Jolie woke up in the dream world on the landing at the bottom of the stairs. She was still rolled over on her crab shell back, her broken crab legs peddling fruitlessly in the air.
This shell sucks, she thought.
Instantly, the shell became a dark soft body with thousands of microscopic hairs covering it. Ten legs became eight, and Jolie looked at the dreamscape anew, seeing it with a spider’s eyes.
There were patterns and designs everywhere; in every detail, large or small. The many layers of a subtle world lay themselves out before her: realities unrecognized, potential futures, worlds that overlapped her own with a myriad of connections weaving them all together.
The threads from Jolie’s own spider body spun out into it in every direction, touching other webs, other lives. Some Jolie recognized by their vibration, others, she had yet to know.
Ignoring the stairway, spider-Jolie walked out onto the tightrope threads of her own webbed life.
Some of the glistening threads were strong and shone with an inner light, drawing her focus to their patch of the greater pattern.
“What are you doing now, foolish girl?” Yanna Maria’s voice shouted at her as if she had caught Jolie with her finger in the frosting of someone else’s birthday cake. “The door; remember? You are seeking the door,” the woman urged.
Jolie became a girl again, precariously balanced on threads stretched over a tomblike nothing extending into forever. The door was far above.
She began to climb toward it, hampered by the stickiness of the spider threads and the clumsy inappropriateness of a girl’s body on a spider’s web.
“That’s it,” Yanna Maria encouraged her. “Keep going. Focus on the door,” the commanding voice faded.
When Jolie finally climbed off the web and onto the landing, she felt weak and drained, the despair of trying to elude the demon once again overriding her focus. She reached for the doorknob and the door flew open, torn from its hinges by the howling wind on the other side. She turned back to look behind her.
The demon crouched a few steps below.
Jump, her inner voice urged. Just jump and be done with it.
“Go ahead, try it,” the demon goaded as if it could hear her inner voice.
Jolie turned back to the chaos of the storm. Beyond it was a woven net of glowing threads, moving in the wind, anchored firmly at the ends. Laughing, she leaped off the landing, sailing into the nothing: free. And then the demon was there beside her.
“Foolish girl. You need me. We are one.” It wrapped itself around her, weaving its energy through hers, binding them back together as they fell.
Something has to change, Jolie told herself again and again when she woke from dreaming, but she did not know how to make that happen.
Yanna Maria. The name came into her head, clear and persistent.
Ask Yanna Maria.
For the next few days, she avoided the fortuneteller’s shop. She dragged herself to school, sleepwalking through class, just trying to get through the day, worn out and beaten down. Avoiding her friends as well, it felt like she was watching everything from a distance. Feeling as if her insides were shriveling, finally, she could take it no more. Something had to change.
As soon as school was out, Jolie went straight to the fortuneteller’s shop.
Hesitating at the corner of the mini-mall, she scanned the parking lot for Rick’s El Camino, then once she was sure he was not around, straightened her shoulders, took a long breath, and went in.
The tuneless bells on the back of the shop door announced her. She stood just inside the door, waiting for the fortune teller to appear.
Yanna Maria stood up from behind the counter.
“So, you’re back.” The plump woman pursed her lips. “You’re a mess. I can feel it from here.”
“You said you knew what was going on with me and that you could help.”
Yanna Maria’s pudgy hands slipped through her rope of necklaces.
“You have not earned my trust.”
“And you haven’t earned mine,” Jolie retorted. “What should we do about that?” There was only silence. “Look, Yanna Maria, if you’re not going to help me, what are you doing in my dreams?”
“Ask yourself.” The woman shrugged. “They are your dreams, not mine.”
“If you don’t know how to get rid of this thing, just tell me. I’ll find someone else.” Jolie was walking the blade of a knife.
Yanna Maria snorted. “It is not as easy as you think.” She studied Jolie for a long minute. “You do not want it?”
“The demon? God, no.”
“Very well, but you must do exactly what I say and not ask questions,” the fortune teller warned.
“That’s never been my strong point,” Jolie admitted.
“Those are my terms.” The fortune teller crossed her arms making the upper end of her cleavage rise to meet her double chins.
“What do you want me to do?” Jolie agreed, reluctantly.
“Come with me.” The fortuneteller led Jolie into the back room.
