Guilded: Chapter One

guilded

Taldora

As the room went still, the rapid beating of my heart became horridly apparent, and I willed it ceaselessly to stop. Maybe then I would be free from this embarassment.

“Taldora, this isn’t the time for games. Sing,” Sir Laraunts commanded, tapping his walking stick impatiently upon the floor. I swallowed heavily and opened my mouth. And just as before, no sound came out. Absolutely nothing. I closed my mouth and raised trembling hands to my face to hide my shame. Sir Laraunts struck the music stand with his stick, sending my sheet music fluttering to the floor like broken butterfly wings.  I gazed up at him in shock.

“Tallie?” mother whispered, rising from her seat, “You can, can’t you?” I looked away. Father helped her back to her seat, watching me in such a knowing way. I couldn’t take it-I fled the room, knocking over the empty music stand in my haste.

I ran as quickly as I dared to my cousin Joseph’s  rooms. As I looked carefully through his clothes, I knew that I only had minutes if I was to leave without interruption.  And I knew that I must leave. There were others like me; Guilded ones who have lost their voices.  They are shut away in attics like horrid spinsters, an embarassment to a prominent family such as my own. Our parents often told us of the Songstress Vertiline, a wicked woman who stole the voices of pretty young girls like myself if we didn’t behave. We had been brought up to believe that it was just a story, that terrible women such as Vertiline did not exist. But now, I knew it wasn’t so. I didn’t know what I had done to bring this curse upon me, but I would set it right. My Presentation was only a month away, and I would perform at it. I would. Clumsily, I ripped the laces from my dress and stepped into Joseph’s clothes. As I pinned my hair beneath his cap, I trembled.

Silas

It was a shame that I’d promised mother I wouldn’t fight. It was a shame because I knew that I would do it anyway.

I tried, mother, I thought, rolling up my sleeves, I tried my hardest to avoid it. With an animal cry, I rushed at Charles, nearly knocking the air out of my lungs when we hit the ground. He flipped me over and I ducked his punch swiftly, rolling out from under him. As I scrambled up, I landed a quick kick in his side.

“Come on, lad!” I shouted brightly, crossing my arms, “Up you get!” A crowd of other Taskers began to gather as Charles lumbered to his feet, face bright red. I nearly laughed. Honestly, I had no business picking fights with boys two times my weight, but it wasn’t exactly my fault. I’d heard what he was thinking, heard the words he had thought against my sister.

There had once been others like me. Diviners. People who could  hear, sense, by touch. But they were gone now, killed by the Guilded ones, the ones who wanted our powers for themselves.  There were times when I was able to control it, perhaps, but those times were few and far between.

Charles reached for me, and I ducked away, landing a glancing blow on his ear. As he came for me, I noticed that I had misjudged the distance, and I closed my eyes, expecting the blow. Instead, I was knocked back, and my head bounced painfully back against the cobblestone. My eyes flew open and I scrambled back. It hadn’t been Charles who had pushed me back, but a girl. A girl who was most decidedly dressed as a boy. I studied her for a moment longer, waving off the dispersing crowd of jeering Taskers hungry for a row.

“Taldora LaVielle,” I whispered, pushing off the ground. I offered her my hand, and then withdrew. We were complete opposites, our people. The Taskers and the Guilded did not speak to each other unless absolutely needed. It was dangerous for me to be as close to her as I was. She said nothing, only stared at me, eyes wide in shock. Shaking my head, I offered my hand, reading her when she took it.

I musn’t be seen here, someone will see me and I’ll be exiled for the rest of me life! But I must  run, I must  find Vertiline-

Gasping, I let go. She snatched her hand away and turned to run.

“Taldora,” I said softly, “I can help you find her. Vertiline.” I shouldn’t have offered, but I did. As dangerous as it was, I did. She was helpless without a voice. She turned, stricken.

“I’m a Diviner,” I told her, “Come with me.” She did.

Cafè

I’m Oliver and he’s Milton. We used to make love and work hard and then make love again. He worked at the cafès and I wrote in them but we always missed each other. I cooked but when he came home he was too tired to do anything but make love and sleep. He nursed me when I was drunk and wouldn’t make love to me until I was sober again.

Milton never asked about my work. If he had I wouldn’t have said a thing so he didn’t. He couldn’t speak English worth a damn so we spoke French. I read him American books at night while we smoked but he couldn’t understand a word. I asked him why he wanted to hear the books if he could not understand them and he told me he liked the way they sounded. I never read him my work. I wrote in English and he didn’t speak it and I never showed my work to anyone until it was finished.

