“She’s not in,” I say. “She probably forgot all about it, I told you she’s flaky like that. Come on, let’s go. We can get something to eat on the way home. Pizza would be nice.”
Alan looks at my hand, which is gripping his elbow, and then at his finger, which is still on the doorbell. “It’s usually traditional to wait until the bell stops ringing before you decide nobody’s going to answer it.”
His tone is mild but his eyes are disapproving. I stop tugging at his arm. My husband is blessed with both a tolerant nature and a well-developed sense of decency, which is one of the reasons he’s so perfect for me. His expression is my litmus test of good behavior.
And it clearly isn’t considered decent to try to duck out of your own mother’s memorial ceremony, especially in favor of a trip to Pizza Express. Even Alan’s tolerance has some limits. In my husband’s world, when your parents die you mark the occasion appropriately. And since I like his world and want to carry on living in it, that’s what I’ve agreed to do.
Of course, it’s the ‘appropriately’ part that’s likely to cause the trouble.
The door opens. I sigh and face front. “Hello, Auntie,” I say. “It’s good to see you. You look very well. This is my husband, Alan.”
Three statements, one of them true. I prefer to avoid outright lies if I can — vagueness and general obfuscation are usually more effective anyway — but I’ve learned that in the case of social etiquette, lying is pretty much unavoidable.
Alan gives her his most charming smile. “It’s very nice to finally meet you, Hope.”
Social etiquette isn’t something my family ever bothered to study. Hope looks him up and down, then leans forward and sniffs him. “Prig,” she says, and shrugs. “You always had weird tastes, girl.” She holds the door open. “Come in then, if you’re coming.”
I try to throw Alan an “it’s not too late for pizza” look, but he either doesn’t catch it or ignores it. Instead, he steps inside.
The hallway’s been painted since I was last here; the black walls are a much more attractive apple-white now, with a nice accent of olive green gloss on the woodwork. It makes all the carved runes and sigils stand out a lot more, but I suppose you can’t have everything.
As I pass them, the symbols briefly re-align themselves to spell out this is not going to end well — in five different languages, in case I didn’t get the point — then resume their former positions. I hate it when hallways get all smart-arse on me. Luckily, Alan doesn’t seem to have noticed.
“Make yourselves at home,” my aunt calls out as she slips through the seventh door on the left. “You know where everything is. I’m just finishing up with a client, I won’t be long.”
Alan looks around, wide-eyed. “This is a hell of a big house,” he says. “It doesn’t look like it from the road, but it must be massive. Has it been extended?”
“Something like that,” I say, and lead him into the kitchen.
That surprises him, too. “But this is tiny. House like this, I thought it’d be huge.”
I grab the kettle and shuffle past him to get to the tap. “My aunt’s not a big cook.”
“Mmm,” he says. “I can see that.” He’s standing in front of the open fridge, which contains an empty ice tray, a dish of chicken bones and a box of candles. “I hope you’re going to be okay with your coffee black, because there’s no milk.” He shuts the fridge and opens a couple of the cupboards. “Or any sugar. Or any anything.”
He holds up a jar half-full of something that looks suspiciously like toenail clippings. “Doesn’t look like she’s a big eater, either. I can’t see a single thing in here that might be remotely edible.”
I wave a hand. “Oh, she’s always on some diet or other. She’s probably got loaves of bread and chocolate bars stashed in secret hiding places all around the house. Don’t worry about it.”
The kettle starts to boil with a sulphurous smell. I flick it off. “What say we don’t bother with the coffee, eh? I’m sure she won’t be long.”
“Fine by me,” he says, wrinkling his nose and replacing the lid on an ornate silver canister of something that probably wasn’t Nescafé.
By the time I dump the foul water out of the kettle — I dread to think what she’s been brewing in there — and turn round, Alan’s wandered back into the hallway. “So what kind of client has she got down there?” he asks.
I follow him. Behind me, the kitchen door closes. It doesn’t do much to shut off the smell. “Don’t worry, Hope’s not a prostitute. She’s—” I hesitate for a second: is this much less embarrassing? “She’s a fortune-teller.”
Alan’s eyebrows attempt to join his hairline. “For real?”
I wonder if he still thinks it’s strange that I’ve never talked about my family much. “For real.”
“Is she any good?”
“She’s accurate. I’m not sure how many of her clients think that’s actually a good thing.”
Alan edges up to the doorway of what Hope calls her receiving room.
“We probably shouldn’t disturb her,” I say, reaching out for his arm, but he’s already pulling apart the beaded curtain hanging in the doorway to peer into the room beyond.
Currently, she’s receiving a young woman with pale skin and tiny features that she overcompensates for with a huge expanse of frizzy red hair. The two armchairs are angled at forty-five degrees to each other and are the kind of soft, overly plumped up ones you sink into rather than sit on, but Frizzy is somehow managing to perch on the edge of hers. Everything is pressed firmly together: knees, hands and lips. There’s a tarot deck on the coffee table, and she’s eyeing it hungrily.
