Twenty-nine

We arrived in Arcadia after lunchtime.  There were two inches of snow on the ground, and my first impression of Arcadia was that there wasn’t anything in it.  Arcadia consisted of a small intersection of two rural roads and few small, old houses and businesses operating out of houses clustered around that.  Otherwise the area was just like the rest of northern Michigan had been; fields, farms, and forest.  There wasn’t another moving car in sight.  The snow fell incessantly, heavier every hour; the trip took two hours longer than it should have.  I wondered if there was more to Arcadia hiding behind the curtain of falling snow, but didn’t think that there was.

Eddie said, “We should have passed the house by now.  Ian says it’s easier to backtrack to find it.” I nodded in reply, made a careful U-turn on the snowy road, and followed his directions back to Lexi’s house.

The snow stopped abruptly as we rounded a bend and there it was, perched atop the snow.  I didn’t know how I had missed seeing it before.  It was a very large house, set far back from the street with rusted and sagging iron gates bracketing the driveway.  A snow-covered apple tree square in the middle of the front yard blocked the view to the front door, but the rest of the house formed a backdrop for the tree.  The house was tremendous for what looked like a farming community.  It had three stories including an attic, a square tower rising up above the front door and a round one at one of the rear corners, and a long row of floor-to-ceiling windows in what was either a ballroom or a greenhouse.  I guessed it was the former, since it was in the front of the house.  A roof with just a hint of sag covered the porch, and it ran from one end of the house to the edge of the ballroom.  The house was old, old enough for the paint to have worn completely off, leaving gray weathered boards and sagging shingles.  It looked like a bed and breakfast gone heavily to seed.

Even in its neglected state it was a pretty house.  The gate was open (it didn’t appear to close at all) so I drove in.  The driveway was circular, orbiting the apple tree; there was a carriage-house with three garage doors off to one side, but the clean SUV in the drive was parked right in front of the door so I pulled up behind it.

“Home sweet home,” Eddie said.  I looked a response at him.  He didn’t bother laughing at his little joke either.

“It would make a decent postcard, those blacks and grays perched on a field of white,” I said.  “But all I can think of is how much I hate snow.”  As if on cue, the fat flakes began falling again.

They were the first words other than monosyllables that I’d spoken in several hours.  Eddie’s response was a grunt.

“I feel very far away from everything I know,” I continued.  “Including heat and electricity.  He’s leaving, right?”

“Who, Ian?  Yeah.  Probably tomorrow morning.  Taking the doctor with him.  What, you haven’t even met him and you hate him already?” He opened the door and got out.

I didn’t have a choice but to follow, slinging my bag over my shoulder, mindful of the fishing line-repaired strap.  Everything I needed was in my bag.  Eddie could get his own luggage later, and I handed his keys to him as we climbed the steps to the porch.  “I’m not in the mood to be around people,” I told him.  I had already lost feeling in my nose and toes again, it was so damned cold.  Hopefully there’d be hot water.

The condition of the house made me expect a creaky, sagging porch, but it had a concrete floor with neatly rolled edges that were beginning to roughen and crumble with age.  There was a crack running parallel to the house, and it followed the full-length porch as far as I could see.  There wasn’t any porch furniture.  The wood columns supporting the roof were as weathered as the rest of the house, but they looked sturdy.  The ghost of a painted pattern still lingered on one of them.  The house made me want to draw.

Eddie didn’t spend time looking around.  He went straight to the door, knocked once, and then twisted the knob.  It was unlocked, so he went in, vanishing into a dark foyer.  “Hello?” he called, “Anybody home? Any electricity?”

I followed him in and closed the door behind me, dropping us both into darkness that was eerie considering the time of day.  I stopped to inspect the art deco frosted glass on either side of the door, wanting to draw even more.  The foyer was big, high-ceilinged, and it enclosed more square footage than some apartments.  Shadows made it seem even bigger.  An art deco chandelier with two-thirds of its bulbs burned out or absent cast weak light from above.  The inside of the house matched the outside.  It smelled like a good antique store, one of those where everything hadn’t been wiped, buffed, and polished until it looked new.  I liked that.

“Beautiful place…about forty years ago,” Eddie said.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim, I saw a wide staircase going up into indistinct shadows.  It split into shorter, perpendicular stairways serving each of the two upstairs wings.  I looked upstairs, and saw something move on the railing.  It was a brown and white cat, balancing on the rail without a care in the world.  It looked down at me and I smiled in spite of myself.

After listening carefully for a few moments, I could hear sounds of habitation.  Eddie opened his mouth to call out again, and I tapped his shoulder and pointed into the ballroom to our right.  He looked at me, sort of quizzically, then went that way.  I followed, ten steps behind.

