. Many of her attacks were dangerous for real. If Taiisha grabbed me, I had to learn to squirm away or suffer cracked ribs, a dislocated shoulder. If she hit, I had to learn to deflect the blow and hit back. If she threw something, I had to catch it–that one, I took to quickly. Within days she graduated from throwing rocks to throwing knives, which I couldn’t catch. At first. She took me to mysterious, shadowy men who taught me other fighting skills–how to fight with a knife, how to shoot.
Strangely, when she did hurt me, she always made a point of fixing what damage she could. She popped dislocated joints back into place (to the tune of shrieks and crying on my behalf) and bandaged deep cuts and sent me off to rest. Rest was always broken unexpectedly by the next lesson. I don’t think she tended to me out of compassion, merely out of a desire not to completely destroy her student. Unless she made a decision to, of course.
The terrifying thing was that her training worked. Time passed; days, weeks, months. Until she sent me to Eddie I didn’t realize she’d had me for almost two years. The time had collapsed into vignette memories of moments with only a fuzzy sense of chronological order.
Taiisha woke me at dawn one day, told me to get in the car, and drove me out into the desert. On a lonely ridge, she tied a blindfold over my eyes, then told me to wait, and left me there. I wasn’t bound. I could have untied the blindfold, but I didn’t. I just waited. I felt the sun move over me. I heard animals and once, a distant plane.
I was there for a full day. The night was cold. I huddled in my clothes and dozed sitting up. Something padded up and sniffed me at one point during the night. I don’t know what it was. I didn’t take the blindfold off. I was afraid Taiisha was sitting there waiting for me to do just that.
When she returned the next day and found me sitting there, Taiisha called me stupid. “When you learn to ignore the monster inside that made you sit there all that time,” she said, “you’ll be ever so much stronger.”
She attempted to cure me of my fear of heights by dangling me ass-up over a five-hundred-foot drop with the intent of leaving me there until I stopped screaming. It didn’t work. Eventually I screamed myself hoarse, then vomited, and started screaming again, and Taiisha’s patience ran out. She dragged me back to solid ground and beat the shit out of me. I’m still afraid of heights. That was her only failed lesson.
I awoke once to an array of pistols laid out on the breakfast table. Taiisha explained to me, in her terse way, the specifications of each. She quizzed me briefly, to see if I remembered how many shots each contained. By that time I had gotten good at hearing things once and remembering them. Usually I had only one chance to hear them. After I answered her questions to her satisfaction, she grabbed three of the guns and told me to follow her outside. As soon as I was out the door, she started shooting them into the air. The first shot made me flinch, and I covered my ears. I expected her to snap at me for jumping, but she put all three guns on the ground in front of me.
“Two bullets in three guns,” she said. “Did you count the shots?”
“Always count shots, whenever anyone shoots. Know how many can be left. Don’t think about it. Just count, and remember. Which gun is empty?” she asked again.
She sounded irritated, so I stayed submissive. It was the easiest way to avoid punishment. “I don’t know.”
I toed the closest gun to me, a nickel-plated .38 revolver. Taiisha snatched it off the ground, pointed it at my feet, and squeezed the trigger. The report made me jump for real this time. The bullet had gone right between my toes.
“Next time count shots. Next time we play I put it in your mouth.”
Once she disappeared for a week, leaving me alone in the house. There was nothing within walking distance of the house; one could walk for a day and a half in any direction and never see human habitation. There was also no television or radio. I spent most of the time making food for myself, and sleeping lightly. I expected Taiisha to knock the door down and ambush me every minute of every day. She didn’t. On the sixth day the door was knocked down, but it wasn’t Taiisha. It was a man I’d never seen before, muscular and dirty. He chased me into the bathroom, held a kitchen knife to my throat, and raped me.
I was still hiding there and in tears when Taiisha returned the next day. I tried to explain what had happened. She was irritated. “All that I’ve taught you. Why did you let him do that?” she sniffed. “Did you just lie there and whinge? Is that what you like?”