Milton had a garden behind the house. The house was small and cold in the winter and warm in the summer and did not have much furniture but we didn’t mind. We slept on a mattress on the floor and sat on wooden crates he had gotten from the cafè and covered the windows with newspaper. The garden was large and he grew everything we ate but the chicken and fish that I bought from the market. He wouldn’t let me touch his garden so I watched him cut and dig and press and trim. I sat in the garden on the crate from the cafè and wrote even though the sun was so bright that I could not see. We did not speak while we worked. It was different work but it was good work and we respected it.

There was no money for clothes. There was money for food and drink and cigarettes but not for clothes or cafès or books. My work did not sell but I continued to write it and Milton continued to work. When winter came the cold came with it and we didn’t eat if we wanted a fire. Milton died that winter. I borrowed everything I could for firewood and medicine and food but I couldn’t get a doctor. He stopped going to work and I stopped going to the cafès. I sat and smoked and read with him but we both knew he would pass before spring. When he was strong he wrote letters and when he wasn’t I wrote for him. He made me swear to send them and I swore but we had no stamps and they stayed tucked away for years.

Milton died on Tuesday. We couldn’t make love anymore and slept instead waking only to smoke or speak in the darkness. He asked me if he was going to die and I said yes. He grew quiet and pressed his cheek to my chest and I tried not to breathe very hard. He asked me if I loved him and I told him yes I did very much. He asked me to tend the garden and I promised that I would and then he closed his eyes. For a long time there was no one to tend the garden.

By Woods

They race to keep pace with the music. It’s something loud and obnoxious, and it shatters the tranquility of the night. I’ve heard it before, but I can’t quite recall the name. My heart thrums along with the urgency of the frantic beat as I watch the car fly by. I’ve seen this so many times that it should just be another dream. But it isn’t. This is real. Terribly, horribly, unstoppably real. The victims will be different, I know, but the accident will be the same. I’ve lived it.

It’s helpless, I think, I’m helpless. Trapped. I try to convince myself that it isn’t my fault. The backwoods are dangerous, especially in the crushing silence of a cold winter night. Everyone knows that. Besides, I tell myself weakly, they shouldn’t drive so quickly. This isn’t a race track. Though I’m not in the car with them, I know that they’re going at least seventy-five, maybe eighty. Their speed is already dangerous, and combined with the snow on the ground, they’re doomed to crash. Not for the first time, I wish that I can warn them. I can’t. I tell myself that they could have taken another road. This one is desolate, rarely used, and every time someone takes it, there’s an accident. Just like when Adam decided to take back road. It’ll be quicker, he said, It’s just a shortcut. I should have walked. The incline in the beginning is too steep, the curves too sharp, the trees too tall. Excuses, excuses, I remind myself. There’s no way out of this one, not this time around.

Their voices carry back to me, though the car is long gone, devoured by the thick overhanging of snow capped trees. I have no desire to watch, but I hug my bare arms and start slowly around the bend, immune to the snowflakes melting on my skin. I close my eyes and cut through the trees by memory. I remember every inch of this place. God knows I’ve had enough time. A slight wind lifts my hair from my shoulders. Absently, I reach to tie it up, but let it fall limp when I realize I have nothing. It seems like such an innocent motion, but so out of place here.

“Hey babe, give me a kiss,” he says suddenly, taking his hands from the wheel as he grins. With his hair slicked back and skin a shade too dark for dead winter, he looks just like those guys Leila, Marie, and I are always making fun of. The ones on TV with the big muscles, small vocabularies, and even smaller brain capacities. His girlfriend, a blond reality tv lookalike, giggles. People like them usually make me want to go into hibernation until the human race has significantly advanced. As annoying as they seem, the only thing I feel for them right now is pity. I keep walking as the roaring of their engine is swallowed up by the snow.

I lean against a tree for a moment to catch my breath and open my eyes. The moon is behind me, now, but I know it’ll catch up soon. Blindly, I point up at the sky, something like a smile playing at my lips when my finger lands on our star. Vaguely, I wonder where Adam is right now. I wonder if he thinks about me. If he misses me. I look away from the star. I’ve been gone so long that he probably doesn’t even remember my name anymore. I want to look at him, to say, Look what I did for you! I took your place! I’m dead so that you can live!

I want to move on, but it’s impossible now. It was stupid of me to make such a deal. I should have known better than to make a promise that I couldn’t keep. At the time, it had been so simple: my life for his. Of course I did it. I loved Adam. I still do. But I never imagined this, hunting innocent people because of it.

“Michael, stop being an ass and put your hands back on the freakin’ wheel!” she squeals, fear just beginning to snake its way into her voice. I beg Michael to put his hands on the wheel, too. He doesn’t. I stop walking and open my eyes as a set of bouncing headlights announce their arrival. Somehow, I’m ahead of them as I step out of the trees. They still laugh, as if it’s all a game. If only they knew. If only. I swallow a breath as they come alongside. This is where it always happens. Their last words. If they knew that these would be the last words they’d ever say to each other, they would have chosen something more meaningful. I love you, maybe, or, God forgive me. I can’t remember my last words. These days, I can’t remember much of anything. Just this scene, over and over again. And Bram. I shudder.

