June 24th, 2012


Back Bay, I.3

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← back to installment I.2

III. Daylight: Charlie

I wake in softness. Feathers cradle me below; feathers warm me above. I think I'm in heaven, but then my eyes open on M's guest room, looking just the same as it had the night before.

How many nights before?

I stretch and feel fine. I poke my feet out from the feather comforter and peel away layers of bandages. The gauze comes away bloody, but the skin beneath them is pink and whole. I'm fine. More than fine. My mind is clear, my body strong, my feelings calm.

I push away the heavy curtains from the window and moonlight streaks across the bed.

Have I slept for a whole day? Two whole days? More?

The moon still looks full so it couldn't be too long--unless it was a whole month.

I shiver and notice a large, silver shoe box on the foot of the bed, an envelope reading "Serena" in spidery sepia ink taped to the top. I crawl down the field of feathers to investigate and discover a thermos of coffee, a cup of OJ, and a buttery almond croissant on the floor at the foot of the bed. I work on breakfast as I unfurl the letter.

I had to go to work. The box is from Charlie. Lock the door when you leave. Good luck.
Inside the box I find:

  • A photograph of Charlie looking about 10 years old and holding an infant in front of a stand of trees. On the reverse, cracking blue ballpoint dates it: June 1968 - C & S.
  • A brass key tagged with an address on a yellowed label attached by a shred of rough twine.
  • A black velvet pouch containing a large purple crystal the size of my fist, and a smaller purple crystal on a silver chain.
  • A very heavy metal cube with a seam around the top and no obvious latch.
  • A set of Polaroids showing a big white house and a bunch of people going in and out, none of whom I recognize. Well, one of them looks just like the thin-faced man from my vision, but that has to be my imagination.
  • A sealed envelope, with my name written on it in strong purple ink.

Inside the envelope I find:

Dear Serena,
The key is to my house. Everything mine is now yours. I wish I could have hugged you again while I was still alive. You were, you are, and you always will be, dear to me.
I love you,
P.S. Do NOT open the box until you face the Beast.
I close the shoebox and finish breakfast. I don't want to stay here and I don't have anywhere else to go, so I put on an old too-big black dress and pair of China slippers I find beside my breakfast, slip the brass key in my pocket and the shoebox under my arm, and step out into the night.

Portland, Maine.
My name is Serena Lynn Penny, and I am 17 years old.

I have escaped the Ankill Institute for Emotionally Disturbed Teens, which is where the state put me after my last failed foster placement. I have no idea what happened to my real parents. I don't remember them at all. I do know the authorities are looking for me by now, and I've never been any good at evading them. But this is the longest I've evaded them.

This is also the longest I've been without medication since I was 11.

And this is the first time I've felt secure in these facts of my existence or hopeful of my continued existence in even longer.

The street is slick with moonlight and the air holds the promise of summer. "Where can I find..." I ask a man on a corner, showing him the address on the tag around my brass key.

I follow the man's directions until I'm standing before a two-story brick building fronted by a low cast iron fence and topped with an octagonal widow's walk. The building has been split into two townhouses, and I make for the one on the left, as though I know where I'm going.
The brass key fits in the lock easily and twists. And then I touch the crystal knob and--

blood and iron
green eyes, wild with mortality, clawing for the door--

"Oh please Serenity, you can't possibly think you can get inside your house and be safe," the thin-faced man shakes his head. He's in his 40's, a little white at the temples, goomed and tidy in a dark gray suit and black turtleneck. A pendant of twisted shapes swings on a thick silver chain around his neck, moonlight catching in the round eye-shaped stone at the center. A dead eye, a fish eye, a cancerous goat eye--

Charlie smiles around claw marks that have shredded the right side of her face as her left hand contacts the door knob. "You will take me to the Bhrunhil now, Evan Ethridge," she says.

The thin-faced man nods, made slightly uncertain by Charlie's out-of-place smile. "Yes. Finally. Take my hand."

Charlie gasps breath, buckling over her right side where she tries to hold in a river of blood from a deep gash made by a huge knife or maybe a sword. Then she straightens, looking not at the thin-faced man but past him at someone who isn't there (yet). "The Cult of Icthar has the Sword of Deliverance and the Magus. The Cult of--"

The vision is gone. I stand panting, alone on the doorstep, the mild night innocent of violence. Breeze fluffs my ash-colored hair. It's only the madness. Only that I'm off my meds. But that's the safe and easy answer, isn't it? It doesn't explain the shoebox and the key and how Deliverance and M know my name.

I walk through the door.

A warm lamp glows in a living room cozy with mismatched antiques and shells and dried flowers and small works of art. On a low table beside French doors that open into an overgrown garden, a large framed photograph of a smiling Charlie beams. I start toward the photo but am stopped by a breaker of sadness. The room smells of safety and kindness, of Charlie who always came to me when the nightmares were strong, when I would get beat near unconscious by a foster da or a playground kid or someone from protective services or an orderly at a hospital. Charlie who'd always been there for me, comforting, more real than the people I could touch. Charlie, the only one who loved me in the entire world. Charlie who was dead. Charlie, who until just now, even I hadn't believed was real.

But she has to be real. She lead me out of Ankill. And then there is the key, the photo...

If she is really real, what does that mean about my visions? I want to ask Charlie, but she's gone.

I collapse around a tattered teddy bear on the sofa, sobbing for the loss of something I'd never really had.

Later, I find the second shoebox behind the teddy bear. Inside is a Maine driver's license, passport, title to the townhouse, and birth certificate, all in the name of Serenity Banks. The license and passport both have a photograph of me. A slightly older and better kempt me, but still quite clearly me.

I can't make sense of how that can be until I find the green contact lenses and red hair dye in the pretty tile bathroom. Green the color of Charlie's eyes. Red the color of Charlie's hair. Only, they weren't the color of Charlie's eyes or hair.

I pull out the old photograph of Charlie from 1968 and take a closer look. The patina of age hasn't distorted the colors of the print after all. Charlie in the photo has ash-colored hair, same as mine. She has blue-gray eyes, same as mine. Same as the fuzz on the head of the infant cradled in her arms. The infant's eyes are the same as mine.

Wedged in the pages of the otherwise empty passport I find a poem written in Charlie's strong purple ink:

Two sisters had she, the mother of the sea,
Two sisters pure of heart.
The one saw the future,
The other the past,
But each other they never would see,
For foresight had no future
And to hindsight would future's fate be.

Back of the photograph: June 1968, C & S. Charlie and Serena. Charlie's blood was same as mine.