I’m glad to see the cards. Hope can read anything, and likes to prove it. I’ve watched her read palms, tea leaves, biscuit crumbs, a waste bin full of used tissues and the pattern of dandruff on the shoulders of a man’s jacket. My aunt, the Psychic Dandruff Reader.
“What’s your question?” Hope asks Frizzy.
“I want to know when I’m going to meet my future husband,” Frizzy says.
Hope rolls her eyes, but hands over the deck. “Shuffle.”
Frizzy does as she’s told, handling the cards like an expert. She cuts the deck and gives it back to Hope, who turns over the top card.
“Nineteen years,” she says. “Next question?”
Frizzy blinks at her. “Excuse me?”
“When you’ll meet your future husband. Nineteen years’ time. Third of December, probably about half past eleven. You might want to put it in your diary. Now, if there’s nothing else, I’ve got business to attend to. That’ll be fifteen pounds, please.”
Frizzy gapes. Hope smiles pleasantly, not showing her teeth. There’s a shift in the air, like a blast of hot breath. I close my eyes and dream briefly of an alternate universe where I’d managed to persuade Alan to turn tail at the door and spend the evening happily scoffing thin crust mushroom and olive pizza.
Beside me, Alan tenses. “What was that?” he whispers.
“What was what?” I ask, even though I know exactly what he’s talking about.
“Didn’t you hear it? It sounded like a laugh. A weird kind of laugh.”
“Nope. Didn’t hear anything.” I take hold of his hand. “Why don’t we leave them to finish up? We could pop back outside for a bit, get some fresh air. I could do with a cigarette.”
“You don’t smoke,” he says, but it’s distracted and he won’t look at me. He pulls his hand out of mine. “That noise, it sounded like it was coming from—” He stops, looking behind me. “Jane? Wasn’t the kitchen back that way?”
I’m saved from having to answer by Frizzy. “If you think I’m paying you for that, you’re crazier than you look,” she says.
She jumps to her feet, working up some righteous anger. “You’re a fraud. Clearly, you just want to make people think their lives are going to turn out as sad and miserable as yours is.”
Oh dear. Beside the doorway, the hallway wall flickers. This is definitely not going to end well, it declares. I have to agree.
Alan jumps and lifts his hand to brush the painted plaster. “Jane? Did you just see—”
Frizzy cuts him off again. “I’ve been to three other readers and they all told me that I…” she trails off, watching Hope gather up her cards. “That’s a weird deck,” she continues. “That’s not the one you just had, is it? What is that? It looks — is it some kind of Lovecraft deck?”
“Pretty, isn’t it?”
“And you know what? It has another prediction about your future. Because now I don’t think your future involves meeting a husband in nineteen years’ time. I don’t think it involves meeting a husband at all.”
Frizzy backs up a step. Finally, she looks nervous. She was lagging behind me by at least five minutes on that. “I don’t think I want another reading. I mean, thanks. But that’s all right. I think I’ll just go now.”
“Do you?” Hope says, laying down a card. It’s very large, and very brightly colored. Most of the color is red. “Do you really think that?” She smiles again, and this time she shows her teeth.
The room door — and I would have sworn there wasn’t a door before, just the bead curtain — slams shut, which makes Alan let out a little breathless shriek of his own.
In truth, I feel a little breathless myself. The heat in the house has become stifling.
“We should probably go,” I say.
He swallows hard, still staring at the door. “But what about your mother, the memorial service?”
My Alan. Still concerned about doing the decent thing.
I shake my head. “I don’t think that particular ceremony is one you really want to see.”
He stares at me for a long time then backs up a step, just like Frizzy. The look on his face isn’t much different, either. “Who is that, in there? Who is she?” His voice drops again. “What is she?”
“She’s my aunt.”
“Aunt. You mean family friend, right? Not actual family. You’re not related. Not by—” he falters on the last word, then recovers. “Blood.”
I want to say “no, of course not,” because how could that be? How could I be kin to the thing he glimpsed through that door?
I want to agree, to reassure him that he’s right, that his wife is still just his wife, that nothing’s changed, that the fabric of the world hasn’t ripped open for a little while, exposing something unspeakable underneath.
I want to leave, walk out of this house and go home. I want “unspeakable” to be not just a description but a command: we’ll never mention this place, or my Aunt Hope, again. Things will settle down, go back to normal. Alan will fall back into his old role of protective, mentoring husband. I’m a little eccentric, yes, I have some emotional issues, yes, but we have a good life. He knows that, to the best of my ability, I love him.
And life will go on, and we will be happy, and all will be well.
Except that it won’t, will it?
