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RESONANCE Avery DeBow First Edition E-book Copyright ©2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination and are solely fictitious in nature. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
T he metallic clang carried up through the floorboards with repetitive insistency.
Resonance ground her teeth against the sound. She flung away the snarl of covers and pushed off the mattress the movers had unceremoniously dumped on the floor two weeks earlier. Without bothering to change out of her discount store wifebeater and ragged sweatpants, she trudged downstairs and into the living room, her bare feet plodding along to the rhythm of metal striking against granite in a calculated offensive. She sidestepped a jumble of furniture, nudged a bound pile of gardening magazines under the coffee table, and continued through the dining room’s canyon of boxes and discarded bubble wrap. At the next threshold she stopped short, toes even with the strip of wood separating the golden boards of the dining room from the chipped yellow and white Formica kitchen tiles. The delineation of enemy lines. "Good—" Her mother paused her intentionally riotous unpacking to turn her sharp-lined face first in Resonance's direction and then to the telltale numbers on the microwave's clock –"morning." Despite the shiny lure dropped in front of her, Resonance didn't take the bait; it was too old hat. Her mother would have to be more inventive if she wanted a fight. She stepped over the invisible border, plucked open the refrigerator door and grabbed the orange juice. Her mother's seething nearly scorched her back. Unwilling to start the looming rage-fest with a topic as pedestrian as the location of the glasses, Resonance took a chance and plunged her arm into the brimming sink, resurfacing with a tumbler. After pouring juice in her freshly rinsed glass, Resonance turned to put away the carton. "You know, you could do the rest of those dishes instead of leaving them for me." Her mother blocked her way, arms crossed over a billowing maroon scrub shirt, a saucepan gripped in each sharp-knuckled fist. "Can't I even have breakfast, first?" Resonance reached around her mother, slamming the carton back in the fridge. "Is that what you call it?" Sarcasm edged her mother's voice. "Even though it's almost noon?" "What do you want from me?"
"How about getting up before the sun sets?” Her mother slammed the pots onto the counter, their hollow clang thrummed like volatile energy in the air. “How about finding a job? Growing up, being the adult your age suggests you be?" "I’m being an adult. In case you didn’t notice, I left behind everything so I could come here to Tyne with you and--" "Bullshit!" Her mother rarely used curse words. She'd clearly been working up to this blowout all morning. "You're almost twenty-three for God's sake. You should be out on your own, dating, and working at establishing a career—not moving to the middle of nowhere on the coat tails of your mother. But, because you because you think the world owes you something better than the nine-to-five, mortgage-payment, billpayment grind the rest of us have to suffer, because you've done nothing--you have nothing--there was no other choice for you." "It's not like that." A chill crawled through Resonance at the memory of her first visit to Tyne—the odd feeling of homecoming, the bizarre, concrete urge to never leave. She really hadn't had a choice, but her mother would never understand. The tiles at Resonance's feet seemed to stretch and multiply with the thought, widening the already considerable distance between them. "Then tell me your big plan for life. Keep dressing and acting like a punk delinquent so no one in polite society will have anything to do with you? Keep knotting up that filthy tangle of hair and dying it toxic blue so you can avoid growing up just a little bit longer?" Resonance glared. "Well? Isn't this the part where you enlighten me with that 'the-world-isagainst-me' foolishness that arachnid friend of yours feeds you?" "Leave Spider out of it. We're talking about me, remember?" "How can I forget?" Her mother's eyes snapped with bitter ire. "Every day for ten years we've talked about you--Resonance was suspended; Resonance failed; Resonance didn't come home; Resonance was high; Resonance was arrested. For ten years I waited for the next year to come and snap you out of this, this--apathy. But, it didn't change. You never changed. I thought since your father—” Her mother’s voice broke. Their gazes parted. The fight froze in midair as they each began to slip back behind their personal walls of grief. Unwilling to cede victory, or maybe needing the argument to pull her from the threatening shadows, her mother regrouped and rebounded, her unchecked spite leading the way. “But, no. It's still all about Res." Resonance stared at the floor, sour amusement tugging her lips into a grimace. They could be a pair of dinosaurs trapped in tar and they would keep snapping at each other’s throats as they sank into extinction. "For two weeks you've sat on your butt and done nothing,” her mother continued on, unaware of Resonance’s gloomy reverie. “Well, I've got news. Your free ride has just stopped. I have set up an admissions appointment for you at Tyne College today. You will go, you will do exactly what the counselor recommends, and then you will start looking for a job to help fund your higher education. Your high school transcripts are on the table."
"So, you're deciding my life for me, now?" Resonance asked. Anger flared in her chest; her mother had finally found the right button to push. Well, she could push buttons, too. "I'm supposed to run out and find a version of myself that's more acceptable to you? Maybe trade myself in for a preschool teacher or a secretary? Or, maybe I can go back in time and make the trade then? That's what you really want, right?" "Resonance.” Her mother’s voice pitched low in warning. "I know," she said, changing tactics. "How about I become a nurse? That way I can be—Just. Like. Mom." Resonance pointedly dropped her eyes to the tag hanging from her mother's shirt that read, 'Meg Murphy, RN, MSN.' "I don't care if you're an underwater basket weaver." Her mother ignored the jab with the ease of one who'd thought she'd heard them all before. "You're going to get a direction and contribute to this household, or you're going to get out. I refuse to support your efforts at sabotaging my life any more." "I'm not—" "You are." Her mother's eyes broadcast disbelief as if it were a headline in the scrolling news at the bottom of CNN. Cocooned within that look was the same disaffected question her mother had voiced years ago when she'd mistakenly thought Resonance was out of earshot—the same question that churned like acid in Resonance's mind every time her mother spoke to her. And it stung. "Well, I guess it's a win-win situation for Meg." Resonance let her face fall into a mask of blank unconcern as she buried the hurt in a box deep inside her head. "She gets a nice, new, brainwashed version of Resonance, or gets rid of her completely." Her mother's gaze bored into hers with stoic resolve. "It's too bad, isn't it?" Resonance asked, her injured anger overflowing. "What?" "That the wrong one burned to a char." The slap came in slow motion, but Resonance made no move to avoid it. Instead, she let it fall full against the side of her face, the wedding ring her mother still wore digging deep into her cheek. "I thought so." Resonance let the twist of her lips bloom into an acerbic grin and then scooped the transcripts off the table and walked out of the kitchen, lifting the paper in an insolent wave.
S urrounded by cornfields, chicken farms and swamps, the town of Tyne sat as far from
everything else that the narrow peninsula of Maryland's Eastern Shore allowed. A single northern road fed into the city proper, bisecting the cluster of antiquated buildings with its cragged, dual-lane stretch of asphalt. On the southern end the road petered out, splitting into a dozen smaller arteries that dispersed into the surrounding remoteness as increasingly narrow, poorly marked lanes. The easy-to-navigate main freeways linking the Western Shore with the nearby beaches shied away from Tyne—a wary wagon train keeping the town, and all within, at a cautious distance. Resonance climbed out of the late model Jetta she had inherited with her father’s passing, pausing to give the faded parking permit hanger a habitual pat before climbing out into the sweltering heat of the college’s guest parking lot. Her associate professor father had often tried to convince her to be exactly where she was right at that moment, that even though several years had lapsed between high school and college, it was never too late to change direction. ***** “Just think about what you like to do, honey, what makes you happy.” Her father stood at the breakfast bar, hands sprawled across the granite. “Then, we can figure out how to translate that passion into a career.” Since she didn’t think “Getting Shitfaced” would appear on even the biggest party school’s course catalog, Resonance didn’t answer. She sat on the stool opposite her father, kicking the wall in agitation. He frowned, the little crease above his nose forming a horseshoe. “It isn’t about college is it?” Resonance shrugged. “What is it about the future that scares you so much, Res?” “I’m not scared,” She dug her toe into the smudge created by her boot, smearing it across the taupe paint. “Mom says, ‘Pick something, anything. Start your life.’” “Your mother and I disagree on the merits of that particular approach, but she has the right general idea.” “ I don’t want to.”
