I reach my apartment door before I realize that my purse and everything in it – keys, wallet, cell phone – are missing. I know Wynn will be at work, so I head back downstairs to the superintendent. He looks surprised when he opens the door and keeps eyeing me when he thinks I’m not looking. I explain that I was robbed and that I can’t get into my apartment or call anyone for help. Luckily he knows me and agrees to unlock my door before strongly encouraging me to have the locks changed. I assure him that I will and he leaves me alone in the empty apartment.
I’m already making a mental list of everything I will need to do to replace the contents of my purse when I notice it sitting on the kitchen table. There is a note beside it, written in Wynn’s loopy handwriting:
In case you come home.
Ryan found this just outside the back door of the pub. We went to the police but they said there was no sign of foul play and you had to be missing for a while before they’d consider it a Missing Persons Case. A cop stopped in though and said he’d look around. He said he was your friend (and he was CUTE!!).
I really really really hope you’re reading this. Call me as soon as you get in!!!
Shit, Yagher knows I’m missing. I rummage through the purse for my phone but it isn’t there. I eventually find it charging on the kitchen counter. I swear Wynn thinks of everything. I give her a quick call and it takes me even longer to convince her that I’m okay than it did Grant. I tell her I’ll see her when she gets home and yes, absolutely she can buy me dinner.
In my bedroom I throw my clothes onto the daunting pile already flowing out of the laundry hamper. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and my mouth literally falls open. The area around my right eye is puffy and bruised. There’s also a faint bruise on my forehead where it connected with Mirena’s face. My lip is split from one of the times she knocked me over. My wrists and ankles are swollen and purple. My forearms have hand-shaped bruises from her strong grip.
I fall onto my bed and stare at the ceiling, letting everything wash over me. At first all I think about are petty things: my room is a mess, I’m filthy, I have nothing to wear. Gradually I allow myself to acknowledge more pressing concerns: I have to fabricate an alibi for my disappearance and my bruises, there is no way I am going to be able to hide what happened from Yagher, it’s possible that woman might not be finished with me. Then I remember Mirena standing over me, diving into my memories over and over again and I start to cry.
I obsess over those moments of my life she made me relive.
The first time I showed a boyfriend my scars and he looked at me with disgust. He told me I was an attention whore and that if I was really depressed I’d try to kill myself instead.
The time my father shouted at my mother because she’d bought herself a new shirt for the first time in a year. The way she bit her lip to prevent the kneejerk reaction to defend herself while he called her useless and blamed her for not being able to help me pay for school. Even though he had bought himself a new stereo only a week before.
The absolute fury in her face when I told him that he wasn’t being fair.
All of the times she was angry with me for standing up to him. My own guilt because I knew she would be the one who suffered later. As if he was a natural disaster and I forgot to close the door. As if he was an act of God and not a human being responsible for his own actions.
The time he told me I was on drugs because I confessed my decision to focus on my singing career instead of going to university. The way he looked at me in disgust and told me I’d be begging them for help within the year. The way he threatened to berate my mother if I said a word against him.
Every single time my mother looked at me and told me that I had abandoned her by moving away. That by not suffering with her, I was betraying her.
As I lie on the bed, undressed and unshowered, I wrap myself in that guilt like a comfortable old sweater. Useless again. Weak. Why did I ever trick myself into thinking that I was strong enough to help anyone?
I know I should shower. That I should be building an alibi for Yagher. That I should be answering all of the missed calls and texts on my cell phone. That I should be calling Hanson’s to apologize for missing my shift this morning. But my body feels so heavy and I’m so tired.
When I close my eyes, Mirena is there waiting. Her cruel face. Her skin against mine. I cringe in fear, but my heart races with a different emotion. Anger.
She made you feel this. She made you relive this pain. She dragged you through the mud to get what she wants and if you stop now, she will. If Yagher finds out about what happened, he’ll fly off the handle. There’s a chance he’ll find Hunter, and Grant too. Think of Brie who gave up everything to save Grant’s life. Think of Grant, who took you home and waited to leave until you got inside. Get up.
I will my body up and into the bathroom. I brush my teeth and hair while I run a bath. I force myself to focus solely on the relaxing warmth of the water, on the way it soothes my aching muscles. I take my time, cleansing and relaxing before I dry off and find a pair of clean pyjamas at the bottom of one of my dresser drawers. In pink cotton shorts and a mint green tank top, I toss all of my filthy clothes into a basket along with a bottle of laundry detergent, my wallet, cell phone, and one of my folklore books. From there I head down to the laundry room. I refuse to think of anything but comfort and relaxation, allowing myself time to recover before figuring out what the hell I’m supposed to do next.