That particular lesson wasn’t over. A few months later, Taiisha left again, and the man came like before. He broke the door open, and I recognized him immediately. I didn’t let him touch me. My fear and rage and hate remembered the things I had learned to do with my hands and legs and feet and I stood my ground, stepped toward him as he tried to grab me, and nearly punched his jaw off. I broke my hand when I hit him, and it didn’t even slow me down. He dropped his knife and started to scream, and I drove my elbow into his throat, my uninjured fist into his sternum. As he doubled over I broke his knee with a side-stepping kick, then shattered his skull with a violent stomp as soon as he hit the floor. My heel struck his head so hard my entire foot went numb.
When Taiisha came back, less than an hour later, she saw the corpse and laughed. “Tardy, but pleasant,” she said. “That’s what you ought to have done the first time I sent him.”
I stared at her in spite of myself, shocked. “You…sent him?”
“Of course I did. Surely you don’t think he staggered here himself? I bought him for you. You needed a plaything.” She waved her hand as if dismissing the man’s entire existence. “A shame I had to pay him twice, but alcoholics are inexpensive, are they not?” She laughed again. It was a horrifying, mellow laugh.
She had sent a man to rape me. She thought it was funny. I remember not making any sound at all as I grabbed the dead man’s knife from the floor and buried it to the hilt in Taiisha’s chest. She let out a sharp cry of surprise as the blade pierced her, and we crashed to the floor together.
I watched her blood well around the knife’s wooden handle for a while. I thought about how ordinary the handle looked jutting out of her breast, as if it was still on display in the kitchenware section. Then I left her dead on the floor next to her wino. I was numb. I felt like a child, frightened by the shadow of a tree on the wall, who had taken a swing at the imagined monster and managed to kill it somehow. I had done what I had never imagined I could do. I didn’t know what to do next.
It took a lot of courage to kneel next to her and look at her. She was dead though, the blood no longer pumping out of her chest, her eyes fixed and vacant. I touched the cool flesh of her neck and felt no pulse. After that, I could stand. I went into the kitchen and stood over the sink for a long time, thinking about the rapist and Taiisha dead in the other room. At some point I vomited, but was barely aware of its happening. I ran water to wash the mess down the sink and stood where I was, thinking nonthoughts. I was afraid to feel joy or relief. I couldn’t believe that she had died, and I was afraid to run. I’d be punished when she revealed whatever trick this was. It was a strange place to be in; I could see her dead body, could touch it, and yet I didn’t feel free.
I was right.
I finally decided that I needed to bury the bodies, and returned to drag them outside an hour later. The wino was lying there by himself. Taiisha was sitting calmly on the battered couch in the cramped living room. She was waiting for me. There was no knife wound in her, although her clothes were still torn and bloody. “Thank you, Kerry,” she said to me then. “You’re everything I wanted you to be.”
That was the first time I fainted in my entire life.
I tried to convince myself that I had made a mistake, that she hadn’t been dead. It worked…until I killed her again several weeks later. During a particularly vicious sparring match, I got the upper hand. I didn’t think twice; I broke her neck. I heard the bones crack and grind against each other. Same story. I made sure she was dead. The angle of her head to her body left little doubt, but I made sure anyway. In an hour she was alive again, and just as happy about it as she’d been before. It became harder to convince myself that I had made a mistake. I almost managed.
Not long after I killed her for the second time, Taiisha looked at me across the kitchen table and said, “Today I’m teaching you to die.” She didn’t have her sunglasses on, and her gray eyes made me want to shrivel like burning paper. It was as if I hadn’t truly been afraid of her until now. Taiisha didn’t play games, at least not this kind. She had said she was going to kill me today, and she was going to kill me today. I wasn’t going to see the sun tomorrow. I wasn’t ever going to get away. I had almost killed her and now she couldn’t toy around with me any more. She looked at me, and I think she saw every one of those thoughts. I didn’t say anything to her, and she smiled and looked away, as if she’d promised me a new pair of shoes.
