Beyond the Silver Rainbow 2: uphill

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Mike pedaled so hard down the road that Nancy had to lower her eyelids until they were almost closed to keep her eyeballs from freezing. “You’re fast!” she shouted into the wind.

“I’ve been practicing!” Mike yelled back.

Nancy curled her toes make sure her mother’s shoes would stay on her feet as she bumped along on the back of the bike, taking up most of the seat while Mike rode standing. His shoulders made a little seesaw in her hands. His only mistake aside from grabbing her the wrong shoes had been to tear the shoulder seam of his old gray jacket on the way down from the window, and now, lined with little white threads, it opened and closed as he moved. He was wearing a red shirt underneath it.

Nancy changed channels.

Mom would get better. Her smiles were still like rips in wrapping paper, but Dad was spending more time with her now. They were building a real relationship out of the hidden mess of things, maybe finally getting it that there were some treasures even Tupperware couldn’t preserve, no matter how good and clean and under control the container. Fear wasn’t all bad. A little fear could be good for you. Maybe it was sort of like medicine, like plant food for love.

Jonathan had never been a cafeteria type ― he was more the type to wander around outside eating from a bag ― but in late November he had materialized in the back corner of the caf where, once Nancy and Steve found him and the weather really cooled, he began to appear every day.

Their table became a comfortably silent refueling station for a party of three. It was in the glances a little and in the silence a lot that this wasn’t just an understanding, it was a pact: no parents, no mentors, no counsellors, no psychologists, no explanations, no bullshit. Everyone was here, so everything was fine. Nice, simple, case closed.

It was so nice, in fact, that sometimes ― pretty often ― Nancy didn’t even need to eat, she just recharged the ol’ intangible trifecta batteries until the first bell severed the connection and ushered her back to a life that flowed by at an arm’s length away. Tommy and Carol were not missed, Nicole was not relevant, and Nancy’s casual friendships, all of which reminded her of Barbara, froze solid to slip away into an early winter. She didn’t even know Kathy anymore.

Cold dots prickled her cheeks. While the weather had warmed just enough the last few days to melt most of the Christmas snowfall away, it had started snowing again. She peeked at the road to check where they were. Clumpy flakes danced in the wide beam of Mike’s headlamp, mirroring the atmospheric motes of the poison place. Would she ever enjoy the sight of falling snow again?

“Your next right,” she said.

“What?”

“We’ve got to make a right, up here.”

“Oh, okay.”

A racking shiver emerged from the core of Nancy’s spine, making her fight to keep her balance. Between the sense of helplessness, the choice of transportation and the slightly too-big shoes, she felt exactly like a kid in disguise. Steve would be a comfort, assuming he wouldn’t kill her for getting him in trouble by showing up so late. It was already way past ten and Nancy wasn’t the one who normally did the showing up.

Hey, wanna have a movie night after the game? Hey, Dave’s cat had kittens, let’s go see them. Hey let’s go throw some stones in the quarry, I’ll show you how to skip ’em―okay, then you can show me how to skip ’em. Hey, it’s the Benny & Friends grand reopening today, you hungry? Hey, I got an idea, lets go running―I dunno where, like around. Running’s the cool thing to do now. Let’s just run.

Steve had given her a TV and a VCR for Christmas a month early, and a few nights each week, behind an adamantly locked door in the dark, they retreated into film and beat their bad memories to ribbons until his curfew. And it worked ― it actually worked ― because this wasn’t denial, it was a rhythm of gently persistent hypnosis, maintained in the knowledge that Hawkins probably still had invisible cancer but Hey, let’s pretend. Disbelief suspended until further notice.

The only place in Nancy’s room where the new TV could fit was the top of her studying desk. Unwilling to let her grades suffer, she had accepted the painful reality and put them to sleep. Steve celebrated her first B with a ruler-thin bottle of pilfered ice wine, passed between them. No glasses. It’s not like you’re any less smart now, he said when it turned out she was in mourning. It’s just that sometimes there are better ways to prove it.

“Help me out.” said Mike.

“I know.” Nancy leaned into the turn with him and they came out of it smoothly. “D’you think I’ve never been on the back of a bike before?”

“I’ve never seen you.”

“You’ve never seen a lot of things.”

“Har har.”

The wind was quieter on this winding road, buffeted by the dense evergreens lining the street. Mike had begun to huff and puff. “We almost there? My lungs are getting frostbit.”

“Actually yeah. Right after this curve, you should see… Yep. The pool.”

Mike braked a little too hard. “Is that steam?

Behind Steve’s big grey house, an endless silver mist wafted up high and dissolved into a TV-static sky.

“Uh huh.”

“They heat their pool all through the winter?”

“I think his parents might be crazy.”

“If by crazy you mean rich,” Mike said, creeping their vehicle to a halt with his handbrakes. “Like really, really rich. Wow. I’ve never gone swimming in the winter. Outside, I mean.”

“I don’t think today’s your day.” Nancy hopped onto the road.

When Mike bent to lay his bike by the curb he stayed there, searching the ground. “Too bad,” he said absently.

“What are you doing?”

“Looking for stones. Tiny ones. Which window’s Steve’s?”

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“Holy shit, what happened to you?” Steve drew Nancy up into his arms and squeezed her so tightly she squeaked. “Why’s the kid here? All that ― that freaky business is over, right?”

“It’s probably nothing,” Nancy said, but a new tear tsunami had begun looming the moment he opened one of his front doors and now the wave crashed over her as hard as any other.

“It’s not nothing,” said Mike.

“Simmer down, little bro.” Steve’s voice hummed against Nancy’s ear through his sweatshirt. When he shushed into her hair she allowed herself a single sob and swallowed everything else, because if she let this emotional mess go on any longer she would end up subjecting him to a whole lot of crap he didn’t deserve. He had already made up for everything. She wouldn’t drag him through any more confusion than she had to.

“What’d you do kid? Didja ―”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“― punch your sister in the eye?” Steve leaned back to take Nancy’s face in his hands and stroked her temples. “Both eyes? Because that’s what it looks like.” He quieted, just for her: “I know exactly what this looks like.”

The weaker part of Nancy nearly crumbled to the stoop. “Do you know Nicole’s address?”

“Nicole?” He cocked his chin back and dropped his hands. “You mean Carol’s friend?”

“Stephen, what is this?”

Steve’s eyes lost their focus. “Heya, Pop.”

“Are you standing there with the door wide open in the middle of winter?” Mr. Harrington spoke in hushed tones and yet he boomed, as though he only lowered his voice because that was the most efficient way to roll it down the stairs. “We are not heating the outdoors.”

