The Midnight Girls
by Lisa A. Koosis
Places remember. Though the school stands empty, dandelions gone to seed in the yard, crumbled brick littering the sidewalk, still rusted staples and tattered laminate mark the spots where flyers once flapped from telephone poles. They once showed photos of girls with smiles so thin they could be peeled away like the backing on a bow.
I shuffle forward through the grass until my toe bumps something hard. There, I kneel, dew soaking my legs, and when I lift the long-forgotten bottle of India ink, its weight pulls me not down, but back. Places remember.
Outside, dark clouds spit rain. My reflection stared back from the window, sweatshirt hood drawn tight, sweat-damp bangs, pale, round cheeks, dark eyes. On my easel, a sketch pad sat open, waiting for the stroke of a brush. With each flash of lightning, the night beyond the window became a foreign landscape, grass rippling like waves as if the school drifted on a dark ocean.
A door clicked shut.
“Good evening, class.”
A mumble of scattered response met the greeting. Steady footsteps moved down the aisle.
“My name is Vincent. I’ll be coaxing out the talent that each of you undoubtedly possesses.”
Someone snickered. I didn’t care so much about talent, either. I only wanted to sit for awhile with watercolors and charcoal, drawing things that had fangs and claws and my eyes.
The footsteps continued, approaching. They would pass by without pause as if I were no more than a shadow, formless and insubstantial. Instead, they stopped.
He stood there, black hair and black turtleneck, violet eyes that seemed all iris and no pupil. A blush heated my cheeks, but he merely nodded acknowledgement and moved past.
Once he’d completed the perimeter of the room, he stopped. Vincent–not Mr. This or Instructor That, but just Vincent–leaned back against the desk. “In your choice of media,” he said, “paint the moment.”
The class hesitated at the unexpected beginning. Like me, I suppose they’d been waiting for the basics: color theory, perspective, something.
Finally students rose, chair legs scraping, filling jelly glasses with paints, filling the room with conversation. Only when everyone moved past me did I take my place at the end of the line for the supply cabinet. There, I selected a jar of deep blue India ink and a fountain pen, and returned to my station.
Jar uncapped, pen hovering above the glass neck, I hesitated. Paint the moment. Lightning flashed again, and in that moment I glimpsed another world, its lines, contours, its edges.
Dipping the nub of the pen into the ink, I drew with my eyes closed. Pen swept across paper, channeling that lightning-wrought image: the curve of a cobblestone path, the drooping boughs of a weeping cherry, its blossoms scattered like snowflakes.
I finished to the heaviness of silence. When I opened my eyes, the classroom stood empty. Only Vincent remained, hands in his jean pockets, watching me.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
I swallowed. “Lily. Lily Caldwell.”
“Lily,” he echoed, “Lily Caldwell.”
The dream came like a winter’s exhalation. Swirls of darkness condensed into silhouettes–a path, distant woods, a stream–and then dissolved. Another breath brought a courtyard, the tiers of a fountain, eyes. Creatures stirred, unseen, whickers, breaths, hooves on cobblestone.
Vincent walked the path, his dark turtleneck and jeans blending with the night, one pale hand stretched toward me, reaching as if to tether me. But though we stood side by side, his hand moved through mine, a crackle of static as our flesh occupied the same place, and I wondered to which world he wanted to hold me.
I opened my eyes as the clock on my nightstand clicked to 12:01. I rose. At the oval glass of my dressing mirror, I stared at my reflection. For the first time in a long time, I wished I was beautiful.
Damaged people recognize other damaged people, pheromones or electrochemical signals or maybe soundless, colorless waves that crash onto those like them. Loneliness attracted me, and with Vincent it was like a brittle blue aura, so ancient it might be crushed.
Art class was a blessing. During the day I was a lumbering mammoth, mired in tar pits and sinking, strong enough to attempt the escape but fighting blindly rather than pulling myself out with steady efforts. But at night it was different, as if paintbrushes became dragonfly wings that could lift me whole from the sludge of who I was. The swish of brushes in water, sighs and breath, the steady pace of Vincent’s footsteps, these things calmed. Walking in the classroom door each night, I eased open the hood of my sweatshirt and pulled it back from my face.
“Pick your poison,” Vincent said, interrupting my reverie.
