I'm not scared. The lie kept me walking. The stench of mouldy wallpaper slapped me in the face. Creaks followed my steps, barely silenced by what was once a carpet.
Was I stumbling down the corridor, or did the floor move? Impossible to say. My breath scared me a few times. Its ragged sound like whispers in the night. I knew it was there. The tingling in my neck, down my back, was becoming painful. My entire being wanted to check. To turn around and peek over my shoulder. The face would be right where it always was. Lidless, with a smile plastered on its pasty skin. A smile that would be way too big.
It would be a little bit closer. It always was -- every time I gave in and watched. A few millimetres closer.
It started many years ago. I was just a child then. We had just moved into a new big house with many rooms and a gigantic chimney. It was painted white and had a slate roof. The curtains were green and the shutters too. My bedroom was on the first floor and I could see the wheat fields in the distance. I thought -- we all thought -- this house was a blessing. Living in the countryside, near farms and a forest, was the dream. We even had an old wishing well in the garden. My little sister loved the rose bushes and the lavender growing strong everywhere. I like climbing trees and catching butterflies. But that only lasted a moment.
I noticed the face one morning while playing in the forest behind the house. Not too far from home, of course. Just past the first oak tree. I’d had that feeling you have when someone's looking at you. That tickle on your neck, like a crawling insect. I had looked, and there it was. Far away enough that I couldn't quite make out its features. That face wasn't engraved in my brain yet.
I had tried to talk to it. I'd called out, asking who it was. What it wanted. Was it a neighbour? Did someone get lost? Was it a thief? Or maybe a pervert?
"Why are you yelling like that?" my mother had asked, worried. Her hands still covered in soap, her apron wet. She must’ve been doing the dishes. She stood on the porch, the red of her shirt like a blood splatter against the white walls.
"There's a person back there! They're staring, and they aren't moving. It's scary!" I said, pointing at that figure hidden deep in the bushes.
"A person?" Mum got down the steps, barefoot. She shivered a bit when dew coloured the legs of her jeans. "Sweety, I don't see anyone. Are you sure it's not just a shape on the bark?"
But it was still there. Far away. Despite the distance, I knew it was unblinking. I knew it was fixating on me. I knew it was waiting for something. "They're there. I swear!"
My mum never called me a liar. Even when I was clearly messing with reality. She held the belief that your feelings are never fake. So even if she couldn't see the "person", she took my apparent fear quite seriously. She didn't understand why I was scared, but something upset me enough that I saw a phantom face.
"Okay, well... you should come in, then. That way, they won't be peeping on you. You’ll be safe."
From that day on, for a reason I couldn't fathom, that face had followed me. I didn't notice it was getting closer at first. I just knew that wherever I was, whenever I checked, it was there. I could see it through my classroom window, through the glass-paned doors on the train, and far away in the crowd during festivals. Night or day, it was there.
I started dreaming about it. I stood in front of mirrors and it was right behind me. Smiling like a maniac and yelling things I didn’t hear. All I saw was my face and that face. It always ended with my reflection breaking down. I’d wake up covered in tears and sweat. I had to learn to fall back asleep quietly so I didn’t bother everyone in the house.
Days, weeks, and even months passed, and it dawned on me. The face would catch up one day. And I would die.
My mum and dad had spoken about it a lot, of course. My hallucinations. I kept telling them about that face, and they couldn't see it. They never saw it. But since my feelings were true, I needed help. They sent me to a few doctors. No one ever found anything physically wrong with me. My brain was healthy, and everything else with it. Despite the tiredness, obviously. So, I went to see a few therapists. They all had different theories. A few got a bit mad at me when I said the face wasn’t going away. My mother got even angrier and fired them.
I decided to stop talking about the face during a session. I was at a desk, and the kind psychiatrist was talking while I drew the face. Her red hair cascaded around, and she was named Dr Lola. I was still small. I'm not sure how old I was. She was asking me why I needed the face. Why did I have to keep seeing it? I looked over my shoulder, and there it was. We were on the sixth or seventh floor and it floated under the rainy sky. It had gotten close enough that I could see it clearly for the first time.
I knew -- there and then -- that that face was evil. The certainty plunged its roots inside my child body. Until then, I had thought it was scary and mean. But that moment cemented the depth of the face’s corruption. I didn't want anyone else to ever see it. Because it was too twisted. It would hurt them.
I think it had gotten worse with time, actually. The lidless eyeballs bulged more and more. The smile kept getting larger. And more teeth. The skin was so white, it'd become grey. And it cracked a bit. I'm not sure, though. I hadn't looked in a while.
I'd trained myself to ignore it. It hurt to do it but I had to. To keep it at bay. When I spent too long without checking though, my neck got strained. My head tended to move on its own. It bent and twisted, so I couldn't look away. If I tried to resist, I pulled a muscle or two.
Life became easier with Dr Lola. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and given some medicine. My parents saw my therapist as some kind of Messiah. I didn’t mind. I knew how worried they were because of me. And Dr Lola was kind, even if she was wrong.
The pills weren’t too bad. They helped ease the anguish of it all. I was barely awake half of the time. It was peaceful.
I turned out to be a pretty good liar, too. Not about anything important. It’s just I’d never been honest about how I was doing ever since.
I did my best to focus on school. I didn’t play much, but I managed to make a few mates. I read a lot -- to think about something else. Anything else but my impending doom.
Understanding I was mortal at such a young age didn’t help much with grief, sadly.
My mum passed at 47. My dad died at 51. My little sister perished at 32, along with her entire family. Three of my closest friends died in high school or as freshmen in college. I'd kept to myself for some time after that.
The last death was the most gruesome, I thought. My best friend had called out to me. We were both walking to our class. He was a few paces behind me. I had looked. The face was right beside him, smiling. I had seen his expression change. Horror had distorted his features as he'd looked at me. Someone had run into him and he'd fallen. His skull had fractured against the wooden rail on the wall. It had just popped, blood flooding the wall and floor, brains cascading like jelly. The face had stood still. Almost peaceful amongst that chaos of pain and anguish.
I still wondered what my friend saw that horrified him when he had looked at me.
I couldn't keep a job. People didn't like working with me, and accidents happened when I was alone.
Like that one time, I worked in an office. I was keeping to myself in my cubicle, typing letters and stuff. I'm not sure anyone even knew my name. I hadn’t put any pictures on the low walls around me. I didn’t listen to music. All I wanted was to be invisible, cold, and distant. To protect the people around me and their families. To keep the face away from them.
It was a Thursday. A colleague behind me had asked me about something. Why? What was it he asked? I couldn’t remember. But I'd had no choice but to turn around. The ceiling had caved in. He was still in the hospital as far as I knew.
How come people knew it was all because of me, I couldn’t fathom. The only explanation would’ve been survival instinct. As if they could feel it in their bones. Feel that something about me was wrong. I couldn’t fault them if they did. They weren’t wrong after all.
I'd never had enough money to buy, and landlords never wanted me to stay. They always had a good reason to ask me to leave. One of them was the amount of time people called the cops on me. They never gave a precise reason except that I looked “shady”, as far as I know. The police were doing their job checking on me, I guessed. What was it that tipped people about me? Was it my loneliness? Was it the silence inhabiting my flats? Was it the look in my eyes?
The last place I didn’t lose because of the police though. The landlady just said I had two weeks to leave because her daughter needed the flat. I wasn’t sure it was quite legal but I didn’t have the strength to argue.
So I had come back to the old house a week before. It was the only thing I hadn't lost in all these years. I’d tried to sell it. No one wanted it. I’d tried to burn it down. It didn’t work. So I let it rot where it stood. The only thing that'd be mine until I died.
The place we met.
