Charm 9/22

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Threads that Bind

I know what I’ve been doing wrong with the painting. I was trying to make Rain mirror Caleb, so that the two would stare at each other across the respective empty landscapes of their canvases. But it’s not really like that, is it? Rain’s like one of those fairy tale princesses lying in a glass coffin, waiting for someone to drag them back to life. He’d kill me if I told him that. So I paint Rain in repose, horizontal on a vertical canvas, so that all you actually see are his shoulders and face, eyes closed like he’s asleep or dead. One can never tell in the old stories.

It’s kinda creepy how well I know every line and shadow in Rain’s face. I just have to close my eyes and he’s there, clear as a photo. I know the exact way his brow gets a fine wrinkle when he’s deep in thought or a bit nervous. The way his bottom lip is almost always chapped. Something about finally committing him to canvas, to putting him down brush stroke by brush stroke actually begins to make me feel better, like a fist clenched around my lungs is letting go and allowing me to breathe properly for the first time in ages. It feels good. I should have done this years ago. Sometimes I forget just how powerful art can be.

I work through the day, getting the shadows just right, then darkening and deepening them with raw umber. Paint gets under my fingernails, and the turps turns my hands raw and dry and wrinkly. Not good for my skin, but I don’t care. This is more important. When I finally step back to get a good look at what I’ve achieved with the structure of the two paintings I notice something wrong.

Not with Rain, but with Caleb. Where before I had painted him with a curl of a sneer, his expression has changed, ever so slightly. Long shadows stream across the room, and I put it down to the bad light. Because, from this angle, in this faded twilight, Caleb’s eyes are darker, the beginnings of a frown just tugging at the corners of his mouth. He stares at the prone image of Rain, and he looks worried.

“Aren’t we all?” I say to him, as I put the paintings at the far end of the room, so that if I wake in the night I can see them. Somehow, strangely, it’s reassuring.

#

Two days later I’m at work when the cellphone I am most assuredly Not Allowed to have in my apron pocket begins to vibrate, so I duck into the empty alleyway behind the kitchen and crouch down on one of the delivery crates. If anyone sees me I’m busted. Management have been firing people like crazy for the stupidest things. The phone is still vibrating and I flip it open; it’s a crappy ancient Motorola with a dicky screen that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. This time I can’t see who is calling. “Hello?” I say cautiously, really hoping that it’s someone I want to talk to.

There’s a crackle of static and then the connection clicks back. “—een?”

God, it’s Rain. He better be calling me to come fetch him because Caleb dumped his sorry arse. “Yeah?” Or not. Because I am Over Him. I have painted him out of my heart.

The line clicks again, buzzes. The phone goes dead. I jiggle the hinges a bit, as if that’s actually going to help. “Hello? Hello? Dammit.”

Trust Rain to do this to me. Now I’m going to be worried the rest of the evening. If I’m lucky and it’s quiet, perhaps I can get off shift. I snap the phone closed and sneak back into the bar. David the manager is at the front desk, annoying the pretty, vacant girl they’ve got to work host. I could always fake a cramp.

“Uh, David?”

He tears his gaze from the vacant one’s breasts.

“Is it cool if I leave early—if it’s quiet?”

Already his head is swinging back so that he can stare at her chest some more. “No,” he says. “Work your damn shift, Irene.”

“It’s important—”

“It’s always important. I’m so sick of you bloody waiters and bar staff coming to work and then deciding to go home, like you can waltz on and off shift whenever you bloody please.”

The girl smiles, showing off all her teeth like a shark. David warms up now that he’s got an approving audience and he swivels back to me. “If you want to leave so badly, Irene, then go. But that’s your job. Don’t expect to be able to work here again.”

This is not what I need right now—David throwing his weight around and being the general dick-head that he is. A few of the waiters have overheard the exchange, and they sidle closer.

Cold anger rises in me, and makes me move slowly, deliberately. First I fish out my cell phone, then untie the ridiculous butcher’s apron they make us wear and drop it at David’s feet. “Fine.”

David stares at me, and shuts his mouth with a snap. “You still have customers,” he says.

“So? You serve them.” I push past him to the small set of cupboards where the staff bags are kept. “I don’t work here.” With my bag slung over my shoulder I head to the door, not looking back at my ex-coworkers.