We rose. I watched other students select pastels or charcoal or even crayons and glitter, which made Vincent laugh. Me, I eyed bottles of dark India ink and feathered quills.
“Tune in.” Vincent began his journey around the classroom, though the tone of his voice stayed low and intimate, as if he spoke to only me. “Get in touch with the world around you.”
Sudden laughter erupted and I jerked around to see the boy behind me sprawled across his desk, hands splayed on the wooden surface, cheek pressed against it.
Vincent smiled. “Not that in touch, Mr. Warford. Thank you for that demonstration, though.”
I shifted in my chair, aware of the metal pressed against my back, my sandaled feet on the floor, the draft around my ankles. Tuned in.
“Close your eyes if you need to, but feel the world. The colors, the textures, the shapes. Taste it. Smell it.” He surveyed the class. “Good. Now draw.”
The room quieted. I found my eyes closing, tuning in, feeling. I breathed the world, and in between breaths, I saw it, the place in between, the negative space. It came in shades of midnight blue and moon silver, softest shell pink. I dipped the quill into the ink and drew.
When I looked up from the sketch, the clock registered a quarter after 8. Class had been over for 15 minutes.
Again, Vincent sat on the edge of one of the work tables, watching me. My heart raced. I looked down at my sketchpad, half-expecting to see that I’d drawn him, the violet ink capturing his eyes, the set of his shoulders, the lines of jaw and nose. Instead, I’d nearly filled in the white stretch of paper with dark ink, creating the heart of the image out of what I hadn’t drawn.
There was a path, cobblestone hinted at by a slight shading of the ink. Branches of a weeping willow drooped beside an ornate bench. At the far end of the sketchpad, the path met the curves of a wrought iron gate.
Vincent came to stand beside me. I looked up. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m…”
He shook his head as he studied my drawing. Finally, he put one hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be, Lily.”
I wandered the lawn behind the school. A few remaining lights bled from windows, one by one blinking off as the building shut down. A breeze brought hints of honeysuckle and the dry flutter of paper. I stilled my movements, straining for some hint of the world I’d set to paper, moonlight on cobblestone, a drift of cherry blossoms, wrought iron.
There was only this world; dew-damp grass a nebula of gnats beneath a streetlight. I shuffled forward. In the tall grass, my toe connected with something. Kneeling, I reached for it, recognizing the curve of the glass. The lawn was littered with them, tiny stoppered bottles tossed from windows. I imagined how years’ worth of students would choose the same thing to pick on. Maybe it was the shape, the faceting of the thick glass, its heft, the midnight fluid within.
Finally, light remained on in only one window, our art room. Hands in his pockets, Vincent looked out.
Pocketing a single jar of the discarded India ink, I turned toward the parking lot. On tall, pockmarked telephone poles, flyers moved in the breeze. Ink-smudged faces of girls stared out from them, lettering that read: Missing. Reward. Beloved Daughter. Sister. Girlfriend. Please call.
There was no other world. There was just this lot that I’d been cast in life, this dough-soft face and dull, colorless hair. There was only missing girls, the lateness of the night and the long walk home.
“As artists, we do not just see and translate the world around us visually.” He walked down one aisle and up the other, moving between desks. “We engage all of our senses. We feel the world around us. Taste becomes color. Sound becomes lines or angles, maybe curves. Touch, emotion becomes the play of dark and light on the page.”
He tapped the desk of a student with two fingers. “Draw for me, Mr. Tremblay, the keen of a seagull. And you, Ms. Royce, the taste of an overripe banana.”
When he moved toward me, I averted my gaze. He remained silent for heartbeat after heartbeat. Finally I looked up and met his eyes. The intimacy of the moment took my breath.
“And you, Lily,” he said, “paint for me loneliness.”
Paint loneliness. It came with images, LSD flashes of large, sweaty hands and drawstring pajama bottoms and the scratch of stubble. Loneliness was a gingham quilt yanked down, bare legs and the press of flesh on flesh.
My throat ached. Vincent’s gaze lingered on me, the moment stretching into something unbearable.
Then he continued walking the aisle, turning from side to side with artistic requests. Paint the coldness of snow and the roughness of a cat’s tongue, emotions and sensations and textures to be tasted and synthesized into the visual.
In the same negative-space technique I’d unconsciously used before, I again drew the path. I drew moonlight and dewdrops and pale butterflies.
