Thousands of lights glittered through the fog that drifted past the windows. Alice blinked, realizing she was back in her apartment in the city. The white walls and geometric furniture looked as hard and cold as always, and fake logs crackled with fake flames in the gas-powered fireplace, too weak to generate any heat toward her place on the couch.
Across from her sat Magdalene, her dark dress and boots stark against the bone-colored upholstery of the chair. Her eyes looked honey gold as she tilted the glass of wine in her hand, swirling the garnet-colored liquid in a way that mimicked the twisting in Alice’s stomach.
“It needs something,” she said, her lipstick as vivid as a gash.
Alice swallowed hard, aware of how her fingers were curled into fists in her lap. “What?”
Magdalene gestured with her other hand, which held an unlit cigarette. “It’s too bare in here. It throws off the balance.”
Alice glanced around, feeling slightly dizzy from how the angles of the walls seemed to stretch and leer at her. “Maybe a rug?”
“I was thinking a pelt.”
Alice’s gaze shot back to Magdalene just in time to see the other woman smile.
“Yes, a wolf pelt. I think black would be perfect.”
Then she drank from the glass and wine poured from her throat, for a gaping wound had suddenly appeared in it. Even as Alice gasped, the thin ruby of the wine thickened into a bright red. Magdalene kept smiling.
Rivers of blood ran from her neck and spread over the floor, greedily reaching for Alice’s feet. Alice tried jerking back, but she seemed frozen in place, unable to do anything as it welled ever closer.
Magdalene watched while ducking her head to light a cigarette. Her wound gaped and breathed out smoke. “Is something wrong?”
Alice just shrieked, thrashing against whatever held her in place.
Then Magdalene stood, stretching like a cat. As she approached, blood continued to pour from her throat, soaking her dress until the points of her nipples showed through.
Her fingers felt like claws as she caught Alice’s shoulders, pinning her back against the couch. The cigarette’s cherry glowed orange, inches away from her mouth.
“You never mind blood on him. I think you’re being fickle, Alice.”
“You died,” hissed Alice, trying to wrench free of Magdalene’s grip. Every movement on her part drew a fresh gush of blood from the other woman’s ruined throat, drenching them both. “You can’t hurt me, anymore. You’re dead.”
At that, Magdalene paused, taking the cigarette from her mouth to flick away ash. The grey motes stun where they landed on Alice’s cheek, and she flinched even as Magdalene’s fingers dug in to keep her still, the cigarette now burning close to her neck. “Oh, Alice, you’re smarter than that. Only fools believe that something dead is something gone.”
Alice felt herself locking up, limbs heavy as though Magdalene’s very touch turned her into stone, but the feeling of the other woman leaning in gave her a final, desperate lurch of energy, and she wrenched herself from head to toe.
Light plunged into dark, and for one wretched moment, she wasn’t sure whether she fell or lunged upright. She felt herself panting, and then felt sheets crumpled around her. A mockingbird’s nightsong reached her, and so did the smell of pine sap.
A dream. She’d only been dreaming. The haze of sleep cleared a little more, and she remembered how Colton had woken her up earlier, teasing her into enough consciousness for her to mumble a goodbye before he’d left on an early work shift.
A glance at the clock revealed it was just after four, and she reluctantly sank back against the mattress to wait for sunrise and its reassuring brightness. She slept fitfully through those final hours, smelling cigarette smoke whenever she began to drop off the edge of consciousness.
Morning found her bleary-eyed and shuffling for coffee. Even the potency of a brewing pot of the stuff couldn’t shake her lethargy, and it wasn’t until she reached for the carafe that she grew aware of an irritated, pulling sensation on her arm. She finished filling her cup full and rubbed the sleep from her eyes before glancing down. Then she froze.
Cigarette burns marked her arm. Dark red, perfectly round, and mercilessly highlighted in the bright morning sunshine. There were five of them, and each hurt and throbbed like any other burn she’d ever experienced. When she brushed fingers over them, still in disbelief, she felt the answering flares of pain, felt the raised, tender patches of skin. How…?