Oh, Rain, you better be in trouble, ’cause if you’re not I’m going to kill you myself.

#

The taxi drops me off close to my father’s house and I let myself in to the empty house. The Beetle’s keys aren’t in the drawer. I slam it closed and rifle through the mess of papers on the entrance hall desk. Nothing. Even Dale is nowhere to be seen, he’s probably off doing whatever it is he does with his pack of friends, so all that’s left is for me to flick on the television and numb my brain with reruns of Oprah. My concentration is shot, all I can think about is why Rain was trying to call me. My dad can’t get back from work soon enough.

An hour later he blunders in looking rumpled and distracted. I stop jittering my legs.

Irene,” he says, in a tone of surprise. “Is something wrong?”

Nah.” I don’t see the point in telling him I just got fired or quit my job or whatever the hell just happened. “I wondered if I could borrow the car, I want to go check on Rain. I’ll fill it up,” I add, which is a lie because I currently have no job. This is Tomorrow-Irene’s problem.

My dad nods and hands me the keys. He was the one that called Child Welfare on Lily, when I finally told him what was happening. They put him with foster parents, and after three days Rain ran away. He was fourteen. They found him a week later living in a squat in Hillbrow. Only, a lot can happen in a week.

You just don’t wander into Hillbrow and not get hurt. I mean, this is the part of the city that celebrates New Year’s by throwing their fridges off balconies. I never asked Rain what made him snap, why he ended up in the hospital. It’s not the kind of thing you can just randomly shunt into conversation—“So, mind telling me why you went off the deep end?”

My theory is that he’ll tell me when he’s ready, and he’s not ready. I can live with that. In the mean time I just have to make do with being a good friend. Except I’ve been slacking. Maybe it’s because I’m jealous, maybe I’m waiting for Caleb to figure out just how much trouble he’s getting himself into with Rain, waiting for him to give up.

God, I’m a bitch.

The keys jangle in my pocket as I play with them. Nerves, I guess. It’s already close on seven and I’ll have to drive to Caleb’s shitty squat in the dark. Why can’t we be like Cape Town where the sun only sets at nine in summer? At least now I have the route there imprinted in my brain.

It’s a half hour drive in good traffic and by the time I reach the long tree-shaded road, the Highveld sky has turned the ugly yellow and blue of a bruise.

Caleb must be in. His monster car is in the drive, dripping oil. I park next to it and clamber out. A breeze ruffles the overgrown grass, brushing the yellowed stalks together. The sound makes me jump, makes my heart slam in my chest. I have this sudden fear that there are things in the bushes, in the rank undergrowth, and they’re watching and waiting for me to falter. One misstep, and they will tear me apart. I shudder, and race to the door. This time it’s locked, so I rap against the wood and wait.

Someone shuffles inside. “Who is it?” Caleb’s voice; salt-rough, dark as imported molasses.

Irene. I’ve come to see Rain.” I guess it’s fairly obvious, but I want to let Caleb know that I don’t give a shit about him.

Latches clink, bolts rattle as they are drawn back. “Get inside, and move it,” Caleb says. He’s opened the door just wide enough for me to squeeze in. I have to step over shards of broken mirror laid flat on the ground. Caleb shuts the door, and bolts and locks it again.

Rain stands in the passage way, his arms crossed on his chest. “Hey, Reenie,” he says, like this is all perfectly normal.

What the bloody hell is going on? Are you guys in some kind of trouble? The police?” Then again, if the police were looking for them, Caleb would at least have gone to the trouble of hiding that eyesore of a car.

Caleb strikes a match, and I smell sulphur. He lights a row of candles on the mantel over a boarded up fireplace and the room is cast in their yellow glow. An emergency light is wired up, but I know those things only have about five hours light in them before they die.

Light reflects off broken mirror. The room is lined with them, the window ledges too. It reminds me of my mother, and a cold stone sinks in my stomach.

Caleb shrugs when he sees me looking at them. “The Watchers,” he says. “It confuses them.”

All right.” I drag out every word, slow and toffee-sticky. “Would someone mind telling me what the hell is going on?”

