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A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"Up through the dim pine trees they went, the constable's breath wheezing in her ears, and emerging from the coolness and the green, Winnie saw again the wide world spread before her, shimmering with light and possibility. But the possibilities were different now. They did not point to what might happen to her but to what she might keep from happening."
~ Natalie Babbit, Tuck Everlasting
I walked away from the stone circle where the flashlight beams shone on swarms of snowflakes that they illuminated in their sweeps through the night. There was a ringing in my ears and a growing ache in my left side. I could breathe all right, so I supposed that nothing was broken, although it occurred to me that my eardrum might be shattered.
I took off a glove and checked the ear for blood. My fingers went numb quickly in the cold, but I was pretty sure that the only wetness in my ear was melted snow. I thrust the hand under my jacket and held it against my stomach to warm the fingers while I looked for some sign of where I needed to go.
Snow blew down harder now, pinpricks in my face, and I was blinking my eyes rapidly as I tried to see into the darkness. There was a night in Worcester, a month shy of a year ago, where I'd nearly died of exposure waiting for a bus, and it had been the fear of being hunted that kept me moving. Now that fear was gone, replaced by a tired acceptance that kept me still.
"Whose woods these are I think I know," I whispered. "His house is in the village, though. He will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow."
I found a flashlight on my belt and used the hand I'd been warming against my skin to flick the switch. The eyes that shone back out of the darkness a dozen paces before me were low to the ground and pale green as the Northern Lights. They only gave me a moment's attention before they turned away.
I followed, lifting my feet high the way I'd learned one year at summer camp on a night hike. The snow was sticking on the ground now, and it was beginning to dust the branches of the short pines that closed in thicker around me.
The crunch of my boots in the frosty carpet of dry needles at my feet heralded the return of my hearing, and I walked for a while just listening to the changing quality of the sound.
I thought a little bit about the ritual, and about Darren, turning over in my head all of the things that we had done wrong that had led us to tonight's bloody culmination, until finally I had to drive those thought from my head because they would drain away all of my last bits of strength. I went back to reciting Frost out loud to distract me as I walked.
"'My little horse must think it queer to stop without a farmhouse near, between the woods and snowy lake, the darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake to ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the…'"
"'The sweep', right Nancy?" I recoiled at the voice. Panic, first, then a washing of relief at its familiarity, a voice I was conditioned to accept as friendly, and then back to panic as my mind caught up and gave recognition.
I turned a bit to my left.
Nate was sitting slanted on a fallen log that leaned against its trunk. He wore a thick fleece vest and a ski cap, and one of those ridiculous Doctor Who scarves, which trailed down endlessly, lost in the deepening snow at his feet.
"'The only other sound's the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.' Is that right, Nancy? Come on, this is what we do, isn't it? We spend our days trading quotes back and forth to remind ourselves how intellectual we all are." He stood and took a step forward and then spun around, his hands twirling the ends of the scarf so that it wrapped around his tall thin figure like a maypole.
"We're lost out in the snowy woods, so we quote Robert Frost, or maybe George R.R. Martin? Winter is coming, Nancy." He turned his voice to a menacing stage whisper, and then switched to British-accented falsetto: "You must cut down the greatest tree in this forest with… A herring!"
I wanted to hit him. A couple of months ago I'd have numbered him among my best friends, told people he was one of the only ones who understood me, sworn I'd have his back, and right at this moment I could just about feel my hands closing on his neck. I could almost feel the cold numb impacts my fists would make pounding his face into the snow. I'm no fighter. Skinny little Belle had damn near killed me, and I'd been worse than useless back at the stone circle where Darren had died. I didn't know if I could out-fight Nate. I probably couldn't.
But I knew I could hurt him, and when I marched toward him, he gave ground until he backed into a small pine and tripped over it, landing awkwardly in the snow.
"You know what the problem with you is?" My ears still weren't working completely right, but I think I was screaming at him then. "You fucking don't know when to stop! People are dead! When are we gonna stop playing fucking games?"
He held up his hands, sure that I was going to turn things violent. It was just another sign of how little he'd ever bothered to know me.
"They were going to send Belle," he whispered. "She would have killed you. She wanted to. You and that little red haired girl. I've never seen Belle like that before, Nancy."