The walls weren’t that white anymore. The paint was all but gone, the wood underneath like a ribcage. A lot of the roof tiles were missing. It looked like I felt, to be honest. Worn down, abandoned, and unwanted.
It was home.
Here I was, walking to my bedroom. Everything was in disrepair, the inside matching the outside. I couldn't have maintained the place even if I’d wanted to. The face wouldn't let me. The cast on my arm was so itchy I wanted to bite it off. A few bruises on my legs made me limp. Every time I’d tried to repair something, I’d hurt myself and it had all gone to shit. I thought I was going to die soon.
The face was almost done, gnawing away at everything inside me. Chewing the world around me shouldn't be long. If I closed my eyes and focused, I'd hear its skin stretching, its eyes drying.
I stumbled and grabbed a curtain. It ripped apart, and I hit the floor. All the air fled my lungs, and my face slammed the carpet. Blood filled my mouth. I stayed like that for a while. Laying, face down, on the dust and rot. I couldn't remember the last time I ate.
Why do I keep going? I didn't know the answer to that. Dying would've been easy. I'd had rested, for once. I wouldn't have ached anymore. The fear would've evaporated into nothingness.
But where would the face have gone? Wouldn't it have haunted another soul? Did I care?
Eyes shut, I rolled on my back. I didn't care. All my life, I had told myself I needed to keep the face to myself to protect others. And it had murdered everyone around me. Because of me. Because I didn't let it devour me.
I had been selfish. I had been so scared of Death, that I had caused all this.
Are those my thoughts? I wondered that a lot. It was still unclear whether the face could think in my stead. I saw it talk in my ear. It was there when I looked in mirrors, mumbling in its teeth.
I sat before opening my eyes. My bedroom door was so close. Getting up, I ignored its breath in my dirty hair. Why did it breathe? It didn't even have a body. It was a flat face, like a drawing on a piece of paper. It only existed at eye level. I stood and grabbed the handle.
My bedroom was small, dark, and damp. If the face didn't kill me, it would be mildew. I drew the pitiful curtains. The rusty rings screeched.
The small bed had crumbled. It wouldn't have changed much to sleep on the floor. Its wooden frame had rotten away. In a corner, the dresser half-vomited its content on the peeling carpeted floor. The shadows drew eyes everywhere.
"I hate you, you know," I said. "Why don't you just leave? What good would it do you to consume my soul? There isn't much of it left. You saw to that."
I knew it just kept floating there. The hair on my back stood up. It was right next to my ear. I could kiss it on the cheek if I wanted. Just a peck. The thought drew a laugh out of me. It was the most painful thing to have happened that day. Laughter. A pike eviscerating me.
I hesitated for a heartbeat. I raised my hand to touch it.
Ash and ice. And bone. It was dry. It was real. The realisation that I had always had a part of me believing it wasn't real dawned on me. Tears of relief streaked my cheeks. I was touching it. Its flat surface. The eyes were the weirdest part. They would've crumbled if I had dug my nails in them. They flaked a bit.
I still wasn't looking, my fingers brushing its sick skin. Was it skin? I reached its edges. What was behind it? What was on the part I had never seen?
My heart pounded my ribcage, almost shattering my bones. I swallowed what was left of the blood in my mouth. Shivers covered my skin. I contorted my wrist over the forehead and touched the back. Thick, ice-cold goo stuck to my fingers. It stuck to my skin and whiffs of rotted meat attacked my nose. Shaking, I lowered my hand to look. It was blood, maybe? Kind-of-congealed blood. Dead blood.
The face hadn't done anything. No sound, no movement. It hadn't tried to bite my fingers off. I couldn't think straight. Terror travelled through my muscles. But something else was there. Ideas didn't form properly. I was exhausted, famished, dehydrated. I reached again. The face was still there. It was still real. And a bit closer. That was my cue.
I grabbed the edge with all my might. I dug my fingers deep in the goo and pulled. Pivoting a bit, I also used my left hand and yanked, howling.
The face was in my hands. It didn't float anymore. It was in front of me. I was grabbing it. It didn't fight back. I held it. It was heavy. My left arm -- still in a cast, I remembered now -- throbbed with burning pain. I looked at the gooey side. Ripped flesh oozed, marred with decay. The white side kept smiling when I examined it. Unphased.
"What are you?" I asked. "What are you?" I ignored my wounded arm and shook it. "What are you?" I shrieked.
So I started breaking it -- if it felt anything. I rammed it against the wall and finished the dresser with it. I used my nails to ravage its eyeballs. As I expected, they were so dry that they exploded like confetti. I ploughed in, ignoring the disgusting bits getting under my nails. No more eyes.
I didn't care about the pain, so I used my cast to hammer its nose and mouth. Was the sound of breaking bones coming from it or from me? Putrid blood and acrid sweat covered me. My clothes stuck to my skin. My thinning hair was matted above my head. If child-me had seen me... I'd have looked like a monster.
It couldn't follow me anymore. It couldn't stare. I didn't have to look at it in its empty irises. I turned it around to peek through the rough, empty, eye sockets. Another burst of laughter destroyed me.
Still grinning, I wobbled my way to the washroom. There was a mirror there, with stains of dirt and rust peppered all over. I held the face before mine like a morbid mask. It was bruised a bit. Blues and purples tainted its grey surface. Its smile was broken with teeth missing and flesh ripped off.
"I'm behind you now! I beat you! Me! ME!" I yelled, staring in the mirror. "And if I ever find your home, I'll destroy everything you've ever loved."
I'm not sure why, but I put the face on mine. It’s my mask now. I ignore the stench. I don't think about the wet, cold, and breaking-down flesh. I heave. Breathing is almost impossible with the smell and goo getting in my nose. Smiling like never before, I stare in the mirror and say "I own you. I own you. I own you."
My Father told me
I stood over their broken form. Their tortured limbs pulsated with pain, struggling wet maggots covered in thick bloody goo. I had done that. Here, nearing the End of Days, I had killed them.
The sky burned, and all the water had boiled away. I walked, and I walked. It was true that the tallest mountains had been hidden deep down the oceans. Rotten trees fell, my skin broke, and my blood dried.
Love was long gone. Sculpted stone had turned to dust. I wasn't thirsty. I wasn't hungry. Sadness had died in the wee morning. Ideas and feelings had to go because there was nothing else to annihilate. I remembered that I used to sleep sometimes. I had to carry on because I wasn't finished erasing.
Let's go back.
I stood over their broken form. I witnessed Hate's last breath. I had done that. Compassion had been the first to explode in anguish. It was fitting to end with them, then. All the skulls had eroded. I opened wide and ate Space.
It crumbled on itself and tugged its corners inside me.
My Father told me He was done playing. My work was all but finished. He needed a clean slate; I had ended Life.
Time glared at me. Time was easy. I closed my eyes.
Chapter one: Meredith
Once upon a time.
In a better world, I'd have been taking a soothing bath after a hard day working on my thesis. But that evening, I struggled to do maths after breaking my back at work. My shaking fingers were taping on my smartphone.
"Fucking banking app!" I yelled.
I let my Samsung go. Crossing my arms, I buried my face, pieces of paper falling on the floor. Even if I kept recalculating, again and again, in every way imaginable, that small screen's sentence was without appeal: With rent and electricity going up, I was about to lose my flat. Having to choose between food and a roof above my head - even though I had a stable job - was absurd. That was my absurd reality, though. Despite Custom Housing Assistance and Activity Bonus, despite all the ways I was already restricting myself, shit was hitting the fan. "France, the country of Human Rights," my ass.
Breathing in and out as slowly as possible, I tried to regroup. I had multiple options. I could find a roommate. I could pay my debts and move to an unsanitary studio flat... Or I could call my parents.
