“—CAN’T, YOU CAN’T! Please, don’t die, don’t die, don’t leave me, no-no-nonono HELP! Someone help! PLEASE! Help me please!!”
He had gone white. Whiter than he had been when I’d found him, dying in an alley. But, then, he’d been much dirtier then too.
His hands, which had been on the sides of my head the last time I checked, had twisted up tightly against my sides, right under my armpits and above the firm line of the leather waistcoat of my dress. I could feel the faint burn of scratches I hadn’t had there before.
I blinked as he continued to shriek at me, utterly thrown back by this violent reaction.
The door swung back with a bang on the wall as Milly and Hal rushed in.
“Gracious, what’s going on?” asked Milly. Her face was still red and sweaty from working over the ovens of the kitchen.
“I-I don’t know,” I tried to say above Gus’s continuing hysterics, which were not breaking into half-muffled wails. “I was just-just a little depressed and I told him to go away and then he—“ I snapped my mouth closed.
Mind magic. Those threads of heat I’d felt and what they did to my mind must have been mind magic. And if that was so, I couldn’t be careless in blabbing about it to Hal and Milly.
Hal, however, seemed to read something in my expression, for he made the first unpleasant frown I’d seen him make yet. It turned a face I’d always equated with a kind, steady grandfather into someone much angrier and aggressive.
His frown deepened when Gus unstuck his face from where he’d buried it in my lap to wail, “No! She’s dying! She’s trying to die—stop her! She’s already done it before, you have to stop her! Please, please!”
“Calm down, Gus,” cried Milly, crouching down at his side. She looked to both me and him with alarm. “No one’s dying.”
“YES SHE IS!! STOP! Lilly, please, I’m sorry, don’t do it, just stop, please, don’t do it, don’t do it!”
He dropped his face into my lap in another choked wail, as though he were fighting to stop it from occurring, but couldn’t help himself. His hands had fallen down to my hips, where his knuckles and tendons showed brilliant white against the skirts that he clenched. His back spasmed up and down with his quick, short breaths, and every other part of him trembled in time.
“Lillian,” said Hal grimly, “did he put his hands near your head?”
I sucked in my lower lip. But that seemed answer enough for him.
He let out a puff of air and wagged his head. “I should have known this would happen sooner or later.”
Milly did her best to try and calm Gus. “Gus, dearie, breathe, you’re going to pass out. Everything is okay, you’re okay.”
But Gus only moaned another chorus of ‘no’s and dug his face deeper into my lap.
“Probably for the best,” said Hal, who then kneeled down on the other side of my lap. “Boy, if you can’t calm down, we’ll have to do it for you.”
Gus’s narrow shoulders seized up, but the trembling only seemed to increase.
“No-no-no-die, she’ll die! Help her, help her!”
“I’m not going to die,” I said, more loudly than I intended to. “Please, Gus, just breathe! Deep breath, with me.”
After several failed attempts to do just that, Gus gave a high keen and dug harder into my lap, twisting his fists about my hips so I couldn’t have moved even if I wanted to.
Hal seemed to think Gus wouldn’t be getting out of this on his own, for he drew his mouth into a thin line and pulled Gus’s head up by the back of his neck. Then, before Gus could even register what was going on in his crazed state, Hal put his hand against his face and there was a soft spray from his palm, followed by a sharp scent, like salt or bleach.
Gus went limp. Hal let his unconscious head flop into my lap.
“Haaaaah,” he rubbed the lines between his eyebrows with finger and thumb. “Lil’, I know I have no right to order you outside of work, but you are to stay in this room until I say otherwise. When the dining area closes for the night I’ll come to talk, and I hope you’ll tell me the truth.”
I nodded, still shaken with shock. Milly looked much the same.
“Dad, why did you ask if he put her hands near her head?”
“Later.” He pushed himself to his feet, his knees popping in the process. “We need to get back to work.”
Milly looked back at me uncertainly, her hand still on Gus’s back.
“I can manage him,” I said. “You…you did just knock him out for a bit, right Hal?”
“Right,” he said. “It’s a spell I learned for self-defense when I was younger. It’s harmless. He should wake up, at the latest, by morning.”
“Okay. Yeah…thank you.”
He just gave me that look beneath his brows that told me I’d be hearing it and herded Milly back out. He closed the door softly behind him, and I hoped that meant he wasn’t too mad at me…or could it be Gus?
Fearfully, I hugged his fuzzy head. My arms trembled not much less than his had been just moments before.
“What was all that about? Did…did my thoughts really scare you that much?”
Was it just death that scared him? Or could he actually be…attached to me?