Images from her nightmare slipped back into her mind, but she quickly shoved them away, heart racing. Dreams didn’t bleed into real life. They couldn’t. Yet somehow, these burns had happened.
Her mind raced for explanations while she stumbled to the bathroom to cover up the marks. There were really only two possibilities—that Colton had done it to her, which she immediately ruled out as ridiculous, or that she had done it to herself. Was that just as ridiculous? Even as she wrapped gauze around the burns to protect them from the sleeve of her robe, horror creeped along her spine at the idea that she might be hurting herself without remembering it. Even that didn’t make sense, though; neither she nor Colton smoked. There weren’t any cigarettes in the house to burn herself with.
...Not unless a pack lingered in the moving box left unopened after she and Colton had settled into the house—the one filled with all that was left of Magdalene’s belongings. In the final flurry of days before Alice had moved out of the apartment, she hadn’t paid much attention to what had been shoveled out of Magdalene’s safe and desk. It was just possible that cigarettes were among the things.
After tying off the gauze, she drifted to the same closet where she’d stuffed Darby’s papers, now shoving them out of the way to pull the box out into the open. It was a strange place to keep it, there among the rarely-used boots and rain slickers, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to put anything of Magdalene’s in the bedroom.
The box was as she’d left it, and without ceremony she ripped off the silver tape that kept the flaps shut, fingers clumsy with dread. She didn’t know what to expect as she opened it and looked inside.
Magdalene’s parents had taken all her rewards for The Chrysalis. Half-written drafts and story ideas remained locked up in bitter court battles between them and Magdalene’s publishers. What Alice had been left with were things unwanted and things that only she knew about. Her fingers still held reverence as they sifted through letters and prose pieces that Magdalene had written to her in those early, golden days, but it was of the careful type that came with handling an ancient crossbow or a ceremonial dagger—an artifact from another time that could still kill.
She also found the notebook of scribblings that had turned into The Chrysalis, and was surprised no one had taken it. She thumbed through pages that bore coffee stains and still smelled faintly of tobacco. Magdalene’s handwriting was long and spidery, each stroke biting into the page. Alice remembered how she had liked using fountain pens, and how elegant they had seemed compared to Alice’s own cheap ballpoints, the ends of the plastic caps chewed from her nervous teeth.
Then something fell out of the notebook, fluttering into the box, and when Alice reached in for it, her fingers brushed over Magdalene’s most precious possession: a photo of the girl she’d always called Indigo. Indigo, her first and only muse. Indigo, a high school sweetheart turned eternal tragedy.
Alice had seen the picture before but had never studied it, always aware of Magdalene’s protectiveness toward Indigo’s memory. She glanced over it, now, wondering at this girl who had so bewitched Magdalene. A hard smile played over her lips as she took in the flawless skin and wild red hair, the wide blue eyes that held depths as vast and empty as abandoned quarries. To think that she had been jealous of this dead girl and Magdalene’s obsession with her.
Underneath the photo waited a packet bound in black ribbon. Alice recognized what they were—more letters from Magdalene, but this time to Indigo. Ones that had been retrieved by Magdalene on the night of the girl’s funeral. Once, when Magdalene had been very drunk, she had admitted to Alice that she’d climbed a tree and crawled through a window to get inside Indigo’s room and search for those letters. That she had hoped to be caught and have the secret relationship spill out into the open.
But she hadn’t been, not even while spending the entire night there on the bedroom floor, reading through each letter. And at dawn, she had slipped away unnoticed with the last traces of night, leaving the rest of the world to mourn Indigo as Liberty Bower, a pretty, happy girl who had died with her boyfriend on their way back from prom.