Calling my parents was out of the question. They wouldn't have answered anyway. Probably. And why would I want to rekindle that relationship anyways? I must have been quite desperate for this thought to cross my mind. No, I couldn't do that.
I could try and find an even smaller flat. But paying my debts... I straightened and looked at my phone again. I couldn't find that sum before being thrown out. Even if a miracle happened, I wouldn't have enough left for the down payment on a new place!
It only left the last option.
I got up and walked to the window. The sky was pitch black, the moon hidden behind a thick curtain of clouds. Medieval buildings leaned on each other, their slate roofs and grey stone walls covered in moss. Most people were home now, and the crooked windows bathed in artificial light. A few party-goers, drunk as fuck, tried not to slip on the uneven cobblestone of the street down below. I lived in the Rue de la Soif*. Downstairs, pubs proliferated. Small tables took up all the room, and you had to walk in the middle of the street. Sometimes, you would sit down, thinking you would drink from one pub, only to realise the wrong server was taking your order. No car had passed that street in ten years. People dared each other to drink a pint in all thirty of them pubs. Most failed. None seemed to mind.
I opened the window and let the music, screams, and laughs slap me. Grabbing onto the iron railing, I closed my eyes. Did I want to live with someone else? In theory, I could. My office could become a second bedroom. Not a big one, but it could work. The bathroom was minuscule. I had decided to buy a gas stove and oven, so I only had room for a mini-fridge. But was it that important? Shortly, a lot more people would be willing to share a flat. And some could be okay with all that.
Did I want to live with someone else?
I turned my back to the window to let my eyes brush over my place. The old wooden floor smelled of beeswax. All my furniture was either oak or walnut. From the round table to the gigantic buffet. In front of my TV, a small grey couch covered in green and yellow pillows. I had so many plants I could've opened a store. I loved having my space. It was my haven. I had chosen and bought everything with care. It was all mismatched, old and crumbling. It was home.
"I want to survive," I whispered to the rising darkness.
I grabbed the matchbox next to the TV and lit a few candles. My lungs filled with roses and violets. It was time to fight.
Hi guys! Looking for a roomie here! You'd have your bedroom in a cosy flat near all subways and buses. It's a fifteen minutes walk from all major stores and historical locations.
Must be LGBTQ-friendly. DMs opened~
After posting, I lay on my bed for a long time. I wasn't hungry or tired. I was nothing. Tomorrow was Sales Day at work. Tomorrow was also French Fries Day at the charity. Tomorrow was another day.
In a better world, I'd have been worried about my grades and dating life. But that evening, I struggled to fall asleep and wondered if it was all worth it.
*Literally "Thirst Road" in French.
"Don't tell your father", my mother uttered.
I sat across from her in our small living room. The yellow wallpaper felt cold. The most painful sentence of my life had just fallen from my mouth, and my mother wasn't looking at me anymore.
"If you wish to confess, Father Laurent would be delighted to see you", she added, getting up. She walked briskly to the kitchen, opening the fridge. "I think we'll eat steak tonight."
That's when it all started to go to shit. I don't eat steak anymore.
I don't remember happiness. I know that I used to laugh a lot as a child. To run around and scream and jump. I played with other children often, or so I'm told. But I don't remember feeling joy.
I can't picture myself without a weight on my shoulders. When I crawl down memory lane, I grasp only shards of worry, anguish and despair.
One of the earliest moments is me banging on a door. It wasn't long after my brother's birth, I think? My grandmother wasn't far away. My father was above me, banging as well. He was pleading. My mother was on the other side of the door. It was a big, white door. I couldn't exactly reach for the handle.
Mum wasn't coming out of the bathroom. I didn't know why. All I understood was that Dad was scared. He wasn't acting like it. But he was. I knew that if Mum opened that door, all would be fine again. Something was happening to her in that bathroom that wasn't okay.
I don't remember the door opening.
My little brother came to me once, saying Mum was sleeping. He had a smile on his face. Have you ever seen someone smiling because their face didn't know what else to do? That's what he looked like.
We had moved. We were alone with Mum. I followed my brother and found her on her bed. She was more than napping. She was in the bathroom, and I was banging on the door. I didn't want my little brother to join me. But I didn't know how to fix it.
So I took his hand and said: "Mum is sick. I'm gonna call the doctor". 'Turns out, I was a clever kid. I hadn't learned my multiplication tables at the time. But I knew that you had to phone the Emergencies if you couldn't fix something. I was on the phone with them when my Dad arrived.
We stayed with our gran' for a few days.
The last time I was at my grandparents, the bathroom door wasn't looking like much. It was a small, thin wood panel. The paint was greyer. I opened it, and all I saw was a sink, a bathtub, and shelves. But my chest still hurts.
My brother doesn't remember the time Mum went napping. But I still struggle to breathe.
She lives far away now. Mum, that is. But she's still in the bathroom. And I'm still banging.
Three weeks. Three weeks of lockdown. Puffing on a cigarette, I look between the thick curtains into the street. Guer, a village in Brittany, France, was already quiet before.
Now, it’s dead.
It has become the home of birds chirping and ducks kwaking. Not too bad. I would be okay if it wasn’t for the heat. I wipe my forehead, dripping sweat under my thick and curly hair. I hate the heat. It’s only April and it’s already 28°C here. I thought that by going up north, I would escape my personal hell. But it’s even worse now.
The south of France, Marseille, was my home before. Back there, the temperatures would go up to sometimes more than 35°C. But we had the sea wind of the Méditerrannée. Fresh and strong, it was a relief. I’m not on the oceanic coast here. I’m inland, in the magical Brocéliande forest. The territory of Arthur and Mirdin. So, no fresh and strong wind. At least my father isn’t here. Which is nice…
I get away from the window and leave my L-shaped living room. My black cat, Chewey, is as hungry as I am. Inside my small kitchen, I open the fridge, the fresh air soothing my burning skin. I take a glass water bottle and press it against my cheek, moaning in relief. After a few seconds of desperate meowing, I give in and offer some patty to the famished beast and grab some potato salad for myself. Tomorrow, I’ll eat samosas.
That’s what my life has become. Waiting, cooking, eating, waiting again. I’m 28 years old and I have no job, no relationship, no friends and I live in a state-funded apartment. At least I have my unemployment checks, but it will not last forever. With the lockdown, it will be complicated to find some work to do… My last one was on the Monolith’s site of Monteneuf. As a guide and storyteller around the legends surrounding the gigantic and so-called magical rocks. Legends that had been passed through generations, of antique powers and sightings. It was nice. All the children were adorable, with sparkling eyes of awe, imagining fae and sometimes stone giants roaming the land. But it’s over now. It lasted three weeks.
I sit down at the dining table, with my potatoes and a beer. Seriously, what have I become? Okay, I suffer from depression and anxiety. But as my father always says: “It’s not an excuse. You’re Brunet and a woman. You have to work ten times harder than anyone”. I hop from job to job, I have no prospects. I’m a failure. The smell of vinegar and spices fills the room as I eat. I’m bored. And it’s the worst feeling. One of the most dangerous ones. It leads to apathy, which leads to depression.
I had hopes and dreams before. I would become an author. Write to represent and empower women, share our struggles and victories. It was my life goal. I was talking about it all the time. But my parents weren’t receptive. They wanted me to have a “respectable job,” they said. Lawyer or doctor or anything of the sort. They wanted me to have all they didn’t have. I went to law school. But being the only poor woman was hard. Harassment, sexist insults, sexual assault… I suffered my first depression… and worse.
I know, I know... “It’s not an excuse.” Or so said my parents, especially my father. But I was really at my lowest and I dropped out. They stopped talking to me. Except, of course, when my father kept reminding me through passive-aggressive messages what a disappointment I was.