“You are too,” Mike mumbled. Nancy shot a foot back to kick him into silence, but only brushed his leg. He said “Ow” anyway.

“Sorry, Pop.”

“What the hell are you doing? It’s past eleven! Trying to sneak another girl in here in the middle of the night? Your mother is going to blow a gasket!”

Another girl? Nancy launched her eyebrows up at Steve. He spun around as though the look had made physical contact and scratched at the back of his head.

“I’m not trying to sneak anything.”

“Oh, I can see that! You’ve got a lot of nerve, Stephen, an abundance of nerve and less shame every day. Close that damn door for Christ’s sake!”

Nancy, who had been slowly leaning in to get a glimpse of the looming figure she still hadn’t met, found herself instead pushed steadily away by Steve’s patting hands. “Just ― one minute. Don’t go anywhere.” He guided her a step backwards. “Hold on.”

“Wait.” Mike jumped forward as the door swung closed and stuck his foot in the gap, where it bumped his shoe before it could fully shut. “Like this,” he whispered.

Nancy was about to pull Mike away when Steve, blank faced, said “K,” and turned back to his disgruntled father. It seemed the invisible man hadn’t noticed.

“― more I try to set you straight the more boldly you swing the other way, any other way. And you don’t seem to care which way, as long as it isn’t my way. Can you explain that? Explain it to me. Explain why you think it’s acceptable to throw another surprise party when you should be studying.”

Nancy flicked Mike’s ear. This was a terrible idea.

Mike shrugged. Not my fault he has a jerk for a dad.

Together they leaned in to listen.

“There’s no party. I didn’t even know they were coming.”

“They?”

“She has her little brother with her. He’s like ten years old.”

Mike was offended. Nancy tousled the snow from his hair.

“Oh, of course! Since, thanks to you, this is the house known state-wide as the place to go when kids want free liquor and a free swim, here they are.”

“I don’t know why they’re here. I think they just want to talk.”

“I am not running a public house. You watch yourself. Nobody ‘just wants to talk’ to the rich kid in town, Stephen. You would do well to get a grip on the concept of pretext. Just as you would do well to grasp the concept of study.

“Oh give me a break ―

“Don’t you dare raise your voice, young man.”

Nancy and Mike shared a look. The guy was a total mean-dad cliche. They were hearing in seriousness the sorts of things their own parents usually said in jest.

“What do you expect me to study during Christmas break?

“I expect you to study the mountain of information that flew by your pickled brains last semester, you boozing lowlife. No son of mine brings home straight Cs. No son of mine will bring home even one single C ever again. Do you understand me?”

Mike’s teeth had begun to show, his eyes to water. His foot! Steve had forgotten about it and was leaning on the door without thinking. Nancy placed her palm on the door. Mike shook his head at her really fast: No, it’s okay. Nancy pushed a little bit to save him some pain anyway.

“Yes, I understand you,” Steve said. He sounded like a different person ― one who had already heard all of this many times before.

“Do you understand Hardwood?”

“Yes, I understand Hardwood,” Steve recited.

“Six months.” Mr. Harrington’s feet creaked heavily up a few stairs.

“So can I at least talk to them?”

There was a long pause. The door bounced against Mike’s foot. He peeped a grunt of pain and immediately it began to swing open. Nancy caught the knob to hold it ― gently ― in place.

“You have twenty minutes. Use the garage.”

“Thank you,” said Steve. His father’s steps grew distant, then silent. In the exact same tone he mumbled “Fuck you,” and opened the door, carrying an uncharacteristic hunch in his shoulders. He looked from Nancy to Mike. “How’s your foot?”

“It’s fine.”

“Meet me around back.”

“Yeah, sure,” Nancy said. Steve shut the door.

What was Hardwood?

“Your boyfriend’s dad is such a dick,” Mike said, as Nancy led him past Steve’s car in the driveway and back to the rear of the house, climbing through a few crunchy snow drifts that hadn’t quite melted. “If I was in your place, I mean if I were you and I was a girl, I don’t think I’d want to marry Steve. He might be a cool guy and all but you’ve got to think of the future. His dad is not grandpa material. Would you leave that guy alone with your kids? I sure wouldn’t want to be alone with him. He’d cancel dessert over an elbow on the table. Why haven’t you told me to shut up yet? Hello?”

“Sorry, were you talking?” Nancy had heard him, distantly, without really thinking about anything he was saying.

“Nope, just singing to myself.”

Hardwood. Nancy pushed the high gate all the way open until it touched the wall. Six months. She toed the brick stopper in front of it to keep it open, just in case. Lowlife.

Through the mist floating up from the swimming pool, past an upturned snowy deck chair, the door at the backside of the Harringtons’ attached garage opened to blackness. Then the light turned on, cutting a bar of gold from the fuzzy grey-black night, and Steve emerged with a baby blue blanket in his arms. “Here,” he said, wrapping Nancy up.

“What’s this for?”

“You’re shaking. Did you guys bike here in the snow?”

“Yeah, we doubled,” Mike said. “Got here fast. I’ve been practicing.”

“Parents don’t know you’re gone?”

Nancy shook her head.

Steve guided Nancy toward the door with an arm around her, but she moved reluctantly. She hadn’t realized how cold she was, and now she shook and shuddered as if the subtle warmth of the blanket was drawing it out of her. She was so tired, she just wanted to sit down, and if she went inside there would be a place to sit down, but she couldn’t afford to sit down. “I have to talk to Nicole,” she pleaded.

Mike waved his arms around. “Can I have a blanket too?”

“On your left.” Steve pointed into the garage and Mike ran in. “So… hey.” He rubbed heat into Nancy’s shoulders. Her teeth chattered. She swore they had only started chattering just now. “What do you want with an airhead like Nicole?”

This was the moment to tell him about Jonathan. No, this was the moment to show him the camera. No, this was the moment to stomp her foot, demand an address and refuse to explain. She couldn’t do any of it. “What’s Hardwood?”

“Nuh-uh, you first.”

“And then you’ll tell me?”

Steve expelled a lungful of mist, searched the sky and casually plucked an answer from it. “Sure. Why not.”

Nancy entered the garage. The far side was occupied by a sports car with a silver-grey cover over it, which slanted down in front so that it looked vaguely like a shark. A stripe of red peeked out the bottom. Tools and pool equipment lined the walls of the nearer side, surrounding an old fraying easy chair and a sofa that had a knitted throw draped over the back. Mike was sitting in the chair, wrapped in a Kermit the Frog bedspread, tossing a can of beer between his hands.