Alan is optimistic, positive and naturally good-natured, and that has carried us a long way. But he isn’t a fool. He knows what he saw here today, and what it means. I can see that knowledge in his eyes, even as he’s begging me to tell him it isn’t so.
My Happy Ever After blows apart like a house of cards, as it’s done so many times before.
I’ve tried so hard to keep us out of all this, but it never works. Wherever we go, my mother’s always found us and set off some variation of the same chain of events. Alan finds out the truth. Then he leaves me, or he dies. That’s her idea of a happy ending.
I’ve been an idiot to think that just because she’s dead, she can’t still fuck with me.
I thought we could manage the one evening. Just one evening with Hope, who’s almost as assimilated as I am. I thought we could drink the toast to my mother’s name (there was a little flask of red wine in my handbag for Alan, he would never have noticed) say our goodbyes and that would be an end to it, once and for all.
Like I said. Idiot.
“Jane?” Alan says. His hand is reaching out to me but his feet are backing him away. The hallway’s opened up even wider now, and he glances nervously down it.
“I’m sorry,” I say. My throat is tight and the words hurt as they force their way out. My voice cracks. “I didn’t want this to happen. I never do.”
His eyes widen. “I don’t understand,” he says. It comes out plaintive.
The sounds from behind Hope’s door are increasing in volume. Her blood’s up now, and I don’t know where it might stop.
“Run,” I tell him, even though it breaks what I have of a heart. “Just run, Alan.”
I expect him to refuse, at least to argue. He’s stood his ground beside me in worse situations before. But he doesn’t.
Can there be some element of transference, some kind of access to a collective pool of memory? I don’t know how that might be possible, but there’s a depth of understanding — understanding and fear — in Alan’s eyes that he doesn’t have any right to. He hasn’t earned it yet, this time round.
Nevertheless, he runs. He leaves me behind without a second glance and runs.
Some interminable time later, the noises stop. The heat fades, and that painful, sliding sense of dislocation eases off. Planes and angles drift back into normal configurations. The house feels like a suburban semi again rather than a disjointed, unhinged little corner of the universe that’s grinding and scraping against the rest like nails against slate.
The door opens and Hope comes out.
“Oops,” she says.
She wipes her mouth and looks around. “Your fella go home?”
“He went somewhere.”
She gives me a sheepish look. “Sorry about that. It’s just with the, you know, occasion and everything. I got a bit carried away. Didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
I shake my head. “You know, Alan’s dad is an alcoholic. I’ve heard all the stories about family dinners spoiled by Alan Senior getting drunk and picking a fight, crying or throwing up in his Sunday roast. That’s what you call getting carried away. That’s embarrassing. This is—” I stop. What’s the point? This is my life.
Plaster dust is still falling from the ceiling. Hope brushes it off my shirt. “Tell you what,” she says brightly, “I’ll do you a reading, make it up to you.”
“No thanks, Auntie.”
“But it’s a good one, look.” She hovers her hand over my sleeve, tracing the swirled pattern of white smears on the black cotton. “You’re going to get him back,” she says. “You’re going to start over, and it’s all going to be fine.”
“Not this time. Not anymore.” I push her hand away. “Shall we just get this done?”
I follow her back into the kitchen, now returned to its usual place at the end of the hall. She picks up the silver canister Alan left on the counter and pours out the thick, viscous blood into two chipped water glasses. “I couldn’t find the bone goblets,” she says. “I think they’re in the basement, but it’s been a bit… unsettled down there, so I left it. It’s the thought that counts, right?”
She raises her glass, the contents glinting red on black in the late afternoon sun. “We honor our fallen,” she says. “We drink of Her blood so that She may live forever in us, her clan in flesh. We hold Her name in our hearts and Her memory in our minds.”
She takes a mouthful of the blood and continues the recitation. I tune it out.
When she’s finally done, she looks at me. “Your turn.”
I raise my glass and swallow the contents down in one go. “Whatever,” I say, and slam the glass back down on the table.
Her lips purse in reproach. “There is such a thing as going too native, you know.”
“Are we finished, now?”
“Not quite. There’s the matter of your legacy.”
“She left you something. The titles, estates and all the family stuff go to me under rite of succession, obviously, but she didn’t forget you. Much as some might think she was entitled to.”
“What are you talking about?”
She leads me towards one of the wall units, which she opens with a flourish. “All yours.”
This cupboard was empty when Alan went looking for sugar, I’m sure. But now there’s a single item on the bottom shelf. A small pouch made of old, dark leather.
I don’t need to open it to know what’s inside. It looked different every time I stole it, but it always felt the same. It’s been a grimoire, a cauldron and even — on one memorable occasion — a 16 foot catamaran. Blasting through into a parallel dimension in the middle of a Formula 1 offshore powerboat race was a hell of an experience. But whatever it appears to be, when you get up close it always feels like swarm of ants, crawling and nipping just under your skin. Its abilities are easy to access but horrible to use. Maybe there was supposed to be a lesson in that.
