by Kelli McMillin
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Frigid pain pierced through his chest, wrenching a deep groan from his throat. In the mirror’s reflection, he saw a misty hand, the same hand that had reached out to him from the tub, protruding from his chest. The transparent fingertips caressed the smooth surface of the glass and fog spread outward from the touch.
The hand receded, as though sucked backward by a vacuum, and the spear of pain was pulled free from Vincent’s chest, leaving him gasping and slumped forward, gripping the sink for support. He steadied himself and reached up to touch the cloudy surface. A drop of wetness shimmered on his trembling finger for a split second before slipping down the mirror, clearing a trail across the surface and zigzagging back up unnaturally, to form the words, 667 Fulton Street.
Vincent snatched his hand back and stumbled away from the bathroom to collapse on the bed. He wrapped the blankets around his cold, damp body. Sleep, or something like it, clouded his mind, dragging him beneath its smooth, black surface.
* * *
He dragged in a breath. His pulse thundered in his ears and the salty, metallic taste in his mouth nearly made him gag.
Rachel stood before him, shaking violently, gripping his hunting rifle close to her body. When he had taught her to load and use the gun, he never would have dreamed what the results would be. He looked into her wide, shocked eyes and saw his own confusion mirrored there.
“It’s alright, baby,” he said, in a shaky voice. “You’re sick, that’s all.”
“No,” she whispered, shaking her head. Tears shimmered in her dark eyes. “Not you, too?”
She began to swing the gun upward and Vincent knew he would die if he didn’t stop her. He knew with absolute certainty that she would shoot him with as little hesitation as she’d shot the doctor.
He jumped forward, moving with a speed born of pure desperation and grabbed the gun, pointing the barrel upward and sending the next bullet into the ceiling. He pulled the gun free of her grasp and threw it across the room. She tried to rush past him, but he snatched her arm, using his superior strength to pin her body to the wall. She shrieked in fear and frustration as he gave her a rough shake.
“No one is trying to hurt you,” he said.
“I’m not crazy,” she gasped back. “Just look behind you and see for yourself.”
Vincent secured his hold on her wrists and turned his head just enough to give him a view of the bloody corpse on the floor, or where it should have been. The thing Vincent had thought of as Rachel’s doctor was climbing unsteadily to its feet, its back to them. The back of its head was gone, courtesy of the bullet Rachel had fired into it.
“Please, help me,” Rachel said, her voice choking on a sob.
* * *
The church loomed before him, faded and old, just this side of shabby. It was large enough to dominate the end of Fulton Street, where it stood as though in silent judgment of the patrons there. A large tree stood dead in the churchyard, its skeletal branches swaying in the breeze, beckoning to Vincent. The address numbers hung crookedly on the chipped, white paint, proclaiming the church number 667. Vincent took a moment to soak in the quiet irony, then shrugged it away.
He took a deep, steadying breath, fervently hoping the message that brought him there came from Rachel. He had had enough nasty surprises in the last few weeks to last a lifetime. He gathered his courage around him, thin protection though it was, and marched through the unlocked double doors of the church.
An old woman knelt in the very back pew, praying quietly with eyes tightly shut, thin lips moving rapidly. Vincent spared her a glance as he passed, then let his eyes scan over the rest of the spacious room before coming to rest on the enormous crucifix mounted on the wall behind the pulpit. He approached the altar, staring into the sad, dying eyes of the Christ so the thought came unbidden to his head, forgive me, Father, for I know not what I do.
He shook the thought away, feeling more than a little disturbed and, as usual, totally at a loss as to what to do next.
A breeze moved through the church, snuffing the flames from the many candles that sat vigil on the altar, and causing Vincent to turn and look behind him. The black shrouded figure of a woman was gliding up the aisle toward him, reminding him forcefully of a bride on her wedding day, but for the color.
In the back pew, the old woman continued to pray, unperturbed by the sudden appearance of the strangely dressed woman, or by the chill that seemed to permeate the air. As she drew nearer, Vincent was assaulted by the scent of cold, damp earth. It awoke a sudden panic in him that made him take a hasty step back, until the backs of his legs bumped against the altar. Vincent braced himself there, against the urge to run, reminding himself that he had come in search of her.
He expected her to stop, to reach for his hand. She didn’t. The air grew steadily colder as she approached, until, finally, she was stepping into him and the icy cold gave way to scorching heat.
* * *
“You don’t have to do this,” he said, tears running freely down his face. “We can figure it out together.”
“There’s nothing to figure out,” she said. “This is the only chance I have to come back into God’s grace. I wish it were different, but it has to be a sacrifice.”
Vincent closed his eyes. “What do you want me to do?”
“Just hold me, until I fall asleep,” she replied. Her lips trembled and a tear slipped down her cheek. “Then use the pillow. Make sure I’m gone and bury me.”
He stifled the sob that rose in his throat and lay down beside her, wrapping his arms around her one final time.
* * *
Vincent dropped to his knees, tears evaporating on his face from the harsh, dry heat. He opened his eyes to find nothing but shadows and flickering candlelight. All around him, he could hear voices whispering prayers and crying out for forgiveness.