“Michael!”

“Relax, I didn’t open it.”

“Hilarious, kid.” Steve snatched the can from Mike and held it out to Nancy. “So you’re another one who uses full names when pissed off, huh?”

“No.” Instead of accepting the beer, Nancy pulled the blanket off her shoulders and shrugged her backpack down to her forearm. “I have to show you something.” Except she couldn’t grab the zipper with her numb, shaking, stupid fingers.

“Hey.” Steve stuck out his lip, then his hand. “I got it. Trade?”

Nancy handed her backpack over with knitted brows, took the beer and instead of opening it, hugged herself. Steve began unzipping. Nancy couldn’t watch. She turned away, pulled the blue blanket back over herself and sat on the far end of the sofa with her chin on her knee. The can of beer lay abandoned in the crevace between the cushions beside her.

“The hell is this?” Jonathan’s new camera hung like an exposed corpse from the strap in Steve’s hand, its tangled flashbulb tilted at a grotesque angle. “I can’t believe it. No wait, yes I can. I should have known that asshole ― this cost me ― I was trying to ―” Steve rolled his eyes, shaking his head in bitter incredulity. “What did mister psycho stalker do, take a hammer to it in front of you? Or was it a baseball bat?”

“No!” Mike shouted. “He wouldn’t just throw it away!”

“Oh yeah what do you know, Kid Retard? You think you have any clue what ―”

“Do you even know my name? Nancy, your boyfriend’s a bigger jerk than his dad.”

“Mike!” Nancy wobbled.

“Well he is,” but the force of Mike’s conviction had left him.

Steve seemed to shrink. “Yeah, I am,” he said softly. “Sorry, Mike. Listen, your sister and I have to talk. Why don’t you…” He deposited the backpack and camera on the sofa on his way to a shelf behind it. Nancy, crouching, turned on cushioned ballerina tiptoes to watch him as he dug into a neglected pile of brown towels. “Why don’t you go for a swim?” he said. A pair of navy swim trunks sailed through the air, drawstrings flapping, and landed on Mike’s arm.

“Seriously?” said Mike, his eyes wide.

“Yeah, seriously. No cannonballs or my dad’ll knock both our heads off in one swing, got it?”

Mike jumped up with the trunks in his fist, nodding earnestly. “I’m a ghost,” he said.

“You can change by the car. Don’t scratch it.”

“Totally. Thanks Steve,” and Mike may as well have disappeared.

Nancy looked down in surprise. Jonathan’s camera had made its way back into her hands and she hadn’t even noticed. She held it close.

Steve draped the crib-sized Kermit blanket around his shoulders like a cape and flopped down onto the middle of the sofa, bouncing Nancy up and down. She reached over and pet Kermit’s nose with the backs of her fingers. “Was this yours?” she asked.

“Pff, what do you mean was it mine? It is mine.”

“I mean when you were a kid.”

“I still am a kid, whatever happened before. So are you.” The beer snapped open and hissed in Steve’s hands, startling her. “Sort of.”

“Thanks, but I’m not really in the mood. I don’t want to get drunk right now.”

“Fear of being naked is not the only thing this takes the edge off, you know that. I’m not trying to get you drunk. I’m trying to get you to stop shaking. We’ll share. It’s the only one I have anyway.” Steve took a big gulp and this time when he held it out, Nancy accepted it. “Why don’t you tell me what climbed up Byers’ ass so we can do something about it?”

She told him everything, wetting her mouth with small nervous sips between sentences. She told him about the tentative plans for some kind of multi-family New Years’ Eve party, the long peaceful walk to Jonathan’s house, the way an instinct or the wind blew her toward that tiny little glint in the frozen ditch before she got there. She backtracked into places she loathed to tread ― the dying deer, the slimy habitat to which it had been taken, the shrinking doorway that Jonathan had just barely pulled her out of ― while Steve, rapt, finished most of the beer himself. Then she jumped ahead to Mike’s discovery of the differently branded camera strap. She was perfectly honest about every fact and perfectly secretive about every feeling. Almost every feeling.

“Jonathan’s a really good person,” she finished, having dented a long crescent moon pattern into the leather strap with her nail. “He is sane, and smart, and… gentle.

Steve scoffed, but a look proved it was mostly in good humor.

“You weren’t there when I gave this to him. You haven’t seen how he is with Will. And I mean, if he wanted to be resentful or jealous or something he would sell it, or trade it in for a different one, not throw it away. He couldn’t afford to throw it away. It’s too valuable to lose.”

“Assuming he has no pride,” Steve said, rubbing his jaw. “So now you want to bug Nicole because she’s in the photography club?”

“Right.”

“I don’t think she has a dark room at home, Nance.”

“Well, whatever. She can tell us what to do. Maybe she has the chemicals, or a book. Anything.”

“You’re forgetting she’s also an airhead. Why don’t we just go to the cops?”

“Because they’ll shut us out. They tried to shut us out last time. We had to steal our own equipment back and trap the monster in secret. That’s why we were alone in his house when you found us.” Nancy played with the lens, tried to straighten it within its casing, gave up and found reluctant sympathy in Steve’s eyes. “Mike is right. We need to know what’s in this camera. We need as much information as we can get before we tell the police.”

“Did you even call the guy’s mom?”

“Their phone doesn’t ring. The last time Will was over to see my brother he told my mom they’re taking a break from phone calls until the new year. I guess they want some peace and quiet. Anyway…” Nancy took the beer from Steve’s hand to steal the last (flat and kinda gross) sip. “Hardwood.”

Steve swatted at his ear as though beseiged by a mosquito and looked around the room, the turn of his head following an invisible yet riveting menace. “Mumblarycool,” he said.

“What?”

“You know.” He broke into a coughing fit. “Mistle,” he hacked into his hand, “Mistlewary school.”

Nancy nearly choked for real. “Military school? Your dad is sending you to military school?”

He shrugged, frowning. “I don’t know why you’re so worried. There won’t be any other girls there.”

“Steve!”

“I’ve still got a whole semester to fix my grades before he registers me. You can help me study. You’re even familiar with my learning style. It’ll be cake.”

Nancy put on her sceptic hat. “Your learning style?”

“Strip studying: the fastest way to straight As.”

“So when you said your dad was a ‘grade A asshole,’ you actually meant it?”

Steve was taken aback. “Huh. I guess I did. How did you even remember that?” He leaned in, dominating Nancy’s field of view. “The girl’s got a photographic memory and a beautiful voice. I’ll just lay around listening while she tells me everything I need to know and then I’ll ace every single test. I’m telling you: cake.”