When I finished, Vincent stood beside me, his gaze on my artwork.
My own eyes followed the inky path. I could almost hear the click of footsteps on cobblestones, feel the sweep of a cool, night breeze, hear animals stirring.
“Where did you see it?” He leaned in, his eyes only inches from mine. For a second, they frightened me. “That place, Lily. Where?”
“I didn’t.” I shook my head. “I…felt it.”
Pulling back, he perched on the radiator alongside the window. Darkness had fallen and moonlight spilled in through the glass, making his skin look translucent. Blue veins spider-webbed just below the surface.
When he said nothing, I rose. For a minute, my body melted away and I felt slim and graceful as I moved toward him. I felt bold.
“What is it?” I hesitated. “That place, is it real?”
He touched my face, his fingers tracing the curves of my cheek, his thumb along my throat. My heart thrummed, and I imagined spines, poison-tipped darts, just below my skin, waiting to stab him. But his touch was gentle, wanted. My skin warmed beneath his hand.
After a moment, he pulled away. “I think it’s time you headed home,” he said. His words sounded thick.
In the morning, I knelt in the schoolyard grass, sweat running down the hollow of my back. Summer session started late, and the yard stood empty, though still I imagined the burn of Vincent watching.
Disturbing fat bumblebees that hummed between clover blossoms, I collected bottles until my pockets bulged. I liked their weight because it was a separate entity, apart from my own, a reason for walking slow and drawing long breaths.
Returning home, I lined up the bottles on my bureau. Sunlight through the glass spread violet shadows across the lacquered top. I used a tee-shirt to buff dirt from the glass. Uncapping one, I inhaled the exotic aroma, patchouli and camphor.
After swirling my dinner around my plate, burying cubes of bland chicken beneath a pile of rice, I left the table and returned to my room. I ran my fingers across the line of bottles. Pulling a canvas tote down from the closet, I nestled them inside one by one.
When I zipped up my sweatshirt it seemed heavier, claustrophobic, an anchor. Unzipping it, I shrugged it off, balled it up and tossed it onto the bed. I felt naked in just the white tee-shirt, but I hefted the tote bag onto my shoulder and headed to class.
At the corner mart I bought chewing gum and a single white rose from a bin near the register. Fragments of a dream tickled at my memory, the scent of roses. Blue roses, I thought, though I couldn’t place the image. When I concentrated, the answer fluttered close enough to touch, but when I reached for it, my stomach dropped, and sweat popped out on my forehead. Lightheaded, I leaned against the storefront and squeezed the stem. Thorns bit at my flesh and the ink bottles clacked together in the tote.
When I steadied, I continued to the school and went in, my sneakers squeaking through the hallway. In the classroom, I moved toward the office T the far end of the room. The door stood open.
I knocked tentatively. “Vincent?”
The office stood empty, so I stepped inside. Setting the tote bag onto Vincent’s chair, I made to lay the rose across the desktop blotter, but a drawing on the desk drew my eye.
Only it wasn’t. Yellowed with age, the paper portrayed the same winding pathway, the same stone benches, as if it had been placed there for comparison. I lifted it. Beneath it, another drawing illuminated another moonlit scene. Beneath that, another. My heart pounded.
Footsteps sounded behind me. The picture still in my hand, I swung around, knocking against the chair. Bottles spilled from the tote, dropping onto the floor and smashing. Violet ink splashed across my pants leg, and pooled on the tile.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t… I’m…” Shaking my head, I reached to put the drawing back.
Vincent touched my wrist. “It’s okay. Stop. Stop.”
“Yes.” His hand lingered on my wrist.
I felt the press of two worlds, myself in between. “What is it?”
“My home.” This time he did hesitate. “Would you like to see it?”
“Yes.” I breathed the word.
“Come later,” he said. “After midnight, behind the school.”
A moth hummed against the overhead fluorescent, and on the wall, the clock ticked forward. From somewhere, I heard a cough, footsteps, as students arrived. These things seemed suddenly both sharply in focus and intensely surreal, as if the whole world had shifted. Time tick-tick-ticked, Vincent’s pulse beating against my own, his eyes watching me, waiting.
I nodded. “I’ll come.”
At midnight, I rose from bed where I’d lain awake for the last few hours. I brushed my hair, leaving it loose. In the mirror, I stared, unused to seeing the sweep of hair across my shoulders. Then I opened the window and slipped out.