Rain steps out of the shadowed passage in to the candle-lit front room. The yellow catches in his hair, makes him glow. He looks angelic, or he would, if his mouth wasn’t quite so sinful. A fallen angel, maybe. The Watchers are looking for Caleb,” he says. “They’re worse at night—during the day the light hurts them, so they tend to stay under the bushes.”

My skin itches. The Watchers. I know they’re the things that have been following me. I know it like I know my own name. I remember my mother’s voice, panicked in the dark. I remember being small enough that fairy tales were real, and dark and strange and terrifying, and she said, “The Watchers will find us.” The fragment of memory slips away, and I wish I could remember who she was talking to, and why she was so scared.

I turn to Caleb, blustering to hide my fear. “What the hell drug is he on—what did you do to him?”

Calm down. Rain’s perfectly sane.”

I glare. “Yeah, right, and just what the hell are Watchers, anyway? Maybe you think I’m some stupid little kid you can frighten with some candles and mirrors and woohwooh noises, but for the record—”

Irene,” Rain says, “Just, for once, just listen. No-one’s bullshitting you. I swear.” He crooks his littlest finger like a primary school kid. “Pinkie swear.”

What are you, five?” But the rage has been sucked out of me. Rain hasn’t done pinkie swears since we were midgets, and it’s so odd and yet so how he was before. I want to go back to that time. I want all of this to go away.

Caleb steps a hand span closer to Rain. “I promise you, Rain hasn’t started hallucinating. The Watchers are creatures of magic. As strange as it sounds, they are real, and they are out there.” He bares his teeth, but he’s scared, I can tell. And that makes me scared too. He’s saying all this like it’s normal, like we’re standing in the Spar discussing which potatoes are better for mashing.

My brain is all static and sparks. This is straight out of my childhood; caught up in stories and believing that they’re real, that something really is waiting for me under my bed, and that’s why I have to tuck the blankets in tight around my feet and keep my head down, so they don’t eat me. NOT NORMAL, I try out-screaming my thoughts, but they circle and shine, and Caleb keeps talking.

“—think of them like low-level demons,” he’s saying. “They know I’m here, they’re watching me —hence the name. Now that they know where I am, it won’t be long before the Hunters gather.” He raises his hands, almost apologetically. “I’m not really equipped to deal with them.”

This is so dumb, I shouldn’t be buying into this crap, but I’ve seen them. “These Hunters,” I hear myself say. “They wouldn’t by any chance be winged and fanged, would they?”

Caleb’s face goes still. “They’ve seen you already?”

This is madness. I am not having this conversation. Hunters and Watchers and boys in clubs with wings folded over their backs.

Irene, I need to know—have they seen you?”

Not have I seen them. He knows I have. I nod, warily. Whatever is going on, Caleb knows. He’s part of it. And I still don’t trust the bastard.

You can get us out,” says Rain. “That’s why I called.”

My head is spinning.

“The Watchers aren’t terribly bright,” Rain says. “They’re watching Caleb’s car.”

And?”

So, we wait till dawn, then when they go back under, we leave in your car.” Rain smiles, and we’re all pretending this is a perfectly normal conversation. “Wanna stay the night?” he says.

Like I have any choice when he asks like that. “Right. Fine.” That, and I have a few questions to ask that gothic bastard.

Rain hugs me tight and whispers in my ear. “Thanks, Reenie. I owe you one.”

He owes me more than that, but who’s counting. “So tell me, Caleb, what’s going on—what are these things, and why are they after you?” Why were they after my mother? I don’t ask. The memories are there. Her face in the dark, the candles lit around her, the broken glass glued onto ribbons and set into the windows, “to confuse them,” she’d whisper to me. That’s what made me believe. Rain, repeating her words. Like he was there. I remember the Watchers. They watched my mother, and they brought the Hunters to our door. Cold eats its way into my bones, and the evil eye burns and burns and burns.

Caleb lights more candles, stalking the room and bending to each one until the room is shiny as the inside of a pearl. “The light will hold the Watchers back, although it won’t do terribly much to stop Hunters.”

I just nod. I’ve heard this before. “You need to hide, Irene,” she’d say. “Under the bed. Don’t let them find you. Wear this, and hide.” My hand goes to the cold burn at my chest. The candles flicker to life one by one, turning the gloom into living warmth.

When Caleb is done he sits in the middle of the floor, and pats the ground, beckoning us down.

