Charm 11/22

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Hiding or Running

Where are we?” Caleb asks.

I’ve parked the Beetle in an empty lot outside a bottle store. “Nowhere.” My hands are shaking, and I tighten them on the wheel. A quick glance in my mirrors assures me that we are alone here. No shadowy Hunter figures, no evil children Watchers. It’s just me and that arsehole Caleb. Between us is an empty space. I draw in a deep breath. Move, Irene, I think to myself. Sitting here isn’t fixing anything. I will my fingers to uncurl and release the steering wheel, the leather giving under my palms with a sticky kiss. The door shuts, slammed hard, and a second later, Caleb’s door echoes mine. The sound fades almost immediately, muffled in the heavy air. We set off down the deserted street, our footfalls silent. It’s like we’re not here. The night envelops us.

Around us the grid of roads is empty, quiet. There are no howling dogs, or rustling of feeding rats. It’s eerie, this emptiness. Unnatural. I fish my cell out of my pocket as I walk, and dial the speaking clock. It is, apparently, 2:40 am, and 27 seconds. For a few moments, I listen to the crisp voice, as if that will let me know that everything is normal, that I am not living in a nightmare of my mother’s creation. Some story she told me from her stupid book. I set the phone back in my pocket and trudge in what seems like aimless circles. I lead Caleb a merry path, taking as many false turns as I can.

“I asked you a question.” He’s finally trying to talk again, to get me to tell him everything he wants to know, and I let one corner of my mouth curl. Score, Irene. It’s a pathetic victory though, and I know it.

“And I don’t feel like answering.” I walk on, take a familiar left and pass a tangle of bougainvillea, their leaves shhing in the night breeze. The houses here are small, cramped on tiny plots. The area is going rapidly downhill. Like a mirror image of its cross-border neighbour; as Norwood rises, so Orange Grove falls. An Alsatian slams itself at a gate as we pass, and sends a volley of barks after us. My shoulders unclench a little. I was beginning to feel trapped in that silence. The barking dog is the breaking of a spell, and the world seems to wake up, sounds chittering through the early morning.

A few birds are starting to peep from the gardens, and here and there a light is on in a window. The horizon is still black, but it won’t be that long before sunrise. Already the sky seems lighter, as if it’s ready and waiting.

There. I stop on the pavement in front of the familiar house. I know this place almost as well as my own childhood home, and frankly, if I’m going to be leading demonic fanged monsters anywhere, it might as well be here. I avoid the curled iron gate and its perpetual squeak. Luckily Lily has never had the money to put palisade up over the old brick garden wall. “You have to be quiet,” I whisper to Caleb before I scramble over the low wall and drop into the musty black earth of her flowerbeds. Lily should still be asleep, and she never uses the old maid’s room at the back of the house. I sneak through the darkness and shadows to the small brick building. The door is unlocked but stiff, and I grit my teeth as the rusted metal handle squeals.

No sound comes from the house. The lights stay off, and I let go the breath I’ve been holding and slip into the little black room. It smells of must and damp and stale smoke, old cardboard, dust. It’s mostly filled with junk but there’s an old single bed in there, still raised on bricks, and I sit down. This is where Rain and I used to come when we both started smoking. We’d sneak in here and share our packet of Benson and Hedges Mild, thinking we were so damn grown-up. Caleb shuts the door softly and quietly behind him, and the gloom grows a little thicker. My eyes adjust to the darkness and the shades of greys.

“Where is this place?” Even with that stupid cowboy hat pulled low, I can see Caleb’s face is drawn. He looks suspicious, his mouth twisted.

“Nowhere,” I say.

“Will anyone think to look for you here?” His voice is low, curious.

“No.”

“Then it will do.” He sits down on the bed and the old metal springs creak. Flurries of dust rise, and I pinch my nose to hold back a sneeze.

In the drowning silence, I can’t stop running away from my thoughts. All that walking in circles trying to lose them, and they catch up so damn easily. I have to speak and when I do, my voice has got that horrible girlish choke to it that means I’m about to cry. “How do you know he’s alive?”

“He’s charmed to me,” Caleb says. “As long as he’s alive I’ll know.” He falters as he says it, and I know I don’t believe him. The bastard has no idea, he’s lying to me, and the knowledge strengthens my determination.

The minutes drag by. I probe at his lies, looking for the holes. “Do you know what he’s thinking? Feeling?”

Caleb shakes his head.

