The Beginning of the End of the Beginning
The bus was pulling up as he reached the stop. He paid his fare and got a transfer, then looked to see if he could get a seat by himself. When he found one he sat, cradling his skateboard and resting his head against the window, pondering the dream about a car roaring mysteriously past his house. The insomnia was equally puzzling. Lately, it seemed the only things normal in his life were abnormal. The mysterious attack of the trees in the middle of the night, Thea confronting him about his lack of interest in her. Why he thought for the hundredth time, he’d never treated her as anything more than a friend.
The bus stopped in front of the little open-air mall where he had found the “Star Child” shop. Without being aware he was doing it, he fingered the chain of the Saint Michael medal he'd received from the medium. It hadn’t been much protection, or maybe it had protected him from worse things that he didn’t know about. Either way, he had to find that shop and its proprietor again. He needed answers to questions that he had no one to go to for answers. If he couldn’t get answers, he was afraid he would be lost.
He remembered exactly where the shop was--as if he could forget. But he could find no shop with lace curtains and neon stars in the windows. Instead, where the “Star Child” had been, a coffee shop, offering “the Best Lattes in Town” and “Frappucinos” stood in its place. Frantic, he made his way around the mall on his skateboard trying to find it, ignoring the dirty looks and the “No Skateboarding Allowed” sign.
Carefully he checked each shop, trying to stem the rising tide of panic he was feeling. He looked for little hidden shops that could easily be missed but found nothing. He completed his circuit as he made way back to the coffee shop. He walked in and ordered a Frappuccino, then casually asked the barista how long the shop had been there.
“We’ve been here five years. Do you want whipped cream?” Michael nodded while thinking ‘idiot’, not truly knowing if he was referring to the barista or himself. He paid for his drink then hurried out of the shop and sought refuge on a bench placed strategically to present a view of all the shops in the mall. He set his skateboard on the ground and rolled it back and forth with his feet, only half aware of what he was doing. Inside, he was shaking and he held his cup with both hands to keep it steady.
“Do you mind?” He looked up and saw an attractive black woman carrying a briefcase in one hand and a drink from the same shop in another. He wondered why she wanted to sit at this bench, but he picked up his skateboard and balanced it carefully on its end and out of the way. “Sorry,” he muttered.
She sat down, crossing good legs, swinging a spike-heeled clad foot ever so gently. For a few uncomfortable moments, they sat, while she cast an occasional glance at him, not bothering to hide it. Finally, she spoke.
“Shouldn’t you be in school, or are you one of those dropouts.” A critical eye looked him over. “No, even with that hair and your skateboard, you don’t seem the dropout type.”
“I’m not a dropout. I had a mystery to solve. I’m not in school today because I was sick this morning.” That was all he cared to reveal, the truth he preferred to keep to himself.
“Well,” she demanded, “did you solve your mystery?”
“No,” he admitted ruefully, “If anything, things have gotten even more confusing. And I really needed some advice.”
“Well,” she said, “I’ll give you some advice. Be careful or you’ll hit your head on that thing again,” she tilted her head towards his skateboard, “You got lucky once, don’t count on it a second time.” She drained her coffee, picked up her briefcase, “And not all mysteries can be solved.” She walked away, pausing only to toss her cup in the trash can. His eyes followed her as she walked towards the middle of the mall--then vanished.
“What?” He said out loud, embarrassed at the looks people gave him. How had she known? He hadn’t even hurt himself yet when he’d visited “The Star Child”. Who was this woman—she didn’t resemble the proprietress of the shop, he was sure he’d never seen her before in his life.
Suddenly the mall no longer seemed safe. Vanishing shops, vanishing women, it was too much. Time to get out of here, he thought. He looked at his watch. By the time he got to the skate park, Dewey and Short Round would be on their way. He wanted to talk to Short Round alone, Dewey would understand but if Thea made an appearance she definitely would not. Too bad. She included herself in as much of their lives as she could, but these were private matters she had no part in.
“Now let me get this straight,” Short Round stuffed more French fries in his mouth, then washed them down with coke. “You go to see a medium, a medium for crying out loud, but when you get there, her shop has mysteriously been replaced by a coffee shop that has been there for five years. You buy a Frappuccino, go sit on a bench, then this hot black chick in a business suit shows up. She asks you if you’re a dropout, tells you to be careful not to hurt your head, then she walks off and suddenly vanishes. Do I got that right?”