Vincent waited for me in the yard. When I reached him, he took my hand. My fingers twined with his. Neither of us spoke.
The world seemed to slow, to still, a carousel on its final go-round. It resonated in my heartbeat, in the rhythm of my breath.
As the spaces between breath and heartbeat stretched like late-day shadows, it appeared. Silvered by another moon, a path stretched where only seconds before there had been only lawn and poles and the fluttering of signs. I inhaled, my heart pumped, and the path disappeared. Time slowed, slowed, slowed, and it came again, wavering, and then steady. Vincent nodded.
He moved until he stood, facing me. Then he took my other hand. With our fingers locked, he stepped backwards, slowly. I matched with a step forward and another. His eyes locked on mine, unblinking, steady, sure, and full of something I couldn’t name but that I liked. I concentrated on that, and then we were through.
Summer became springtime, the air clear, a slight breeze blowing. I smelled night-blooming jasmine, hyacinth, a note of honeysuckle. His hand tightened on mine, and for the first time I could remember, I took comfort from the touch of another human being.
The cobblestone path wound through a landscape of tall grass. These were stones I’d drawn, their curves, the shadows that fell over them. I wanted to drop to the ground and run my hands along the contours of the stone.
I turned to look at Vincent, and my breath caught. His hair shone with violet light, the skin on his face nearly translucent, eyes that mirrored starlight. Lines, serpentine and dark, wound beneath the skin of his face and neck as if midnight itself pulsed through his veins. My knees wobbled.
“Lily? Are you all right?”
The lines in his face softened in sorrow. “I shouldn’t have brought you.”
“No. It’s just.” Just what? “It’s real?”
“And who are you? Vincent, who are you?”
Vincent bowed his head. “The gatekeeper.”
We followed the path. Cherry blossoms fell like pink snow into our hair. At intervals, stone benches stood like sentries. I imagined ghosts roaming the landscape, pausing to sit, unseen and unfelt, except for a patch of coolness, a shiver.
In the distance, a horse whinnied. A nighttime bird trilled in response.
Further along, smaller paths branched off of the main. Vincent steered me onto one that forked toward the left.
It brought us to a pond where maple trees, their leaves scarlet, reflected in the shallows. A narrow stone bridge arced across its widest point. The surface of the water shone like glass. We walked onto the bridge, stopping midway. Untangling his fingers from mine, he rested his hand on the railing, looking down. He gestured to the water. I looked.
My reflection had hair and eyes like aqua light, twilight veins running below my skin–like Vincent’s, only not as pronounced. Layers of fat melted into a woman’s curves. Sorrow brimmed in me, cold and fluid, fed by some endless spring. I looked at my arms, my legs, slim and toned, my skin perfect, my hair long.
Vincent’s breath whispered against my cheek. I placed my palm along his cheek, and for a minute, both the dark lines beneath his skin and those beneath mine, faded as loneliness receded.
In class, Vincent paced. When he passed my desk, his breath whispered along the back of my neck as he leaned in to see my work. I swept India ink across canvas, focusing in on the wrought iron fence, until I could see a courtyard beyond, tall manicured hedges, a fountain at its center, tiered, water flowing from level to level. Blue roses twined in the curls of the fence.
Drawn from my work by his nearness, the brush of his fingers across my wrist brought a lightning-flash of the forbidden: teacher-student, adult-child, although I must have been no more than ten years his junior, an adult in my own right.
I leaned into his touch, and nodded toward the fountain I’d drawn. “I want to see it.”
“No.” His smile was soft. “Not that, Lily.”
Later, in his midnight world, we rested on soft moss along the sloping bank of a creek. He sat close without touching, his knees angled towards me.
Trees crowded the far side of the creek, tall trunks with pale bark. Lights moved among them, fluid and ethereal. Like my dream, they had shape: wings, claws, horns. Eventually they took the shapes of animals, creatures from another time: light-dragons that breathed ribbons of snowflakes, a lacy-winged bird that lifted its beak to the sky, something catlike with saucer eyes.
I watched, mesmerized, my mind so ready to accept these impossibilities. They belonged here.
Closing my eyes, I listened to the burble of the creek. It reminded me of another sound, the cascade of water from tier to tier of a stone fountain. Something inside me vibrated.