“What’s going to happen to him?” I want scream, to take Caleb and shake him like a dog with a rat, until his teeth fall out and he crumples up. Instead, I wrap my arms tight around my chest like I’m hugging myself, feel my heart beating, the rush of blood in my temples. What am I going to do—just wait for Caleb to help Rain? He might be dead already. I close my eyes on the thought and suck in a whimper. He is not dead. He is not. “Caleb?” I look at him, all wrapped in shadows and menace.

When Caleb doesn’t even bother to answer, I make up my mind. I’ll take the time to rest while I wait until Caleb falls asleep. when I’m sure he’s out, I’ll take my chance and go looking for Rain. I lean my head back, meaning to just close my eyes but exhaustion hits me hard after the adrenalin rush, because the next thing I know I’m waking to the sound of the mynahs squabbling on the telephone wires outside.

There’s a frangipani growing near the maid’s quarters and the scent drifts in, reminding me that outside there’s a real world, and it’s summer. One of the hottest summers in years. I glance up at the flat tin roof. From the small window high behind us a dim glow is spreading, and Caleb looks older as the morning light deepens the shadows on his face. His eyes are closed, lids flickering as he dreams. His chest is moving slowly in deep even breaths. Caleb’s stretched his legs out across the narrow bed, leaving me with just the small space that I curled up in.

Asleep, I’m pretty certain.

It’s time.

I move carefully. Slip my feet into my unlaced trainers, and do them up slowly. The whole time, Caleb stays out like a light, and I grin. I led him a nice little goose-chase last night and if he really doesn’t know where we are that gives me extra time to get back to the car, back to the squat and try find any sign of Rain.

The bed creaks as I get off it, making me wince. For a moment I stand absolutely still. There’s no change in Caleb’s breathing, thank goodness. Then I see a glint, a flicker as Caleb opens one fathomless eye.

Shit.

Caleb jerks forward to grab me, but I’m expecting it and I step back, and at the same time I knock one of Lily’s junky old storage cabinets toward him. It hits with a solid thwack, and I smile as Caleb swears. He grabs at me again, and this time he catches the strap of my shoulder bag. I slip free, leaving him hanging on to it. I feel a tiny pang at the loss of my mother’s book, but getting Rain back is more important than some stupid fairy tales.

I slam the door into Caleb’s face and race through the overgrown weeds, pushing through a small thicket of delicious monsters to reach the front wall. One easy hop, and then I’m off down the road, sprinting through the streets.

Last night I led Caleb as long a route as I could without rousing his suspicions. The car is really only a few roads away, at the small block of flats over the cluster of shops.

My mad dash scares a flock of hadedas from a tree and they launch into the air, shrieking at me as they flap up like awkward pterodactyls. The sound of the ibis flock fades and now I hear the thud of boot heels behind me. Something flickers to my right, and a huge black rat jumps into a storm drain.

No point looking back to see if Caleb really is closing in, I just put my head down and sprint faster, digging for the keys as I do.

One more corner and I spot the bottle store and the small café that sells fruit and veg and home-made vetkoek. The Beetle is sitting yellow and grumpy in the tarred wasteland off the parking bay and the sight of it spurs me on. My trainers slap against the road, and I make it to the car with the sound of my own heart drumming in my ears. While I scrabble the key against the lock, I risk a look over my shoulder.

Caleb’s still at the far end of the block. Relief washes over me, and I start laughing. Once I’m in the car I’ll be fine, I can get away and go find Rain.

A deep sound twangs under the panting of my breath, and it shudders through me, vibrating along my spinal column.

I freeze. My hand is glued to the unbudging key, its point just touching the slot. I will movement through my body, push muscle and bone and sinew but it’s as though I’ve turned to stone. Nothing. Not a twitch. I can’t even blink. Just like last night. It’s magic, and there is nothing I can do to break it.

Heinrich. He’s found us. It must be. I strain my ears, listening for the faint pipes but I can’t hear them, just that low drone, like the bass E string on an electric guitar humming through a crappy amp.

Not pipes. Not pipes at all.

Inside I’m a jumble of dancing nerves, but my skin is still, not a single damn tremor. Every muscle is perfectly frozen. My eyes are beginning to burn and my eyes are slowly drying out. And out there, somewhere in the suburban gardens, Heinrich is coming.

“That,” says Caleb right by my ear, “was unbelievably stupid.”