“Well, yeah.” Michael had been glad when Short Round had showed up alone at the skate park, but now he wasn’t so sure he was glad he’d shared what happened, even with his best friend. “I swear that’s exactly what happened, especially the hot black chick part. This is so totally whacked that I’m not even beginning to get what’s going on.”
Short Round drained the last of his coke, then threw the empty cup carefully into the garbage can. He looked at Michael, feeling sorry that his best friend was caught up in something he had no control over. He realized that events were happening that would have to be played out, but he wanted to tell Michael something more helpful.
“You’re becoming a spirit magnet, Mike, you know? I wish Gramps was alive, he’d know what to do. He always said there was something special about you and I’d have to keep an eye on you. I have, sort of. I pretty much forgot what he said until you moved into that house and your ghost showed up. You’ve changed, you know, in ways I think that only I can see, my family maybe could if they looked, but it’s there.”
“So what do I do? I’m starting to feel like Spirit Central now. I want all this stuff to stop, but I don’t know how. Any helpful suggestions?” Mike’s empty cup went sailing towards the garbage can, but his aim was off and it landed on the sidewalk. He got up and threw it in the trash container.
“You don’t,” offered Short Round helpfully, “You are what you are. You got that light that Gramps would talk about when he got on the subject of spirits. The problem is that you don’t know how to tell good from bad. Getting rid of your ghost girl will help, but welcome to my world, buddy. Now, let’s go skate and take our minds off this. You’re going to have enough to worry about,” he said cheerfully.
“Thanks a lot,” Michael replied sarcastically, “You were really a lot of help.”
“No problem.” Short Round paused, “I wish I could send you to my uncles. You can’t deal with this, I can tell. I grew up knowing these spirits are real, and you need to be careful. It’s better to stay away from them, but you got yourself in the middle of something, and now you’re going to have to find your way out. Just be careful, Mike, be really careful, okay?”
Dewey returned to the skate park after he took Anya home. With graduation looming he alternated between feeling excited, , then depressed because he was leaving his best friends behind. He was full of anticipation about the party his parents were throwing for him after commencement, but it would be the last time he would gather together with all his friends for quite a while. The school had planned a senior party after the graduation ceremony—which everyone agreed would be lame and would exclude anyone who wasn’t in the senior class. His party was already attracting a large number of graduates who preferred to cut their ties with school once they had their diploma in hand.
Michael shared his friend’s excitement over his party, but didn’t tell how much he would miss his only coming back for holidays and summer. He had been friends with Dewey and Short Round for so long they didn’t feel like three separate people. Dartmouth might as well be at the ends of the earth. He’d no longer be able to call Dewey and ask him if he was coming to the skate park after school. Dewey would be in college, and as happy as Michael was for him, he felt like he was being abandoned by his best friend. For once, he didn’t want the school year to end.
Dewey and Short Round were the rocks he had anchored himself to. They had practically grown up together. He couldn’t remember a time when they hadn’t been in his life. They had stood by his side through the whole ordeal of moving, then his unexpected encounter with the spirit world. When he felt himself floundering, they were always there. He had the sense that he was losing half of what had always been there to keep him sane since the appearance of Mariah. He had friends two of the best and closest of friends whom he could always count on.
Short Round skated off the course to where Michael was waiting his turn. “Female at four o’clock” he whispered conspiratorially. Michael looked up to see Thea carrying her skateboard.
Great, thought Michael, this was exactly what he didn’t need. He nodded to Short Round and tilted his skateboard down onto the course. He didn’t bother to do anything fancy or show off, he just got around as quickly as he could, then got off his board. He wanted to pack up his stuff and leave, but Short Round grabbed him.
“You can’t leave yet, wait for Dewey. He’s going to ask you to his party. And yes, she is going to be there, too. You can deal with Thea for one night. Anya might have a friend, you never know.”
It seemed an eternity, but Michael sat stone faced while Dewey took his turn on the course. At last he came over, his face showing an excitement he could barely conceal. Dewey was getting graduation fever, thought Michael. The senior skip day was approaching, and soon it would be June and Dewey would graduate. The lucky dog would get out of school earlier than Michael and Short Round, but neither begrudged him. Next year would be their turn. Michael didn’t know how he felt about the interruption to their friendship. It would feel better to be happy for Dewey than resent the fact he would be leaving them.