“Pick, or start your life?” “It all leads to a wall, Dad. The end.” “Choosing your future doesn’t end it.” Her father idly spun his wedding ring on his finger as he fought to find the right words, the ones that would somehow fix his broken daughter, put her on the right track. His desperation tugged at something within her. She shuttered off the emotion before it could surface. “Look at your mother and me. We have careers, a family, a life. Our world didn’t end when we decided our paths. In fact, the opposite came true; we chose our destination and our life expanded from there. “Honey, what you’re doing right now—that’s the wall you should be scared of. That’s the dead end.” Resonance gazed at him, her foot finally stilled. He leaned over and brushed her cheek with his hand. “I wish you would believe how much potential I see in you.” *****
S louched in one of two chairs opposite the admission counselor’s desk,
Resonance felt full of many things, but potential wasn’t among them. With little more than a grunting welcome and a quick, disapproving survey of her dreadlocks, shredded tee and micro mini, Ms. Wimple laid Resonance’s transcripts out in front of her and bent over the papers with glowering scrutiny, her brows furrowing deeper as her gaze passed from the first page to the telltale last. The wall clock stretched the seconds like taffy. Ms. Wimple did not look up, did not seem to care if there was anything more to Resonance than the papers spread across the desk like a fortune teller's cards. Her pink lacquered talons tapped alongside each item on the behavior record sheet, each nail strike a thunderclap. Resonance shifted. She looked at the ceiling, the floor, the wall—anywhere but at the woman trying to ignore her out of existence. The suctioning grip of vinyl against the backs of her sweaty legs was the only thing keeping her from bolting. And even that wouldn’t last forever. After what seemed an hour, Ms. Wimple spoke. "Since we are a community college, grade requirements are not a factor." She adjusted her drugstore reading glasses and finally raised her eyes. Her expression was icy. "Lucky for you. However, we do require you take a math and English aptitude test, to see where best to place you." The administrator’s tone suggested she already knew exactly where Resonance placed. "Those transcripts are a few years old." Resonance clutched the chair rim with both hands. Her knuckles paled with her grip. "Well, perhaps you have earned skills in the workforce that better illustrate your current achievements?” Ms. Wimple lifted a dubious, overplucked eyebrow. “Ones we can examine for life experience credits, perhaps?" "Like my astronaut training over at NASA?” "If you aren't going to take this seriously--" "Because you are?" Resonance had reached the end of her patience. "If
I'm bothering you with my shitty academic performance and criminal tendencies from four years ago, just say so. I'll scrape myself off of the bottom of your shoe and split." Resonance stood. Ms. Wimple's head snapped up. Her cheeks waggled like gelatin. "Do you always speak to people in this manner?" "Don’t my transcripts practically say as much? Look, you don’t like me. I get it." Ms. Wimple didn’t offer a denial. "I don't want to be here any more than you want me to be here. So, let's make a deal. I'll get out of your office and let you get back to your comfortable schedule of safe, normal applicants, and you tell my mother when she calls--and no doubt she will--that I missed the fall registration deadline. Is that a deal?" The woman's eyes shot to the door, and then back to Resonance. She gave her a considering look, and then nodded curtly. "Good day, Miss Murphy." Resonance shouldered her bag. Well, higher learning wasn't so different from high school, after all; there were still people out there willing to do anything to get her the hell out of their offices. Resonance leaned forward and collected her papers, pausing to give the woman a saccharine smile. When she turned to face the door, she made sure to do it slowly, so the advisor would get the full view of her shoulder tattoo. The woman's disgusted snort followed her into the hall. It was the first pleasant sound she had heard all day. The transcripts met their end with a vicious compression of her fingers. She tossed the waded pages into the nearest trash can and stormed towards the exit. Sure, she wasn't a model student--or citizen, for that matter--but she didn't deserve the third degree from a shit college in the middle of nowhere. The woman was a teacher, or close enough. Wasn't it her sworn duty to save people like her from ruination? Resonance shook her head against the tardy indignation. It didn’t matter. She was done with this place. She slammed open the exit door as if to punctuate the thought, burst out into the blinding sunlight, and collided with a young man trying to enter the building. "Shit! Watch it," she said. "Excuse me." The young man bent to retrieve the bag that had fallen from his shoulder. "I'm sor…" He trailed off as he righted, mouth slack. He stared at her as if he knew her, or rather, as if he knew something about her— something unpleasant. Icy tendrils crawled under Resonance’s flesh. She tried to break eye contact with him, but his gaze pulled at hers, insistent and prying. Unnerved, she brushed past him and trotted—nearly scurried—down the short flight of steps to the sidewalk. A legion of freshman clutching folders and I.D. badges followed an exuberant young woman across the quad. The young woman shouted out landmarks, pointing at several brick buildings that comprised Edward Tyne’s original manor. As she spoke, her finger swiveled in Resonance’s direction, and the parade followed suit. Eager to avoid any more encounters with the local collegeites, Resonance ducked behind the humanities building in search of a quicker, quieter route to her car. Seeking isolation was probably not the smartest choice, but—she reminded herself—she had walked much more dangerous streets in D.C. at much later hours, while far less sober. Even so,
she traced the outline of the butterfly knife stashed in her bag, reassured by its presence. When the tour guide’s voice faded away, and no footfalls sounded at her back, the tension in her shoulders eased a little. She stepped onto an unoccupied gravel path where a cool breeze tickled the canopies of ancient oaks laid out in twin rows. Twins. The thought caught her unawares, fluttering guilt through her chest. Too overwhelmed by current events to relive the morning’s heaping failures, Resonance packed away the intrusive thought, shifted her mind to neutral, and closed her eyes. She had always been able to dodge objects without seeing them, entertaining more than one living room full of preteen slumber party attendees with her ability to maneuver blindfolded through numerous furniture configurations. She allowed this autopilot to take over as she switched her attention to the gently blowing leaves. Although it was early September and the foliage still clung to their vibrant green, the leaves crackled gently, as if prepared for the coming fall. Behind her closed lids the fluttering shadows shifted from pale yellow to crimson. As she progressed into this red world the gusty sound amplified into a high-pitched whine. A violent wind—far different from the one that caressed the trees at her back—shook the leaves directly overhead. The canopy whipped with such force it screamed. It screamed. Resonance opened her eyes, and the world peeled away. She stood, terrified and immobile, the lone object in the universe besides the monstrous oak that thrashed over her head and shook terrified shrieks from the contorted faces etched across its bruised leaves. She knew she should turn and run, but could do nothing about it. The notion—so intense a moment before—dulled and dispelled. A buzzing apathy trickled through her. Her skin flushed with heat. The sensation was better than weed, better than heroin. It was the high of all highs. Resonance ached for more. She reached towards the liquid oozing from the cragged bark. She pressed her fingers deep, and the sap curled around them. The pulsing fluid invited her to surrender, to bind herself to its branches, to be an eternal servant to the tree's euphoria. She ran her tongue over her lips. Fervor melted even her deepest reservations. "Get the hell away from it." Hard fingers clamped over Resonance's arm and yanked her out of her stupor. She staggered, thrown by the jolt back into reality. Her rescuer gave her no time to recover, but shot questions at her like gunfire, his voice pitched high with agitation. "Didn't the posted 'No Trespassing' sign give you a hint? Or maybe the locked gate?" "There wasn't a lock… I didn't see… I don't know." Dandelion fuzz covered Resonance's brain, like she’d been chemically missing in action for two weeks straight. Her vision tunneled and she swayed. Her rescuer reached out to catch her, but she jerked back. "Take it easy," he said. "I was just going to suggest we move. The farther away you get from it, the less of a hold it'll have on you." Resonance’s vision began to clear. The realization of what she had almost done drove away the last of her disorientation. In its place rose a wild terror.