Eventually Vincent lay back, his hands clasped behind his head, watching stars. When his eyes closed, a soft snore puffing from his lips, I rose and returned to the path.
I veered again from the main path onto a smaller, curving tributary. Déjà vu squeezed my stomach. In the distance, the wrought iron fence stood.
Beyond it, the fountain called to me, its water a promise of respite. Respite? I shivered, hurrying towards the fence, my mouth dry at the faint burble of cascading water.
“Lily!” Vincent grabbed my arm, nearly spinning me around.
“I…” Like emerging from a warm home into a cold shock of rain, I grew aware again of the world around me. I hadn’t realized I was running, but my chest heaved trying to pull in breaths. Sweat stood out on Vincent’s forehead. “I…”
He looked away, though his hand remained on my arm. “Don’t.”
I looked once more at the path ahead, at the wrought iron fence, and the fountain, still not fully visible. Then Vincent’s tug pulled me back down the path toward home.
With my back against the wall, the schoolyard looked like a schoolyard. No magic door appeared in the rain-damp grass, no shimmering pixies hovering above the wildflowers. I felt eyes watching me from the classroom window, but I kept my back firmly against the brick, my gaze straight ahead, my hood up.
When the burning of the eyes faded, I looked at my watch. It ticked towards seven, time for class. Though the promise of deep blue India ink, the rhythm of Vincent’s steady footsteps, filled me with an ache that throbbed in my fingers and toes, I didn’t want to go. I felt heavier than ever, my feet mired by gravity and my own bulk. Still, my pride propelled me to my feet. I let myself in the back doors.
In the classroom I took my seat and kept my eye to the window even when Vincent’s footsteps began down the aisle. Even when the footsteps stopped beside me and paused for so long that the students around began to shuffle, I kept my eyes averted.
“Lily,” he said. “Paint for me a truth.”
Behind me, someone tittered. I jerked around to glare at a blonde girl two seats back. Then I got up and pushed my way toward the front of the line for the supply closet, retrieving jelly jars of viscous acrylics, scarlet and black and a pale green like lingering sickness.
I jabbed truth onto my sketchpad, not fangs and claws, but thick, rough lips and too-big fingers, breath like stale beer and dolls with stab wounds to their eyes. Even as Vincent’s shadow darkened my canvas, I smeared the paint, muddying the colors, the images, until nothing recognizable filled the space.
When the rest of the class rose to leave, I crumpled the painting into a ball and dropped it to the floor. I left with them.
I woke from skittering, pulsing dreams, instinctively reaching for the tire iron beneath my mattress, and then pulling my hand back.
The numbers on the clock resolved: 11:23. Cold and wet with old sweat, the pillow chafed my cheek. My heart beat too fast. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and shivered.
Go back to sleep. He isn’t waiting for you.
I got up anyway, slipping into jeans and a tee-shirt. Then I climbed out the window.
The road to the school seemed darker. No moon tempered the darkness. Beyond the staff parking lot where signs fluttered ceaselessly–Missing, Reward, Have you seen me, Please, Please, Please–the schoolyard stood black and silent.
A whisper drifted towards me, formless, words stolen by the wind. Still I recognized the voice. He’d known I would come.
Another whisper responded. With my teeth, I tried to scrape the bitterness of it from my tongue. I stepped forward, hugging the brick of the building. The air in the schoolyard shimmered, a lightening of the darkness, crackling like static.
I rushed forward. Briefly, two people appeared, backlit with impossible moonlight. Then they faded, vanished, and I stood in the spot they’d vacated.
How could he?
But instead of anger, stillness brushed across me, smoothing the tics of muscles, quieting my breath, my heartbeat. And there, for a millisecond, the curve of the pathway appeared, a flutter of wings, starlight. Then it was gone again.
I leaned down and felt around in the grass until my fingers wrapped around a small bottle. Lifting it, letting it sit in the palm of my hand, I planted my feet apart and let the stillness rise up through me. It came again, cobblestones, fireflies, a flicker, but longer, holding. I imagined roots in my toes, branching out, reaching down into the earth, beyond, to worlds unseen, and I didn’t need to breathe, didn’t need for my heart to beat because the world did that for me.