The last time I saw them was at my grandmother’s funeral, three years ago. She had taken me in. Had helped me get into therapy. With all her might, she had shielded me against the attitude of her son-in-law. She was amazing. My only friend. Now I’m alone. And I have no goals, no dreams, nothing left.
Sipping on my beer --which I know I shouldn’t drink with my meds--, I look at my TV screen. A character is choking one of his minions with his magic. The man is a bad guy but I can’t stop feeling for him. Then I realise it’s because he makes me think of myself. Losing my breath and my mind over something invisible, intangible, that I can’t control and that I can’t fight.
I slowly put my beer on the table. I don’t want to be like that poor lad. Because he’s a mass murderer but also because, unlike him, I have weapons against my own great villain. I have my anti-depressant meds, anti-anxiety meds, and my sheer will. I’m strong. And I have plenty of time, thanks to the quarantine, to do something with myself.
Like a sleepwalker, I go to my bookshelves and pick one of my notebooks. A grey leather bound that I used so much the cover got wrinkly and some pages are torn. I go to the end, where I have last written. It was four years ago, the outline of a YA fantasy. The story of a young, powerful girl that discovers she has the ability to see her Ancestors and draw power from them. I had everything, a complete outline, character sheets, timeline, everything. Then, my Grandma got sick. And I forgot everything about it.
Grandma was really excited to see me working on this. She wanted me to succeed. And I want it too. Even if I don’t get published, I want to at least finish a first draft. I stand up, the notebook in my hand. I’m gonna do this.
I stand on the top of a chair. I don’t know why I’m doing this. The typewriter, a yellowy-white and bulky, electric one, is so heavy I can’t breathe while trying to carry it over my head. Why did I put that goddamn thing on the top of my wardrobe? Its weight crushes my sore muscles, challenging my balance. The heat of the early afternoon transformed my bedroom into an oven. I can taste my salty sweat as I finally manage to take the typewriter against my chest. I wobble a bit, the chair creaking under me, and take a breath. Okay, it’s secured. I get down and go to my living room. I must look like a weird crab, walking like that.
I don’t have an office or even a desk space. So I put the typewriter at one extremity of the dining table. It will have to do. Why don’t I use my laptop? Well… that typewriter was my Grandma’s. And since I’m partially doing it in her honour, it’s only logical. Or at least it was when I took the decision. I plug the monster in. Chewey jumps on the table to sniff it. He meows, curious. This spot is usually his. That machine has taken his place.
“You will have to deal with it, Chewey,” I say, listening to the humming of the typewriter.
The black keyboard is hard to press. I put a sheet of paper in. The clicking is satisfying. Then I type my name. The keys fight against me, refusing to smoothly work like modern ones. I’m used to typing without thinking. Those black squares are gripped, heavy. Now, I have to own each letter, one by one. At last, I sigh in relief. The ink is still kicking! Not as pure black as it could be but certainly there. I smile. The first time in ages.
I grab my laptop and search for a live write-in on Youtube. Of course, there aren’t any, since most of them are held by Americans. So I use a replay. I don’t feel lonely anymore. Don’t get me wrong, Chewey is… as good company as could be. But it’s not the same as human beings. I can’t talk with him. A cat won’t exchange ideas, won’t give me a warm smile, try to pick me up when I doubt myself, or ask me for advice. It won’t joke either. My cat doesn’t even cuddle.
While listening to the intro of the video, I go over my chapter-by-chapter outline once again. It’s not bad! As the voice of the host fills the room, a shadowy presence kicking away the loneliness, I start to imagine my characters. Alive and moving. A seven minutes sprint starts. It takes me a minute to jump into it. I’m nervous. But the words start to flow. Around the world, dozens of writers had spent those seven minutes putting in as many words as they could. Together, they had worked to make the world a better place. And I’m joining them through time.
Malorie held her breath. The deer was drinking peacefully in the river…
For a few minutes, I forget about myself and become Malorie. Little by little, she’s coming alive under my fingers. Her tan skin is shining under the sun, with golden undertones. Her braided hair smells like rich almond oil. She is powerful, confident. Too much sometimes, but she deserves it. She can be afraid too because she doesn’t accept her gift. She doesn’t understand her link to her Ancestors. All those women within her family line who held the same power. She doesn’t know she can harness it. Harness their strength.
She avoids the guards, she needs to find food and she’s going to hunt that deer. The law of the invaders doesn’t matter to her. Her muscles tense, as she aims her hunting bow. She has to be swift. The men in arms aren’t far. She won’t go to prison. Not again…
Letting myself flow with the story is peaceful. Alongside other writers from all around the globe, I write. All their silhouettes sit around me. They type, they scribble with their pens and pencils. Some of them men, others women. Young and old, of any ethnicity. We work as one. And I’m not alone anymore. One of them sips coffee and the smell fills the room. I tell a joke and a few laughs. It’s exhilarating.
As I knew I would, I’m struggling with the typewriter. I go from one live write-in video to the other. Each host is funny and encourages me to keep going. Some hold seven minutes writing sprints, others go to fifteen or even twenty-five. We work. I work. And it’s amazing.
At the end of the day, I reread the chapter and realise that I’ve put a lot of myself into Malorie. A lot of my insecurities, doubts and aspirations. It’s not too bad. I write what I know and it’s the first time I’ve attempted to create a full-fleshed character. So… yeah, I think it’s okay. Maybe a bit too “fanficey” for a novel but I can rework this in the edits.
I go take a bath to relax. The lukewarm water takes away all the stress and questioning from my mind. As my muscles relax, I think about today. I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve been proactive. It’s been so long since I’ve done something! A feeling of pride takes over me. I can do this. I definitely can… I’ve never finished a first draft, it’s true. But we all start from somewhere. I’m almost thirty and I’ve never studied in that field. But I wouldn’t be the first author to do it that way. With this tardiness. I’m behind, compared to a lot of people. Some teenagers have already finished multiple first drafts and even edited them. I don’t know anymore.
So… Can I do this? While dressing in a fresh nightgown, I start to wonder. How many times have I been like this? Overexcited and proud, doing something, sure I could accomplish something grandiose. Just to stop after a few days, once my fire had disappeared. No. I have to stop thinking about this, I say to myself. I have to stay positive. It’s possible. I’m not the only one going through this and I don’t have less value than the next writer. I just need to stay focused and work my arse off. Keep it up, Miranda!
I lay down in my bed. The window is open to let the fresh air of the night get in. I can smell the rose bushes downstairs and grass. As I fall asleep, I start dreaming of the sound of the typewriter and hear someone whispering my name.
My name is now Malorie. I don’t know how but I know I’m dreaming. The rocks of the maquis are scratching and burning my bare feet. My palm is moist around the body of my bow. I kneel, looking around me. I’m close to the river. The shadow of the pine trees is long under the sun.
Someone is approaching. A presence behind my back. I hear them breathing, panting. They are going up the hill I’m standing on. Horses are drinking, far away. I want to stand up and run. Reach the river to hop on a horse and get away. But I can’t move.
“It’s stupid, this is your dream, you can control it. And you don’t have to be afraid, none of it is real!” I say to myself. But I can’t help it. My heart starts racing and I can’t move. I try to stand up but even if I imagine my movements nothing happens. It should be a beautiful dream where I get to be my beloved character but it’s ruined.
I don’t know how long I stay there. The sun doesn’t move, I keep hearing and feeling the person walking toward me. But they never reach me. And I just stay there, like an idiot. Until I wake up.