Nancy shut her eyes and sighed. School didn’t work that way. Before she could say so Steve was kissing her, sliding his fingers up the nape of her neck, tonguing the seam of her lips with the gentlest persistence, but she put a hand on his collar, kept the kiss chaste and ended it with a deep inhale and a savoring smack. It felt good to smile again. It also felt guilty. “We’ve already been here too long. We need to get Mike out of the pool and ― Aw crap, wet hair on the bike? It’ll kill him.”

“So I’ll drive. Nicole’s around the long corner from Jonathan’s place, lucky us. She’s the one we get ― we got ― all the…” Steve was in the middle of regretting this sentence. “…Byers stories from.”

Byers stories, as if a family could be reduced to a situation comedy. Nancy shook off her disgust. “Your dad’s okay with you going out?”

“Nah, but so what? Screw him. Things to see, people to do. I’ll make ―” Steve’s eyes bugged.

Nancy’s heart crashed into her legs.

Mike was screaming.

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Beyond the Silver Rainbow 1: Rivers flow

Fiction following season one of ‘Stranger Things.’

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“At first the witch was tempted to run away from Dorothy, but she happened to look into the child’s eyes and saw she had a simple soul. The little girl did not know of the wonderful power of the Silver Shoes. The Wicked Witch laughed to herself and thought, ‘I can still make her my slave, for she does not know how to use her power.'”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

“One of the highest pleasures is to be more or less unconscious of one’s own existence, to be absorbed in interesting sights, sounds, places, and people. Conversely, one of the greatest pains is to be self-conscious, to feel unabsorbed and cut off from the community and the surrounding world.”
― Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

“I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.”
― Zdzisław Beksiński

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Mike heard Nancy sniffing as he walked to his room after brushing his teeth, so he approached the glow at the crack of her bedroom door. She sobbed dryly to herself, crying more quietly than he thought normal girls ever did.

“Nancy?” Mike put his eye to the light. His sister lay on her bed, facing the window and curled up in a ball so all he could see was her bony back and stringy hair. “…Nance?”

“Go away.”

He wanted to. He was only trying to be nice and she was acting like a jerk. So Steve dumped you already? He could have said it. You didn’t make out with him as much as he wanted you to so he found a new girlfriend, right? “Nancy, come on.”

“Michael, screw off!”

No wait, I bet it’s the dragon breath, that’s why he dumped you. I should tell Mom and Dad so they can ground you again for never brushing your teeth. Grounding her hadn’t worked so they gave her special flavored toothpaste that smelled like bubblegum and Mike had never been allowed to have any. Sure it was a million years ago but it still sucked.

He took a deep breath. They couldn’t fight anymore. Nothing was the same anymore. He held tight to the doorknob and kept his fingers clear of the edge in case Nancy might launch up from the bed and try to slam it in his face, like that time she’d almost busted his nose over a missing (firecrackered) Barbie head. “We’re supposed to tell each other everything now, remember?”

“No we’re not. We were supposed to when we were still trying to find Will and Barb, but now Will’s back and Barb’s gone forever so if you would just leave me alone please.

“You don’t know Barb’s gone forever. She might be –”

Nancy roared her frustration and bounced her bedsprings. Afraid she was coming at him, Mike kicked the door open and held out his hands to defend himself, but through his cringing squint he found she wasn’t there. She wasn’t even on the bed. She was gone. What if that yell had been — Oh no. “Uh… Where…”

“I’m down here, stupid. Close the door.”

On the floor, Nancy’s wiggling feet stuck out from behind the far side of the bed. Her pale pink socks were splattered with dried mud and the soles were brown. Mike closed the door until it clicked.

“You can come in but don’t look at me,” Nancy said.

Mike leaned on the curly white frame at the end of the bed and put an elbow over it. “Why, did you grow a third eye or something?”

“I’ve always had a third eye. It’s how I know when you come in here and take my stuff.”

“I don’t take your stuff!”

“You took my dress for your girlfriend.”

Mike decided not to let the word bother him. His heart was still thumping a little too hard from that dumb scare a minute ago and he didn’t want to give it anything else to wig out over. “Lucas found your dress in the basement. And you didn’t know we took it until you saw her wearing it, so I know you don’t have a third eye.”

In her hiding place beside the bed, Nancy took a big, shuddering breath. “Jonathan has a third eye, in a way.”

“Huh?”

“But now I have it.”

“You… What? You’re being weird.”

“I found it on the side of the road.”

“You found Jonathan’s third eye on the side of the road?”

“Basically.”

“Nancy, are you on drugs?” Mike leaned over to see her laying on her stomach with her head in her arms. “Did Steve give you drugs? Is that what’s wrong?”

Mike thought Nancy had started crying again from the way she shook, but then she sat up, wiping her face with fisted sweater sleeves, and despite her red blotches and puffy lizard eyes she was smiling. Maybe almost laughing. “No you booger, Steve didn’t give me any drugs.” She leaned onto her bed and reached under her pillow, then stopped to aim a harsh look at Mike. “Keep a secret? I’m dead serious.”

“Of course. I promise.”

“Dead fucking serious.”

“I promise!”

“He gave me this.” Carefully, and with suddenly shivering hands, Nancy pulled a black and silver object from underneath her pillow. A dangling strap, a tubular lens. Nancy’s expression began to crumple, so Mike thrust his hands out and took the camera from her. She immediately folded her arms on the edge of the bed and hid her face in their nest. “Steve bought it for me to give to Jonathan for Christmas because his last one broke.” Her voice grated. “Anyway, I gave it to him, but…”

The camera, heavy in Mike’s hands, was streaked with dirt like Nancy’s socks. It felt expensive. Will’s family was poor. He turned it over, inspecting it. The lens was broken, rattling around inside its casing, and the flash was bent to the side. “You found this on the ground?”

“By his house. I went to ask him if he’s working New Years’ Eve and there it was in the ditch. I don’t even know how I noticed it, it was so dark. I just felt like I should look there, like my head — Whatever, my head’s screwed up, I can’t think yet. I just ran home. I’m still trying to calm down.”

“Are you sure it’s the same camera?”

“I kept the receipt in case it wasn’t… I don’t know, in case it wasn’t right. It’s the new one.”

“Did it come with a strap too?”

“What? Are you seriously geeking out over this? Who cares?”

Mike rolled his eyes. “If Jonathan put the strap on it himself that means he was actually using it and didn’t just throw it away.”