Summer became springtime, and the grass beneath my feet became cobblestone. My knees wobbled. I held out my hands to examine my tiny wrists and slim, tapered fingers. The dark tributaries that flowed beneath the skin seemed deeper, twilight settling into full dark. Loneliness intensified, I thought. Vincent’s betrayal.
Ahead of me, far enough down the path that they didn’t even turn at my entrance to this world, Vincent and the girl walked. I followed.
I knew where they were going. I felt its draw. In the distance, dark on dark, the wrought iron fence came into view. I smelled roses, heard the first burble of water. My mouth dried; I craved a drink. I had to force my feet to maintain a steady, silent pace.
Ahead, where the path disappeared, the wrought iron curved into a high arched entrance, a structure of ornate loops and curlicues. Above it, bars curved into the shape of words. The Font of Midnight.
Vincent and the girl stepped through, and as they disappeared beyond the shadows of the interior, I rushed forward, unable to stop myself. Curling my fingers around the slim, cold curves of the fence, I pressed my forehead against it and peered through.
High hedges dotted the perimeter of the courtyard. Inside, the path narrowed, leading to the fountain, and then circling it. A stone bench faced the fountain, where water cascaded from tier to tier.
Vincent, standing just behind the girl, urged her forward. Hugging the wrought iron, I slipped into the courtyard and hovered in the shadows of a tall box hedge.
The fountain water bled the color of sunrise–apricot and dusty rose and pale lavender–as it poured down the sculpted stone tiers. Between Vincent and the girl I could make out the forms of carved hummingbirds and trumpet-shaped blooms, owl eyes, legs and antlers and wings of creatures I couldn’t put together.
The girl cupped her hands and held them below the streaming water. I grasped the prickly branches of the hedge to keep myself from running forward. I wanted to plunge into the fountain, to drink until I was sated, until I’d finally filled the emptiness.
The girl drank, cupping her hands again and again beneath the cascades. So dry I couldn’t swallow, my throat ached. The dryness ran deep, past my stomach, spreading like veins through my body. When she tipped her head to swallow, her face bathed in moonlight, I saw the same darkness webbing beneath her skin, only so much more extensive, her arms nearly purple with it.
When she finished drinking, she stepped back. Vincent set one hand on her elbow, but she shrugged it off. He nodded, his expression solemn. I caught myself creeping forward, and again hugged the shadows.
She staggered, but this time Vincent made no effort to touch her. Rather, he stepped back.
The girl dropped to her knees. Light bloomed in her like sunshine through the curl of a wave. It raced through the dark veins below her skin, splitting them apart. Beneath, colors rippled, iridescent, pulsing.
It happened in the space between breaths. One minute she stood there, a girl breaking apart. The next, a creature more light than substance replaced her. I registered wings and eyes, a long, needlelike beak. Phoenix. I clapped one hand to my mouth. Phoenix.
Its wings lifted to the night, its light falling across the courtyard. Then it disappeared toward the trees.
“Be free,” Vincent said.
Images swept across my memory: the faces of the girls from the signs, the light-creatures across the creek, my own passage through this world of midnight, drawn to the fountain as if by an internal divining rod. Something stirred in me.
Those girls were me. Other images came with that, images that flooded through me like bile: stained sheets and razor stubble and skin on skin. Before I could stifle it, a cry pushed up and out.
Vincent jerked toward me. His face paled. “Lily.”
Shame burned through me, like a little girl caught with her skirt up, but it faded as quickly as it came. “I found a way.” My teeth clenched. “That’s what I do, you know. I find a way.”
“I know,” he said.
I had the feeling of two conversations happening at once with the same words. They were, of course. Of course they were.
I took a step forward, toward the fountain. I thirsted so, and yet…what? “What is this?”
“It’s what I do.” He took a step to match mine.
But I already knew.
“I help girls,” he said.
“Help them what? Disappear?”
We both tipped our head in the direction of the fountain as if it called to him as strong as it called to me.
“In a way, yes. When they can’t bear anymore. “
“Is that what happened with me?”
He jerked his head back toward me. “No.”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to hear anymore. Resisting the fountain’s pull I ran back down the path, past the wrought iron gate. When I crossed back to the real world, the feel of my weight wasn’t an anchor but a comfort.