When Alice had first learned about this painful part of Magdalene’s past, she had cried for her. She had also cried over Indigo having lost her life and her true love. Now she simply wondered if pity would have been more appropriate. Had Magdalene’s devotion ever been softer? Kinder? One might blame bitterness and loss for her behavior toward Alice, but an inferior replacement had far less expectations to bear than a perfect muse. Alice had been expected to fail; Indigo had probably been held up as something that never could.
And if there was one thing Magdalene had excelled at outside of writing, it was making people feel just what she wished them to. A treasure to her—or a piece of shit stuck to her shoe. The guardian to her secrets, or the backstabber with the bloodied knife. Her second heart that gave her a reason to live, and a toy to play with.
Alice’s gaze flickered to the fat manuscript beside the box. Darby’s ode to a woman she felt she better understood than anyone else ever had. Yes, Magdalene had certainly crooned enough words to make her feel like a treasure. And before Darby could have seen any other side of her, Magdalene had gone—first back to the cabin with Alice, and then away to the morgue as a rotting body.
Was it really any wonder, the lengths to which Darby was going? Magdalene must have seemed like a shooting star to her.
Slowly, Alice pulled the manuscript onto her lap. Her fingers hesitated at the first red label that marked a section relevant to her, but then she quickly flipped the pages to it and started reading. Her mouth went dry as she found out just how deeply Darby had dug into her family’s past, but she forced herself to move to the next marked page, and then the one after that. She didn’t bother going through Darby’s notes to check what she read; she had her own memories to weigh how much was truth and how much was falsehood. And even Colton had admitted to the extent of her grandmother’s darkness, and possibly her mother’s, too.
When she came to a page that told of how her mother had liked putting cigarettes out on her arm, Alice finally shoved the manuscript away and rubbed at her eyes, unsure of whether they ached from lack of sleep or from tears. Were the burns made by her own hand? Time had slipped so strangely for her the day before. She had blamed it on the shock of Darby’s visit, but perhaps she should have blamed her own mind, instead…
Her focus returned to the packing box, then, and she pushed aside a few more notebooks, determined to reach the bottom and find out for good whether any cigarettes were there. And then, between a dried-up stick of gum and ink cartridges for a fountain pen, she found a pack.
She knew it was Magdalene’s favorite brand even before she lifted it out and saw the gold lion logo. The earthy smell of tobacco drifted up to her face, muted and stale with age. The top of the pack wasn’t quite shut all the way, all but inviting her to take a peek inside and see how many cigarettes were left. After a deep breath in, she did.
Five were missing. Five burns were on her arm. Alice’s hands started shaking, and she quickly dropped the pack back into the box.
Her movements grew more frantic as she fought with the cardboard flaps to re-tape them shut. Back into the closet went the box, shoved in the furthest corner. The manuscript went with it, and then Alice slammed the door shut and sat on the floor for several seconds afterward, panting as if she’d been wrestling with something alive.
Eventually, her hand crept back to her bandaged arm. It wouldn’t be enough, ignoring Darby. If she were so fragile as to come undone at the mere threat of blackmail, what would happen when the book was actually published?
Give in and let her see the cabin, whispered a voice deep in her mind, one that reminded her of Magdalene’s.
But some part of her still resisted, still wished to fight. Not against Darby, no—that was a lost cause. But what about Darby’s husband, Rob? Alice had never felt any warmer toward him than she had toward Darby—her perception of Rob was of a man absorbed in himself and his art. But he was certainly as bullish as Darby. Some of the fights she had witnessed between them... And in the end, Rob had usually gotten his way. If Darby’s obsession with Magdalene rankled at him, then perhaps he also wanted her to give up this crusade.
Or perhaps he found it all amusing. Alice felt sick as she remembered some of the other things he had found amusing, but she quickly drove the memories away. She couldn’t know for sure how he felt, not until she found out.
It was worth a try.
