Bergdorf and Associates, by Thomas C. Mavroudis. Episode 12

Previous: Episode 11

A cool, humid breeze climbs up the ridge from the sea below making Rayne’s white gown flutter. With her hand extended to me, she looks like an angel ready to receive me in paradise. “Take my hand, Abe. Take me. Be my consort.”

Whether I accept paradise as an actual place or not, I know wherever Rayne wants to take me is no paradise—not even a false one. Most likely, she wants to drag me from this pocket outside of time and space, back to the world she is constructing.

Instead of taking her hand, I slash it with my father’s bayonet. The good news: she bleeds.

Now, the other news.

She looks at the gash between her ring and middle fingers and starts laughing hysterically, astonished by a cleverly conceived and executed practical joke. I’m bewildered by her reaction. When she collects herself, she draws a line across her neck in her blood saying, “I got one! This is you, Abe.” Then she smears an “X” over her heart. “And this. This is you, too.” She crosses her eyes with blood, then bats her sticky eyelashes and smiles seductively. “I’m in control here, Abraham. You think this place is some study cube at the campus library? I made this space. I made everything and I will make everything. And then I will make more.” She rends the bottom of her shift into a bandage, binds her wound. “If you really want to fight, we will fight. But you will lose. You will die and I will remake you. Maybe I’ll kill you again. Again and again, if I want. But I will never let you forget. You will remember your hubris.”

“Give me the amber, Rayne,” I gesture with the knife. Even though I’ve cut her once, I don’t want to hurt her. Then again. I might not be able to help it. Or, I might not be able to hurt her, really hurt her, at all.

Give me the amber, Rayne.” She rolls her eyes. “You’re such a dork.”

I’m pierced by melancholy, the reminiscence of our first encounter. Those few days, which feel so long gone now, I looked forward to a teammate, a partner—someone to empathize with my path. I yearned for it without being aware it was a yearning. It went fallow so fast. And yet Rayne infected me.

I shake the feeling away from my head. “Stop it. Give me the amber.”

“I am the amber, dummy. You saw.” She thumps her breastbone. “Now, if we aren’t going to play, leave me alone. I have shit to do here.” She holds her arms rigid at her sides, waiting.

There’s no reason to believe her. Or not believe her. All I can do is believe myself. “This is no one’s place. It is its own. And you have no power here. Now, before I’m forced to take it, give me the amber.”

“I have no power? Let’s see if you’re right.” She’s on me like a beam of light, faster, knocking the bayonet from my hand. Wrapping her spindly legs around me, her little hands clamp around my throat, she drives her nails into my skin. She’s not as strong as Dupree, but strong enough so that I can’t pry her off.

“Let me kiss you, Abe. I’ve been waiting for this.” She bites my lips and cackles, her teeth bright red with blood. To say it stings would be an understatement if I wasn’t imbued with protections. Actually, if I weren’t protected, she might have bitten my lips off with some gristle of my face. I can’t tell if she’s trying to choke me out or rip my throat open. Bucking her hips against me, her legs constricting tighter and tighter. She’s trying to drive me to the cliff’s edge and over. I can’t let her take me down, so the only thing I can do is fall forward.

Rayne grunts as I crush her and her grip loosens on my neck. Her petite frame buckling into my gut knocks the wind out of me. She hammers my back with her legs, screaming, “Get off!”

Fighting nausea and dizziness, I lift enough to free her arms, but they squirm and wriggle too much for me to snatch and pin. She chops into my shoulders with steely hands like a cleaver separating meat. The rare pain churns the moths in my stomach. “Settle down,” I command.

She pauses enough for me to catch her. Her wrists are bird-like and I take care not to snap them in my single-handed grip. “What are you going to do? Kill me? Please.” She almost doesn’t sound worried.

“I’m not a killer,” I say.

“Oh, yes you are. And you’ll have to kill me. It’s the only way. Find your balls and do it.” She pulls me closer against her with her bony legs.

“No it’s not.” She starts struggling again as I pull the pop bottle from my coat pocket. Wiping off as much blood around my mouth as possible on the fur sleeve, I swallow a gob of blood to be safe and pull the wax stopper off with my teeth.

She doesn’t see it at first. Neither do I, but then I do and I’m relieved. The spirit, the pneuma akatharton, is timid, barely poking an ashy tip from the bottle opening. I have no certain idea what it will do.