In the dark, I tore the signs from the posts, shredding those not laminated and scattering them to the wind. The girls were gone and wouldn’t be coming back. More than that, I hated these girls who gave up, and I was angry at myself for being one of them. I knew what was wrong with me, had been wrong with me all these years. I knew it and it didn’t make it a damn bit better.
Vincent’s presence behind me felt like a shadow, a whiff of green moss and damp stone.
I reached to tear down another sign but he caught my wrist.
“Don’t,” he said.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Pulling myself free, I whirled toward him. “They’re me, aren’t they?”
He tipped his head up, looking at the stars maybe. “No.”
“What’s the difference then? They see it and I see it and that’s where I’ll end up.”
On the pole, only a few signs remained. Vincent touched each one, his fingertips grazing the faces of those midnight girls as if he knew each one intimately. “Because something in them called for me.” Turning to me, he touched my cheek. “Nothing in you did.”
“So why did you show me?
“Come inside,” he said.
When we stepped inside the building, the school itself seemed like another world. I imagined layers of worlds, one over the other, their boundaries blurred. Maybe ghosts were no more than beings from those other worlds crossing briefly into our own.
In the classroom, he flipped on a single bank of lights. I slid into one of the desks, surprised at how much room I had. I hadn’t noticed myself losing weight.
Vincent disappeared into his office and came out with a stack of drawings and paintings. He spread them out along the floor in the narrow strip of light. Each one portrayed the world of his home. They weren’t mine; I assumed they were his. I raised my eyes to meet his, in question.
“You asked me why I showed you.”
“What don’t you see here, Lily?”
My eyes roved across the dark landscapes. A hollow bloomed inside me. “People.”
“People.” He perched on the edge of a chair, facing me. “I showed you… I brought you for selfish reasons. I thought I’d found a kindred spirit.”
I looked not at him but out the window. “What happens to them?”
“They drink, and then they’re freed.”
“From this world. From their past and the worry of the future, from the restraints of body and mind. From everything they can no longer bear. The light, the creatures, that’s what their essence looks like unfettered and unrepressed. Do you understand?”
I wasn’t sure I did. Not really. “And how am I different?”
The silence of his hesitation felt heavy. He moved closer until his breath warmed my cheek. Still I didn’t look at him. “Because you can bear it, Lily. You have the strength to overcome.”
In dreams I stood at the fountain, my hands cupped to catch the cascading water. Around me, pale forms watched, their heads bent towards me. They were magical creatures–dragons and serpents and winged cats–and I gulped the water, wanting to be among them.
I gagged, choking. Something about the water wasn’t right. I tried to spit it out. Instead of fluid, paper spilled from my mouth, wads of it. When I looked up, the animals were gone. Around me, flyers flapped from the tall hedges and along the wrought iron gate. Every flyer showed my face.
I woke to the first light of dawn. Putting on a sweatshirt and retrieving the tire iron from beneath my mattress, I climbed from the window.
Despite daylight, it proved easier that time, and soon I stood on the cobblestone pathway. This time I was alone, with only the sound of my footsteps and the distant whinnies and trills of unseen animals.
I imagined Vincent asleep in a small cottage tucked into a clearing in the woods, smoke rising from the stack of a chimney. I imagined him in the whole of this world, alone, and I ached for him. I ached to stay here, not as a creature of light but as myself, to tuck myself in beside him in the cottage at night, to fix eggs in the morning and paint beautiful landscapes by moonlight.
Shaking away the thought, I continued toward the wrought iron fence and the fountain beyond. Though I’d sloughed off my real-world self, the tire iron remained, cold and hard against my side.
At the courtyard I hesitated. The absence of other people was disconcerting on a level deeper than I could express, the feeling of being completely and entirely alone. My teeth chattered as I stepped through the arch of the gateway.
For the first time, I took a good look at the Font of Midnight. Its tiers showcased ornately-sculpted creatures: great phoenixes and unicorns, their heads lowered as if to drink; cats with butterfly wings and dragons that breathed alabaster fire. Their eyes stared from the fountain, their poses so real they might be poised to leap from their stone confines.
It was beautiful. It was terrible. My thirst awakened, but anger bubbled up in me like the iridescent water at its center.
I pulled the tire iron from beneath the folds of sweatshirt. The metal cold and solid in my hands, I shifted to find a good, strong position. Before me, water continued pump from the center, cascading over the edges, rainbows catching the moonlight. Griffons and dragons gazed at me with baleful stone.