She stood in a dilapidated courtyard, only a few feet away from the raging tree. A young man stood between her and the only escape—an open metal gate in the high wall that encased the leviathan. A shock of recognition ran through her. “You!” she nearly shouted. “From the admissions hall. What is this? You stare at me like a psycho and then orchestrate this little scenario? For what?” “I didn’t do this,” he pitched back. “How could I? I just followed you.” “Why?” Resonance slid her hand towards the pocket in her bag that held the knife. “I’ll tell you. I promise. Just, you need to get outside the gate, farther away from it." “Farther away from you, you mean." Her supposed rescuer was her age, maybe a little younger, with wavy, mussed hair. His upper class casual slacks and neatly pressed dress shirt screamed 'harmless' but she still didn't halt her retreat—not after what had happened both times she had been in his presence. She circled around him to the gate, still fishing for her knife, and backed out of the walled garden. He followed. "You should take it easy,” he said. “Get your bearings back." "No." Resonance's adrenaline had fully kicked in, squashed all impulses unrelated to running or fighting. Still too dizzy to effectively do the latter, she quickened her pace. "I really shouldn't." "Please." He trotted to catch up. "Look, whoever you are—" "I'm Quinn. Quinn Lehrer." "Whatever you did, or are trying to do, Quinn, you'd be healthier if you stopped." He was right; her head was clearing, and that didn't bode well for him. "Leave me the fuck alone." "I wanted to explain—" "What? That what just happened was a big funny joke? That I'm on some shit college version of Candid Camera?" "About Tyne." "I don’t give a rat’s ass about Tyne. And, if this little adventure is any indication of a normal day here, I won’t be sticking around long." That was a lie, of course. "Good idea." "And why's that?" Resonance ground to a halt to face him. "You said you didn't care." "Funny thing—now I do." "If I tell you, will you listen?" Quinn asked. "I've had a supremely shitty past five minutes." "Does that mean you'll hear me out?" "Possibly." "Fine." Quinn jabbed a finger at the space behind him. "That thing isn't a tree. It’s a spirit stealer. A Ghusundiv. Local legend says the son of merchant
Edward Tyne—founder of our little town and previous owner of this entire parcel of land—made a deal with Satan to get a girl. In exchange for her everlasting love, Edward Junior had to feed the devil's botany project human flesh. If he didn’t, then he would be next on the menu. To avoid the unpleasantness that goes with being an actual murderer, Junior invited a few of the town’s less desirable residents over for tea now and then. At his encouraging they'd head out to look at the pretty tree—and never returned." "What a load of shit." Resonance moved to leave, but Quinn headed her off. "You're right. At least about the Devil part. About Eddie being the tree’s caretaker, I don't know. That part could be true. But, what's for certain is the Ghusundiv isn't some Satanic science project." "What is it?" "Most people pay attention to the wall, the gate and the posted signs. Plus, a well-meaning practitioner put a spell on the area around fifty years ago, a general, give-them-the-creeps type of glamour. Turns people back long before they get close enough to become fertilizer." Quinn paused to scan her with a shrewd expression. "Not you, though. You walked smack into it." "I remember, thanks." The list of people keeping score of her mistakes was long enough without him joining in. "Are you going to be getting to the point anytime soon?" "There's a dome of energy covering the entire city that facilitates supernatural events. The energy is delineated by a ring of fourteen obelisks. You probably saw one on your way into town." "I thought it was a war memorial." Resonance's nerve endings screamed at the mention of the structure and she suppressed a shudder. "Not even close. My Uncle, Wyatt Andrews, owns Andrews Funeral Home in town. He showed it to me when I first came here two years ago. Most people can’t see it. They sense something's not quite normal, but the energy acts like a shield, blocking this supernatural stuff from their senses.” "Where did it come from?" Resonance asked, forcing to the back of her mind Quinn's disturbing enthusiasm for fantasy movie jargon. "No one knows. But, we think when it was formed it somehow pulled in a high number of outer-dimensional beings who now exist within the town. Many are relatively harmless, at most causing small glitches in the normal pattern of things. A few, though—the Ghusundiv being one of them—are deadly." "Wait." Resonance stared for a moment, and then her overloaded mind put his words into context. "You’re telling me I moved to a town where oogie boogies have been sucked in from other dimensions and are just hanging out— " "Trapped," Quinn corrected. "—And hardly anyone notices?" Resonance's thumb moved to her chipped black nail polish and began to dig furiously. "And I’m supposed to believe that?" She bridled at his helpless shrug. "If this magic bubble blocks me from seeing this crap, why are you telling me about it? Why should I care?" "Everyone else sees a plain tree." Quinn again gestured behind him to the
raging colossus. "What about you?" Resonance lifted her eyes slightly and looked away. She suppressed another shiver. Quinn nodded at her reaction, as if she had confirmed some suspicion. "Power is attracted to power. And you've apparently got a decent amount. That's why you were able to get past the spell; you sort of overrode the program. Similar things are going to keep happening. All of the little safeguards around here won't work for you." She must have looked perplexed, because Quinn paused and then changed tactics. "Think of it this way, you’re walking around town with one of those ‘Kick Me’ signs on your back. If I don’t tell you to watch yourself—and, believe me, no one else will— something’s eventually going to take you up on that offer." "Okay." Resonance pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes as the utter absurdity of the conversation sunk in. "Something happened here. I'll give you that. Maybe there’s some hallucination-causing mildew spewing from these ancient-ass buildings. Maybe there’s a broken gas pipe leaking mind-altering fumes through a manhole cover. I don’t know. But, I’m pretty damn sure the explanation isn't Creatures From the Beyond who want to kick me in the ass." Resonance turned and stalked off. She anticipated the sound of Quinn's footfalls behind her, expected him to follow along and hound her until she was convinced what she'd seen was as real as it had felt. Surprisingly, he stayed put, but as she hurried towards the safety of her car the intensity of his gaze nearly burned the back of her neck.
T he bizarre young woman marched away, the force of her boot heels nearly grinding the
gravel path into dust. Quinn wanted to follow, but hesitated. What else was there to say? He had pretty much covered his position as the local representative for Insanity Anonymous in the first five minutes. He tracked her retreat with his eyes alone. His gaze fixed on the exposed skin of her left shoulder where a maliciously grinning, winking Tinkerbell flashed him a pixie dust encircled middle finger. Quinn gave a wry smile. That was one girl who had no need to advertise her emotional state; anger painted her aura a pulsating crimson haze. If her life energy had ever entertained another color, he couldn't tell. All had been obliterated by the magnitude of her seemingly sole emotion, the one succinctly defined by the obscene tattoo scrawled on her back. There was something about her, though, aside from her obviously unhealthy mental status. To get past the potent energy field of the Ghusundiv, she had to be either as magically potent as he, or a null being such as a zombie—and that contentious, walking bad attitude was no zombie. So, what, then, did that make her? The list of possibilities ranged from bad to panic-inducing. Had he possessed enough forethought, he would have asked her to detail her encounter. The stronger the individual, the more vivid the experience—a good starting ground to determine what she was. Quinn shielded his eyes with his hands, but she was gone, a tropical fish lost in the sea of reflective windshields. Giving an audible sigh, he turned for home. *******
A ndrews Funeral Home sat on one of the blocks the locals collectively called
"Millionaire's Row," a section of the historic downtown that boasted larger houses than the rest of the city. Traditional columns supported the curved front porch. A boxy slate mansard capped the roof. The cypress clapboards had been painted red countless times over the years but always faded to a hue bordering pink. The family ceded the struggle decades before and added forest green trim to give the building a nuance of dignity. It hadn't done much good. Quinn entered the wide foyer and passed the formal office beside the
front door. He slung his bag on the lowest tread of the staircase, and headed to the rear of the house. An adjacent hallway lined with a whitewashed metal grate connected a causal office to the carport, where his uncle's prized 1963 Cadillac Superior hearse glistened like polished onyx under a fresh coat of wax. Quinn stepped into the hall. The floor jounced beneath his weight. He pressed a button and the compartment began its halting descent. It was the first elevator ever installed in Tyne. His great grandfather commissioned the hydraulic platform so bodies could be transported to and from the basement embalming room without being taken outside and around the building. It was a tradition within the family where each generation made a contribution to the business as a sign of respect for the education given them during their apprenticeship. While the stairs were a faster means of ingress to the basement, Quinn always used the elevator. The kid in him secretly loved to pretend it was the entrance to his superhero lair, a seemingly normal patch of carpet dipping down to reveal a hidden den of high-tech gadgets. The lift shuddered to a halt and Quinn stepped out into a wood paneled corridor disappointingly free of anything covert. He turned past the burgundycarpeted showroom with its rows of rich caskets and shelves of urns, and entered a frosted glass door on the other side of the hallway. The embalming room's oatmeal tiles shone like pearls under the intense fluorescent lights. A pungent, bittersweet aroma hit his nose and a little of the tension caused by his encounter at the college melted away. Despite the morbidity of the sentiment, the tang of formaldehyde was one of the many odors that, when combined with all of the other subtle scents of the house, allowed him to walk inside and know he was home. Sidney, his uncle's assistant, stepped through the open doorway of the refrigeration unit as Quinn passed, his massive frame filling the gap while condensation flowed around him in dramatic sweeps. "Wyatt in there?" Quinn pointed to the closed door at the far end of the room. "Sure is. He finished making our lady look good enough for tonight, now he's getting everything else set. I'm about to put her on ice until you two can do that voodoo you do so well." Sidney waggled his fingers with a grin. "Vodun is a legitimate religion, not a sideshow." Quinn shook his head and continued to the far end of the room, past the gurney where the body of eighty-six year-old Elaine Rogers waited to be put back on ice. The stylist had been by and Mrs. Rogers' old lady helmet was in full splendor. Wyatt had carefully dressed her and added a hint of makeup to lessen the pallor of death for her relatives' benefit. "Sid will be here for you in a moment, ma'am," Quinn said with a nod. It had become a habit while under his uncle's roof to speak to the decedents as if they still lived. He supposed his deference was due to learning just how fine the line between life and death really was. The room Quinn's uncle occupied was a study in obscurity. Thick black draperies covered the two small windows. Dark wood cabinets lined the black painted plaster, their overburdened shelves crammed with books and amber
jars filled with gritty herbs and smoky powders. A locked Chinese apothecary rested against the far wall, securing the more dangerous objects. In the center of the floor a nine-foot, moonstone-inlaid circle glowed as if lit by an inner source. Within the ring's boundaries sat a carved African Ebony platform. At its eastern end stood the matching altar, and Wyatt. "Hi," Quinn said. "You're back." His uncle greeted him with a smile. He crossed the room in two easy, long-legged steps to clap Quinn on the shoulder. With the rarely used overhead light on it was plain to see Wyatt's dark hair—so similar to his own—had receded rather badly in the past year and was now gray at the temples. Despite that one hint of age, his uncle’s face remained youthful, unlined save for the amiable creases around his mouth and eyes. "I didn't know where you'd gone off to." "I just finished buying my books." "I thought your school events didn’t start until next week." Wyatt placed the pestle he was holding on the altar and wiped his hands on his charcoal slacks. "It is next week." "Is it?" "Yeah." Quinn grinned. "Don't worry about it. It's been busy lately, and you always get a little lost to the rest of the world during a job." "Well," Wyatt said, then paused for a moment. "It's the part I like the best about our business. Being the ones who help these families continue feeling like whole, unbroken chains despite sudden and real trauma—it's an incredible privilege for us." Wyatt indulged in another, more dramatic lull. "In fact, it makes other, less permanent dents in the family line seem trivial. Don't you think?" Quinn caught on to where the conversation was headed and silently cursed himself for walking into such an obvious trap. "Speaking of almost non-existent gashes in the family tree—your mother called," Wyatt said. Quinn's stomach contracted. "She mentioned Thanksgiving. I thought it would be nice for you—" "And you?" "You know that isn't—" "Then, I'm not going." Quinn stared at the far wall. "You're being unreasonable. Again." "She turned her back. She rejected you and the rest of our family, putting down everything we stand for." "She rejected our profession." His uncle's sigh was as tired as the subject itself. "Years ago, before you were even born. So have countless other members of our family. This path isn't for everyone." "And neglecting to mention she had a brother on the Eastern Shore when she was firing off the branches of her noble family tree to The Washington Post during her campaign wasn't rejecting you?" "My idea, not hers." "Right."