Sniffing, and feeling more than just a little raw, I pulled him into bed, took off my boots and dressed into my nightgown, and slid into bed besides him. I was still a little crusty with sweat from the day, but at that moment I couldn’t find any energy left in me to do more than I just had.
I fell asleep with my arm draped over his side and my hand on his head.
As I slept, I dreamed, formless, stressful things. I glimpsed my ex-husband in the background, ignoring me as he led his pregnant wife and children along. I saw glimpses of my childhood home, when my mother still shuffled through failures and I feared what the man she lived with would do with me. I climbed a mountain that turned into a fountain where children played and I worried about their tender feet. I tried to fly and fell. I ran naked through a forest, spied on by bar patrons. I fell into holes.
Then the pool of visions faded away into something held against my conscious mind by warm strings, like a screen had been pulled over my eyes like a mask.
Green lands nestled against a mountain’s feet spread before me, blanketed with green trees and farmland. A soft blue sky hung above, like a bed curtain. My body didn’t ache. None of the leaden weights of my heart remained inside. I’d become light, full of fresh breath, and calm.
A man stood before me and took up my hand. He was tall enough to rest his chin on my head if he wanted to, with finely carved broad shoulders and well define muscles through his simple tunic. There was no difference between the gleam of precious silver and his silver hair in the sunlight, and that same silver framed warm ruby eyes.
“My Lilly,” he breathed.
An impossible amount of tenderness and affection was conveyed in just those two words.
He caressed my cheek and around my chin.
“What would make my Lilly happy?” he asked, his voice ever like a summer breeze. He kissed the fingers of my hand. “Oh, my precious beloved, I want to know.”
I couldn’t think of what to say. I didn’t know this man. And the sheer amount of love I could feel radiating from him stunned me and touched raw and neglected parts of me that I had left forgotten.
“I know what will do for now,” he said with a soft smile, and it was only then that I realized his features were fuzzed outside of the ruby eyes and precious metal lashes.
Like a knight escorting his lady, he turned me about. The ground beneath my feet became a path and behind me, as though it had always been there, was a most charming, modest size cottage. It had two floors, gable paned windows, and curling eaves decorated with carved rain gutters. It nested in a garden of flowers and vegetables, played about by a trio of children who dived in and out of soft-leaved bushes in a game of hide-and-seek.
My heart trembled.
“It’s safe here,” he told me. “No one can hurt you here. I won’t allow it.”
He led me there, past a white gate, into the garden. One of the children with a head of auburn hair tumbled out of a bush of flowers, arms full of a fat, golden chicken. He laughed as the bird fought, but let it go on seeing me.
“Mom!” He got up and ran to me.
As though summoned by his cheer, the other two reappeared, a girl with silver hair who looked to be the oldest and an even smaller boy with the same red-brown hair. Like the man who had led me here, their features were hard to decipher, but their warm weight as they ran into my skirts felt very real.
“Is the baby still asleep?” asked the man.
“I made sure to pass his window while we played,” said the girl. She made a stiff attempt of looking professional and formal that just made me laugh. Look at her, trying to be oh so grown up. “No crying as of yet, sir!”
“Good report, captain,” said the man as he pat her head. “Clear off, boys, so your mother can get inside.”
They did back off, though the youngest looked as though he were considering burying under her skirt and making it his mobile tent.
The man smacked the rump trying to shimmy its way in. “Out. Now.”
The boy did so, pouting.
I just watched, hands to my chest, both in wonder and disbelief. It felt as though the sun had inserted a bit of itself inside me.
Children parted, he continued to lead me once more by my fingers, into the beautiful cottage, which I found full of lovingly made furniture and carefully cleaned surfaces. The details blurred, but the path he took me along shone out in brilliant colors.
He took me to a room that had a cradle next to the window. Little hands reached out from within to play with a mobile that hung just within reach.
Then I was looking in, the man’s warm hand releasing mine to trace down my back.
“This is part of it, right?” he murmured into my ear. “What my Lilly wants?”
The little baby’s attention had moved from the mobile to me, and an instant gummy smile dimpled round cheeks. It kicked in excitement, babbling and cooing with its eyes arrested on me. As I reached down for the baby, it flailed its arms in a happy squeal.
The baby fit in my arms just as my first had, though instead of being gray and still he was pink, squirming, and squawking in happiness.
The silver man brushed his nose past my ear. His fingers passed through my long hair.
“I’ll give this to you, beloved. All of this happiness, for you, and anything else you desire. So please…”
The colors and sensations faded. Stripes of cool stripped my skull where lines of heat had once been, and the dark undersides of my eyelids came into being. But I could still feel the ghost of the bundle in my arms and hear the echo of the love I had felt.
A hand brushed against mine and I opened my eyes.