“Not until you kiss me! Come on babe!” Michael laughs, steering with his knees. His hands are up in the air, too far away to grab the wheel. His girlfriend grabs at him, suddenly concerned.

“Michael, stop it and dr-Michael! Watch! The deer!” Her hand darts out suddenly to pull the wheel back, but it’s too late. Michael swerves, too quickly, too hard, and the car skids on the snow. I want to close my eyes, but I can’t. I watch. I have to watch. Time slows, and Michael’s eyes meet mine. He can’t see me, of course, but it’s eerie all the same. He has kind eyes, I realize. He doesn’t deserve to die.

With the sound straight out of the movies, the car spins out of control and slams itself into the thick trunk of a tree loud enough to rouse the entire woods. The owls in the trees start suddenly and take off in soundless flight. The flutter of their wings is soft, nearly silent, like the sound of snow against the concrete. Instantly, the car crumples like a soda can. As smoke snakes from beneath the ruined hood, I know that they are both gone. The wheels are still spinning, and I will them to stop. There’s something unsettling about the movement in the midst of death. Everything else, hearts, breathing, thinking, has ceased. It’s always the wheels that trouble me.

I don’t want to look. I tremble. I’ve seen it before, too many times, but still I shake. I hug myself to stay together, but I’ll only fall apart in the end. The wind whistles in my ear and catches my breath as Bram comes up beside me. He’s panting, muscles still rippling beneath his skin from his Change. Bram shakes his body out as if he’s just run a marathon as the last patches of smooth deer hair give way to skin. I don’t hold his gaze. He caused this. He stood in their way. Moonlight glancing off his dark hair, he pushes forward and leans against the crushed car, peering into the shattered window at the dead couple. I look away as he thumps the wrecked door with both hands and howls in celebration. The sound is feral, animal, and I close my eyes against it. It’s unnerving when he’s like this.

“Nena!” he calls breathlessly, “Did you see it? Their eyes! And the way the car hit the tree! It’s better than last time! Come look!”

I try not to remember last time. He strides over to the driver’s side and punches his hand through the splintered glass. It tinkles to the ground, forgotten. Bram reaches deep into Michael’s pocket and his hand comes away bloody from where he brushed the dead man’s face.  It’s too much, and I crumple to the ground. Tucking Michael’s wallet into his back pocket, he comes back around extends a clean hand in my direction. I gaze up at him, surprised. This is kindness. Bram doesn’t bestow kindness on others. He takes what he wants and does what he wants and kills without regard for human life. I don’t think he knows what kindness is. I take his hand anyway, and he helps me to stand, casually throwing an arm around my shaking shoulders. I snatch my hand away and tangle it in my hair instead. Again, I’m unwillingly stunned by his beauty. He’s flawless, all sharp angles and perfect symmetry, as if he was chiseled rather than born, and I hate him for it. For everything. For the way his hair falls over his eyes and his cheekbones cast deep shadows on this face. For the way his eyelashes brush his cheek with every blink and the way his smile sings. For the way I’m both attracted and repulsed by him. He’s a killer. Stone cold.

“Now wasn’t that fun?” he intones, perfect lips brushing my ear. I gag and try to pull away.

When I don’t reply, Bram laughs harshly and catches my chin between his sculpted fingers, forcing me to look into his eyes. There’s nothing there. Nothing at all. After all this time, I’m still stunned by the way he changes. I gasp at the sudden rush of pain.

“You enjoyed it, didn’t you, Nena? Enjoyed watching them die, hearing them scream? You loved it, didn’t you? You want to do it again.” His voice is menacing, distracting from his angelic composition. He’s two people at once. At best. He squeezes harder.

“Yes.” My voice is barely more than a whisper, but he smiles. It’s the smile of a killer, of the devil himself. Bram is Death.

He is every evil thing in the world; every monster beneath the bed and every shadowy figure around a dark corner. He is also beauty in its harshest, roughest form. His beauty is otherworldly. Godless. And that’s what he is: without God, without morals, without limits.

He is Death, and he doesn’t mind how he gets his due as long as he receives it in the end. This is a game that he plays, a terrible game that takes life from innocents. People like Michael and his girlfriend. People like the Jensen family last week. People like me. I want to believe that I am different, that I died for a reason. But I’m not really dead, am I? No, I’m trapped in some permanent purgatory between the two, doomed to aid Death in his twisted game of playing God.