"It's true. Years ago when your father was just starting out, I suggested it might be better for him if they left out the fact a member of your mother's family was still living and working here in Tyne. And then when your mother threw her hat in the political ring during last year's election, you were living here. It's true enough that Tyne's population is wary of outsiders, but it would only take one tiny slip about what we do to bring the press swarming in, dragging you down, publicly and irreversibly accusing you of God knows what. You being here—while it has been the best thing that's happened to me—has made it that much more important to both your mother and me that my existence—and our profession—is left unremarked upon." "And all the brainwashing about political responsibility through my formative years, what was that?" Quinn shot back. He couldn’t let go of his irritation so easily. "What about when she let me sneak over here one week a summer, but only as long as you agreed to never let me see your real work? What about her ignoring all the signs I was becoming like you and instead forcing me into private school and then law school, never once mentioning this as a possibility for my future—never once explaining, never once letting me know I wasn’t alone in my freakishness?" "She and your father may have been unjust in their disavowing your right to explore your own path, but in the end they let you go." "Not all the way. They still want to force me into their press-toadying, Norman Rockwell holiday. Can't make the paper if son number two is glaringly absent." "That isn't their motivation and you know it." "So you say." The tone of childish petulance in his voice caused a flush of heat to rise in his cheeks. "You don't get it. I left. I ditched the path to judgeship my phenom brother so generously carved out for me and came here to be with you. If I go back to hanging around them after all that's happened…" Quinn trailed off, too self-conscious to finish. "What?" Wyatt moved to intercept his gaze, an uneasy frown pulling at the edges of his mouth. "You think you'll be a traitor? To me?" Wyatt shook his head. "You're not picking teams, here." "I don't want to talk about it anymore." Quinn turned away. He seized Wyatt's pestle and scrutinized the contents with more intensity than necessary. After a long moment, Wyatt gave another sigh. "Well, I'm pretty much done. The Rogers' family will be here later tonight. You want to go upstairs and grab some food? The fridge is practically empty, but I think there's still some Chinese left." While his uncle was something of an epicure, their irregular schedule usually meant subsisting on takeout most days of the week. "I could eat." The argument about his parents had distracted Quinn from his original purpose. He wanted to speak to Wyatt about what had happened with the young woman at the Ghusundiv—and that was a conversation best done away from the volatile power of the Circle. *******
"W yatt?" Quinn leaned on the stainless steel island in the second-floor kitchen as his uncle rummaged through the refrigerator for leftovers. "Yeah?" Wyatt's muffled voice came from the depths of the fridge. "I saw something kind of funny today." "Funny-usual, or not-so?" "Not so. There was a girl on campus, about my age, maybe younger. She was at the Ghusundiv. She was in its thrall." "Really?" Wyatt surfaced with his hands loaded with dragon-emblazoned white paper boxes, an intrigued look on his face. "What happened?" "I pulled her away, and then proceeded to run my mouth like an idiot, telling her how scary the town was, telling her she needed to be careful… You know, all the wrong things." "I don't see what else you could have done," his uncle said as he squeezed an unnatural square pile onto each plate. "I could have bought her coffee, let her recover before I spewed craziness." "Would it have made any difference?" Wyatt slid a dish in the microwave. "Probably not," Quinn conceded. He propped his elbow on the counter and leaned his head on his hand. "It’s just I—I felt something with her." He popped the lid on the can of soda his uncle pushed towards him and took a sip. "What? Like sexual?" "God, no!" Quinn sputtered, nearly choking. "I mean, if you'd seen this girl… She was like a pirate on crack. She was tall with this mass of dreaded up hair I think used to be brown, but had so many other colors in it I couldn't tell. Her roots were bleached, but the rest was electric blue, except for some random chunks of aqua and yellow. She had these spiked blue bangs and a bunch of tattoos stuck all over her body, and there was this ring in her left eyebrow…" He realized Wyatt was gazing at him, mouth quirked, and he hurried to finish, "I meant I felt power." "How much?" The humor faded from his uncle's eyes. "Lots." Quinn's fist contracted at the memory and the can gave a hollow moan. "You know the not-rightness we've been feeling? I think it has something to do with her." Mutual understanding flickered between them, stretched the moment in long silence. The microwave beeped and they both started. "Did you get her name?" Wyatt asked. "I was too busy scaring her off." "We need to find out who—or what—she is." Wyatt removed the second plate from the microwave. From the way the red sauce still clung in a gelatinous gob to the meat, Quinn was sure his uncle hadn’t heated it through. Nevertheless, Wyatt grabbed his fork and distractedly shoved congealed chunks of chicken into his mouth. "How?" Quinn raked the fork through his own lukewarm dinner. "You said she was at the college." "Yes."
"She's a student?" "Maybe. If so, she's a recent transfer." "Tomorrow, first thing, go to the admissions office and see what you can find out. And ask around with some of your classmates. A girl like her should be easily remembered." Wyatt's eyes lifted to meet his, and his uncle's expression chilled him to the core. "We've got to talk to her before something happens."
"M om?" Resonance pushed open the door and called into the silent house. There was no answer. She called again up the stairwell. Her voice echoed against the bare walls. She trudged into the kitchen and checked the refrigerator. A note, scrawled in her mother’s barely legible handwriting was stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet declaring "Nurses do it for the Health of it" —
Went to do some errands before work. Leave the door unlocked if you go out. I had the deadbolts re-keyed. Will be home 7am. Unpack your room!