We went through the ballroom, then through a dining room that was even darker than the foyer had been, and finally into a surprisingly bright kitchen.  A combination of more, larger windows and light-painted walls made it a more cheerful room.  Sitting at a thrift-shop refugee table were an Asian man and a balding, bespectacled man of about the same middling height and build.  Eddie introduced them as Dr. Charles Zheng and his friend, Ian Warnock.  Zheng had a journal of some sort open on the table in front of him, and he closed it as we entered.  I got a twitch of the feeling I had had when I met Mitch and his cronies, but it faded when Eddie greeted Ian with a back-pounding fraternal hug, and Zheng with a handshake.  “Good to see you guys,” he said, then introduced me.  My greeting was a slight motion, part bow, part shrug.  For some reason I felt like weirding them out, if I could.  I wanted to be different from them, and I wanted them to know.  I had gone heavy on the black and white makeup that morning, and I was glad.  “Looks like things have calmed down,” Eddie said.  I wanted to look in the refrigerator.  I wasn’t as ravenous as I had been the day before, but we’d only stopped to get gas, so my last snack had been a long time ago.

“For now,” Ian replied.

“Well, we’re here,” Eddie said, sitting in the third chair, “so tell me what the scene is, what we’re doing, and where to put our luggage.”

“She’s been quiet today,” Ian told him.  “Night before last, Lexi had an episode at two or three in the morning.  Zheng had to sedate her.”

“What did she do?” I asked.

“She was twirling in the ballroom, as if she thought she was in a nightclub.  Perhaps it would have been more constructive to ask her why she was doing it, but at the time I saw that she was out of control and she was going to hurt herself if she continued.  I restrained her.  When she woke up, she attacked me,” Zheng said.  “She’s talked threateningly before, but this is the first time she’s become violent.  She threw a wrench at me.  When I went to my room to get another Thorazine shot for her, she locked me in.”

“She jammed pennies into the doorframe,” Ian said.  “Nine at the top, nine at the bottom.  It wedged the latch in so tight I had to knock them loose with a hammer and chisel.”

Eddie laughed.  “I’ll keep an eye on my loose change.”  Zheng smiled tightly.

“Your car keys, too.  She stole my car Wednesday.”

“I thought she was on downers?”

“She is.  She got about five miles before she wrecked it.  I wish I could stay, to work with her some more.  I’ve got a journal article partly written, but I’m afraid that her hostility toward me is going to make it impossible for me to do any further study.  If you could send me updates though, I’d appreciate it.  I’ll leave her file and my notes, so you can read through the patterns that that I saw.  I’m not sure what caused her to finally turn on me, but maybe you’ll see something that I didn’t.”

“As long as she gets her pill, she’s fine,” Ian said.  He didn’t sound entirely convinced. 

“Where is she now?” I asked.

“Hiding somewhere.  This house has several secret passages, and Lexi knows more of them than I do,” Ian replied.

“Way to keep track,” I said.

“The plan is to get her out of this house and closer to Detroit.  I’ll be able to care for her better there.”

I didn’t answer.  I was exploring the rest of the kitchen with my eyes.  I had already decided that I didn’t care much for Eddie’s short balding friend.  He wouldn’t look directly at me.  Neither would Zheng.

Eddie probably sensed the tension between his old friend and me  “Ian, come help me with my boxes.  I’ve got some cool shit to show you.”

“Yeah, sure.  Want a tour of the house?”

Eddie looked at me.  “Want a tour, Poppet?”

I glared at him.  “No.  You go.”

He rolled his eyes and grinned at Dr.  Zheng.  “That time of the month.” I wanted to throw something at him, but resisted the urge.

“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” Ian said.  “I can tell you how to get to the store.  You should stock up before the snow really sets in.  We have a lot of the basics already.”

“It’s already snowing,” I said.  “A little late to tell us.”

Ian looked out the window.  “No, it’s barely started.  It’s supposed to be a bad one.  We’re leaving tonight, so we don’t get snowed in.”

I shook my head and opened the refrigerator.  The first thing that caught my eye was a cheesecake shaped like a ring, hollow in the center.  There was a lot of fresh fruit, a glass bottle of orange juice, and the leftovers of at least three meals still arranged on their plates, covered in plastic wrap.  I took a stem of grapes out of a bright blue glass bowl and sat down at the table where Dr. Zheng had been sitting.  I popped a grape into my mouth and opened his journal.  It wasn’t a journal or a proposed article on Lexi Crane at all; Dr. Zheng was apparently writing a swords and sorcery novel.  The page was covered in fussy longhand about a hero named Merodach fighting off an evil serpent with the aid of a woman’s ghost.  It made me smile.  I flipped through some more pages, and found his notes on Lexi.  They were loose sheets from a smaller spiral pad, stuck into the novel.  I couldn’t decipher the doctor’s jargon.