“What the fuck,” she says with a frown.

“Look, I…I’m…something, Rayne. About you…I don’t know. But I’m not a killer. And I don’t want you to die. Okay? I have job to complete. That’s all.” I shake the bottle over Rayne’s face. I tell the thing inside, “Come on. I found you a good home.” It slowly exhausts from the lip of glass, like smoke in water.

“Good idea, Abe. Smart. You’re a really super smart dude.”

If Rayne still thinks she can bully me, it must surely be but a sign of her immaturity, of a life barely lived, of a pocketful of experiences. In the long run, this will be a good experience for her.

As the spirit frees itself completely, it carefully coils in the space between the bottle and Rayne’s face. “Wait…,” she says. She continues to kick me. She rolls her head from side to side, trying to twist it all the way around. “Hang on…” she says. She’s still not scared; I can see it in her eyes and I admire that. The way she must feel, I think, is disappointed.

The pneuma akatharton drifts near her chin, then across her throat, and up behind her ear. It circles around her eyes. It runs over the top of her lips, explores the rim of both nostrils. Rayne scrunches her nose. Her eyes water. “Abe,” she begins, and the thing rushes into her mouth, nesting in one of the spaces in her gums. The spirit takes possession immediately, no time to spit it out, prod it with her tongue.

Maybe I’m being hasty or overconfident, but I roll off her. Rayne is still except for her eyes which flicker wide open. I almost regret the dreams and visions she must be suffering. I try to close them like you see in movies, but it doesn’t work. At the same time, the other foreign body inside her expresses. I can see the blue stone emerge, dull beneath the thin cotton. After it’s fully out of her chest, I push the amber up through the top of the shift, careful still not to touch her inappropriately. Holding it in both hands, I nearly kiss the rock as though it were a championship trophy. It smells like Rayne—cigarettes and perfumed sweat—making me sentimental, and I remember this is strictly business.

Then I feel it. I didn’t the first time in Jurassic Cabin, or later in the nursing home, but I do now: it’s the sensation of possibility, of opportunity. I feel like a writer with a fresh sheet of paper and a brand-new pen, like any artist fit with the tools of their craft, trembling with the imminent urge to create. It is a delightful circumstance. But not for me.

I cast off the impression. I block it and search for my dad’s bayonet, which is teetering, blade first, off the cliff edge. This item I kiss. Before I sheath it once more, I make a gash in the palm of my good hand, the one without a hole in it, to help me focus on the project’s fulfillment.

Rayne is barely a sack of laundry. I toss her over my shoulder, adjusting her gown with modesty. Amber in my other hand, I inspect the long seaward slope. Peering over the side, it doesn’t appear to be a very clean jump, all trees and outcroppings. Besides, the sea is distant from the bottom of the rocky face. Changing my mind, I slide down the shallow end back into the little vale.

It doesn’t matter what direction now, so I meander longwise through the grass. The dusk of this place is on us quickly, growing dark and cool. Along the way, we interrupt a family of canines—not wolves or foxes, but something in-between—feasting on the carcass of a huge boar with tusks curled like French horns. The slender hounds stare at us as we pass. I hear a droning and realize they are speaking about us in their low voices. In the moment, I feel confident enough to stop and ask what their problem is, but I don’t because Rayne begins to tremble. I fear she’s convulsing, but she’s merely cold. I wrap her in my mother’s fur and cradle her, blue amber tucked on her belly. The hounds make some further faint comment, even snicker, when I continue.

Eventually, the sky goes black, starless, and the pocket dimension is full dark and cold. One moment I’m there and the next I’m colliding with the door of a walk-in refrigerator. I grope for the safety latch and exit into the hotel diner’s kitchen. The staff look at Rayne and me with confusion, anxiety, and possibly embarrassment. I follow one of the line cooks on his smoke break out the kitchen’s emergency exit. He gives me a nod like he somehow understands.

To my astonishment, Cruz is waiting for us. He sucks his teeth and opens the passenger door saying, “What are your surprised for? You know I know things.”

I set Rayne in the car, still bundled in the ruined mink. “Is she going to be okay?”

Cruz answers, “She’s not dead.”

“Are you taking care of her?” I ask.

“Me? No way. I’m just taking her off your hands. But don’t worry, man. You trust me, right?”