Resonance unclipped the paper, threw it in the trash and retreated to her room. In full daylight her bedroom looked even more like a war zone, but she was too tired to care. She collapsed onto the bed. Fatigue seeped into her limbs, her skull pounded in time to the questions that wheeled through her brain like buzzards. What the hell was that thing? Who was this Quinn guy? What the hell was going on? More importantly, what was she going to do about it? On the surface, the answer seemed easy enough—take Quinn's advice and split. The way things had been going her mother wouldn't stop her. Hell, she'd probably help her pack. She could move in with Spider, resume her normal life. Resonance savored the thought for a moment, but let it go as a thread of panic wound its way into her chest. She couldn't leave. On their first trip to Tyne, her mother and she had spent the day trailing a beaming real estate agent from house to house. Despite her mother's discrete stream of nagging comments about what it meant for Resonance to be permitted to move to Tyne, an odd sense of peaceful relief stuck with her throughout the day. At day's end, however, her feeling of deliverance melted into uncontrollable panic. As the car approached the boundaries of Tyne, she wanted to claw her way out of the passenger seat and fling herself onto the
pavement to avoid passing the insidious white monument. She held it together—barely—but it felt as if a part of her intestines had looped around the pointed marble cap, a rubber band that stretched two hundred miles as it tightened and twanged, impatiently waiting out the weeks until it snapped her back. Resonance could only liken her foolish return to scratching a bad case of chicken pox—an overwhelming urge to alleviate immediate discomfort despite the certainty it would do more damage in the long run. She had scratched and the itch had gone away. And now it appeared she was fucked. Resonance grabbed the receiver of her squatty vintage phone and dialed Spider's cell. It rang four times and then his deep, surly voice came over the line, telling her to leave a message, or not, it was her problem. She released the receiver button and keyed in his home number. The phone seemed to ring slowly, as if it knew ahead of time the cell-deprived brain it was trying to rouse. "'Lo?" It was Stone, Spider's appropriately nicknamed burner roommate. "Hey, it's Res." "Oh, hey, Res. 'Sup?" "Not much." "How's the new digs, dude?" "Sucks. Spider around?" "Naw, dude. He's out. Some chick's house." "Oh." Resonance hoped the displeasure in her voice didn't register with Stone. It was a tradition in their circle of friends to eschew relationships in favor of casual sex. She and Spider had participated in that ritual as much as everyone else. But, now that she wasn't around to observe Spider's flavor-ofthe-week choices, Resonance found she cared more about this potential new fuck buddy than she wanted to admit. "Just tell him I called, okay?" "No problem, dude." Resonance pressed the button on the cradle and hugged the earpiece to her chest. Spider had always been close by, there in an instant whenever she'd gotten into more trouble than she could handle. Now, he was nearly three hours away, and that knowledge deepened the lonely ache in her chest. With nothing left to occupy her mind, she got up and began to unpack. Anything was better than sitting around and thinking about that tree, that thing. Anything, that was, except falling asleep and having nightmares about it. When she finished her room, she turned her nervous energy on the downstairs. The hours crept slowly towards dawn, and Resonance waited for the light to banish her fears. She fought sleep with each box she opened, with each knicknack and book she freed from its wrappings. When she ran out of small items, Resonance turned to the furniture, dragged the pieces across the room into various configurations just to stay moving. Finally, the sky lightened. The clock read seven-thirty five. Her mother would be home any minute. Exhausted, Resonance sank onto the overstuffed olive green couch and closed her eyes for a moment.
A rhreton touched his blade to the trembling flesh. The candles surged. The burst of
light threw into brief clarity the peeling walls and rust-spattered concrete floor. Giving in to his rising consternation, Arhreton pulled away the edge. The flames subsided, returning to cobwebbed twilight all but the power-infused circle in which he and his captive sat. He creaked against the backrest, eyes sweeping the tattooed body hunched in front of him. To err in this final step would render useless his previous two decades worth of effort, and shatter his ambitions beyond repair. "Not?" Arhreton prodded the young woman hunched in misery at his feet. She made a small whimpering sound, but didn't look up. "Not!" Arhreton seized a handful of hair. Her head snapped back, exposing wildly dilated pupils. Entwining his hand further into the filth-darkened mass, Arhreton leaned close. "This step is very important to me." He lowered the knife and traced the swirling pattern etched on her bare breast. "Be still and you'll be rewarded. If you disobey…" Arhreton traced the blade along the markings to the hollow of her throat. "Do you understand?" Not bobbed her head and shifted, pressing her torso into the knobs of her knees. Satisfied, Arhreton delved into his work, chanting as his blade traced the familiar pattern, drawing out satisfying trails of thick crimson. To spill a single drop of blood was to invoke the owner's life-energy. To drain it in entirety would grant a skilled practitioner the ability to transfer the essence of that person to himself. Arhreton closed his eyes, relishing the final frenzied moments of the life he had snuffed so many months before—the man's blood-slicked hands scrabbling on the desktop, eyes entertaining a comic mixture of injured surprise and bitter understanding. The lust of that allimportant kill spilled from Arhreton's pores in a caustic haze, fueling the malevolence of his rite. He funneled its latent potency into his current task, completing the two-decades-long process of covering Not's skin with the sacred design of the one called the Middu. Arhreton marked the first part of the terminus, carving seven slash marks into Not's shoulder as the magic of the sacred circle closed around him, humming through his body. He then traced the center of the symbol, his knife sliding along its circuitous path to complete the sun's design. Not whimpered,
but kept still, even as Arhreton prized a sliver of skin from the wound's inner edge and sliced away the circlet in one quick motion. "Solpeth ol!" Arhreton stood, the chair clanging to the floor behind him. Finally released, Not sank to her face, letting loose a stream of urine onto his bare foot. "Ovof lansh! Hear me!" Arhreton raised the blade to his lips and took the offering into his mouth. The world spun. He traded the knife for a chalice, lifting the inscribed goblet over his head. "From the father this was taken, to the Vessel it shall pass." He drained the contents, bitter copper stinging the back of his throat. The last vestiges of the slain man's life ebbed into him. Arhreton bent, scooped a handful of ash mixture from the iron bowl at his feet and seized Not's arm, rubbing into the bloody wounds the primitive ink that would permanently darken the final of her mystical imprints. Not howled, her face tilted to the sky, the wide pink of her mouth the only disparity in the swirl of black against alabaster. Power snapped in the air. A swarm of visions clouded Arhreton's mind— the marks on Not's face transformed into a tattoo that snaked up a strong, feminine arm; red-robed figures positioned on the compass points; a brilliant nimbus rending the air, offering liberation from time's constraints; and, above all, the powers of darkness waiting for a favored son to take his rightful place. The sodden tile floor was against Arhreton's face, assaulting him with an ammonia stink. He didn't recall falling, although the aching spot where his temple had struck the floor told him he had. The last thing Arhreton saw before he fully lost consciousness was Not, perched on the righted chair, watching him.
A rhreton crossed his study and eased into his favorite armchair by the second floor bay
window. The canopy of leaves of the aged maple embedded in the sidewalk below blocked the harsh glare reflecting off the pre-rush hour traffic sliding by on Georgetown's O Street. The protesting leather echoed his pained groan as he sank deeper into the cushions. The rites were changing the basic matter of his being in order to transform him into a vessel capable of inheriting the power he sought, and it was taking its toll on his no longer youthful body. Soon enough, though, Arhreton would be able to evade time's cruel indignities. And that feat, as magnificent as it was, was but a fraction of the infinite avenues that would be laid before him once the Middu's power became his own. Arhreton stretched and closed his burning eyes. Despite his weariness, a drowsy contentment suffused his being, reminding him of how movies portrayed the aftermath of exceptionally good sex. He gave a cynical smile. He didn’t know much about earth-shattering love making, if it even existed. While intercourse could be an amusing diversion, and a sometimes necessary tool, it had never been his driving force. *******
C hipmunks and squirrels were easy. Nicholas shifted to get a better view, careful to
avoid disturbing the frost-brittle twigs under his feet. Dogs were, too. He ran a thumb across the jagged edge of the rock warming in his palm. Even the cat he bludgeoned the week before had been no sweat. Nicholas checked the time, giving a quick glance at the cheap, mail-order watch he'd received as a present the previous Christmas. He grimaced at the memory. As if enduring a week-long pre-holiday pity session with one of the local women's societies hadn't been torment enough, he'd been forced to sit with the other kids through a reading of the novel "A Little Princess." The thought of that annoyingly magnanimous, yet fiercely intelligent girl letting her fate slip from her control had turned Nicholas' stomach. He couldn't—he wouldn't—rely on anyone else's aims for him. He had to make his own way. The next target for his ambition emerged from the back door, right on time.