I heard the stairs creak as Eddie and the doctor ascended.  I yawned.  I wished I had asked where a bed was, so I could lie down.

Another cat padded into the kitchen, a young tortie.  It regarded me with incurious orange eyes, then continued on whatever cat business it was on.  I managed to convince myself that it was off to tell Lexi or whoever commanded it that Eddie and I were here and what it saw, how we smelled.  I wondered if someone could train a cat to be a familiar like that.  I wondered where Lexi was, too.  The doctor had said she was quiet and suggested she was sleeping but for some reason I didn’t believe that.

I could feel eyes on me, like invisible whiskers gauging my movements.  I looked out the window at the snow, half-expecting to see Taiisha out there.  Of course I didn’t, but she would certainly follow.  Which seemed weird.  Imperative though she’d been, Eddie’s death hadn’t seemed that important to her.  The more I thought about it, the more I started to feel that my kill was what mattered, not who it was.  Eddie was just a random victim.

Fuck you, I thought, directing it toward her, wherever she was.  Hope you freeze to death spying on me, you sperm-guzzling cunt muscle.

There was no one outside, but I still felt watched.  Was it Lexi? Eddie? Dr.  Zheng? Who else was in the house? I stood up and walked around the kitchen once.  I had gotten myself so nervous I couldn’t sit down, but I didn’t feel bold enough to explore the house on my own.  Beautiful though it was, the house was making me feel eight years old all of a sudden.  I knew what I wanted: a motherly skirt to cling to.  That feeling irritated me.

The ceiling directly above me let out a loud squeak.  I jumped, then realized it was Eddie and Zheng.  When I listened I could hear the house moan with every move they made.

To calm myself down, I took out my sword and my sketchpad.  Taiisha had given the knife to me–that is, she had thrown it at my head while chasing me up the side of a mountain, and never demanded it back later.  The first time I used it to defend myself, I had nearly killed her, and she had smiled approvingly.  I thought of it as a sword ever since.  My magical sword.  Dr.  Zheng would have been proud, I supposed.  I had painted black diagonal stripes on it to make it more mine than hers.

Seeing that magical black and chrome blade on the cheap, beat-up table in front of me made me feel better.  Repelled some of my fears, perhaps.  There could be danger lurking about, but I was dangerous too.  I could be proud of that, but it meant being like Taiisha.  Everything she made me do pushed me inexorably toward becoming like her.  But the sword was mine.  I wondered if I could say the same about myself, and then I started to draw.  Today I drew ice.  The cold outside the house found its way into my mind and it flowed through my fingers.  I drew ice sculptures and a frozen lake.  I drew a striped blade made of ice.  I drew an elaborate mirror with a crystalline, frozen woman gazing at her reflection in it.  The ice took over the page in sketches and doodles.  While I drew, my ears followed Eddie, Ian and Zheng through the house.  I could hear them moving even at the opposite end of the house.  When I was done I felt warmer in the house.

I was looking out the window and thinking when I heard a footstep behind me.  It was too light a tread to be Eddie; I closed my sketchpad, put my bag on top of my sword to hide it, and turned half around, and that was how I met Lexi.

Twenty-nine

Gray found Lexi in the library, sitting on the floor with an engine between her knees.  It was as big as her body.  “I really ought to put it on the stand before it gets too heavy to lift,” she said as Gray entered the room.  “Actually it’s already too heavy to lift, just the shortblock by itself.  I have shot myself in the proverbial foot.”  She looked at the bright red engine stand sitting a few feet away, and sighed.

“How did you get it in here if it’s too heavy?” Gray asked.  She didn’t want to talk to Lexi at all but for some reason whenever the stupid woman spoke she answered.  It was as if Lexi was somehow winning if she didn’t get a reply, but any reply merely started a new salvo of nonsense and scored points for Lexi as well.

“I don’t remember,” Lexi said, not looking up.  She began humming the theme to “Freakazoid,” but doubted that Gray would recognize anything that had to do with cartoons.

She didn’t.  “Are you building a car?”  she asked, surveying the half-boxed and plastic-wrapped pieces scattered about.

“Mm-hmm,” was the reply.  Lexi still didn’t look at her.  Getting all of the plugs in the block was easier when it was on a stand, that was for sure.  Her fingers were sticky with thread-lock.  It was a familiar feeling.