Nancy’s head shot up. Her anger was hideous. “He wouldn’t just throw it away!”

“I know.” Mike held out his hand and gestured downward with it. “I know he wouldn’t. I’m just saying. I’m just trying to think, okay?” Nancy put her face back into her arms. “It would be…” He didn’t want to say this. Puzzles were a lot easier to take than real life, or at least they were easier than what real life was turning into. “It would be better if he had just thrown it away. You know?”

“Yeah.” Nancy sniffed loudly. It was gross. “I know.”

Mike inspected the strap, wiping mud flakes away with his thumb, and discovered tiny lettering stamped into the leather: Canon. He checked the camera: above the lens the logo read Pentax. The fear came back again and didn’t go away. Instead it spread into his arms and legs, itching and aching, stupidly telling him to run somewhere, anywhere. “The strap is a different brand. He was definitely using the camera.”

“In the dark, in the winter?”

“Who knows? It could have been this afternoon. Maybe he had the day off work.” Mike tapped all eight fingers on the camera’s body in a frantic rhythm. “But he was using it. He was taking pictures.” His fingers stilled. “He was taking pictures! Hey, you didn’t open the back, did you?”

“I didn’t, and it was closed when I found it. But… Mike?” When Nancy lifted her head this time, she looked different, worse than upset: her tearful grimace had relaxed to hopelessness. “We already know what took him. There’s another thing out there. Even if he got a picture of it, so what? We know what it looks like. We know what happened.”

“No we don’t.”

“We know what happened to Barb.”

“No, we don’t. We know what happened to Will.”

Nancy smiled a tiny little bit, the sort of smile old people saved for kids they thought were being cute.

Mike glared at her. He was not being cute. “If he didn’t just lose the camera by accident, if something… got him, we’ll probably have to tell someone so they can go into the upside down and find him, which is dangerous, and if we hand this over for evidence we’ll never see it again. And for all we know we might be freaking out a ton of people for no reason. You want to do all that without knowing for ourselves exactly what he saw?” He held up the camera and shook it for emphasis. “Without seeing through his eye?”

Nancy clapped her hands to the top and bottom of the camera. “Then don’t wave the thing around, you’ll trip the catch and expose the film.”

“Okay, so. I have no idea how to develop pictures.”

“I have an idea. He showed me once, but… ” Nancy crunched her eyes shut, froze for a brain-racking moment and shook her head. “I can’t. I don’t have all the details. I was too worried about Barbara.”

“Do you know anyone who could help?”

Nancy dropped her gaze. “Shit,” she murmured.

“No?”

“Yes. She’s just not someone I want to talk to.”

“Can you go talk to her tonight? Can we go right now?”

“It’s after nine!”

“So we’ll pretend we’re asleep first.”

“And it’s freezing.”

“So bundle up. We’ll take my bike and get there fast. I’ll double ride you. You’re really small for a big sister.”

“No, Mike. No. I’m not bringing my litte brother to… I don’t… ugh.” Nancy hung her head. “I hardly know her. I don’t even know where she lives.”

“Who do you know that knows where she lives? We’ll go see them first and they’ll tell us where to go!”

“Mike! Would you please back off?” Nancy was wasting time cowering and making faces when she should have been planning. “You’re like some kind of… frog… jumping around in my face, some slimy little toad… thing…”

“Toads aren’t slimy. They’re an entirely differen –”

“Shut UP Mike!” Nancy yanked the camera out of his hands and bundled it to her chest. The hideous burning anger had returned to her face. “You’re so — You’re just –”

Mike backed away until he bumped into the new TV on Nancy’s desk. This was not the reaction he had expected. He didn’t know what he had expected. This was exactly what he should have expected. “Sorry,” he said. “I get really focused sometimes.”

Nancy stood slowly. “You mean obsessed.”

“I mean I want to do something about Will’s brother before their mom gets any clue anything is wrong! What do you want to do, sit around crying all night like a little girl?”

“I thought you said you were sorry.”

“I am sorry. But I still want to do something.”

“Sexist twerp,” Nancy grumbled, hugging the camera close as if it was her baby and Mike was trying to eat it.

“No. I am not that. You shut up. Elle is way younger than you and she’s more grown up than anyone I’ve ever met, guys included. Whether you’re being a little girl or not is in here.” Mike tapped his temple. “Come with me. Let’s get this done.”

“No, you shut up,” Nancy hissed, clearly wishing she could shout at him. “I am not going to just stand here while my dumb kid brother lectures me about growing up. You have no idea what I’ve done or what I can do. Don’t you dare talk to me like that again. Let’s go.”

Mike blinked. “What?”

“I said let’s go. You go to bed, I go to bed, then Mom and Dad go to bed. Then you get our coats and shoes in perfect slience without waking Holly and come back up here. We’ll go out my window and take your bike to Steve’s because he knows where Nicole lives. Okay?”

“Uh. Yeah. Yeah, okay. Sounds great.” Mike put his hand on the doorknob, then stopped himself. “Wait. Dad sleeps in his chair in the back room. My stuff’s at the back door. I can’t get past him. He’ll be watching TV ’til who knows how late.”

Nancy smiled slyly, squinting her already squinty eyes. “Not since the whole incident when those bigwigs tossed the house,” she said. “They’ve been back in their bedroom for weeks now. Remember Christmas?”

Of course Mike remembered Christmas, it was four days ago. He remembered dragging Nancy out of bed and not letting go of her wrist no matter how many times she swatted him. He remembered pouncing onto the foot of his parents’ bed and jumping around as if he was ten again, overwhelmed with a joy that seemed to erupt from nowhere. His parents — both of them — hugged him in turn, while Nancy apologized for failing to rein him in. “Duh.”

“One more thing,” Nancy said, kneeling beside her bed. She flipped up her pastel bedspread and slid her arm under the mattress. “I’m going to have this on me just in case, and I want you to be prepared if you see it. Don’t touch it and don’t tell Steve. Don’t tell anyone.”

Nancy had a gun.

“What the fuck!?” Mike said, then covered his mouth right after. “Is it loaded?”

“Not right now, but it will be. Or it might be.” Hanging from Nancy’s hand the gun looked as dark and heavy as a black hole. She pointed it at the floor and fiddled with it, opening the chamber and closing it again. “It always might be loaded, even when it isn’t. Remember that, okay? And don’t ever touch it.” She stared at Mike, her lip trembling in emphasis. “Never, ever.”

“I could handle it if I had to.”

“Have you ever even held one before?”

“No.”

“Then don’t touch it.”