Slow-witted Bobby Foy lumbered down the steps, cradling a bowl of rabbit food in his fleshy arms. The helmet loved to feed the bunnies, and Sir—the only name they were permitted to call the House Father—indulged him. Since his arrival at the age of thirteen, Nicholas had struggled to gain rank amongst the children. From the first day he'd shown he wasn't to be made into anyone’s lackey, and, in fact, was on the lookout for a few of his own. For three years he bullied the weak and removed the strong with subterfuge. Bribes, blackmail, and entrapment earned him status where physical methods sometimes failed. By whatever means, Nicholas managed to score control of nearly everyone at The Brothers of Mercy Home for Children, including the adults who sponsored the orphanage. Through the first year, numerous nights spent with some of the more pedophilic members of The Brothers of Mercy had taught Nicholas valuable amatory skills. His mastery of them ensured his preferential treatment within the circle of men, known to the children as The Benefactors. Of them, only Sir remained aloof, preferring to bestow his affections on the drooling idiot currently lurching across the yard to the rabbit pens, happily singing a wordless tune, his breath pluming in front of him like a fat, retarded dragon. How could the deformed half-wit gain access to Sir’s room? Even if his mental deficiency could be overlooked, or perhaps even exploited, how could anyone find the tubercular twisted leg, the uneven, wide-spaced teeth and the vacant eyes anything but inferior and loathsome? It wouldn’t be a problem for long. Nicholas swept the area carefully, ensuring no curious eyes peered from the numerous windows in the four-storied orphanage. Certain he was unobserved, Nicholas readied his missile. As Bobby’s head came into range, he let the rock fly with an explosive pitch. The sharp edge struck the boy’s pug nose. Bobby dropped with a thud, the bowl of food pellets toppling to the ground. Blood spurted from his nostrils in a festive cherry-hued spray. "Hey, Bobby-boy." Nicholas emerged from his hiding spot, wearing an exaggerated grin. The moron was still hollering with his hands clamped to his face. "Bobby!" He gave him a sharp kick in the gut. The yell turned to a wheezing rush of air as Bobby doubled over. "Listen up. We've got some stuff to talk about." Bobby moaned, one hand now clutching his stomach, while the other suppressed the tide of crimson from his nose. "I’m the boss around here, right?" Another moan. "Right?" Nicholas pried Bobby’s hand away and seized the boy's rapidly swelling schnoz. "Looks broken." He gave it a vicious squeeze. The cartilage shifted under the pressure and Bobby screamed. "Then you agree. I’m in charge. So, how does you screwing Sir show everyone I’m number one?" "I don’t know," Bobby wailed. "Of course you don’t because you’re a helmet. So, I’ll explain it to you; IT DOESN’T." Nicholas punched Bobby in the side of the head. Ignoring the boy’s pleading cries, he continued, "You’re an idiot and a cripple. You don’t even
deserve to be on this planet, let alone have anything that’s mine. So, how are we gonna fix this, Bob-O?" Nicholas gave the boy’s forehead a sharp flick. "Huh?" "I’ll stop." Bobby sobbed softly. "Damn right you will." Nicholas' mouth was inches away from Bobby’s face. "When he sends for you, you tell him you don’t want to. I don’t care what he does. Whether he scares you or hurts you, it doesn’t matter. ‘Cause there’s a big difference here, Bobby. He’ll only hurt you." He leaned closer, his lips brushing the boy’s bloodied ear. "I’ll kill you.” Nicholas pulled away, smiling at the wide eyes and twitching mouth that bore a striking resemblance to the long-eared rodents the nimrod adored. “You got it?” Bobby bobbed his head in earnest agreement. Nicholas stood and walked back towards the orphanage, a satisfied smile breaking across his face. Behind him, the whimpering became wracking sobs, deepening his mirth. As Nicholas rounded the south corner, his grin fell away. "That was some display." Sir’s six foot-five, bony frame loomed above him. Nicholas kept his face guileless. For all he knew, the house father had only caught the punch to the head. He resisted the urge to look back to see if anyone had come to Bobby’s aide. If he'd scared Bobby enough to make him keep his mouth shut, he might get off easy. "Come with me. Now, please." Sir turned on his heels and led Nicholas along the paved path leading to the front of the building and the administrative offices. Nicholas' mind ran through a million explanations as he walked, each one less plausible than the previous. It looked like he was in for it. Even if he was whipped and put in solitary, he wouldn't regret his actions. Bobby was now officially out of the way, and this unpleasant outcome had at least served as an example how to operate better the next time around. Sir guided Nicholas through the tiled foyer into the reception area outside the director’s office. A faded, peeling floral wallpaper leftover from the home’s heyday in the twenties covered the walls. Long rows of modern orange and yellow plastic chairs lined two of the walls, as if hordes of families in nineteen sixty-two swarmed orphanages in a frenzy to adopt already grown-out-ofcuteness kids. He followed Sir into the minimally furnished, brown-on-brown office. Behind Sir’s desk sat a well-groomed man of indeterminate age. The silver hair pulled into a tight ponytail at the nape of his neck contrasted with his youthful face. He wore a mod-styled, blue, single-breasted jacket over a narrow-collared white shirt. While the man’s overall appearance pegged him as no older than forty, a musty aroma hung around him, conveying the impression of advanced age. The contradictory impressions were confusing—and intriguing. "Master Caspiel, may I present Nicolas Barber." Oddly, Sir bowed to the man, and then backed out of the room, closing the door behind him. Fascinated, Nicholas turned back to the man called Caspiel, whose watery blue eyes studied him with keen intensity. "Nicholas, please sit." Although it wasn't particularly deep, Caspiel's voice rumbled through Nicholas' bones. "I would like to talk to you."
Nicholas perched on the edge of the chair, fighting to keep his feet from jittering. Something about the man's benevolent smile made him nervous, like he was about to be swallowed whole. "The Brothers of Mercy are concerned for you, Nicholas." Caspiel's gaze traveled down his thick nose to spear Nicholas. "I, as your guardian, am concerned for you." "You’re a Benefactor?" If Sir—the one he thought was the chief of the Brothers—had bowed to this man and called him Master, then matters could become much more interesting, or perilous, than he'd previously thought. "I tend to keep to internal affairs. This"— Caspiel waved at the room—"is for the lesser members to amuse themselves, and to keep an eye out for potential." Nicholas had believed the Brothers of Mercy were a corrupt group of pederasts using a false claim of serving the community in order to keep a constant reserve of young meat. He had guessed they possessed considerable influence over the community, since no government agency had ever sent anyone to inspect the building or interview the children. This assumption was what had initially driven him to become the exclusive plaything of the Benefactors, so he could gain access to their dominion and elevate his position. But, if his current instincts were right, the Brothers were only a front for something else. The revelation of Caspiel's existence—reducing Sir to middle management—suggested Nicholas had entered new terrain with potentially increased prospects. "Now, young man." Caspiel leaned forward, thin, twiggy fingers folded neatly on the desk. "Your testing shows you’re of above average intelligence. Well above. Yet, you disassociate yourself from class work, teachers and the other boys. Any reason why?" "I don’t like them." "Which?" "Take your pick." "I see. And mutilating animals, intimidating your peers, assaulting the helpless… You think these are effective ways of spending your time?" "No." Nicholas lied, fighting to keep his gaze from dropping away from the wolfish eyes. "Neither do we." *******
T he phone rang and Arhreton jumped slightly, unaware he had drifted off to
sleep. He fumbled for the phone, clearing his throat in an attempt to sound lucid. "Hello?" "Arhreton." The Master’s voice rippled with power, even through hundreds of miles of cable. "Still asleep?" "Master Caspiel." Arhreton bolted upright, body rigid with sudden tension. He forced his voice to remain even, cloaking his distress. He had spent many years as the Hand of the cult, the one who removed obstacles from the cult's path. Since the brothers were all skilled magicians with license to do
whatever they willed to outsiders, the assignments were mostly to indulge his master's penchant for physical brutality where personal matters were concerned. It was entirely possible this was another such mission. Yet, something bitter gnawing deep in his belly told him he was fooling himself. "I had a late night," Arhreton explained. "I hope it was good." The deep voice gave a conspiratorial chuckle. "It was, Master. Very good." It was, in fact, one of many that was slowly changing everything the ancient bastard had come to expect of him. That the Call had come earlier than anticipated was no great matter. He would make do; it was what he did best. Smiling, Arhreton assumed his most servile tone. "What may I do for you, Master?"