Jolie sat in the coffee shop with Hugo and Brutus. The afterschool crowd was thinning and the second jobbers were trickling in for their evening shot of career juice, but mostly the teenagers had the place to themselves. Rebecca had been there when they arrived, so she came over and sat down with Jolie and the boys and began her usual nervous chatter.
Jolie had no idea what her friend was going on about, and she didn’t care. She’d come for the caffeine and because Brutus had hunted her down, asking for her help with Algebra. She felt bad that she’d been avoiding them lately, and Brutus had never asked her for anything before, so she’d given in.
The equations danced before her eyes. Outside of a vague recollection that the groupings were supposed to have meaning, she had no idea what she was expected to do with them. The numbers and letters kept turning into little dark figures that scampered and jumped around the page.
As she watched, the figures rearranged themselves into a digital image and a scene began to play out before her fogged eyes.
“Put the gun away, Rick.” Jessie Lynn backed away. Rick grabbed her arm and jerked her around, using her body as his shield. “Whoa! What are you doing, baby? You’re hurting me,” she wheedled, sweetening her tone as if they were still a couple and he was playing too rough. “Come on, lighten up, honey.”
“You stupid bitch!” Rick spun her around to face him. There was a loud slap and Jessie Lynn fell to the floor.
This equation Jolie understood.
“I have to go.” She jumped to her feet and scooped her books into her backpack.
“But we haven’t finished my homework,” Brutus protested.
“Are you coming back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is something wrong, Jo?” Hugo asked, interrupting his conversation with Rebecca.
“I think my mom needs me.”
“What’s going on?” Rebecca added her concern.
“She’s in trouble.”
“How do you know that? Extrasensory perception?” Brutus joked.
Hugo and Rebecca exchanged glances.
“I’ll go with you.” Rebecca stood.
“No.” Jolie stopped her. “There’s nothing you could do, Becca. Go home.”
“Do you want me to call the police or something, at least?”
“No.” Jolie hesitated, her mind split between the scene in the bar and the questions she was being asked in the coffee shop. “I have to go--now!” Jolie stumbled from the table, struggling to navigate with the vision of her mother being beaten filling her head.
“I’ll text you later,” Becca called out after her.
Hugo finished texting, tucked his phone away, and rose to follow. “Let’s go, Brut.”
“I don’t think you should. She said there was nothing we could do,” Becca protested.
“That’s not what she said. She said there was nothing “you” could do, Becca,” Hugo corrected pushing Brutus through the swinging doors.
By the time Jolie got to the bar, sweat had soaked through her shirt and was running down her face. She ran like an athlete on super drugs, rocket-fueled by adrenaline, but now, her supply was running low. For weeks she had worked to suppress Axel’s violent anger and the demon’s desire to meld its strength with her physical being; now, bereft of any natural reserves, what they offered was a temptation.
“We are here. Just use us. We can give you the strength you need,” the demon promised.
“I’m going to kill him,” Jolie growled.
"We’ll help you.” The demon’s energy coiled tight within her belly.
She noticed Rick’s car in the parking lot near the door. Jolie burst through the bar door, blinded by the abrupt plunge into darkness. She blinked to help her eyes adjust and looked around. There was no one behind the bar and only a few stunned patrons, pretending to focus on their own business, real or imagined, were in attendance.
“Stop this baby, you’re hurting me.” Rick held Jessie in a choke hold, tight against his body. “Come on, let go of me. I’ll get you a drink and we can talk about this.”
“Let go of my mother,” Jolie snarled from the doorway. A middle-aged couple skittered past her like rats.
Rick spun around, dragging Jessie Lynn with one arm. There was a gun in his other hand.
“There she is, miss high and mighty, ‘don’t ever come near me or my mother again’. Who do you think you are, you little bitch?”
“I know who I am.” Jolie planted her feet, standing as tall as her small frame allowed. “It’s you who’s confused about it.”
Rick moved the gun from Jessie Lynn’s head and pointed it at Jolie. “I don’t feel confused.”
“Jolie, turn around and walk out those doors,” Jessie Lynn ordered her daughter. “Do you hear me? Go home. This is between Rick and me. It’s got nothing to do with you. It’s just a lover’s quarrel. Nothing we can’t get past, right, Rick?” Jessie looked up at Rick, her face begging. “You always did like making up after a fight. I haven’t forgotten what you like.”