“Rachel?” he called out, his voice a croak in the darkness.
Another prayer went up, closer to him and he recognized her voice. He stood and stumbled forward, until he could see an altar. It stretched into infinity, the surface covered with hundreds of candles, their flames casting the sole light against the oppressive darkness. A sole figure knelt before the altar, and Vincent recognized the simple, white gown he’d buried her in. He rushed forward and dropped to his knees beside her.
She turned her face from his, so he could see nothing but the shadowed outline of her profile.
“Pray for me, Vincent,” she whispered. “I compromised my soul.”
“I thought we were saving your soul,” Vincent replied, unable to help the edge of betrayal that crept into his voice. “Was it all for nothing?”
“No,” Rachel said. “You saved me, as much as you could. The rest is up to me.”
“It really happened, then?” Vincent asked, feeling hopelessness set in. “It wasn’t just a nightmare? Or some delusion?”
Rachel shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“How do I know any of this is real?” he asked.
“Because you do,” Rachel said. “Because you want so badly for it not to be.”
“Then why have you been seen?” Vincent asked, stubbornly. “People have seen you, alive.”
“I’m not alive,” Rachel replied, her voice completely devoid of emotion. “My body is beyond me and beyond my concern.”
“Then what’s the point?” he asked. “Why bring me here?”
“To thank you,” she whispered. “To say goodbye. And to warn you. You helped me escape. They’ll be coming after you next.”
“Who are they?” Vincent asked. “I need to know.”
“You already know, Vincent,” Rachel replied, “because there are only two sides in the war of the Divine: God and all that are loyal to Him, and Lucifer and his agents. Both sides have many names, but in the end, it comes down to these two.”
For a moment, words failed him. He knew, of course, that what Rachel was saying was true. These past weeks, he had not lost his mind. His sanity, however threatened, had not shattered into crystal shards of broken memories. As much as he wished this to be a terrible nightmare, it was real.
He could feel it in his heart, in his battered soul. He could see the visions of the future that might have been, had none of this happened, tease at the corners of his mind. A future with Rachel and their children. Of growing old together, dandling grandchildren on his knees. He closed his eyes, trying to banish a future that would never be, and forced from his constricted throat the question he most burned to know the answer to.
“Tell me what happened, Rachel?” Vincent asked. “Please?”
“I can’t,” Rachel said. “There are rules, Vincent, and I can’t break them. There’s not enough time, even if I could. Few people are granted this kind of visit, this glimpse. Just remember this, everyone is offered a deal. I can’t tell you what my offer was, and it doesn‘t matter anyway; everyone’s offer is different. But it’s easier than you realize to lose your soul.”
Vincent opened his mouth to argue, or to beg, he wasn’t sure which, but the candles flickered and began to die, leaving him in darkness, surrounded by whispered prayers.
* * *
The church came swimming back into focus. He was kneeling before the altar. His eyes felt sore and dry, as though he hadn’t blinked in a long while. He got shakily to his feet, nearly stumbling on legs that had long since fallen asleep, and looked around.
The church was empty of occupants, the old woman had apparently gone home, her prayers done for the day, assuming, of course, she had ever been there at all. Vincent walked unsteadily to the doors, his eyes too dry to form the tears that burned at the back of his throat, the sad eyes of the Christ watching his progress.
Outside, the night was dark and cool, with just a touch of autumn in the air. The streets were nearly empty, with only a few stragglers making their ways to their destinations. Vincent passed a lost looking family, the mother clutching the hand of a pretty little girl that smiled at him with shy, dark eyes. He averted his gaze so that the life he might have had only teased at the edges of his peripheral vision.
His feet carried him to the small, dark club, Petite Mort. He had read once that the words meant “little death,” the French nickname for an orgasm. He shook the thought away. It felt inappropriate just then, but the dark anonymity offered by the bar was more than he could refuse.
He avoided the bar, where Mira perched, shapely legs crossed in front of her, like a queen surveying her domain. On the open floor, he was swept up with the crowd until he found himself pushed up against the black stage, trapped there by the admiring throng.
Soft music drifted over him, drawing his attention to the stage. A woman stood there, swaying to the music. Black lace whispered across her pale, delicate skin and her dark hair brushed against her shoulders. She swept a long strand from her face to reveal dark, vacant eyes.
Vincent stared into her pale, perfect face, letting his eyes drink in the familiar features. Features he had watched dirt spill across as he buried her lifeless body in the cold, damp ground. Horror rose in his chest to claw at his insides like a living thing.
Soft laughter next to him drew his startled gaze downward, away from the thing that used to be Rachel.
“It is a peculiar gift I have,” Mira said, staring at him with eyes that sparkled with amusement.
The color receded from Vincent’s face, leaving him pale with shock. Just when he’d thought he couldn’t be more horrified, that nothing could shake him more, he found that he was wrong.
“Who are you?” he asked. “What are you?”
“Me?” Mira asked. “I’m no one. But I know people. I know their hearts, their desires. You desire her, don’t you?”
Vincent’s gaze strayed involuntarily to the vacant creature on the stage.
Mira smiled. “I am here to make you an offer.”
Copyright © 2007 by Kelli McMillin