The repetitive whirr and hum of the washing machines and dryers lulls me into a meditative trance. I am thinking of nothing in particular as I flip the large and colourfully illustrated pages of the thick volume in my lap. I’m not reading so much as letting the beautiful and alien images wash over me, immersing me in a richly unfamiliar world. I try not to acknowledge the fact that I am using magic and fantasy to escape from the magical and fantastic. That somehow even the intricate battle scenes, the noble deaths of kings and the slaughter of innocents by wrathful deities, seem elegant and regal when on a printed page described as events long past.
Finally an image catches my attention, wrenching me from my stupor. It is of a large cat – jet black except for a distinct white patch under its throat. I look at the small caption to its right.
Cat Sidhe – From Celtic mythology. These magical cats were regarded as either fairy creatures or transfigured witches. It is likely they were inspired by Kellas Cats – a wildcat-domestic hybrid found in Scotland.
I flip the page and begin reading the full description of the creature, occasionally flipping the page back to look at the intricately painted illustration there. I’m sure this is the same creature as Hunter’s companion. The entry tells me very little, but I feel somewhat triumphant having discovered something for myself.
I vaguely notice when someone shuffles past me and begins loading the machine across from my chair. I hear the clink of coins and the crank of the mechanism as they start the cycle. I look up when I realize that they have been standing silently in front of me for some time.
It’s an older man, probably in his late sixties or early seventies. He’s taller than me, though not much, and comfortably overweight. His face is wide and would probably be quite pleasant if he smiled. He’s mostly bald, but small fuzzy tufts of white hair still cling above his ears and probably around the back of his head. They stand out starkly against his dark skin. When he speaks, his accent is European. I’m not good at accents, but I’d guess Scottish or some kind of English.
“Beautiful book, that,” he mutters, gesturing towards my book.
I smile nervously, not recognizing this man. “Yes. It was a bit hard to find. I had to order it. Perks of working in a bookstore.”
He points a thick finger towards the picture of the Cat Sidhe and says something in a language I don’t recognize. It is rhythmic, like a poem or a song. He seems distracted for a moment afterwards, but then smiles gently at me.
“It’s a bedtime story… in Gaelic,” he explains, “It’s about the death of the King of the Cats.”
“I read about that story,” I flip the page and point at the text there.
He cranes his neck and skims the page. While he is reading, I notice his eyes flicker to my neck and then down to my wrists. I’m suddenly very conscious of my battered appearance. I can’t help but wonder what he’s thinking about me. If he’s wondering if I was in an accident. If I’m being abused.
He stands up straight and nods, making a thoughtful grunting noise.
I rub at my wrists, realizing how tender they still feel. “I guess I look pretty rough… umm… these are…”
“Skin mage,” it’s almost a whisper. I cast eyes downwards for a minute, trying to decide whether I should feign ignorance. What’s the point? I nod.
“Freyja House or Solomon? The D’arc clan used to train skin mages, but I don’t think they’ve had one in a couple decades,” he says.
“Huh?” I look back up at him, confused. “The woman who did it… her name was Mirena. I don’t know her last name. Is that what you mean?”
“Her last name wouldn’t help you much. We’re all given unique surnames when we’re born so we can’t be traced back to our families,” he says before pausing to think. He runs his hand over his head, and then rubs the back of his neck. “Mirena… hmmm… I think she was part of the Freyja bunch. Tiny little blond waif last time I saw her. Good with animals, not so much with people. That was a long time ago now.”
“Sounds like her,” I remember her fury over her dog, Charlie. I hesitate, then ask: “What… house or family or whatever… are you from?”
“Doesn’t matter… they’re all gone now. Might as well call it the Sean Harris clan now. That’s my name,” he says as he reaches out his hand to me. My own hands and arms automatically tense and they feel heavy as lead as I try to lift one up to him. My brows sink and I feel embarrassed by my apprehension.
“It’s okay. It’s a reasonable reaction after what you’ve been through,” his voice is firm but understanding, accepting my fear, but leaving no room for self-pity. “So, how did a human like you manage to piss off Freyja House?”
At that moment a mother walks in with her two young children, loud and bursting with far too much energy for this small basement room. The man, Sean Harris, slowly blinks his eyes and rubs his temples. “I’m going for a walk,” he says, “You can join me for tea this afternoon if you’d like? Around three maybe? I haven’t talked to anyone in a long time.”
I know I should be more apprehensive of strangers, but I want to trust this man. I figure I could use more allies, and I quietly pray that he actually is one. “Sure,” I answer.
“You can find me on the third floor,” he says as he walks away. He stops, but doesn’t turn around as he adds, “I’d tell you to take the elevator, but I think you already know that.”