Jolie felt sick. “Why do you do that?” she confronted her mother. “Why do you demean yourself to this piece of shit?”
Jessie Lynn bugged her eyes in exasperation. She had a game plan and Jolie wasn’t playing along.
“If it had been just us, Jess, it would never have been a problem,” Rick claimed. “But this little slut of your loins here was always judging me.” He indicated Jolie with the gun. “Swishing her tempting little tail around, trying to come between us. Nothing’s been right since Solstice. Everything’s been ‘off’, you and me, work. Everything’s gone wrong. I don’t know what you did to us on Solstice,” he accused Jolie. “But I’m going to undo it; starting with your mom and me.”
“Whatever happened on Solstice was you and Rory’s doing,” Jolie argued. “You were in so deep, that you hit the iceberg and still thought you were having a party.”
“Shut up,” Rick shouted.
“Rory made a deal, then wouldn’t ante up,” Jolie refused to stop. “Bargains made with the underworld have to be kept, Rick,” Jolie’s voice was acquiring a sibilant hiss. “Rory paid his debt. Now it’s your turn. I think he needs company.”
Rick licked his lips, his finger beginning to curl against the trigger. “I agree, but it won’t be me.”
“No!” Jessie threw her weight against him, toppling them both to the floor. The gun went off just as a woman came out of the bathroom. She screamed and ran back through the swinging doors.
Jolie was on Rick like a lion, her hands locked around his throat, pressing her thumbs hard into his larynx.
“Keep pressing. Don’t let up until you see his eyes glaze and hear the last heartbeat.” Axel had done this before. “Keep pressing. Harder,” he teetered on the edge of pleasure, anticipating Rick’s death.
“Stop, Jolie! Stop!” Jessie Lynn was pulling her daughter’s hands from Rick’s neck.
Chaos churned inside Jolie.
Gathering a ball of energy in her belly, she compressed it, then forcefully exploded it at Rick.
The gun went off a second time. Jessie flew across the room, hitting the wall. With a moan, she slid down like a dropped rag doll.
The breath rushed back into Rick’s body and the gun was back in Jolie’s face; much, much closer. The rage inside her was building again. Whether the thoughts in her head were hers, Axel’s, or the demon’s, she neither knew nor cared. Rick had to die and if that meant she died too, well, it didn’t seem any harder than living had been lately.
“Screw you.” Jolie opened her mouth and closed her lips around the gun’s cold hard metal barrel, daring him to pull the trigger.
“Crazy bitch,” Rick muttered, throwing her off of him onto the floor. He was getting to his feet when a tennis shoe clad foot came flying through the air and caught him in the side. Rick crumpled back down like a bag of wet laundry.
Hugo stepped out of the shadows and grabbed Rick’s arm. Rick was still trying to figure out what had happened when Hugo wound Jolie’s attacker’s arm up behind his own back.
“I’ve got him, Jolie,” the fledgling Fu declared, nervous and triumphant.
“Get away from him. He’s mine,” Jolie threatened as if Hugo was a rival predator trying to move in on her kill. Hugo looked perplexed.
“I’m just helping out, Jo.”
“I don’t need your help.” Jolie rose to her hands and knees and began to creep toward Rick like a cat stalking its prey.
“What are you doing?” Hugo blinked, fascinated and horrified.
“Hunting.” Jolie’s lips rolled back from her teeth. “Him, at the moment.” Her eyes tracked back to Rick, leaving Hugo staring, dry-mouthed at the bizarre scene before him.
“Oh shit,” he muttered.
From somewhere in the dark bar Bodhi appeared, placing himself between Jolie and Rick.
“Stop. This is over, Jo,” he said, firmly.
“Get out of my way, Bodhi.” Jolie moved forward.
“No.” Bodhi shook his head. “The police will be here any minute.” Sirens could be heard in the parking lot. “We’re going to step back now, and let them take it from here.”
“The police?” The unctuous derision of her words hid that her voice was not her own. “When did the police ever know what to do, or how to do it right?”
Bodhi shrugged. “That’s not ours to debate tonight. Tonight, they take him away and lock him up so that you can focus on helping your mom over there.” He nodded to where Jessie Lynn lay against the wall. “She needs you, Jo.” Brutus stepped into the light holding the drama within its circle. Bodhi walked toward Jolie and held out his hand, offering to help her up. “I called Remy. He’ll meet us at the hospital.”