Dewey came over to them, grinning broadly. “Hey Mike, you’re coming to my party, right?” The unspoken words, “I need my friends with me for this, don’t let me down.” didn’t need to be said. “My parents invited some relatives, but some of my cousins are cool so it won’t be too lame. And most of our friends from school are coming.” He looked apologetically at Michael, “I had to invite Thea, I would have felt guilty if I didn’t, but don’t worry, it will be okay. Anya’s bringing friends, too, and my parents hired that barbeque catering company.”
“I’ll be there,” Michael promised, “I’m going to have to try to restrain my parents from trying to come, though I know they’ll want to show up and say hello. I can’t believe you’re graduating, dude, it’s just too crazy.” What he meant was “I can’t believe you’re actually leaving us and we won’t be together every day, just like always.”
“Me neither. And in September I’ll be starting classes at Dartmouth. I can’t believe high school is over for me. What about you? Your dad wants you to go to Dartmouth, doesn’t he? It’d be cool to have you at the same school.”
“I’m looking at UCLA. It’s a good school and a lot of skating competitions take place in California. I got a packet from them when I registered and I think living in the LA would be cool.”
Dewey’s face fell, but he tried to recover himself. “You’ll be on the other side of the country! We’re gonna have to try to find a way to hook up for as many holidays as we can. After all these years, I can’t imagine us being away from each other for long. What’s going to happen to the Band of Brothers?”
“If our friendship means that much to us, we’ll find a way,” piped up Short Round, “God, I hate saying things like this, but we’re not kids anymore, not really. We’re going to have our separate lives, but we don’t need to let each other go. We’re brothers of different mothers.” The three clasped their hands together in their old salute, but it felt more like a farewell.
Out of the corner of his eye, Michael saw Thea coming off the course. “Guys, I gotta run. See you later.” He would have taken off, but Short Round grabbed his sleeve.
“Woman trouble?” he asked sarcastically. He had seen Thea too.
“Let’s just say I want to avoid an uncomfortable situation. I’ll be on my best behavior at your party, Dewey, but I gotta go.” Michael flipped his hand and jumped on his skateboard. He avoided Thea now, whenever he could. Something told him he should be looking out for her, but he didn’t know how far she intended to go when it came to proving him wrong about the house up his street. Thea might prove just curious enough to get herself into trouble, or she might leave things alone, he didn’t know which. He still could not shake the feeling that someday he would have to rescue Kit, adding Thea to that was a bad combination.
He brooded on the bus home, thinking of all scenarios whereby Kit and Thea would both get caught and how would he manage to save them? He wondered if it was really that bad, after all, the man had disappeared when the police looked for him. Wouldn’t the cops have been able to find a man who lived in an old house not far from his?
No, the guy was out there somewhere. If he knew how to disappear, there was a way for him to do it. The houses and the neighborhood were old. He knew nothing about what had gone one before, but maybe the monster had disappeared because he had a way to. Someone had told him one time about an owner wanting to do some remodeling in the basement of his house, and he had stumbled upon a tunnel that had been used by bootleggers during Prohibition. It seemed a little farfetched, but not impossible. People didn’t just disappear.
When the bus came to his stop, he bounded down the steps and jumped onto his skateboard. This time he stayed on his side of the street. He took little jumps when he hit a crack, or launched himself into a flip. He was so absorbed in what he was doing, he didn’t realize that he’d stopped in front of the house, until he saw foxgloves blooming in the gutter. It must have been a good year for foxgloves, he mused.
He wondered where Mariah was. Maybe he could go knock on the cellar window, but on second thought that didn’t seem like such a good idea. He picked up his skateboard and walked the rest of the way home. Putting the key in the lock, he let himself in and walked up the stairs to his room.
Mariah was sitting on the bed, holding her arms out for him. She said not a word, but folded him in her arms, stroking his blond hair.
“So pretty,” she whispered. Her voice sounded strange, almost hoarse, but he allowed her to keep on holding him, resting in her arms. “So so pretty, no wonder she’s fallen for you. No wonder she hasn’t completed her task and returned home. You’re such a lovely distraction, but I can’t have you distracting her.”