"What, bloodthirsty? Murderous? Can't you see what these people are doing to her, Nate? To you?"
He shook his head. "Focused. It was like she finally took her Ritalin. You should've seen her, Nancy. After all those times you lectured her about responsibility and following up on what you start. You'd have been proud. You'd have died that way."
I shook my head. "What do you want, Nate?"
There was something moving in the snow behind Nate. Something low to the ground that was making the underbrush shake and the leaves crackle just a little bit under its paws. I thought that my hearing must be pretty much back to normal to be noticing something so quiet.
"But I asked them to send me," Nate said. "Because I thought we could talk. I thought I could show you what a mistake this has all been. I love you, Nancy. I don't want to lose you."
"I thought you loved Belle. And I think you can consider me pretty much lost, Nate. I'm not gonna get on too well with the company you're keeping."
There was a shifting of the shadows at the edge of my vision to the left, and it occurred to me that Nate was probably not going to be all that pleased with the company I was keeping either.
"I loved all of you. You, Em, Belle. I know I was just some goofball friend, but I really loved you, and I knew you'd see that someday. You will see that someday. But I need you to give this a chance. It's not like you think it is, Nancy. Think about all of the stories that we grew up with, everything we shared over the years. We're all the same, Nancy. We're drawn to the magic. We've rejected the muggle world, cast aside all the banality, and we've searched through all of these stories and all of these worlds for the one bit of assurance that the magic is real."
He stood, walking closer. "Well, we've found it. And now, we get to live forever. We get to say a big 'fuck you' to everyone who kicked us when we were down, and we get to have all the things that we spent our lives longing for. Come on, Nancy, you've got a whole shop full of dreams that there's something more to life, right? Well, we found it. It's waiting for you to take."
He opened his arms, and I could feel tears mixing with melted snow on my cheeks. I walked to him slowly and we hugged as clumsily as we always had.
"I'm so sorry, Nate," I whispered.
Then I pushed him away, hard enough to get his full attention.
"But you just don't get it. It's never been about taking hold of some magic powers. It's about making choices, and if there really is more to the world than what we see in the daylight, then we'd damn well better make sure we choose wisely. Sorry, Nate. The ring is going down the volcano, and the bottle from the fountain of youth is getting sprinkled on the toad. Because it's still the right thing to do, for all the same reasons that you just never learned."
I turned away from him and he came at me through the snow, so I spun back around.
"There needs to be an accounting." I said. "I'm scared to face this alone, but I don't think you want to face it with me. So look the fuck around before you think about following."
Nate finally saw the wolves.
I tried not to look into their eyes. That would be challenging them. I kept looking down at my feet as much as I could, stepping slowly and carefully, stopping to look ahead and then moving again as I caught hints of movement in my peripheral vision, subtle reminders that my escort was still with me.
I hadn't been surprised by Nate's choice. I wasn't even disappointed. I guess some part of me still cared about him, and as much as I hated the thought of him and Belle working with the people who had killed Darren, I could not have preferred to see him torn apart, his entrails ripped out and dragged dripping through the fresh new snow.
Nate had said we wanted the true magic, but he'd fled in the face of it.
I couldn't flee. I'd been hunted long enough. Darren, Antonio, and all of the others had broken the rules of some terrible game, and there was only me to face the consequences. I thought about Darren then, and I decided that he would have been at my side if he could have. He would not have fled into the night. I clung to that thought; I really wanted to believe it. I even thought about whether Darren was here, his spirit with me, but if he was, then I couldn't feel it. There was only the cold, and the dark, and the wolves.
When I came to the Huntsman, I thought for a second that I had circled back to the ritual site. But no, the boulders that took shape from the shadow were no stone circle. Just ancient rocks that the glaciers had left behind, standing on both sides of an icy streambed.
I had taken out my flashlight when we first came to the stream and even with the light I'd slipped and fallen twice. My legs were numb like just about every other part of me, and it dulled the pain a little, but my left boot and my jeans got wet on the second fall, and the wet denim was sticking to my thighs and calves, stinging with freezing water, and I was rubbing them as I walked, distracted enough that I didn't see the Huntsman until I was nearly at his feet.