Sounds in the night
The scorching sun wakes me up at 8 a.m. and I’m not happy about it. But, at least, it gives me more time to write. So I decide to be happy about it. As happy as can be. It saved me from the nightmare I was having after all. My kitchen is still cool, so I run to it after closing the window and curtains of my bedroom. I grab my breakfast and go to the living room.
Last night, I left my little workspace in shambles. Pages were everywhere, there was a plate and the typewriter was unplugged. Everything is pristine. I think someone even wiped the table. Did I sleep-clean? Is it even possible? The typewriter is plugged and buzzing. There is still a sheet in it. And it’s not my last page. Grabbing it, I start reading and don’t recognise the words on it.
“I… can’t have cleaned and written without remembering. It’s not possible,” I mumble, all my blood leaving my face.
The page falls on the floor. I have to check my apartment. The linoleum of the floor squeaks under my bare feet as I walk sideways, my back against the walls. First thing, I make sure my door is locked. Three times, I turn the key. All good. Same for the windows. Then, I check each millimetre of the place. Are my items misplaced? Is there a smell I don’t recognise? Some adrenaline jolts through me every time I have to move from one wall to the other. A hand could grab me. I could be knocked out by someone. But it’s all normal in here. Is it too normal? The last thing I do is punch the blankets in my cupboard. Nobody grunts. Nobody fights back.
With my palms on my table, back in the living room, I breathe in. I wish Grandma was here to tell me everything's gonna be okay. Or to put her foot down and shake me back into sanity. My head turns but the Diazepam pill I just took will help with that. Sitting eyes closed, trying not to think about all that could happen to me when I’m in the dark, I focus. Breathing in three times. Exhaling five times. Organising my thoughts. What happened here? Someone wrote on my typewriter and cleaned my place. Who was it?
What kind of twisted mind would do such a thing? Especially with cops turning in the village to enforce the lockdown! Little by little, with my calculated breathing and thanks to the pill, I feel my heart slowing. My shaking limbs calm down and the walls stop turning around. Okay. I’m okay, I try to convince myself. It’s possible that I wrote this in my sleep. Sleepwalking can be a symptom of my depression and anxiety. Yes, it’s true. It makes sense. It’s weird, yes. But I’m messed up anyway. I already know that. It has to be me. I was locked inside the entire day and night. Nobody could’ve gotten in.
After a long moment, I stand up. I grab the page that fell and the other ones, and put them on top of my own work. Taking a deep breath, I start reading.
It’s written from the point of view of another character. An elderly woman from the village, named Romane, that had had the same power as Malorie in her youth. She takes her under her wing. Or tries to. Malorie isn’t up for it, as she is running away. Her power is, after all, dangerous. Feared by the forces that invaded their country two hundred years ago.
I looked at her. She was tall and knew of her strength. Her eyes were full of a fire ready to scorch the earth in her path. Muscular, there was no way to deny she knew how to hunt and fight. But there was a pain, hidden deep. My eyesight may have been cloudy but her soul shone bright. She could have been a Queen in the future. But at the moment, the crown would have crushed her.
It’s good for a first draft. And I can see how this new character may add depth to the story. A fiery character and one made of water. The future and past colliding. A bridge between Malorie and her Ancestors. I could also fix a few plot points that would’ve been complicated for Malorie to accomplish alone. But I know I never thought of it while awake. I smile. It’s so on point, it has to be proof it was me. Nobody could’ve added this in my story so pristinely except for… Well, me. I was dreaming of the story last night. A weird nightmare, yes. But it must’ve gotten my brain working and I did this!
So I do the mature thing and decide not to think of it too much anymore. I’ll do something about it later. All morning, I write Romane’s character sheet, her arc and include her in the outline. It’s easier than expected. As if the story had waited for her to appear. I don’t freak out and prepare my samosas.
While I cook, I put a plan together. This afternoon, I’ll just do as programmed and draft the second… no, the third chapter. After that, I’ll do something about that… situation. If I’m sleepwalking now, it’s concerning. I could hurt myself or Chewey. I have to handle this.
Today, I’m lucky. There is an actual live stream for me to work with. I put it on and abandon myself in my writing. The voices of the hosts help me think about something other than the weirdness of this morning. But, as I make Malorie interact with Romane, I realise I won’t be able to completely erase the event from my mind.
I don’t even know why I’m going along with it anymore. Even if Romane is a good idea, I don’t feel like I have control over this character. It just popped into my life unannounced. It’s mine but also… it’s not. But she’s so good for the story!
Romane's eyes made me uncomfortable. They were pale because of some old person’s disease. But they kept focusing on me. As if she could see me clearly. As if she could see inside of me.
And that draft of the second chapter is like that to me. As if someone had seen inside my head and extracted what could be. And it gives me a weird impression. Like, someone is staring at me, blankly. Their eyes deep holes I could fall into. Their laser sight pierces my skull and rummages in my thoughts. I’m followed. All the time. I even glance over my shoulder from time to time, just to make sure nobody’s standing in the corner. But it also makes me curious. Because this someone I’m fearing seems to be me. I need to call my therapist.
Time passes by and the night sets in. I’ll finish later than yesterday with all that work this morning. But it’s not a bad thing. It gives me time to think about my plan. It’s bold and could cause a disaster if someone is really getting inside my apartment. But hey, what can you do? Stop messing with yourself, Miranda. What I really want is to catch myself in the act, to show it to my therapist.
I check the front door again, just in case. Then, I set my camera up, hidden behind books but with a good view of the typewriter. I leave a mess, like yesterday, and go to bathe and sleep. Needless to say that even a fresh bath doesn’t solve my anxiety issue of the night. I only stay in for five minutes, unable to relax and too scared some stranger will barge in. But no, it won’t happen. You’re locked in. You’ve even closed the windows despite the heat. You’re safe and your brain is sick and messing with you. You’re locked in… I put my thoughts on repeat, the sentences swirling around. I can picture the letters burning themselves on the wall in front of me.
A few moments later, I’m laying under the covers despite the heat. Yes, the night is fresher but still… I almost can’t breathe. But I need that layer like a shield over me because I’m scared. Scared that I’ll hear someone getting in, someone cleaning and typing. Even though I know it’s impossible.
I stay awake for at least an hour, listening, hearing all the creaks and bangs from the wood of the ceiling moving. The crickets are deafening. My body relaxes, the high temperature is numbing.
As my eyes are closing, the sound of the keyboard wakes me. I didn’t hear anyone get in. What? Why? I’m frozen, unable to move and my eyes fixated on the wall. I weep, sounding like a miserable dog. Teardrops fall on my pillow. Am I losing my mind?
I try to focus. The light in the room seems surreal. A breath fills my ears, rasp and panicked. It’s my own. It has to be my own. Each shadow fixes me. They lurk, they move but they don’t. I have to move. I know this state. It’s happened before. I have to test myself. I try to close my eyes. It doesn’t work. Then, I try to move my hand before my face. I feel the movement. I can picture my hand in my mind. But a part of me knows it’s not here for real. I don’t see it. Not for real.
The sound of the typewriter gets louder and louder. My heart tries to escape my ribcage. I want to cry but I can’t. I need to wake up. To wake up for real!
There is no clicking sound anymore. I woke up panting. A headache destroys my brain. The blanket is on the ground. I press my hands on my closed eyes, trying to think. I need to watch the video. But what if that person is still here? My… stalker or something. No, yesterday morning, they were gone. They have to be gone. I mean, I had decided there wasn’t anyone in the first place. But I also heard the typewriter in my sleep paralysis state. Didn’t I? Or was I imagining things? I don’t know anymore. So, I get up, grab my lightsaber replica and get in the corridor. Nothing. Slowly, I get to the front door and almost pee myself. It’s closed. What the frick? Do they have a key? That’s the worst! Or maybe it’s the best. It should be proof nobody was here. Because nobody was here, Miranda! Or maybe, just maybe…
I get to the living room. No one in the dining part. The table is tidied up though. I jump to the TV section. Empty. I turn in my apartment. There is no one but me. And Chewey who sounds like he is dying of hunger. I give him some food and, putting my lightsaber against the wall, I go to the camera. I put a charged battery inside and start to watch the video on my TV screen, with the sound up. I go to the time around which I heard the sound. But there is no figure on the screen.