“Well how am I ever supposed to learn…?” But Nancy’s evil eye cut him off. He tried another avenue: “Where did you get it?”

“Jonathan gave it to me. It wasn’t really his to give away but he wanted me to have it just in case, so… Here it is. Merry Christmas.” A shyness came over Nancy in that moment, a ducking of the head, a twinkling guilt as though she had been caught doing something wrong but didn’t know whether to feel bad about it.

It must have been Will’s mom’s gun. Nancy probably knew she wasn’t supposed to have it, but this was not the time to bug her to give it back.

“You and Jonathan are pretty good friends now, huh?”

“Yeah.” Nancy was calm. She slid the gun beneath her pillow where the camera had been. “We’re good friends.”

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Mater Artium: A Time Lapse

Fiction for the 2001 film ‘Kate & Leopold.’
Necessity is the mother of invention.

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Kate relaxed into the leading rhythm of Leopold’s dance steps, her lips still damp from his unreserved kiss, and watched her new audience watching her. Handlebar moustaches and crisp collars brought friendlier faces than did flat curls and lace: the women were unhappy with her.

Whilst turning along with Leopold she spotted an expression of jealousy among the other dancers, then one of disappointment, then another of confusion, and yet all the while the palpable otherness separating her from her surroundings contained the girls’ distaste so that it couldn’t touch her. These weren’t merely the faces of strangers, they were entirely alien to her. They were sepia photographs, colorized.

All of these people are dead.

Seeking comfort in familiarity, Kate caught Leopold gazing down at her, his pupils wide and dark, his smile soft. Unafraid, he did not glance away. He was in love for the first time. He had no idea how much it could hurt, and he was beautiful.

Leopold is dead.

Whirling, she tripped. Leopold caught her in a swift improvisation so that it seemed she hadn’t faltered at all, and they shared a little laugh, but her existential vertigo caught up with her.

I’m dead.

Kate sought stability in the glowing globes of the electric chandeliers overhead but they drew uneasy trails across her vision, evoking motion sickness. A function in the back of her mind counted the decades ahead.

1886, 1896, 1906, 1916.

She tried to ground herself in the beauty of the big bouquets of lilies and roses bordering the ballroom, but the thought of their purfume nauseated her further.

1886, 1896, 1906, 1916.

She would be in her seventies during the first world war. She would probably miss the second altogether.

I’ve been dead for a very long time.

Kate felt tossed about in a wooden machine, as though Leopold was only a figure in a robotic puppet display that had whirred through these exact motions a gazillion times before, and she was the sole living occupant of the whole apparatus, hanging pliably from his automatic arms.

“Kate?”

She couldn’t find a single word for him. Her heart siphoned strength from her limbs to fuel its roaring pace. The dance escaped her grasp as the music succumbed to ringing. She felt her smile slip away.

“Kate, are you all right?”

The ballroom rose up to heaven.

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The Season of Denial: The Beast

Fiction for the 2004 film ‘Van Helsing.’
A haunted man is a hunted man.

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“There are moments, psychologists tell us, when the passion for sin, or for what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature that every fibre of the body, as every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearful impulses. Men and women at such moments lose the freedom of their will. They move to their terrible end as automatons move. Choice is taken from them, and conscience is either killed, or, if it lives at all, lives but to give rebellion its fascination and disobedience its charm. For all sins, as theologians weary not of reminding us, are sins of disobedience. When that high spirit, that morning star of evil, fell from heaven, it was as a rebel that he fell.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Prologue [†] The Beast

Although Van Helsing had left Transylvania with Friar Carl bearing witness by his side, he could not escape the place. The entire voyage back to the Croatian ports, over piercing mountains and through sleeping valleys, while he soothed the horses and skinned small game, he lived in only one moment, a moment which refused to heed its own passing. The moment latched on to his back with a razor grip, tore at his shoulder blades like a rabid cat and whispered itself into his ear in an eternal mantra.

He had wanted to remain a werewolf.

His hands ached for claws, his mouth for fangs, his eyes and ears for the heightened senses of the beast. When he yeilded to his desire, while numb from riding or reclined beside a crackling campfire, he salivated; and when he steeled himself against it, his paltry muscles cramped and his skull throbbed. As days of travel passed the physical symptoms subsided, but the moment remained. Memory remained. Anna Valerious remained, gripping the threat of her syringe, throwing herself toward him at a desperate pace with the purest intent to rescue him from the very thing he had come to want more than anything else, more even than to protect her from harm.

It was not the wolf who had killed her. The wolf had only tracked down the part of his soul that longed to be monstrous and delivered it the means. He had known her intent, found her a nuisance and murdered her himself. Of course it was that way. Of course the beast had not overrun the will of the man. If it had, it would have been too late, and the antidote Anna thrust into his gut as he destroyed her would have had no effect upon him at all.

So, absent any other choice, Van Helsing lived in that secret moment. He looked into the wild eyes of snared rabbits, then broke their necks as he had broken hers. He skinned them having never undressed her, he gutted them having never entered her, and he cooked them over her pyre; and, because his journey found the weight and care of cutlery impractical, he consumed them without civility, tearing mouthfuls of meat from their carcasses with itching teeth. The first time he ate such a meal he vomited his full belly into a quiet creek, but after that he was all right. He would be all right.

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A Very Empty Place

Fiction for Game of Thrones S7E3, “The Queen’s Justice.”
Following his introduction to Daenerys, Jon catches up with Tyrion within the quiet expanse of Dragonstone Castle.
August 2017

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Jon didn’t like his new chambers at Dragonstone. A moment ago, in exasperated pursuit of a crunching noise that chased every one of his tosses and turns, he had stuffed his hand down into the corner where the bed met the wall and pulled out a flattened corn husk doll. Half its face was smeared black, and a folded bit of parchment had been sewn to one of its hands as a book. The Baratheon girl had made the sad little thing herself.

He got out of bed and set the toy gently upon the hearth’s vermillion embers, where an ugly white instant transformed it into nothing and weightless ash. It could be worse, he thought, as he shoved himself back under the covers. He could be stuck in Arya’s old bed instead, stuck with the pointy end of a dead girl’s hidden needle.

A soft knocking fell upon the lower part of one of the chamber’s double doors. “So you are awake,” it said.

“So I am.”

“I’ve come in the hope that I might catch you without your armor, not that I would fault a man in your position for wearing it to bed.”

Jon rolled over, slammed his eyes shut and pulled the furs up over his ear — but he didn’t really mean it.