Rain sits close, and leans back on the palms of his hands, relaxed. “Sit, he won’t bite you.”

“I’ll start at the beginning,” Caleb says.

Well, I guess we have time enough. “What’s that—Genesis?”

I have the golden art,” he says, simply. Like I’m supposed to know what that means.

Great,” I say. “Good for you.”

There are very few of us who can use the golden art and charm people and things with magic.” His face is very serious. “And not all of us are nice.”

Tell me about it.” I hope my sarcasm is showing because, really. I remember how she screamed, while I lay under that bed, hidden.

Some of us are dangerous.” He sighs, leans back. “All you need to know is that one of those dangerous and not-nice people is in Joburg right now, and that’s why I’m here. He has something I want. I was in Egypt when I heard the rumour that he had risen here again and that he was using the Watchers and the Hunters to look for someone, and I came down. For a while, I had his scent, and then I lost it.”

What happened?” The room feels unreal, the walls distant flickering shadows. We could be in another time and space altogether.

Caleb shifts, the smoke clouding around him, obscuring his face. “The most prosaic of endings,” he says. “I’d been back here a week when I was hit by a taxi.”

It was him. He surprises a choked laugh out of me. “I thought you have this golden art thing; couldn’t use it to step out of the way of a hurtling mini-bus?”

He draws on his cig. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“So you were dead,” I prompt. Under my shirt, the icy pendant seems to be sinking right into my skin, burning a cold hole all the way to my breastbone. “That must have put a damper on your plans. What are you now—a zombie? Let me guess, you ate your boyfriend’s brains and now he’s a zombie too. Except,” I glare at Rain, “slim pickings.”

Rain just flicks his middle finger at me, lazy, unconcerned.

Don’t be a fool,” Caleb snaps. “I was saved.” He says nothing else, just pulls on the last of the cigarette and hides in the veils of smoke. Rain is looking up at him in a sickening puppy-dog way.

By who?”

By what.” He stubs out the cig. “Does it matter?”

Yes, it bloody well matters. And who was this dangerous-and-not-so-nice guy looking for, anyway?” I don’t trust Caleb, and he sure as hell isn’t telling me everything. “I want to know.”

“Do you really?” He smirks again. “I don’t think you do, Irene Eleni Kerry. Not when it just confirms what you’ve known all your life, when it makes real all those things you pretended didn’t exist.”

“Yeah?” I stand, brush ash from my thighs. “And what’s that, freak-boy?” I hate the fact that he’s just used my full name, and I shoot Rain a how dare you tell him that glance.

Rain shrugs and looks between us, like he’s seeing us both for the first time.

“Magic.” Caleb’s voice growls in the still room.

“Okay, I listened to your cute little story, now you listen to mine.” I lean forward, and speak slow, each word separate and clear as a bell chime. “I don’t believe in that shit.” I don’t. I don’t. I don’t.

He stares at me for so long that I break out in a cold sweat. He’s looking right into me, pulling out every dark secret I’ve kept inside. He opens his mouth, and I start talking before he can.

“I’ve never believed in magic and guardian angels and…and bloody crystals and all that crap. You can ask Rain, that whole thing is more Lily’s vibe. It’s a hoax, a crock—”

“You saw me,” he says, breaking the flow. “That night in the Red Room, weaving magic. I know you did, you watched my hands all night.”

“Bull.” That damned itch is under my skin, and I shove my hands under my armpits so that I won’t start scratching. My mother flickers, hands dancing, magic flowing gold from her fingertips. I blink. And it’s gone.

“Do you know what I was doing?”

Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear and I shake my head.

“I was using a charm to bind Rain to me.”

“What?” I blurt out.

Rain scrambles to his feet and goes to me, watching Caleb from over my shoulder. His heart is hammering against my back. I can feel it, almost in time with mine.

“Irene.” Caleb sighs, and holds his head in his hands for a moment before he looks back up at me. “You have no idea how it pains me to say this, but I needed you, and the only way I could see of convincing you was to use your—” He pauses, “was to use Rain. I thought if I bound him to me, you would be forced to help.”

It’s not an apology.

“Help you with what?” I spit the words out.

“Help save me.” Caleb grins, flashing his long teeth in the yellow light. “Help save yourself.”

 

 

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