Don’t get me wrong. I do hear the keyboard. But nobody is using it. Worse, I see the dishes fly out of the room in the direction of the kitchen. The pages lying around put themselves in a neat pile. Like in the stories I told to the children when I worked in Monteneuf. I feel like I’m gonna vomit.
“Do you see that, Chewey?” I ask my cat.
He stares at me, bored out of his mind. Objects flying, items using themselves… Is that a particularly well-executed prank? I grab my lightsaber again, get on a chair and start poking the ceiling, trying to find hidden cameras. The plastic makes a pitiful sound. I look at my lamp, along the ridges of the ceiling’s beams, on top of the doors. No cameras, no microphones, and no well-hidden devices to make it seem like the objects are flying.
I’ve lost it.
“That’s so well done! Is it CGI or did you use invisible cables?”
“So spooky and magical. I’ll show it to all my friends XD”
“So sad it’s in night mode. But it’s a start. Hope you can do a video in the daytime next.”
“Clearly fake. Dislike.”
“Did you see my text message?”
Okay so. I posted the video on my Youtube account. And it seems like everyone sees the things that I see. My cousin doesn’t seem to care though. Her text message was asking me for money I don’t have. So I’m not completely mad.
A thought dawns on me. My Grandma’s typewriter must be magical. My heart swells in my throat. I take a break and look at it. It’s still a dirty white, still bulky, still a bit dusty, but suddenly I find it the most beautiful thing on Earth. I have a magical object. Magic is actually real. More, this typewriter chose to help me write. How awesome is that? I’m so happy that I feel like screaming and just start laughing. I touch the precious item with the tip of my fingers.
“Thank you,” I whisper with a wide smile on my face.
Grandma has gifted me a lot of things during the time I lived with her. Both material and emotional. She taught me how to accept myself, and how to take care of my mind and body --even though that one is still a work in progress. She taught me how to trust, that I could love and be loved. And she gave me my first notebook and planner. But this is the ultimate thing. How come she never told me about it?
Maybe it isn’t magical per se? I think. After all, I live in Broceliande. The land of Fae, Druids, Monoliths and Korrigans. Did one of those beings do this for me? Did they hear my pain and complaints through the veil of their world and mine?
“That’s not possible!” I start to reason with myself. “But it’s not like those comments are fake. Most of those people you don’t know so they couldn’t be in on a prank.”
I grab the book about Brittany’s mythology I used for my work. It says most fae is scary and kills people. Some are just jokers. But there is one type of friendly being. The Margot. Did a Margot decide to help me?
I lay down on my couch. I want to scream. Faes are not supposed to exist. Mirdin, Arthur, Melusine and all those people are just… fairytales. And as much as I love Grandma, she wasn’t magical either. She was just kind, loving and strong. And being a decent human being is good enough. Popping up an anxiety pill because I feel myself shaking more and more, I grab my phone and call my therapist.
“Miranda! I’m glad to hear from you. We’re not supposed to talk for another week. What’s going on?”
Hearing a human voice talking directly to me is such a relief, teardrops cloud my vision.
“I’m losing my mind, Sir. For real this time.”
And I tell him everything. He checks the video I sent him through email and there is a long, long silence. I even check if the call hasn’t ended.
“Miranda,” he says, obviously concerned. “Are you… trying to tell me you believe a Margot turned your typewriter into a magical item of some sort?”
“No!” I protest, my voice shaking as much as my body. “I’m telling you I’m trying not to believe that.”
“Listen,” he sighs. “Do you want to go to the hospital?”
“No, not that. I can get through this without it. Or I want to try. I can’t go back there.”
“Okay. So I’m going to send a new prescription to your pharmacist. And we’ll talk together twice a week from now on.”
He explains to me that he’s upping my antidepressant doses, and adding a new molecule to help my brain distinguish between reality and dream or something. I’ve stopped caring right now. He’s not helping. He’s just pushing new medication on me. I’ll take it, of course. He’s a professional. But I needed more from him right now. I needed sanity. I needed someone to tell me I’m not mad.
As I walk back from the pharmacist, I gasp. For a second, I thought I saw a form in the flirtatious. I kneel and look between the blades of grass. A Korrigan house. Made of walnut shell and twigs. I smile behind my mask. Children playing. It’s just children playing.
Then, near the lake in front of my apartment, I hear bells jingling. Standing in the empty parking lot, hair stands on my neck. In the wind, whispers of laughs and songs reach me. Someone is watching me. And for the first time in years, I don’t feel threatened. This particular stare calms me. I’m watched by someone who cares.
It’s frightening. But also exhilarating. Feeling safe. Right now, I feel safe. This being can shield me against anything and anyone. The help I expected from my therapist, I can get from them. They care and I can trust them. Even though I don’t know them.
Weeping willow branches wave into the breeze. Bells again. That moment is the happiest I’ve ever been in months. I laugh and run back into my home. To Chewey. To my work. To my typewriter.
Sitting down, I grab my laptop and start searching for a write-in. I choose the first I find and get to work. Suddenly, I have no doubts anymore. I’m worthy. I was chosen. I have an actual chance of finishing that novel. Doesn’t matter if it’s published or not, it will be completed. My fingers and hands get sparks of energy as I type, fast and resolute.
Plus, I have a new resolution: to show the typewriter that it was right in selecting me as its new owner. To show the Margot she didn’t make a mistake. My writing is gonna be so good that its magical mind will blow.
“I’m gonna show you!” I yell, exhilarated.
Chewey, who is napping on the blue sofa, meows, bewildered that I dare wake him up. But I don’t care right now. I have power. I have focus. I have my imagination. This is a challenge that I set up in my mind. We will see who, between the magical typewriter and me, can write better.
“Again!” yelled Romane, looking down at me. I was laying down on the dirt. Panting, I glared at her, angry about her tone, angry about the heat, angry about everything. But most of all, angry about that Power. I never asked for it. I never asked to be different, to be the recipient of some ancient magic…
I could understand why Malorie would be mad. I felt a tingling in my stomach. Looking at her, on the verge of breaking apart, was hard. But I found solace in the thought that it was necessary…
The days pass by, powerful sessions of writing change the atmosphere. My apartment isn’t a cage anymore. It’s a sanctuary of Magic and Art. It’s a place where I’m safe, cared for and where nobody can hurt me.
I write the Malorie chapters by day, the typewriter takes care of Romane’s by night. Malorie and Romane learn to know each other, as well as I learn to know my magical item. Slowly, I see a bond forming between us all. My MC learns to do magic, I learn to write better every day. Romane learns to be a teacher and the typewriter learns to adapt to me and teach me lessons. I’ve never been so happy about something. I wake up early, I eat more healthily, and I take time to play with Chewey. He’s not as grumpy as before, either.
Even the weather isn’t as bothersome now. Maybe I’m just less focused on the heat? I forget that I should hate it. The sun rays between leaves of green, the smell of roses, vinca, and marigold… All of this is now a symbol of happiness and joy.