He was dark in a way that shone against the blackness, so tall as to strip away significance from me, hungry and hollow and empty as a deep dry well, and as beautiful as all the nights of the year.
"I have promises to keep," I whispered, shaking from the cold and not from the cold. "And miles to go before I sleep."
I brought out the runes from my pocket and held them up so they dangled in front of my face.
"Someone killed to take these." I wasn't asking. I knew. Somewhere back through the generations, someone had shed blood for these runes, and now the time had come for an accounting after so many of our years. Had it been merely a blink of an eye to the Huntsman? Did the pain and the grief and the rage burn in his heart the way that the loss of Darren ate away at mine?
He swept the runes from me. I still had a small bit of hope that returning what had been taken would be sufficient repayment, but it wasn't, of course.
He waited. The pack tensed, ready.
They would let me run. I shook my head. I'm fat and slow. They were going to find me a terrible disappointment.
I turned around, seeking a way through the darkness that I thought might be clear, and I tensed my tired muscles and took off in a blind sprint..
I hadn't gotten three steps before I was brought down. I felt the weight bear me to the ground. I hit hard, the breath knocked from me. Teeth bit into the back of my neck. Claws scratched my face just under my eye.
A hand caught my wrist and twisted my arm back… A hand?
I rolled over, kicking out, twisting and striking with my elbows and then my fists until I finally broke free of my attacker. I couldn't see her, but I knew.
"Kill you! Kill you! Kill you!" Belle was chanting her mantra in short panting breaths, blowing steamy puffs into the chill air around her.
"Belle! Run!" I pleaded. She didn't hear or didn't want to listen. It was like Nate had said. She was focused.
I scrambled backward, pleading with the darkness now. I could see the ending, but I didn't want any part of it. I just wanted my friend back.
"No! It's me you want!" I sobbed.
But of course it wasn't. Belle leaped through the air, intending to land on me, and the first wolf met her mid-flight and tore out her throat as it brought her down.
In the end, Belle didn't make for any better sport than I would have.
I tried not to watch any of it, but I opened my eyes when all the sounds stopped, and I saw the Huntsman reach down to pick up what was left. The debt was settled, blood for blood. He melted away into the darkness with his pack and I heard something fall onto the ice of the frozen stream, and single faint metallic sound.
I crawled over and felt around in the snow and ice until my stiff fingers found the length of cord and the familiar bit of metal. The rune felt warm. I curled up around it in the snow.
I spent five days in Nashua Hospital being treated for frostbite and hypothermia, and the doctors seemed to take a perverse delight in reminding me how lucky I was that they had been able to save all of my fingers and all but two of my toes.
They also spent a great deal of time while I was still not coherent enough to understand what they were talking about assuring me that the baby will be fine. Darren's baby. Mine.
Mom was there almost every day, and Grandma visited, and my aunts, and they all promised to feed me and feed me some more once I got home. And Em was there almost every day too, and Katy had been in to see me a couple of times. Sometimes we'd even get a moment alone to talk about what happened.
Antonio's society had found some way to sweep most of it under the rug. What they couldn't make disappear, they'd invented cover stories for involving bikers and a gang feud and some innocents caught in the middle. None of it made a lot of sense, but I got the impression that it didn't need to.
When I got back to the shop, Em asked me what I was going to do, and I thought a lot about closing things up, moving back in with family, and concentrating on being a mom.
"The kid's gonna be something special, you know," I told Em. "That's the way it works in my family. Every other generation."
"You're something special too. Look, Nancy, what do you want me to tell Antonio? I said I'd handle it, but this is your choice. He wants to know if you're still on their side. He said he'll understand if you want out."
I took out the rune. The new one. Wunjo, the rune of comfort, of sanctuary. I came out from behind the counter and walked over to the front door of Gaslight Books and looked out at the Christmas lights in the storefronts across the street.
"I don't want out," I said. "You don't forget the story just by closing the book. But I'm not going to fight his battles."
I hung the rune from the hook that held the "Open" sign.
"Tell him this place is sanctuary. For whoever needs it. But tell him this place is my domain, and he is going to damn well respect that for my sake and the sake of my daughter."
Em sat down at the computer to email Antonio as I turned to survey my little maze of shelves and books. My domain.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007