“Yes, I thought you would be difficult to woo.” Tyrion must have been standing at the perfect height to speak directly through the keyhole. “I brought you a present. That is, I brought your belly a present. But it has to share.”

Jon put on his tunic and took up his pieced-pelt blanket for his shoulders. “How long have you been standing out there?”

“Oh…” Tyrion estimated, and then left it hanging instead of answering. “Did you know I quit drinking? I’m very experienced in the field of quitting drinking. I’ve quit drinking twenty times since I arrived on this rock. Tomorrow I’ll make that twenty-one. You see, just now I had a bad dream and woke up in an empty bed. It was a particularly bad dream, in a particularly empty bed.”

“And so now what?” Jon placed two old half-logs upon the embers. Their fraying bark started up without help, lighting the room well enough. “You want to climb into mine?”

“I’d vie for a cuddle with the mother of dragons but her children have grown quite large, not to mention a little unfriendly. Her bed must be the only place in this unthinkably cavernous stronghold with no extra room. For example, I am the sole inhabitant of the entire southeast wing. You may not have noticed, but it seems to me that on the whole this world is becoming a very empty place.”

Jon opened a door. “Why wouldn’t I have noticed?”

“I don’t know.” Tyrion rocked onto his tiptoes, looking up through a dark and beardy mop. “A turn of phrase.”

“A lot of nothing important.” Jon took the near-empty bottle from Tyrion’s raised hand and swigged. “And if that’s what you’re here to offer, not treatises or… deals, or diplomacy, I’ll take it.”

“I’m not sure that’s an expectation I can live up to. There isn’t much room left in me for unimportant things anymore. It’s no wonder I feel out of place in this keep. I have nothing in common with it.”

“Having something in common with it won’t help.” Jon turned to make way, emptied the bottle he had taken and set it down by the door. He felt he was being stared at but didn’t check over his shoulder.

“All keeps are haunted,” Tyrion said, as he tottered in and hopped up to sit at the table. “Just like everyone still living in them.”

Jon took the other chair. “You still talk like a poet.”

“A conjurer.” Two small horns and a fresh skein appeared in Tyrion’s hands. “Spells to ward off the ghosts. Eye of newt, grape of vine, figure of speech.” He poured a rich violet drink, likely more fortification than wine, into one of the cups. “The purplest of prose,” he finished, and slid it out toward Jon by its base before pouring his own.

Stars winked in through the latticework blocking the windows. Jon had a mind to bash those windows clear. The suffocating shutters and the bars on the double doors made this room far too like a prison. “Why did you put me in here, of all places?”

“I advised the Queen to lodge you in Shireen’s old quarters because Sir Davos will be inclined to avoid them.”

“Why?”

“To prevent you having him in your ear for too long whilst shut up in private,” Tyrion said.

“Why?”

“Because exercise, sunlight and fresh air clear the cobwebs from between men’s ears better than any maid.”

“You put me in a dead child’s bed for my own good?”

“No, the Queen did. For Seaworth’s good more than for yours.”

“By your recommendation.”

“Yes, by my recommendation. Trust me when I emphasize how well I understand the damage that can be done to a period of mourning by excessive solitude. I understand it intimately. If Seaworth wishes to avoid this room for ever, he may. If he wishes instead to confront it, he now has the perfect excuse. And your presence breathes new life into it: a persistent reminder that there is such a thing as the future. I may be a torturer, but I am a benevolent one.”

Jon smiled a little into his cup and covered it by drinking. “How did you find out what happened?”

“No man’s family is safe under a king who would burn his own heir alive. A few high ranking defectors have since pledged their swords to a new monarch, and in the process explained why.”

“I don’t understand it, what they did to her. I tried to relate.” The venom in Lady Catelyn’s unmotherly stares had been only one side of the blade that ran through Jon’s youth. The other side he remembered by sound: groans of stressed branchwood as her labor bore a prayer wheel at his bedside, while her mournful croaks and whispers warped the nursery songs he knew. When he roused from his fever he found the totem’s taut fibers stained by spots of dried blood. Even she couldn’t have done such a thing; not even to him. “I can’t.”

“Filicide,” Tyrion said. “The deliberate act of killing one’s own child. Filicidal inclinations are far more common than most people are willing to admit. We could blame it on a child’s failure to live up to a parent’s vicarious projections, or upon a child’s success in living up to a parent’s deepest insecurities, but I think that for Stannis it was relatively simple. He believed that to give his daughter’s life would be the ultimate sacrifice in service to his subjects. He did it for his people.”

“Duty is the death of love,” Jon realized.

“He who abandons either is lost,” murmured Tyrion. “He who abandons both is me.”

Jon broke the ensuing silence by approaching the nearest window, shoulders held wide as if he would brawl with it. He plucked the old candlestubs from the sill and dislodged the latticework shutter from its place. The air outside was cold but still, the sea and sky like two panes of black glass. “I heard about your father,” he said, and turned to look Tyrion in the eye. “Did you do it?”

Tyrion decidedly preoccupied himself with the task of gulping down the rest of his cup. He poured more, right up to the brim — meticulously so. “Everyone knows I killed my nephew and everyone knows I killed my father,” he said, openly slurring for the first time. “They are only wrong about the first one. It hardly bothers me anymore. I had Tywin Lannister in my sights when I took my fateful wrong turn once freed from the cells. But do you know who else I murdered that night?”

Solemnly, Jon waited.

“I murdered the whore who betrayed me. When I happened upon her in the Hand’s chambers she tried to stab me with a cheese knife, so I took her by her golden chains and strangled her to death with them. Golden chains! I had given them to her myself. She clearly hated them, took umbrage at their irony, and yet still she wore them — to impress my father, anyway. I felt like a child clinging to the reins of a rearing horse. At any moment she would work up a good swing and use the momentum to bash me into the bedpost. I was sure of it. Any moment. But then she just…” The imp then farted with his mouth, a longer fart than any sober man would make. “Died. I win!” He toasted toward the ceiling, sloshing a spatter of wine onto his brow, and as he wiped it off he spotted Jon, who had seated himself back at the table again. “Now that’s a sour look,” he said, playing at a wounding.

Jon made fists under his furs and mumbled, “But you loved her?”

“Yes, of course. Of course I did. Even if I hadn’t before, I have to now. If a woman dies in your arms you’re required to love her, even if you’re the one who killed her, even if she was trying to kill you.” Tyrion waved his winglike little hand along with his own words as though they were music — mournful, playful, hideous music. “Even if you had never seen her face before in your life, by having felt her spirit slip away you are beholden to love her until the end of your days. It’s the rules.”