Chewey brushes against my ankles as I stretch after six hours of work. It’s been a good day. I even surprised myself by doing the dishes! Am I becoming better at adulting? Taking a sheet out of the typewriter, I reread a scene I just wrote:
I looked at the face of Romane. Her clouded eyes had a look I had never seen before. Tears gleaming at their corners. For the first time, she looked her age, her face carved in knotty wood. I opened my mouth, ready to ask her what was wrong…
The same thing happened to me in the past. With my Grandma. A few weeks after I went to live with her. She was hard on me, not letting me despair and lock myself into nothingness. She helped me stay out of the water. And at that moment, when it seemed like she needed me, I did nothing. I saw the tears she tried to hide. The corners of her pinched lips distorted with sadness. It would have been so easy to reach for her. To say something… Or, at least, to hug her. I didn’t do any of that. Scared, and hurt, I let that moment pass. But Malorie doesn’t have to do that. She can do and say everything I wish I had done and said.
And so we do what has to be done right now. Through Malorie, I express everything my Grandma represented to me. Through me, she tells Romane how important she is to her. Drops run down my cheeks, my hands are shaking. I struggle to breathe and to see the page. Why am I sad? I should be thrilled to do this, to use my work to resolve something that’s been tormenting me for years. And I was happy just moments ago! Or maybe it’s not sadness. Maybe it’s just the bubble of tension and hurt that’s bursting. Mood swings will kill me someday.
So I take some time to regroup with myself and my feelings. It was hard, yes, but it was a good thing. Not only was it cathartic, it made up for an amazing scene. A few tears are okay. You can be emotional, it doesn’t mean you’re a mess. I breathe slowly and compose myself. Everything is fine.
In the end, I go to bed, realising I can’t wait to read Romane’s reaction to my words. But is it healthy though? Those past few days, my therapist --who doesn’t know anything about my acceptance of the typewriter-- has been trying to teach me how to not rely on others to accept myself (and that magic isn’t real but that’s not the topic of the situation). That I have to find a way to see my own worth without the approbation of an external source. Whether it be someone close to me or something else. That I need to exercise my brain to accept itself as it is. And to better myself because I want to and not because I need to… for others.
I feel pity for myself. A grown-ass adult waiting desperately for a magical item to reassure her. It’s ridiculous. My clean sheets smell like violets and I grab my pillow to hug it, losing myself in the fragrance. Chewey jumps on the bed and curls against me, purring like crazy. He’s never been so affectionate before. Or maybe it was me? I just scratch his head and listen to the typing sounds coming from the living room. They rock me to sleep.
Love and other complicated things
“I love you like a daughter, Malorie.”
Those few words, at the beginning of the page, make me weep. I’ve lost control. My Grandma never told me that. I know she thought it. It showed through her actions every day. But she never said it. My typewriter seems to have just filled a hole in my chest. It’s like Grandmother and I just had this long-awaited conversation we needed, thanks to it.
I’m putting too much of myself in the text, am I not? I think. But I realise I don’t care. It’s cathartic. It’s important. I need this. Therapy by writing is a thing after all. And some authors do it anyway. Why should I not? And the readers don’t need to know. Maybe they’ll see it, after revisions, editing. But it’s okay. And it may never be published and… I take a deep breath. I have to stop. And today’s chapter is important.
It’s the midpoint of the book. Malorie and Romane have reached the capital city and are about to try and infiltrate a castle, to bring down the antagonist, the ruler of the country. Of course, it’s not going to be easy. And it will not go well.
This part is exciting. And the action will help me think about something other than my feelings. I’m glad about that. Even though Malorie’s power is deeply rooted in her emotions so… Anyway, let’s start writing. I take a deep breath and place my hands over the keyboard.
And like that, the words start to blacken the page. A jolt runs through me as I reach that zone, where I block everything around me to write. Just write. I don’t need to think about my uneasiness. About the fact that that typewriter I’m using has become my only friend. That an object understands me better than my parents do.
I held my breath. Soldiers were everywhere around us. The tapestries against the white walls moved, waving in the Mistral wind. The smell of the maquis melted in the scent of incense and ripe fruits. I heard the steps of the men in armour go away…
Am I like that? Avoiding men in arms in my brain, slaloming between bad thoughts not to face them and alarm the most dangerous of them all? What? Keep focused! I urge myself, as Malorie finally faces the Big Bad Man: a fascist invader that dares to wear the colours of the royal family he killed. Neither the typewriter nor I have found a name for him yet. So he still has the placeholder of Big Bad Man. It makes me laugh a bit and I calm down.
I write their discussion once. Then twice. Soon, a dozen pages are discarded as I can’t find my way through it. Will I have to let the typewriter do it for me? No! I won’t do that. She’s a helper, not a crutch. And I don’t want to disappoint her. Then I realise I’ve referred to it as “her” in my mind. I stand, starting to pace in the room. My cigarettes are on the table and I just now remember that I haven’t smoked in weeks. Good thing. Even though thinking about it makes me crave nicotine.
A smell of cologne fills the room. I feel like I know that scent. Well, of course, I know what cologne smells like… But that particular brand of cologne I know well. Rich, with a hint of lavender and musk. It comes from the typewriter. And reminds me of my Father. Yes. I understand you, typewriter. You always know best.
I sit down and do as I did before. When I imagined myself talking to Grandma. Now, I’ll imagine that Malorie talks to my Father. It’s sad to associate a Big Bad Man with your own dad. But their political views and character traits are close, sadly. My Father has always been hateful and cruel. Their mannerism matches, too. So it will help me.
I didn’t know the typewriter could do this. It’s like she was talking to me (I’ll just keep referring to it as a “she” won’t I?). Her powers may be more extraordinary than I thought. And anyway, it’s not like I knew a lot of magical items. Heck, before last month, I didn’t even know magic was real.
Facing Father through text seems easier than confessing my love to Grandma. I’m in total control here after all. And I’ve faced his anger, viciousness and contempt so many times before. It’s like a dance, a pas de deux that I know by heart. What’s amazing though, is that here, I’m Malorie. Not Miranda. So I can snap back, and be sassy. I don’t let him be in control, I rob him of that power he has over me. And even if I flee in the end, I know that I’ll come back and win, in the end. What a thrill!
I go through the dialogue one last time. It’s better. Not perfect, but good enough for me to move forward.
“Thank you, typewriter,” I say, smiling.
For a spare second, I hear the humming change, as if she was answering. I think it’s time for me to go to bed. I’m clearly losing my mind.
Romane and Malorie understand each other. Even when they argue, they do it with respect and care. They would never turn their back on each other and they’re ready to die for one another. I’ve never had someone like that since my Grandmother died. Those last three days, I’ve started to feel resentment towards Malorie. I’m a bit jealous. She has agency, she has power, she has a friend and she is going to win. Why? Why her and not me?
It’s stupid to feel that way because it’s all fictional… and I made it this way! Even though Malorie was supposed to be alone in this and it’s the typewriter who added Romane. But still, I gave it a go and why would I feel jealous of my own character?
I haven’t written yet today. I needed a break.
“Sorry typewriter, I just need to rest,” I apologise to an object.
But it’s magical and clearly has a mind of its own, I justify to myself. Sitting on the couch and watching The Return of the King, I eat some ice cream. Vanilla and salted caramel, the best. I have to take a step back. Malorie is a part of me. All she is, I could be… minus the magical powers. And I’ve started to become more like her. I fight to achieve my dream. If I want friends, I need to open myself up more to others. I can find safe people, I just have to look for them.
But there is something else. A secret that I’ve never told anyone. Malorie has it too. But it doesn’t hurt as much for her because she knows Romane would never turn her back on her. Would she? Even my Grandma didn’t know about it. Should I…
I look at the typewriter. When I think about it more closely, I see a lot of Grandma in Romane. She is strong, relentless and kind. The biggest difference is that she’s easier to talk to. Because she’s softer in a way. Maybe I could do it. Maybe I could tell it to Romane, through Malorie. Like I talked about Grandma’s pain and my love for her. It’s a way to cope.