Gray sat on a plastic-wrapped seat.  “It doesn’t all seem to be here.”

“It’s not.  The bodies in white are at our warehouse, in Detroit.”

“Bodies in white?”

“The shell of the car.  The rest of the parts were shipped here by happy accident.  I’ll have to go get one to attach all of these bits to it.  Very fun.  Want to help?”

She stood, shaking her head.  “No.”

“Well, that’s a relief.  I don’t work well with others,” Lexi replied.  She hadn’t looked at Gray once.  “Where’s Nikki?” she asked.

“I do not know,” Gray replied, her voice implying that she didn’t care, either.

“Of course you do,” she said.  Gray managed to suppress her frown.  “Hey, Gray, when the wheel fell off of your car, did it come off before Martin hit the pole, or after?”

“I do not remember,” she said.  “You’d have to ask him.”

Lexi looked up at her.  “How long have you guys had that car?  Has the back bumper always been a board?  It’s very sad that way, you know.  It wants to be fixed.  It’s a very maltreated car, and I shouldn’t let you have it back, according to my religion.”

“Your…religion?”

“I believe in fruit juice and neon,” Lexi said.

“I thought you believed in free everything.”

“Oh, that too.  I also believe that Dwight Eisenhower and John Waters are the same man, before and after a horrible, secret experiment gone wrong.  And I believe you never noticed that bumper had been replaced by a chunk of wood before, because you don’t love your car properly.  What do you think of that?”

“I think you’re mad,” Gray said, meeting Lexi’s eyes and imagining the insane sparkle going out of them as she bled from a slashed throat.  The thought made her smile, and in an eyeblink she’d grabbed Lexi by the neck, pulled her up out of her squat on the floor, and she was driving her thumbs into the soft hollows on either side of Lexi’s jaw.  Lexi squeaked in pain, unable to make any other noise, and Gray smiled, and let her Italian accent slip away.  “And I think you mock me when you ought not to.  Do you have any other funny things to say now?”  

Lexi grabbed Gray’s forearms in desperation but wasn’t strong enough to pry away the fingers that were cutting off the blood to her brain.  She tried to stand and Gray kicked her feet out from under her, suspending her by the neck.  

“Perhaps you’ll be politer now,” she said, and let Lexi go.  It wouldn’t do for someone to find the mistress of the house dead, after all.

As she thought that, she heard a dog growl, close.  It sounded like it was coming down the stairs into the foyer.  Fear chased a trail of cold sweat up her back.  She couldn’t abide dogs, couldn’t abide the gnawing terror in her gut at the sound they made, the thought of their teeth and claws on her.  More than once, she had shot them in parking lots for barking at her through car windows.  She had no gun, now, though, and didn’t relish the thought of wrestling what sounded like a rather large hound.  She hadn’t seen or smelled a dog, but given the size of the house she might have overlooked it.

Gray had her back to the foyer, but she could clearly hear the paws on the wood steps, nails clicking, the wet canine panting.  She stepped away from Lexi, turning slightly so she could see the doorway to the foyer and Lexi at the same time, dreading the dog’s appearance.  “Your dog is friendly?” Gray asked, thickening her accent to hide the tremor in her voice.

Lexi was panting, pushing herself to a sitting position.  If Gray was going to pretend nothing had happened, so would she.  For now.  “They’re cats, not dogs,” Lexi said.  “Sillyhead.”  She pushed herself up to a crawl–she was pretty sure she’d pass out if she stood–and dragged herself to the engine block.  The abuse struck a deep and angry chord in her.  She hadn’t put up with Darron slapping her around, and she wasn’t going to take it from a houseguest who was more than she seemed, either.  But attempting to brain Gray with a brake caliper was the sort of thing that would probably be a much better idea in theory than practice, based on the events of the previous minute and a half or so.

Gray wanted to turn and face Lexi fully, but couldn’t do so without losing sight of the foyer.  The dog was almost to the bottom of the steps.  It was a large dog; the stairs creaked under its weight.  And when it reached the room, it would rush in and attack her, jumping up and sinking its teeth into her belly, into her soft parts, and it would pull them out and shake its head, tearing…

She couldn’t stay, she couldn’t stay.  Gray dug her nails into her palms and walked rapidly into the den, where the television was.  It put a room between her and the dog.  When she was in there, she couldn’t hear it any more.  Good.  Good.

Lexi watched her go, angling her head.  Movement from the foyer caught her eye, and she turned the other way just in time to catch the barest glimpse of Marion’s shadows-on-light form.  The ghost moved from the steps toward the front door and faded out of sight along the way.