R esonance startled awake, hands clawing the air as if to snatch back something lost, yet
doing nothing more than displacing the haze of golden flecks dancing in the sunlit air above the couch. She ran her fingers over her damp face as her heart thudded in her chest. There had been monsters, she could remember that much; tall, shadowy creatures who'd skulked in the recesses of a dank cave, their fingers rasping out a single word across the gritty floor, "Middu." She could also recall something about a blade carving strange symbols into flesh. Her father had been there. And there had been blood. So much blood. Resonance's nightmares had grown exponentially since the day her father had gone into the ground, but this was the first time the entirety of the details hadn't drifted away the moment she opened her eyes. She wasn't thankful for it. Someone—the funeral director?—explained to her dreams about the deceased were about goodbyes and letting go. Could that be what Quinn Lehrer and his uncle were right now telling a distraught family? She hoped not, because a dream like that held no closure for anyone with half their sanity. Resonance sat up, kneading the knotted muscles in her neck. A note was laying beside her on the coffee table. It said her mother was in the middle of an overtime marathon caused by a bad case of the flu among her nurses. Her mom had come home, cleaned up, and taken off again all while Resonance remained in her semi-coma on the couch—apparently granted an undisturbed lie-in as restitution for unpacking the entire house. Resonance stood, stretched her cramped legs and made her way towards the stairs. After showering and reigning in the sweat-and-tear streaked smears of kohl under each eye, Resonance changed into a crimson baby doll tee, black pleather miniskirt and a ragged pair of fishnets, completing the outfit with her usual pair of knee-high combat boots. It had been months since she'd worn anything else on her feet; breaking them in had been such a bitch. Now they were finally comfortable, not even the sweltering late summer temperatures would keep them off of her feet. In the kitchen, Resonance propped open the refrigerator door with her hip, and helped herself to a half-empty plastic tub of takeout mashed potatoes, washing them down with a few gulps of leftover, cardboard-tasting fast food
soda. As she shoved the empty cartons into the trash, the phone rang. "Hello?" The hope it was Spider lifted her voice. "What's put you in such a good mood?" her mother asked. "And whatever possessed you to unpack everything?" "Bored, I guess." Resonance made a half-hearted attempted to keep the disappointment from her voice. "Well, I just called to tell you I forgot to bring home the new set of keys. If you're planning on going out, come by and get one. I don't like the thought of leaving our door unlocked, no matter how small a town it is." "I'm pretty sure it's a good idea to stay on this side of cautious," Resonance replied, the image of her encounter with Quinn sticking in her mind. "I'll come over in a while." "Good. And, we'll talk about school and work when I get home tomorrow morning." "How can they make you stay there that much?" Resonance asked in an attempt to divert the conversation. "One of the benefits of being the nursing director, I guess. I get the bigger paycheck, and along with that I get to work when no one else can." In the background, a man's voice raised in a pleading, repetitive cry. "I've got to go, one of our more active residents is awake again. He screams for help every two seconds, whether he needs it or not." "Good luck with that." Resonance hung up, went to the living room, and tried to settle down and watch TV. Each time she found a comfortable position, though, a wave of restlessness overcame her. It was as if an invisible string had been tied to her and was trying to pull her off the couch. She stood, and began pacing restlessly across the creaking floorboards. Still, the sensation persisted. Blaming it on unease precipitated by the previous day's events, Resonance snatched her bag from the kitchen table and headed for the door. At least going to the nursing home and getting the key was doing something.
B y the time Resonance entered the doors of the Sea Haven nursing home, the fitful
feeling in her stomach had eased to a tiny flutter. The air in the lobby held the pungent-sweet aroma of bleach and floral air freshener. Convention hall art show seascapes hung at each of the five clusters of stained upholstered chairs, all of which were empty. "Hello?" an auburn haired teenager sitting behind the low reception desk waved enthusiastically. "Can I help you?" "Where is everyone?" Resonance asked, moving close enough to see the girl's name tag read, Stacey, Tyne High VoTech Program. "Lunchtime. They creep around all day long, taking six hours to get from one side of this room to the other, but when food's ready, they run like the Reaper's after them." Realizing what she'd just said, the girl gave a guilty shrug. "Um, how can I help you?" "I’m here to see my mother, Meg Murphy. She’s the Night RN Supervisor." "She’s new, right? Petite? Blonde bob?" "That’s her." "She's so nice. And pretty." Stacey scrutinized Resonance for a moment. "You don’t look at all alike. You're so much taller, and diff… I mean, you're pretty in your own way, but she's… I mean, you… You must look like your father, huh?" A furious blush exploded across the girl's cheeks and she ducked her head to study the computer screen in front of her. "Not really." Resonance couldn’t tell if the girl was trying to insult her or simply had no sense. "Here we go." Stacey remerged, recovered enough from her diarrhea of the mouth to no longer stammer. "Your mom's helping out on the second floor today. Elevators are down the hall on your right. The second floor left wing goes straight to the nurses’ station." "Got it." Resonance turned and walked in the direction of the girl's pointing finger. The chemical floral scent was thicker in the harshly lit, cavernous hallway—a futile attempt to mask the bitter stench of human waste and atrophy. Sturdy white handrails stretched the length of the walls, their flow broken only by the sequence of numbered doors. Handrails.
Grief hit Resonance like a blow to the stomach. That was how it always happened--as soon as she thought she might be healing, something small would trip a trigger in her chest and the wound would again be laid raw. Her father had died alone in his office while grading Religion and Mythology 101 term papers. Resonance was at home with her mother, arguing, as usual. She had been trying to leave to meet Spider at a D.C. nightclub and her mother flipped out about it. They barely heard the phone ringing over the volume of their screaming match. Her mother threw up her hands in disgust and snatched the phone off the coffee table. The livid flush of her mother's cheeks drained in a matter of seconds. Between scrambling for her car keys and throwing on a coat, her mother explained her dad had been rushed to the university's hospital, suffering from Posterior Epistaxis. Resonance's father had spent twenty-seven ardent years relating to his undergrads legends of deaths that were heroic and valiant, mythic in every sense of the word—only to meet his own end at the hands of a giant nosebleed. The coroner speculated he had been alone in his office, bleeding to death for nearly an hour before the janitor found him. Why her father hadn't called for help, no one would ever know. Her mother and she had raced to the hospital, their differences for once forgotten. They were too late. Her mother collapsed into the arms of a coworker, while Resonance stumbled blindly out into the ambulance bay's frigid, oil-tinged air, her shaking hands guided by the smooth wooden rails. Resonance touched the one in the hall, rubbing her hand along it like a scab she was compelled to pick. Closing her eyes against the flood of memories, she told herself it wasn’t the same. She was in a nursing home, not a hospital. Not his hospital. "You all right, there?" A shaky voice brought her back to the present. Resonance opened her eyes. An old man stood nearby, leaning heavily his a walker. His ragged green bathrobe gaped threateningly below a ballooned stomach. Overlarge glasses perched on the bridge of his sharp, hooked nose, and deep pouches of skin hung over his hound dog eyes. His mouth, caved in from lack of support, was pursed in a frown. "I'm fine." Resonance forced her expression into blankness and made to step past him. "That’s some hair you got." The old man angled the walker to stop her. "Yeah. Pretty fancy." Resonance tried to go around him again, but he maneuvered to block her path. "Okay, gramps. Cut the crap." "Gramps, huh? I’ll show you a thing or two." He smiled mischievously. "I’ve got something for you." "Is it candy?" Resonance snorted. "I bet all I have to do is reach deep into your pocket and dig around until I find it, huh?" The old man laughed, a rattling sound that made Resonance think something had broken loose in his chest. She hoped he didn’t cough up whatever it was. As old as he looked, it would probably be a lung. "You’re full of spunk, girl. I tell ya, I like the sound of your game better, but we've got business to do." He jabbed a conspiratorial elbow at her. "We can
do the rest later." "You sick fuck." Resonance shoved the walker to one side and began to stride away. "It was your idea—Middu." "What did you say?" The word from her dream stopped her cold. "It's not what I said. It's what I called you." Resonance turned back towards the old man. His face was alight with glee, like a child who had just told a very important secret. "And what do you know about me?" "About you? Nothing. Except by your getup, I’d say you’re a floozy." The old man grasped the handles of his walker and made a show of adjusting it. "Ask me what I know about Her." He began to scuff across the hall, the tennis balls on the feet of his walker rasping along the carpet. Resonance looked around as he disappeared into his room. There was no help in sight—not that anyone would aid her in stopping an old man from going back to his room, where he belonged. After a moment's consideration, she followed him into room 114. The tag on the door read, Abraham Barkman. "Abe, is it?" Resonance asked as she entered the darkened room. "Shut the door." Resonance pushed the door closed behind her. How was it she wound up doing things she didn’t want to do, as of late? It was like every fucked up situation in the area wanted to be around her. Like one of those 'Kick Me' signs. Resonance shook off the sudden feeling of foreboding. This was just some lonely, ancient guy who apparently has something important to show her in his footlocker, as he was currently hunched over it, digging furiously. "So, Abe, what’s the deal?" Resonance asked, watching his head bob as he searched. "This." Abe surfaced with a small wooden container. He placed it on the narrow bed, motioning her to approach. "This is the deal." "Looks like my stash box." "Stash?" Abe looked perplexed. "Forget it. Just tell me how you know that name." Abe chuckled as he opened the box and extracted an object wrapped in a handkerchief. With palsied movements, he removed the fabric and extended his arm to her. A jet stone, about two inches in diameter, rested in the palm of his hand. Carved into its surface was an oddly familiar fluid, vine-like pattern. The center of the design was marked with a circle surrounded by seven upsidedown commas. "You wanted to show me your pet rock?" "How dare you?" Abe snatched back his hand, covering the stone with the other. His face was drawn in a childish pout, but his gaze was hard and angry. "Don’t you know what this is?" "Pet rock?" "This is one of the Six Stones of the Seven. And I—" Abe puffed his beach ball stomach with pride —"am its Guardian."