Tyrion had just thrown a dead lover at Jon’s feet for a bit of entertainment, or self-indulgence, or friendmaking, or whatever this was supposed to be. Although he tried to speak in confidence, his response was thunderous: “If you loved her you should never tell anyone about what happened. Not any of it. I don’t deserve to know. Your best friend doesn’t deserve to know. The servants always lurking round the doorways don’t deserve to know.” A scuffling scurry of footsteps started up in the next room and faded down the hall, dragging most of Jon’s anger away with it as Tyrion pursed his lips to fight a laugh. “No one is good enough to know,” Jon reiterated. “Do her that honor, at the very least.”

“Such sobering authority, Snow. You speak as though you already know quite a lot about this sort of thing. Perhaps more than you deserve.”

Jon fell back in his chair and contemplated the fire, contemplated jumping in. “I do know something about it.”

The next pause was pregnant, for Tyrion was expecting: he stood up on his seat, leaned across the table by his elbows and stared, grinning in what was surely the way that had earned him most of his nicknames.

Jon’s eyes smiled back, leaving the rest of him behind. “I’d rather not.”

Tyrion thumbed at a scuffmark upon the table. “Maybe some day.”

“Probably not.”

“Oh, goody. I happen to be adept in matters of probability.” Tyrion topped up Jon’s cup quickly, as though afraid he might shield it if given the chance. “Let’s play a game.”

“Aren’t you a bit old for games?”

“Not for this game. Not for a lot of games, in fact. They say I never grew up. Here’s how this game works: I make a guess about your history. If I’m wrong, I drink. If I’m right, I drink. Wait, no, if I’m wrong, I — I mean if I’m right, you drink. And by the way, when one of us is wrong it’s the other’s turn to ask a question.”

That sounded like a lot to keep in fuzzy mind at once. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time for games these days.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Selfish of me. There’s so much to do. Great halls to rank by echo, great cliffs to mope across, your hair to slather with oil. And all of it before noon tomorrow. How’s this: I’ll save us some time by giving you a head start.” Tyrion finished his drink, poured another, finished that, and filled his horn again. “If you play competently I’ll be too handicapped to remember any of this. Now, go ahead. Tell me about my past.”

“You killed both your father and the whore who betrayed you in the same night.”

Tyrion clicked his tongue, scowling in condemnation. “That’s not fair. It has to be something I haven’t already told you.”

“You’ve narrowed my options down a lot. That’s not fair either.”

“Fine, I’ll grant you this one, but next time be creative.” He drank. “My turn, fuck the rules. You died and were brought back to life.”

Seven hells. “I thought you wanted to talk about a woman.”

“I do. The red woman is the one who did it.” The little man was extremely pleased with himself. “That’s two in a row for you.” Jon drank as he was bid, but it didn’t get the halfman off his back. Tyrion was transfixed by him, reading back and forth between his eyes as though he had a book for a face. “What was it like?” he finally demanded, almost gleefully.

“It hurt.”

“And then?”

It was hard to find the answer, hard to find a way to talk about the lack of a thing that was indefinable even when present. “There’s been an empty… blackness, but invisible, for a long time. I feel I’ve woken up in the middle of a long night. The long night, as though there’s truly only one, always waiting. Perhaps I brought it back with me.”

Tyrion’s gleefulness had gone away. “Is the dawn coming?”

“I don’t know. I can’t really touch the dark, the edges of it. Can’t pull it aside. I might be stuck here. But it is getting a bit less…” Jon took in a deep expansive breath as though it were a word, aware that he was making little sense.

“Oppressive?”

“Something like that,” said Jon, through a big sigh.

Tyrion sat back with his eyes closed, perhaps offering some privacy, perhaps passing out drunk. As his head lolled on the chairback, making the latter seem ever more likely, Jon felt ever more willing to put words into the air.

He directed them at the floor, and the fire: “After I got brought back, it was a week before I could think about anything but her, about how I hadn’t seen her when I was there. Hadn’t seen anything there, hadn’t really been anywhere at all. I thought I might go out past the wall again, pull her black bones from the pyre ashes, put them in that woman’s arms like a bundle of firewood. ‘Do your best, you have to do your best. You’ll be my prisoner until you’ve done your best, and I’ll know because I’ve seen what your best looks like.’ It was stupid. But even now it’s there, when I put my head down, when I wake up. A faggot of bones for the fire god. You’re lucky you can find an empty bed. I can’t. I wish I could.”

“Do you really wish you could?” Tyrion spoke without moving. He didn’t sound drunk anymore, only sleepy. “Truly?”

A white scar had crossed the first three knuckles of Ygritte’s right hand. The story that went with it began with one stolen rabbit, three boys and a promise to eat them in revenge. The best part was, they’d believed her. Two of them shit themselves. The third slashed her while she was laughing. That was the day she left the spear for the bow. When she pulled, the scar would pucker tight like it might split open again. “No.”

“When you want to let her go, you’ll let her go. Don’t waste your energy running in circles playing victim to yourself. Too many others seek to victimize you.”

“Do they?”

“Well — I don’t mean here. I mean general. You’re a king! That means everyone wants your throat.”

“But only in general. So, not here.”

“Exactly.”

“The Targaryen, she doesn’t want my throat. Or my head.”

“No.” Tyrion took up his drink again, slow this time, with the thoughtful grace of a performer. “What Queen Daenerys wants is your hand,” he said, and sipped.

“What could she possibly want with Seaworth when she’s got you?”

Tyrion put a fist over his mouth, his eyes watery and strained with humor. He looked like he had choked, or was about to.

Jon’s bellyful of wine expressed a desire to share. “…Oh.”

“I shouldn’t have said that, but you should be prepared to negotiate. Mind, it’s not expressly true, only my own conjecture. She came to Westeros willing to marry to forge an alliance, if necessary. My sister is essentially taken, by both my brother and by her own psychotic thirst for vengeance, poor Yara is in no way available and the other Ironborn fellow is irredeemable, so that leaves you.”

The Targaryen had looked like a child empress when Jon first found her in the throne room, drawn demurely in on herself, an unassuming little white and grey doll that would not burn; and then she had blown in toward him from her seat of stone, grew steadily from wisp to thunderhead, became fulmination and flame, gnashed her teeth, a righteous beast drunk on a far more disarming brew than Tyrion Lannister’s gut-melting blend of stiffly fortified wine.

“Well, don’t you look terrified. What in the world are you thinking right now?”

“I don’t want to remember any of this,” Jon said, and took the rest of the skein for himself.

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