She didn’t have his home phone number, but remembered where he worked—at some commercial photography studio. She called there, pacing around the house while waiting for the office assistant to put her through.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but he’s working from home today.” The assistant’s voice had a polite chill that warned Alice not to ask for any personal information.
She didn’t need to, instead finding the address from the cover page of Darby’s manuscript. After logging it into her phone, she showered and dressed, taking her time in putting herself together. Hair pulled into a French twist, understated gold in her ears, a stark dress and a starker wool coat against the autumn chill… She wasn’t about to make the same mistake she had with Darby in looking like a mousey little thing that could be pushed around.
It was a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Rob and Darby’s, and she spent it entirely in silence. Panic flickered through her whenever the burns pulled at her skin, driving her ever forward through the snarls of traffic around the toll booths and bridges. The roads grew cramped between towering buildings that swallowed the sun; the air gained the tinge of smog and salt. People walked, smoked, played music on the corners and begged for change in the shadows. She smelled coffee, frying food from street carts, and sewage from sewer systems overwhelmed by recent rains. It was a city that teemed with life of all strains, a constant dance of the senses.
A smile touched Alice’s lips as she remembered how Colton would give a surly twitch of his shoulders to the view of the city through the windows of her apartment. But he had never complained out loud, and when she’d asked if he hated urban living, he’d only grimaced and said, “Elk live in large herds. Not wolves.”
Her next question had been whether there were elk that could turn into humans, too, and his expression had turned long-suffering. Then she’d started giggling, unresisting when he’d pulled her close with that predator’s quickness, teeth tender instead of fatal as they’d tested the soft area of her throat where her laughter hummed.
The memory reminded her of what she was determined to fight for, determined to save, and she drove faster, now intent on seeing Rob. Her hands remained white-knuckled while she found the right street and turned down it. It was a quiet neighborhood made up of houses that were artifacts of history. They stood there two or even three storeys tall, ornate woodwork modernized with coats of cheerful paint. Weary with age, they all leaned along the hill they’d been built on, cramped and uneven like a mouthful of crooked teeth.
She parked on the street, already spotting Rob on the balcony of their house, cigarette in hand. He looked the same as she’d remembered; dark hair short yet styled, a blocky head held up by a thick neck and sloped shoulders in the way that had always reminded her of a buffalo. Clothing understated, hands sensitive. Black-framed glasses shrunk the appearance of his eyes a tad, just enough to emphasize the hyper-focused stare he would give the rare thing that actually caught his attention. He glanced over her while she got out of the car, but when she called his name, his focus cleared.
Different emotions ran through his face as she looked up at him, shading her eyes against the noon sun. When he spoke, his voice sounded the same, too, a dark purr that always held a hint of smugness, as if his photographer’s eye saw through to souls and laughed at what was found there. “Darby’s out and I have no fucking clue where.”
With that handful of words, Alice realized he knew everything. “I’m here because of her, but I’d rather talk to you.”
The same old Rob. Annoyed that he couldn’t view from a distance and instead had to be pulled into the thick of things. Alice stepped closer to the balcony, feeling her chance slip away by the second. “She visited me yesterday, and I’m worried about how much of what she said is true.”
Rob took another drag and then ran a thumb over his left eyebrow, as if he already felt a headache growing. “Ask her about all that.”
“She wants a yes or no from me, nothing else.”
Laughter burst out from the other side of the street. Nothing more than a group of girls in their lace shirts and ripped jeans, oblivious while they slid down the steep, uneven sidewalk, but it still reminded them both that they were speaking out in the open, where anyone might overhear.
For one wretched moment, Alice was sure Rob would refuse to talk any further. But then he sighed and straightened up from where he leaned on the railing. “You better come in.”
Alice hurried for the small porch before he could change his mind, the first hints of hope stirring over making it that far. She wasn’t sure what sort of conversation waited for her, but she knew she would have to put up a fight. At the front door, she ran her tongue over her teeth, trying to remember how to snap and bite. Then it opened, and she stepped inside.