Cruz pops the trunk and thumbs me to it. Inside is a balled-up plastic grocery bag and a neatly folded size XL t-shirt that reads in cursive across the front The same old fucking shit. “Thanks,” I say, pulling it on.

“My pleasure,” he says. “Oh, don’t forget that.” I nearly walk off without the blue amber.

I think I want to kiss Rayne, but my mouth hurts, despite it not being totally mangled. There’s a good chance the desire is one more trick, her last gambit before I cash in my chips and leave the game. I bag the amber and Cruz drives away.

My disheveled and rank presence has again gone unnoticed on the bus routes home. Based on the sun, it’s morning. I’ve lost track of the days. Penny’s car is not at the house and I sense it is a school day. It could be Sunday. In case the twins were left alone for some reason, I turn the t-shirt inside-out before I go in.

The house is quiet except for a faint sound in the basement I know is hooves clicking on the water heater. Bergdorf must be anxious.

“I like your t-shirt, Abe.” Bergdorf inches himself into better view. His eyes are especially cloudy.

“Do you want it?” Still in the bag, I set the amber on the shelf next to a can of rubberized grey paint. In another basement, the bag would have paintbrushes and rollers inside.

“I do,” he says.

I take it off and drape it on one of his forelegs. I turn to the stone and announce, “Now, what you’ve been waiting for.”

“No hurry. You made good time, all things considered.” When I turn around, Bergdorf has managed to turn the t-shirt right-side-out and put it on. “If you would take it out of the bag.”

It looks so mundane in the murk of the furnace room, hardly blue at all, and the tendril inside—nothing more than the stem of a mushroom, really—looks like a scar in a piece of glass, a thing to be buffed away, its unfathomable power hidden by its plain design. Bergdorf’s eyes, or perhaps only his oblong pupils, roll to look at the ancient object. “On behalf of my associates, we thank you. Do you have a need in return?”

I never do. Besides the health and safety of Penny and the girls, what would I ask? The twins, I know now, are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and their mother. Regarding my Pop, my mom, nothing good ever comes from reversing the course of life. The one thing I wanted, my sole wish for so long, was to have my own course shortened, to have peace, to die. My service to Bergdorf denied that want. And I’m grateful.

“No needs, thank you. But I have a question.”

“Go ahead.”

“Is it true? Is this object really what my nieces said it was? Does it do what they say?”

“You know the answer. You saw for yourself. What you are really asking is, why us, me and my associates? And why you? Is that your need?”

I think carefully about it.

“No,” I say, “I’m good. I don’t need anything.”

“Then here’s something you may want.” This is my payment. It could be the doll head that trapped Dupree, or a piece of rainbow glittering ammolite. If it’s Rayne’s eye teeth, I’m nervous to have them. “Advice,” Bergdorf says.

“Oh. Okay,” I say.

“Don’t overlook hope.” It’s an uncharacteristically cheerful thing for him to say. But I realize he and his kind are neither benevolent or wicked.

“Have a great day, Abe. I’ll be in touch shortly.” Shortly has never meant less than a couple of weeks. I used to spend most of that time sleeping. This time, I think I’m going to take Holly and Ivy camping. They won’t miss anything they don’t already know by taking a few sick days from school. I have to procure all the equipment, of course. And fishing gear, too. Maybe the three of us can talk Penny into going. And even though it’s months away, I plan on the four of us spending Winter Break on a South Pacific beach.

First, I check on my dad.

Actually, the next thing I do after leaving the furnace room is wash away the blood and sweat and all else of the past twenty-four to seventy-two hours. My mouth is bruised but the teeth marks look like shaving nicks. Otherwise, even after my brisk walk to the nursing home, I seem put together.

Expecting the Colonel to be hovering anxiously on the other side of the security doors, there is another resident instead; her head wrapped in a green and blue headscarf, slumped in a wheelchair. She grabs my hand as I walk by and in her heavy Polish accent tells me, “We know all about it. And I’m telling you, bubbeleh, we’re fine with it. You’re a good, good boy.” She puts my hand to her cheek, then lets it go. I make some sort of aching smirk and slip into my dad’s room, closing the door.

“Hi, Pop,” I say. He’s watching the mid-day news. He twists in his wheelchair to look at me. His eyes widen brightly and he mouths my name.

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