I can’t even warn the bastard that Heinrich’s here. He probably just thinks I’m too terrified to move. Or that I’ve given up.

A hand, pale and long with fine black hairs on the wrist, sweeps into my field of vision, and Caleb pulls the key from my hands. “What were you hoping to achieve?” he says. That low hum of a plucked guitar string buzzes in my ears, making them ache. “You’ve forced me to waste magic stopping you,” he mutters. “Fool girl.”

The sound cuts out, like someone pulled the juice on the amp, and my body is my own again. I’m not expecting it, and my over-tensed muscles let me down, and I crumple to my knees. Hard.

That bastard. It was Caleb who froze me, and I can’t even do anything about it, my muscles are jellied, as though I’m waking up from anaesthetic. “Rain,” I mumble. “I was going to rescue him.” My mouth is slack. My lips feel too fat and I can’t shape the words. It’s like coming back from the dentist, numb and sloppy and stupid.

Caleb squats down next to me. “How exactly were you planning to do that? You don’t even know if he’s still there. You would simply have been wasting time.”

He’s right, I just wish the bastard didn’t have to be so damn smug about it. I curl up into a ball right there next to the Beetle and bury my head in my arms.

Caleb snorts as he stands. “Here,” he says, and drops something next to me. “You left your bag behind. Interesting contents,” he adds, drily.

As I reach out for it Caleb speaks again. “You’re a fool. You have no idea how powerful Heinrich is.”

A thought occurs to me. “You think I’m powerful too, right.”

He snorts. “Not that powerful. And you’re too stupid to accept what you are.”

“But—” I stand, one hand against the cool metal of the Beetle. If I didn’t have the car to lean against I’d probably still be on my knees in the dirt and pebbled tar. “You still want my help. What if I agreed, no arguing?”

“You’ll agree anyway because if you don’t, you’ll die when Heinrich finds you.”

“That’s what you say.” There’s grit and red dust on the palms of my hands and I wipe them clean on the front of my jeans. “So, what if I stop all the disbelief, and just go along with you?”

He doesn’t answer, and when I look up, he’s frowning. “No arguments at all?” he asks. “And just what would I have to do to gain this?”

“Help me get Rain back—”

He shakes his head and I raise my voice, keep talking. “You said he’s still alive. Do this one thing. Help me get him back, and I swear, I promise I’ll help you with your stupid magic hunt-thing. Just get him back, and break that spell you’ve got on him.”

“And what would you swear on?”

Well not the Bible, that’s for sure. Growing up in a house with a lapsed Catholic and a mother who believed in fairies means I’ve never even seen the inside of a church. “This,” I say, and pull my mother’s book from my bag. I don’t even have to tell Caleb what it means to me, this book thing of my mother’s. It is all I have that was ever truly between the two of us. It practically sings with magic.

A slow grin that shows his long teeth slides over Caleb’s face. “Oh, a worthy trinket indeed.” He reaches out to touch it, then stops with his hand hovering just over the cover. “How you can keep denying your power when you carry things like this around….” He trails off, and then withdraws his hand, shoves it deep into his coat pocket. “There are others like this,” he remarks. “Sealed in vaults. Or in private displays, under thick glass, behind layers of security.” He looks into my face like he’s searching for something there. “Fine,” he snaps. “Your word for mine. Get in.” He nods at the car and tosses me the keys.

I catch them instinctively.

#

It’s really weird driving around Joburg in the middle of the day, going the opposite direction to all the lemmings. The traffic on Gillooly’s is backed up, bumper to bumper as the entire East Rand heads out toward Sandton, and here we are in the opposite lane, coasting in toward Edenvale.

I pull the car into a petrol station, draw the last of my cash and buy a pie for myself. After a moment of grudging thought I even buy one for Caleb. I’m not a total shit. Or maybe I am, because I buy him a manky-looking curry pie and myself a steak and pepper.

According to Caleb, Rain is still close to the squat.

Dammit, if Caleb hadn’t caught me I could be there by now, I could have fixed everything. And instead I’ve agreed to play puppet. I want to punch something. “You’re sure they haven’t moved him, that he’s still alive?” I take the Germiston road into Primrose, the one that curves over the ridge. I’ve never actually driven this way in the day, and if it wasn’t for the bloody power pylons that dominate the area it would be quite pretty. Golden rocks jut out between the indigenous flowers, and a swathe of cosmos flows down the hill side. I can even see the smog-blurred towers of Joburg over the suburbs, with Ponte like an ominous squat cylinder capped with the huge Vodacom sign, and next to it the flying saucer and spindle of Hillbrow tower.