"Oooh, sorry." Resonance lifted her hands in mock apology. "Wasn’t aware geezers got into role playing games." "You aren't the way we were told Middu would be." He was definitely in full, spoiled-brat-pout mode. "Who’s 'We,' Abe?" "The other Guardians. We were told you’d be coming, and here you are. You came to pass your test and claim the Stone." "I came to get a key." Abe shrugged, holding out the stone once again. "No thanks, creepy old man." "But, I wasn’t even going to give you the test," Abe cried out as she turned to leave. "Look how easy I'm making it. I’m too old for tests. I've been sick for so long. I want to die. The others will hurt you, torment you. But, look, I’m giving it to you." Abe snarled unhappily. "Even if you don’t deserve it." The old man's expression changed to one of pleading. "Take it, and let me go." The man was truly off his nut. Maybe he'd gotten some head injury in whatever war old men like him had fought in. Maybe some long-dead overseas honey gave him the thing and he wanted to unload it before he shuffled off. "Fine. I’ll take the rock if you’ll leave me the hell alone. Don’t expect me to name it, though." Resonance held out her right hand. Abe dropped the Stone dropped into her palm, and pain shot through her extended arm. "What the fuck?" "Look!" Abe pointed, face alight with maniacal exhilaration. Resonance opened her hand. The Stone was a twisting, living thing working its way into her palm. It burrowed down, shoving flesh aside like mounds of pink clay. The pain of it seared with a heat that convulsed her stomach. When it had nestled deep inside her palm, her skin rushed to cover it, a thin veil overlying the sinister dark mass. Tiny, undulating black tendrils snaked towards her wrist, heralding bolts of intense agony. Resonance jerked her arm to her chest again, as if pressure would ease the terrific pain. As suddenly as it came, the agony ceased. Shaking, Resonance removed her arm from its protected spot. Where once there had been unmarred skin, a pattern was etched—the same one carved on the Stone’s face. The black design began on the back of Resonance's wrist as a primitive mark reminiscent of the sun. Radiating out from it were swirling, dark lines that curved around the front of her lower arm and ended abruptly. "What the fuck did you do to me?" she demanded. "It belongs to you, don’t you see?" Abe said. "You are the Wielder." "Wielder of what?" Resonance rubbed at her wrist in a futile attempt to remove the mark. "The powers inherent in the Stones." "What powers? What are you talking about? Get this thing off of me!" Resonance scrubbed even more frantically at her arm, a cold sweat trickling down the small of her back. It was in there, inside her body. "Undo this! Get. It. Out." Resonance advanced towards the old man, whether to injure or implore him, she didn’t know. Her entire body pounded to the rhythm the growing
hysteria beat out in her chest, drowning all higher reasoning. The jubilance disappeared from Abe's eyes. He moved his walker between them—an ineffectual barrier. As Resonance's panic reached a zenith, the world shifted. The normal barrage of sensations experienced by simply being sheared away. What remained was an eerie internal hyperawareness. A body. Organs. Cells. This odd consciousness tightened, focusing on her most basic particles. It stretched her mind across the ages to the depths of a primeval ocean, and then pulled her back, sealing her awareness within infinitesimal walls. "Middu?" Abe searched the room for her. "Where'd you go?' The name tugged at Resonance, and her consciousness returned like a stick pulled from deep sludge. Resonance spun around, facing the dresser's mirror. She could clearly see the room in its reflection—the bed, the nightstand, and Abe’s confounded face. Everything except herself. The remaining lack of concern for the externalized world drained in a flash as a rush of faintness overcame Resonance. She reached out towards the dresser for support, but her fingers only passed through its surface. The sensation was like running a cupped hand through a pool of water. There was resistance, but not nearly enough. Resonance backpedaled in a panic. As she fled she collided with Abe, and then went through him. The malignant matter that had been eating away his insides for a century sensed her presence. The cancerous cells swarmed towards their intended new host, craving healthy cells to possess and destroy. Screaming soundlessly, Resonance broke free of Abe's body, still running backwards in horror. There was another push from behind. Again came the unsettling feeling she was a part of the object, but it was only the metal fire door, and its sluggish molecules simply detoured around her invading presence. As Resonance fell, she wondered how far she could go. The basement? Farther? If she was nothing, could she fall into the earth, and then beyond? An eternity of falling? Her mind's struggle with the physics behind those questions seemed to slow her descent, amplifying her anticipation. There was a loud thump as Resonance crashed into the floor. Stunned, she held her hands in front of her. They were both there--one clean, the other marked. A quick inspection of her body told her everything—everything but the nasty little tattoo—was back to normal. From inside the room, Abe called for her. The doorknob turned. Resonance scrambled to her feet and ran. The automatic front door's motor whined in protest as Resonance shoved it open. She burst into the bright mid-afternoon sunlight and bolted to her car, fumbling with the automatic door lock—first re-locking it, and then setting off the panic button. Abandoning the attempt for the moment, Resonance paced beside her car, rubbing her arms to fend off a chill that had nothing to do with recent exposure to air-conditioning. A woman hovered nearby, gazing at her with apprehension. Resonance realized the panic alarm was still screeching. She fumbled with the black plastic piece on her keychain, finally managing to silence the car’s wail. Resonance looked at the woman again, a single thought blooming in her mind. Find help.
Resonance rushed over and grabbed the woman by the shoulders. "Andrews Funeral Home." The woman looked confused. "Andrews Funeral Home. Where?" Resonance nearly screamed it. "Oh, honey." A look of sympathetic comprehension crossed the woman’s face as she gently extracted herself from Resonance's grip. "I’m so sorry for your loss. But, really, you don’t want to use them. I've heard they do things to the deceased. Terrible things. Un-Christian things. You should go to Harrison’s." Resonance laughed, a high-pitched, crazed sound. The woman must have taken it for a sob, because she pulled a tissue from her purse and held it out. "I need Andrews," Resonance said, taking the proffered tissue for no real reason. "You might want to check with your parents, or—" the woman eyed her dubiously, —"someone a little… Older." Resonance seized the woman again, shaking a startled squeal from her. "It’s on Ash Street. Downtown." The woman squirmed under her grip, her face a frozen mask. "On the corner!" Resonance let go, suddenly aware she was terrorizing the woman. She scrambled into her car and started the engine. Putting it in gear, she peeled the Jetta out of the parking lot, turning the heads of several wheelchair-bound patients convalescing in the sunny side lawn. Less than five minutes later she pulled into the parking lot behind the massive, magenta-hued funeral home. A high brick wall topped with iron spikes blocked her view of the backyard and most of the house. She turned off the ignition, but did not get out. The day before, she had called Quinn Lehrer insane. Now she was at his doorstep? What she needed to be doing was getting as far out of town as possible. Her hand hovered over the key. Heading for the hills wouldn't stop her from becoming the invisible woman again, much less get the rock out of her arm. Plus, there was the fact her warm, fuzzy feeling of homecoming would once again melt into skin-crawling panic the minute she neared the town limits. This guy knew things about Tyne. He was the only one who might be able to do something to help her. Still, how could she run to a complete stranger and beg for his assistance? Resonance gave a long look at the insidious black mark on her wrist, and had her answer.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, please visit http://www.amazon.com/Resonanceebook/dp/B004KAAADI/ref=lp_B004KND4KQ_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335289282&sr=1-1 to buy the book for $2.99. Resonance is also available on the Barnes & Noble Nook store, as well as in the iBookstore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avery DeBow began writing after winning the zealous fandom of her Third Grade teacher with the abstractly illustrated flash piece, Crab Volleyball. Since making the difficult decision to move away from narrow market of aquatic arthropod fiction, Avery has devoted her literary energies on the contemporary dark fantasy genre. Avery lives in the nearly seaside town of Salisbury, Maryland with her husband, their halfgutted house, and an undisclosed number of cats. She enjoys reading, writing, gardening, cooking, and bashing the crap out of other women playing flat-track roller derby. This is her first novel. Visit Avery online at www.averydebow.com for Resonance bonus material, short stories and flash fiction, and a timeline of upcoming novels, including a Resonance sequel.
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