Even after everything that had happened, I still didn’t want to die. I would have expected myself to give up and wait for it to happen, but I didn’t. The opposite was true; I spent the day poised for anything, hyper-aware. A squirrel ran across the roof and I almost attacked the air in front of me. I felt defiant. I wanted to live to see tomorrow and scream, I’m still alive! in her face. I would.
I cooked my own breakfast. Taiisha had taught me to cook and clean, also. When I wasn’t fighting for my life, I tended house. I didn’t mind doing it. It generally meant that I was safe for a while when she handed me a recipe and commanded, “Make.”
After I ate, I washed the dishes half-turned, so I could see her wherever she went. When she got up without a word and left the kitchen I kept an eye on the window, too. I thought: Hell can come from any direction. That was Taiisha talking. She was in my head, little pieces of her taking root there like strangler vines. I had to make that stop somehow.
But there was no time to be afraid of what was going to happen to me in the long run. I had to keep track of now. I put the knife I had used to slice my bagel on the edge of the table and left it there, easy to grab.
Taiisha came from behind me. I had no idea how; I never heard her. She pushed me forward and into the table, away from the knife and any other utensil I could have picked up. The heavy tabletop was level with my midsection and I folded over it, losing most of my air. Before I could backpedal she was there, spinning me around and throwing me flat on my back. My hand reached out for something, anything, but I only managed to pull one of the chairs down over myself. I screamed, “No!” and kicked straight up, the easiest attack from that position and one that rarely missed. Taiisha always tried to jump on me when I fell, and she’d fall right into my heel.
This time she remained standing. She caught my foot as it reached the top of its arc and then she dropped down, forcing my leg to the floor. My knee touched the floor next to my head. I cried out, not because it hurt but because I was surprised. Her face was two inches from mine. I registered that, and then she kissed me. She put her open mouth over mine and held my head in both hands, keeping my leg trapped with her knee. I hit at her, which did no good at all. I think she laughed. She was breathing into my mouth. Her breath was dry, like there was no moisture at all in her. It tasted like cinnamon and cloves.
Then all at once she was off of me, standing. “Up,” she said, and I stood up. My knees were shaking. As soon as I got to my feet, Taiisha swung her arm in a wide arc. I saw the bagel knife in her hand, felt a hot flash across my throat, and saw my blood land on Taiisha’s face.
I jerked backward a second too late. The blood left my sliced neck in a rush. I tried to say something, and heard only a bubbling croak as I sucked blood into my lungs. I coughed red mist. My hands and feet went numb. The other senses started to follow almost immediately. I was choking on my own blood. I could feel my mouth working, still trying to say something. In a moment I was falling. I tried to drop to my knees and stop there, but ended up flat on my face with ever more sensation draining away like color bleeding out of a painting.
From somewhere far, far away, I felt Taiisha roll me over onto my back and cradle my head in her lap. I heard her voice through a tunnel, whispering, “Goodnight, Kerry, sweet sweet Kerry.”
I was falling, no, melting, backward, as if the floor under me had turned to liquid. I tumbled over, headfirst but without fear. I could see my hands stretched out in front of me and black nothingness all around, black except for a bright line that I was moving toward. There was no up or down, no left or right, just black like velvet. An atmosphere of velvet, with a gleaming, razor-straight line right down the middle of it.
The line coalesced into an endless chain of what looked to me like full-length mirrors, all frameless, each with a reflection of me. An infinite procession of Nikkis looked back at me with an infinite procession of expressions, reflecting different moods.
That’s you, I heard a voice say. Taiisha was speaking to me somehow. A million different yous, from a million different possible lifetimes.
As I drew closer I could see that the mirrors were different. All the images were me, but they weren’t identical. My hair changed length, changed color. I grew fatter, thinner (something I hadn’t thought possible), stronger, weaker. The clothes changed. My demeanor changed. Directly in front of me the mirror was a window to Taiisha’s kitchen. My body lay on the floor. Taiisha was sitting with my head in her lap, stroking my hair gently. I could see her lips moving, and heard her voice in my head. No fear, she said. You’ll be back shortly. I looked at my own dead body. If I could have screamed, I would have. As I watched, the focus widened so I could see more and more of the kitchen. My point of view appeared to be backing slowly out of the room. At the same rate, I could feel myself getting lighter. Soon I was going to float away from the mirrors.