What are you going to tell him when we get him back?” I don’t say if.

Tell him about what?”

I wave my hand toward his face. “About you, setting him up to get caught so we could take a run for it.”

Ah,” he says. “Hopefully we won’t have to mention it.”

“And you assume I’m just going to sit back and watch you, and not say a word about anything?” I twist the wheel, and the Beetle jolts as we crest the ridge and head downward into Primrose. “That I’m not going to tell him that you’re a fucking cruel bastard who doesn’t give a shit about him, that you’re just using him—”

He puts one hand on my knee, pinning me with his white claw. “Of course, you’re remarkably adept at cruelty yourself.”

What?” How dare he, I don’t even know what he’s talking about. I shove his hand off my leg.

He loves you, you know, and one day, he’ll probably fuck you just to keep you.” He spits the words out. Hard little pebbles.

I—I don’t—”

Understand? Of course you do, Miss Kerry. He loves you, but he’s not in love with you. But you will keep pressing the matter.” He leans back, smiles his broken tainted smile. “You will,” he breathes in deeply, “persist in making him feel guilty.”

Fuck you,” I say, and amazingly manage to keep my voice even. I hate that he’s right.

Now, we both know that I wouldn’t do that.”

I take the last few turns in silence until we reach Caleb’s squat. I’m shaking with anger, skin cold. It’s better than fear though. Fear paralyses me, but anger I can use. I hold it close to my heart and think of all the ways I will break Caleb, the first chance I get

The beetle crawls to a stop, engine shuddering. “You sure he’s still here?” Under the morning sun, the old house looks normal. Just an abandoned house, nothing strange. No demonic creatures hiding under the overgrown plumbago.

The engine dies, and I sit there, my hands still tight around the braided leather of the steering wheel cover.

We’re here,” he says. “What’s keeping you?” I notice he hasn’t actually answered me.

He’s right. I take a deep breath and let go. A moment later I am stepping out into sunshine. Rain is hopefully somewhere in the house, or near it, and if anyone is going to rescue him it’ll be me, not the psychotic ageing goth. “What about the Watchers. Are you sure they’ll be gone?”

“I didn’t say they’d be gone,” he snaps. “I said they’d be weaker during the day.” Gravel crunches under his boots “Now, follow me, and do exactly as I say.”

Oh hell no. I am so not taking orders here. And if Caleb is right, then what is there to be afraid of? Those Watchers might have been damn creepy in the dark, but really, they were the size of little kids. What exactly are they going to be able to do to me? A false bright hope fills my chest.

The genny is silent and the only sounds come from the distant rumble of the traffic on the main road, and the occasional kweh of a loerie. Go away, go away. How bloody appropriate.

I stride past Caleb and try the door. It’s unlocked and before he can say anything to stop me, I’m inside. The mirror shards are gone, the candles blown out. I have this sudden mental flash of Rain alone here in the dark last night, and guilt makes my chest ache. “Rain?”

A hand claps over my mouth. “Are you a complete idiot?” Caleb hisses in my ear. Jesus. I didn’t even feel him walk up behind me. I must be getting used to that weird cold buzz of his magic.

“What?” It’s muffled by the hand and I try twist my head out of his grasp but he just holds tighter. Which isn’t really a problem because that just gives me an excuse to bite down hard.

He jerks his hand back.

“What?” I say again, but this time I keep it to a whisper. “According to you the Watchers have no power during the day, so this should be a piece of cake.”

He shakes his hand. My teeth marks are deep indentations in his pallid skin. Good. “Are you purposely obtuse?” he says. “The Hunters were already on their way here last night.”

Oh. Shit. Irene, sometimes I doubt you have a brain.

Suddenly the quiet daytime noises take on a more ominous tone. Even the loerie has fallen silent and all around us I’m imagining the house is breathing, watching, waiting.

Caleb stalks forward, sweeping down the passage that leads to the back room. The walls have long peeling strips of paint, like flayed skin. Great that I notice stuff like this now. Absolutely freaking wonderful.

The door to Caleb’s room is closed. He stands in front of it for a second, paused, face creased like he’s listening hard. Then he nods. After me, he mouths. Slowly, he pulls the handle down. By some stroke of fortune, it makes no sound.