I look at my aunt, who nods. “It’s yours now.”
Of course it is. Now that I don’t want it, she gives it to me. That’s how it works with my mother.
I shut the cupboard door and resist the urge to scratch every inch of exposed skin. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Hope just smiles. “Be nice if things were that easy, wouldn’t it?”
I can still hear her laughing by the time I get outside the house.
Alan isn’t waiting there for me. He isn’t at home, either. His stuff is all still there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. More than once, things have got bad enough for him to run with nothing but the clothes on his back.
This could be one of those times.
I go into the kitchen. Unlike my aunt’s, it’s well stocked. I have developed quite a taste for food.
In the cupboard that should have been overflowing with crisps and peanuts, the shelves are empty. Empty except for a single leather pouch. It falls from the shelf into my hand, and I can hear the faint, soft sound of laughter.
The trouble with this sort of power is that if you don’t use it — don’t give it the occasional workout, so to speak — it leaks. Makes holes. Fuck knows what plane of reality my Doritos are now existing on.
I toss the pouch from hand to hand. It’s heavy.
I swore to myself — and to Alan, not that he remembers — that I wasn’t going to do this anymore. I’ve lost count of how many different Alans there have been, by now. Dozens. More. All of them have loved me, and one way or another that’s fucked up their lives. I never meant for it to turn out that way, but that doesn’t make it all right.
But like it or not, it belongs to me now. I tried to refuse it, and yet here it is. If I try to ignore it, it’ll eat my house.
Once more, then. Just once more.
After all, things are different now. My mother, the usual catalyst for trouble, is dead. Aunt Hope won’t seek me out the way her sister did; she doesn’t hate me that much. I’ve learned such a lot — surely with no more outside interference, this won’t happen again. Once last time will pay for all.
I pull the drawstrings of the pouch open and reach inside. It’s a ring this time, a chunky, hideous signet ring inset with a huge green stone. I slip it on my finger, which immediately goes numb.
When I can see again, I’m standing in the doorway of the Nags Head at the Angel, Islington.
This is always where it begins. Sometimes her name is Kerry and sometimes it’s Kelly; sometimes they work together at a bank and sometimes at a financial services firm, but they’ve always just broken up and he’s always lost and vulnerable.
I look a little like her, except that I’m taller, thinner and have a larger chest. I didn’t do that deliberately, it’s just one of those complicated by-products.
It’s a Friday in late June — it always is — and the day is beautiful and clear. The sky is a deep, dreaming blue, lightly gauzed in places with thin cloud. The street is full, shoppers and workers weaving in and out, sunglasses and bare shoulders and the sweet, drifting sound of a radio above the growl of the slow-moving traffic.
I push my fringe off my face, and walk inside the pub. The change from bright sunlight to dingy dimness is sudden, but I don’t exactly have to wait for my eyes to adjust. They’re used to darkness.
It’s a deceptively big pub once you get inside, narrow but deep. At the bar I choose the stool right next to Alan and order a Bushmills, straight up. Irish whiskey is Alan’s drink, and Kerry/Kelly hates it. She only drinks red wine, and is quite a snob about it. She doesn’t like pubs, especially this one, which is why Alan always comes here to get over her.
I drink my shot. The bright heat burns out the taste of my mother’s blood, and I order another. My hands are still itching. The barman serves me with a grin, and this time Alan looks up. “Bad day?”
“You have no idea.” I pick up my refilled glass and hold it out. “Here’s to better fortunes.”
He nods and picks up his own glass. “I like that. To better fortunes.”
We drink. “I had my fortune told today, in fact,” I tell him. “She said I’m going to get together with the love of my life and live happily ever after.”
The barman snorts. I slap my empty glass down on the bar and point at Alan’s. “Buy you another?”
He laughs and swivels on his stool to face me. “Well, if it’s written in the stars… who am I to argue with destiny?” He holds out his hand. “I’m Alan.”
The barman is rolling his eyes now, but he still pours our drinks. I’ve actually always loved that slight formality of Alan’s, that air of a bygone courtliness. Apart from him, my lovers have been as interested in eating me as fucking me.
I take his hand. “Jane. Very pleased to meet you.”
He doesn’t flinch from my touch, nor object when I hold on slightly too long for politeness. But then why would he? You can’t tell, not physically. Not if I don’t want you to.
Alan smiles, takes out his wallet and pays for the drinks. “Jane, would you like to go and get something to eat?”
I smile back. “Why not? Pizza would be nice.”
© 2012 by Michelle Ann King
First published in Orbital Hearts: love’s bitter ruins, edited by Thaddeus Rice, 2012.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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