Michael tried to struggle out of her grip, but the hold she had on him was like iron. This couldn’t be Mariah, surely this was creature from his dream when he had been in the hospital. Suddenly the creature put one hand was around his neck and he found himself being lifted off his feet. Her coal black eyes were opaque, and the red skin of her hand burned his neck. He tried to loosen her grip, but he could not free himself from her vise like grip. He couldn’t breathe, he was going to pass out in a minute, but still those steely fingers held him.
Her long black hair fell almost to her knees and flew about her, like a breeze was surrounding her and nothing else in his room. It seemed a travesty that her face appeared beautiful but in a grotesque sort of way, yet the horror of this thing both repelled and fascinated him. This was the nightmare image of his dream multiplied tenfold.
“You tell her she has business to take care of, and she’s long overdue. Tell her I’ll snap your pretty neck if she doesn’t do what she was sent here to do. And you, you stay away from her. She’s not what you think she is, or whatever she’s told you. what she really is you can’t even begin to guess.” The hand holding Michael let him loose, and he lay on the floor, gasping and choking.
“Don’t forget what I told you,” the creature warned him, then disappeared.
He grabbed his quilt and pulled it to him. Pieces of a puzzle began to fall into place. The dream, the apparition with Mariah’s face at the skate park that pushed Thea, and she must have caused the trees to attack that night. All that was a warning, all along.
“Michael.” He recoiled at the sound of her voice, then reached out his arms to her. She nestled in his arms, looking nothing like the phantom Mariah who had tried to strangle him, but still he pushed her away, a look of horror on his face.
“You know, don’t you Michael?” She said sorrowfully, “I didn’t intend this, I never wanted you to know. I thought that I could hide from her until I was ready to leave.”
“Who was she? What is she? What are you? Are you real, or just my imagination?” The questions came tumbling out as he struggled to get an answer.
“She’s my oldest sister, Tisiphone, and she’s not very forgiving. She doesn’t always understand that sometimes we need to take time to complete whatever task we’ve been assigned. And that we feel, we feel for the people we meet.”
“Tisiphone? What kind of name is that. Mariah, this is all sounding too crazy, and ever since I met you crazy has been sounding normal.”
Mariah sighed, moved toward him, holding out her arms, but he moved away. “You studied the Trojan War for one of your English classes, right? Remember Orestes?”
Orestes, he remembered something about that. “Oh yeah, the Furies came for him after he killed his mother Clytemnestra because she murdered his father, but at the last minute the gods spared him. So what does that have to do with you? Don’t tell me you’re one of them, I won’t believe it. What about the story of Mariah’s bones? Her family? Was that real? Or another one of your lies?.”
“I didn’t know what to do, so I told you the first thing I could think of. I’m not supposed to tell you what I really am. My sisters and I have a role to play, even if people don’t believe in us. People don’t believe in the Fates anymore, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real, that I’m not real,” she added.
Michael stood up, looking at her, not sure what he believed anymore. Was she lying? Had she been responsible all along for the things that had been happening? Whatever the truth was, he was tired of it.
“So where’s Mariah,” he asked, anger and fear rising in him simultaneously, “Where’s the girl I fell in love with?”
“She was tired, Michael, all those years of being trapped in the basement, she couldn’t fight it anymore. She and her friend kept their vigil, waited as long as they could, hoping that someone would come along to free them. Their spirits were waning and were on the verge of being lost forever, so my sister and I came to help them.”
Michael had had enough. It was too much to find out that the girl he loved had been no more than a lie. He wanted her to go away and leave him alone so he could forget. “Mariah, or whoever or whatever you are, just get the hell out of here. I’m tired of this, all of this. Just get the hell away from me and leave me alone.” He watched her disappear, a blood red tear falling from her eye.
Michael lay on his bed and started shaking uncontrollably. He buried his head in his pillow, trying to shut it all out, weary to his bones of everything that had happened. It was too much, the lovely ghost he thought he loved was not a girl after all, but some kind of creature, a monster from a Greek myth he didn’t even believe. Everything about her was a lie—the lovely brown hair and blue eyes didn’t exist. The creature with the red skin and black hair and eyes was not unlovely, but compared to the Mariah he had fallen in love with, it was repulsive. Lies, it had all been about lies all along. Michael felt the fool for having fallen in love with her in the first place.