Inside, the makeshift curtains have been drawn, and the sleeping bag from Caleb’s fold-out camper-cot has been tucked into the curtain rail. It makes a solid rectangle of darkness. The only light comes in grey and filtered through the one side of the curtains that the sleeping bag didn’t quite cover. It’s dim, the once-white walls a greyish yellow. There’s a figure sitting on the bed with his knees pulled up, his head curled into them.

No-one else.

Relief washes over me and I rush forward. “Oh god, Rain, you have no idea how worried I was.”

The figure raises his head as I get closer. Flashes its fangs at me.

I stop in mid-stride. It’s the thing from Zeplins. The boy with the wings, with the teeth. Or one of them anyway.

“Hunter,” Caleb says behind me, and hums that guitar string sound. It doesn’t seem to have much effect this time. Not on me, and sure as hell not on that damn thing. The Hunter unfurls its wings, black leathery things like stunted dragon’s wings, and launches itself at me.

“Shit.” I duck and scramble, feeling the rush of air as it shoots over me. “Dammit! Do something!” I yell at Caleb, who shoots me a withering look just before he makes the sound again.

“Stop bloody singing at it and use some of your stupid magic!”

“And what,” he says as he jumps out of its way, “exactly,” he turns, kicks out at the Hunter, catching it low on one leg and making it stumble, “do you think I’m doing?”

The Hunter pauses, and looks from me to Caleb, head swinging with the hovery-fluid movement of a snake. It’s picking which one of us is the soft target, I’m pretty sure. It’s going to go for me. I’m already crouched down, and I shift the weight on my fingers, preparing to launch out of its way as soon as it moves.

The wings crack and the Hunter leaps. As it does I lunge towards Caleb’s little gas cooker. A three kilo gas bottle is going to make a wonderful sound when it bounces off that damn thing’s head.

Only, it doesn’t go for me.

In seconds it has Caleb pinned to the floor, teeth snapping in his face. Well, never let it be said I don’t take my chances when I get them. The gas bottle has a cooker top, which is just going to add to the thing’s pain.

I grab the bottle and slam it into the back of the Hunter’s skull. It makes a satisfying clang. “Gotcha.”

The Hunter pulls its face away from Caleb and turns to me. Blood stains its mouth. Ugh, I really don’t want to see what Caleb looks like. I swing the bottle down into its face and bones and cartilage make a sickening crack. Swallowing down the vomit rising in my throat, I hit again.

And just keep hitting until Caleb says, “It’s dead, Irene. Let it go.” His voice is nasal, like he’s got one hell of a cold.

The bottle drops to the concrete floor. Bounces with a hollow metal echo.

The Hunter is a mess. I catch a glimpse of jellied red pulp. My breaths come in gasping pants. “Oh god,” I say.” I’m going to be sick.” And then I am.

On my knees, with my face inches away from my own puke, is not the best place to start getting philosophical. Then again I have just killed someone—something, rather—and I’m too much of a coward to actually look. Suck it up, Irene, I tell myself. This is what you did. I turn my head enough to see the Hunter’s caved-in skull, the mess of brain and bone and blood and god-knows what else. It’s leaking a thin blackish ichor over the concrete floor.

“Well done,” Caleb says.

I push myself up into a crouch, and carefully stand.

Caleb’s holding one hand to his nose, blood pouring in rivulets down his chin. There are deep scratches down his cheek and I glance back at the Hunter’s clawed hands.

There are no claws. It’s just a human hand lying splayed on the stained floor. No. I make myself look. There are no wings, no claws. I can’t see the face for the mess, but the Hunter is about as human as I am. Albeit a whole lot deader.

“It’s a person,” I say. I’m going to be sick again.

“Was,” says Caleb. He drops his hand. Looks like his nose is broken. “Once, it was a child. A stolen child. It hasn’t been human for hundreds of years.” He wipes the worst of the blood off his face with the back of his hand.

“Where’s Rain?” I don’t want to think about what just happened. I want to find Rain and get the hell out of here.

Caleb doesn’t answer. He closes his eyes, concentrates. Picking up the spell-bond between them, most likely. “Somewhere in the house,” he says when he opens his eyes again.

“And aren’t you just the most helpful psychic ever to walk the planet?” I’m shivering. Shock.

“Not psychic,” Caleb spits. “It’s an art, and art doesn’t always work the way you want it to. He’s in this house. He’s alive. So let’s go find him.”

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Caleb sounded relieved.

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Till Wednesday!

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