I drew back the iron and struck, smashing it into the face of a phoenix. The impact vibrated through the metal and up my arm. It felt good, empowering. Plaster flew from the point of impact, bits striking the path and bouncing. I struck again, and a crack jogged up the side of the center tier. Water beaded on the outside of the wound.
Gritting my teeth, I wedged the slim part of the iron along the crack, jabbing it in until the crack opened and water spilled onto the cobblestones. Moving around to the other side, I started on another tier.
I jumped at the voice but didn’t allow it to deter me. Instead I struck again and again. Flying chunks of plaster stung my cheek, and the trickle of blood tickled my chin.
“Lily! Stop! Stop!” His hand caught my wrist, held it.
“Why? Why should I?”
“Because they need this, Lily.” His hand held mine, his grip as solid as a redwood.
“They need this? They need to stay in the world, Vincent.” I hated him in that moment. “They shouldn’t have a choice.”
“Shouldn’t they?” He let me go and moved until he stood facing me. “Maybe they’re not as strong as you are, Lily.”
Throughout the courtyard, concrete beaks and wings and eyes lay scattered through the grass. Rainbow water slipped through the cracks I’d made in the fountain and pooled on the ground.
Vincent’s gaze traveled sadly across the ruin. “And who are you to make the verdict?”
“Yeah.” The tire iron fell from my hand. “Who am I?”
Leaving the warmth of his touch, I turned to go. I got as far as the gateway before he spoke.
His voice tentative, he said, “You could stay.”
“You said I wasn’t one of them.”
“You’re not. I meant…”
“I know.” My heart ached. Exhaustion deepened my words. “But I can’t. Not now. Not until the world hasn’t beaten me.”
Places remember. So do people. Standing here on the overgrown lawn, I feel the blur of time, one season into another, years apart. I remember how it felt to walk away, back along the cobblestone path without Vincent following.
I never went back to that art class. From what I heard, Vincent didn’t either, and rumors swirled about how he hadn’t really been the teacher in the first place.
Sometimes though, I wonder if the ghost of myself as a girl haunts the classroom, a cumbersome spirit with dark hair hidden beneath a sweatshirt hood who always chooses India ink.
I find the spot from memory, and stand there in my stockinged feet, the dew soaking through. It’s okay. That’s part of it, I remember, getting in touch with the world, the taste the wind, the color of night, the shimmer of moonlight–or sunlight–on each blade of grass. I close my eyes.
It doesn’t take long until I feel it, a prickling, like breeze on sweat-damp skin. I step forward. This time, I don’t feel so different when I cross the threshold. I am who I am, outside and in.
Just as I remembered, the path winds through the cobalt night. Fireflies wink on and off.
I imagine the midnight girls, walking for the first time down the moonlit path toward the fountain. In my heart I walk beside them, not one of them but a survivor.
At the first bench, I stop and sit beneath the branches of a tree and listen to the far-off sounds of animals until footsteps intrude on my thoughts.
“Lily,” a familiar voice says, and I wonder how he recognizes me after all these years.
I remember the smashed pieces of fountain and I don’t know that I’ll be welcome. “Vincent.”
He looks the same, his violet-light hair and starlight eyes, the coexistence of youth and something ancient, the veins of loneliness dark beneath his skin, darker even than I remember.
I smile tentatively. “The world didn’t beat me.”
“No.” He tips his head. “It was never going to.”
We’re both silent for a moment, me sitting on the bench, him standing. Finally, he reaches out a hand, as do I. My skin looks young again, smooth and soft, and I know now how he recognized me. I know what the reflection in the pond will reveal. His fingers twine with mine, and when we touch, the darkness recedes from his skin, pulling back like a river run dry.
Vincent lets go of my hand. I slide over on the bench, and he sits beside me. He puts his arm around me, and we stay that way for a long while.
Short fiction by Lisa A. Koosis has appeared in a number of publications, including Susurrus Press’s Neverlands and Otherwheres anthology, Murky Depths, Not One of Us, and Meadowhawk Press’s Touched by Wonder anthology. When she isn’t visiting the Universe Next Door in search of story ideas, she resides in New York with her husband, Aron, and her cats.
Story © 2009 Lisa A. Koosis. All other content copyright © 2009 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
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