“There’s a girl.” He releases me and begins walking, moonlight washing over the bare skin and taut muscles of his back. I know that I should follow, but I can’t leave these people. They don’t deserve this. I know there’s nothing I can do, but it seems wrong to leave them here. I mumble my way through an Our Father, best as I know how, and linger, as if they’ll suddenly breathe and come back to life and I’ll no longer have to play an advocate for Death.

“Come, Nena. I’m not finished with you yet,” he calls. I turn my head to where he stands waiting, hand outstretched. I don’t want to take it, but my feet follow the footsteps he’s left in the snow. I don’t want to do any of this, but I don’t seem to have a will anymore. I’m just a shell. I want to believe that none of this is my fault, but I can’t.

Bram smiles as I take his hand. Together, we walk on, the souless and the hopeless. I look back at the crash. The wheels have stopped spinning, and balance is restored yet again.

Gray City Sirens: Out

We left on the twenty-fourth. You were laying on the concrete, the blood from your scrapes staining the sweatshirt I’d placed under your head. You asked me to light a cigarette for you, and you smoked it while I tried to clean your cuts the best I could with half a bottle of water and some tissues. You were real quiet, just smoking your cigarette and looking up at the sky at something I couldn’t see. I swear you stopped breathing for just a second, and so did I. But then you stubbed the cigarette out and asked me to light another one, and I did.

Jazz, I said, sitting back, hands stained with your blood, don’t ever fucking do that again. I watched as you sighed and closed your eyes, cradling your free arm against the black t-shirt we’d gotten at Goodwill a couple weeks ago. I was scared that you’d broken a rib or hit your head too hard, but you wouldn’t let me take you to the hospital. Jazz, I insisted, washing my hands with what was left of the water. You put out the cigarette and opened your eyes again. Wendy, you said, I will never fucking do that again. For a minute, I just wanted to walk away and never come back. You couldn’t take anything seriously; not even your own life. I was getting tired of having to hold your hand just in case you decided to walk into traffic again, like tonight and all the nights before this one.

Wendy, you said, look at me. I didn’t. Wendy, you repeated. I watched a street light flicker in the distance and willed it to stop. You tried to sit up, and I pushed you back down, so afraid you’d hurt yourself again. And then suddenly your hands were on my hands, and my body was on top of yours and my lips kissed your bruised lips and I tasted metal. Jazz, I sighed, I’ll hurt you. Let me go. But you wouldn’t, and so I rested my head against yours and breathed when you did and did my best to forget that we were sprawled on a street corner at two am in a city I didn’t yet know the name of. I was so in love with you, but I wished you didn’t have to walk into traffic for me to realize it.

A siren went off then, sending both our hearts slamming against our chests. I scrambled up and helped you stand, even though you leaned on me so hard I was afraid we’d fall. Behind that building, you suggested, pointing up ahead. It was only a couple hundred feet, but it took such a long time to make it that I thought we’d be caught. You braced yourself against the wall as the ambulance sped past. The driver’d made good on his promise to call for help, but you didn’t want it and I couldn’t force you. Wendy, you said, defeated, hopeful, let’s get the fuck out of here. We didn’t pack; just bought the tickets and ran.

Curtain Call

Curtain Call


I. There are things of which I must remind you. First, illustration:
Imagine, if you will, a stage. An empty one in a West End Theatre, complete with red velvet seats and performance worn curtains. There are indentations from footsteps like a smattering of breadcrumbs, and the lights still bathe them with a warm, fading glow.

II. Now for our hero:
He isn’t much to look at now, of course, but this does call for imagination. Surely you remember him? Oh, he did this play and that show, played this role and spoke those lines. He was never a star, but surely you remember?

III. You’ll want, I suppose, a description:
His blue eyes are clouded with delusion, but every so often they shine clearly, as they once did. He stands tall with imagined grace and poise, and he has a steady handshake. That’s how you tell men apart; a steady handshake. His hair grows gray with resentment and bitterness, but he fights it with nostalgia. Oh! He fights valiantly! He is our hero after all.

IV. Every story, however, needs a good old fashioned villain:
Please allow me, if you’d be so kind, to introduce you to the past. Not everything, mind you, but enough. That moment in which our hero encountered tragedy; that moment in which our hero chose the wrong pill, so to speak. He’s beautifully deceiving, the past. But he always gets his man.

V. Now I present the struggle:
There is always one. Good and evil, young and old, tragedy and goodwill. This struggle may seem silent, but to our hero, it echoes like the thunderous applause that had once been for him. He battles the past for the better part of two acts, but now- a standstill. The enemies are face to face. A single move, and our story ends.

VI. And lastly, the conclusion:
You see, there simply isn’t one. Our hero may change, but the villain remains the same. We cannot escape the past, my dear audience, though we do try. Our hero and our villain will continue their fight long after you and I have departed. Nostalgia has no hope against what’s been done, and through our choices, we fall into the roles we were born to play.