No, Taiisha said. Don’t fly away from them.
The action was instinctive. When Taiisha told me what to do, I did it without thinking. I started to float away, and grabbed the edge of the empty mirror with one hand. My retreat stopped. Go to the next, Taiisha said. I pulled myself in front of the next mirror and saw the image of myself staring blindly back. The only difference I could see was this one’s clothes. As I looked, the other Nikki blinked, slowly.
Borrow her, Taiisha said. Pull her out. Bring her with you. Make her face yours.
It made no sense, but I acted without questioning. My free hand dove into the mirror, passing through the surface like water–it wasn’t glass at all, it was some cold substance that wasn’t quite a liquid or a gas–and grabbed the image. It collapsed and curled around my fingers as if I had seized a cobweb. I pulled. My feet floated up above my head, but I kept my grip on the mirror-Nikki. As I began to drift away from the mirrors, what seemed like up, the mirror-Nikki came with me. The reflection tore itself free of the glass-that-wasn’t with a soft ripping sound.
When the mirror-Nikki came free, the ghost-image got heavy, arresting my movement away from the mirror. The image tangled readily around me, like gossamer, like a cobweb, like cling wrap. She itched and flowed, struggling against me as I forced her into her proper position, her face covering my face, my feet inside her feet. Then she just melted into me; there was a moment of disorientation and then she was gone. I began to feel up and down. I was definitely headed down. The quality of the light changed; I was looking at the inside of my eyelids.
When I opened my eyes Taiisha was looking down at me. She smiled. “You made it back,” she said. “Remember what you did; next time I won’t be able to go with you.” I wanted to push her away, but my arms didn’t move. They prickled painfully when I tried, as if they had fallen asleep and been that way for a long time. I couldn’t feel anything except pins and needles. “Don’t move yet,” she said. “Not until you’re used to it.” She hugged me gently, sending prickles sparkling through my body.
I could feel where she’d cut me, but only faintly. The pins and needles and painful cramps lasted for several minutes; the slightest movement brought extreme discomfort. I tried to roll away from her hug and ended up in a sprawl on the floor, unable to identify my hands or feet to get them to help me up. And it hurt! It felt like my blood had been replaced with slivers of metal.
The more I moved, the less it hurt. My hand went clumsily to my throat. Nothing. No cut, no scar, nothing, even though Taiisha and the floor were still spattered with my blood. “What did you do to me?” I asked.
“Killed you. You died,” she said simply. “Same as I did. You borrowed time and came back,” she said proudly. Taiisha got up and went to the sink, leaving me sitting on the floor. “Death can’t stop you any more. You’re more than that now.”
“I’m…a ghoul now.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped. “You’re as human as you were an hour ago.” She brought me a glass of water and put it in my hand. I had to concentrate to hold on to it. My motor skills remained unreliable. I wasn’t myself again for several hours.
“What if I hadn’t made it?”
“I knew you would. I know you, Kerry. I’ve watched for a long time. One can only give the gift once, so I made sure you were right before I put it in you. I taught you.”
“Who taught you?” I asked. Taiisha was talking like a proud mother, and it made me nervous. I asked the questions anyway. If I waited she might not answer them.
“The man who found me and brought me here,” she said, indicating the house and the desert outside. “As I did you. From whom he received the gift I don’t know.” She picked up the bagel knife and looked at the blade.
It suddenly struck me that Taiisha could have been coming back from the dead for decades. For centuries. “How long ago was that?” I asked. My heart rose in my throat, making my voice hoarse. I was afraid she was going to say that she was five hundred years old, or something equally insane.
Taiisha looked at me as though she’d read my mind. A slight smile was her only answer before she said, “Practice,” and killed me again.