“Romane… I know it’s not a good time, with the Big Bad Man after us and all, but I need to talk to you.”
And I write everything as if I talked to Grandma. How I discovered at a young age that I was attracted to girls as well as boys. How, in secret, I dated both in high school. How I was ashamed, my parents and family being deeply catholic and full of hate -- especially my Father. How I’ve always felt out of place, disgusting, unwelcomed. How being pansexual is already a struggle but being pansexual and a woman was the worst. Even in LGBTQ+ circles, you’re not safe from discrimination. And I’ve wanted to tell her for a long time but I was scared. So scared that even she, even the person I loved most, my best friend, would see me differently. Of course, I don’t use those exact words, to adapt it to the novel, but that’s what I mean, inside my heart.
When I’ve finished, I let my body go, half laying down on my chair. I look at the ceiling, numb and unaware of anything. Teardrops roll in my hair. The decor turns around me and I feel Chewey jumping on my lap and licking my hand. Seems like he doesn’t like that when I’m sad. Was he like that before?
Click, clack, clickety tap. The typewriter is writing. At midday. In front of me!
“I’ve always known you were unique. I don’t care who you love as long as they respect you and love you back. I’m no one to judge you based on something you can’t control. I love you.”
Submerged by love, relief, and sadness, I let myself fall on the floor as the text keeps going on. I can’t keep reading right now, it’s too much to handle. That bitter joy overwhelms me. Chewey runs away, his fur a mess and his ears flat on his head. I feel validated. I feel seen. And I don’t know why, it’s like… like it was Grandma saying those things. I stand up, wiping my face with the back of my hand. The typing is over. Chewey looks at me from the sofa. He is grumpy. And I realise he’s not looking at me… he’s looking past me. Behind me. I turn slowly, hair standing on my neck. I breathe in.
Grandma is here. Light shines on her. From her. She looks like an angel. Glowing tan skin, a face wrinkled with kindness and laughter. She wears her most beautiful red dress and her white hair is thick and prettily curled. Exactly how she was when we buried her. I chose those clothes and that wig for her. Even her golden jewellery.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” I ask with a coarse voice, already knowing the answer. “It wasn’t the typewriter itself or a Margot, it has never been.”
She nods, kindness on her calm face. I fly to her, not daring to touch her, scared she’ll disappear. My heart inflates inside me. She brushes my cheek and just says: “Hello, sweety”. And like that, it’s like she never left.
We spend the day talking about the book.
“You should be sure about your theme and execution. It’s easy to end up passing the opposite message. You want to value the memory of fellow oppressed women, show their strength and power. Make sure it’s what you say,” says Grandma.
Her voice is as I remember it. Deep and shaky. She smells of almonds. She would seem alive if it wasn’t for the light and the strange echo when she speaks.
We write together, correct the outline, and prepare for the last act.
But what will happen when I write “The End”?
I’m trying to sleep, as Grandma is writing in the living room. I’ve eaten with her. Well, she watched me eat. After that, we played chess and she endured one of my favourite Sci-Fi movies as I said every line of it out loud. It was like old times.
And I don’t want it to stop.
I must have fallen asleep since Grandma wakes me up at eight in the morning.
“I’ve prepared fruit salad,” she says like she’s announcing Christmas came early.
I follow her into the living room. My breakfast is waiting for me in front of the typewriter. The temperatures have gone down lately and the window is open. There’s a weight on my stomach as I walk to the chair and sit down but at least I’m not burning anymore.
“You’re going to disappear, aren’t you?” I ask.
“What d’you mean?” Grandma answers, a look of concern on her face.
“When we finish the book… you’re going away.”
She looks at the floor. She always does that before telling me something she knows I don’t want to hear.
“Darling… I’m not going away,” she finally says.
I look up at her, surprised and shaking.
“You won’t see me anymore, but I’ll still be here. Around you. With you,” she says.
My heart and stomach twist and turn. I bite my lip and swipe my eyes.
“So…” I say with a small voice. “So I won’t be able to hear you but you’ll still be with me.”
Okay. I can work with that. It’s painful to know that I won’t see her but she will be here. She will hear me and see me. I’ll still talk to her and imagine her being here, nodding and smiling. Yes. It’s okay.
“So, let’s write some more!” I cry.
She sits down next to me, brushing my cheek with the back of her hand and we get to work. The third act of the novel is full of action scenes and a lot of emotional moments. Something is slowly drawing itself in my mind. Something I should have known.
Romane has to die. It’s the end of the road for her. She brought her knowledge forth, helped Malorie, and gave her advice and comfort. Her country will be freed and the next step is not for her. It’s the job of Malorie and the new generation. They will have to rebuild without her.
“She won’t be completely gone,” says Grandma as if reading my mind. “She will join the Ancestors.”
“You knew she had to die from the beginning.”
I clench my jaw. I still have a lot to learn. At least I understood what had to be done. I’ll give her an amazing death. The scene she deserves.
They were standing around us. I could hear the sound of their voices, murmurs echoing through space and time. The dirt, harsh and coarse, slapped my body from all around as I rose, filled with the will and energy of the Ancestors. Big Bad Man looked at me, a distorted smile on his face. Hatred and contempt. But he had no chance. The maquis was mine.
His army was gone, devoured by the waters of the Mediterranean sea. His allies were under my thumb now, scared and obedient. What could he possibly do? His own magic was weak, so far from his land. Pulsating power emanated from my frame as I started to leave the ground. Finally, I could fly! I pointed a finger toward him. I felt the life force from the Ancestors flood my body and wash over my hand.
“I wouldn’t do that, woman,” said Big Bad Man.
Why was he so sure and full of himself still?
I freeze. I still have a chance. A chance to change the story and save her. I don’t want her to go. Just like I don’t want Grandma to go. I know what it will do to Malorie. But we both have to accept that life isn’t forever, don’t we? And that they’re not entirely gone. They’ll stay in our hearts, in our memories. Romane is not from Malorie’s family so her power won’t help her to see her friend. But she’ll know a trace of her subsists, she’d just have to find her descendants.
Romane screamed. Her old body contorted as she escaped the Big Bad Man’s embrace. She held her hand high, trying to conjure power. I let go of the lightning bolt contained in my hand. But the Big Bad Man knew. He jumped, higher than any human could possibly jump, and unsheathed his black sword. They started to fight, sword against dagger. Romane stood her ground, countering any of his attacks. She breathed calmly, her focused face like stone. I couldn’t do anything with my magic. I would have touched Romane as well. I couldn’t move.
For a crazy second, I thought she had won. With an agile movement of her wrist, she had disarmed her adversary. He had a knee on the white rocks surrounding him, his head down. Slowly, Romane held her arms up, both daggers pointing down. She was about to pierce his neck. Big Bad Man suddenly stood up and hit her in the chest with his fist. A wave of power propelled his arm. Red flashes slashed the air.
Romane didn’t scream. She just fell. The Ancestors stood silent for a second. But after the realisation, we all screamed. Our voice destroyed the pine trees and ripped the sky apart. I could’ve seen the starry sky midday if my rage hadn’t filled me.
Grandma takes me in her warm arms. Her skin, soft and airy, smells like always. Chewey jumps on the table and licks my cheek.
We reread the entire novel, a few days later.
“It’s… a first draft,” says Grandma.
“It is indeed. It’s trash. But I can see a good story in it. Can’t you?” I ask, scared.
“Of course, I can!”
I smile. It’s time. I put the last page in the typewriter and prepare to write the last two words. The ones that will put an end to all of this. This madness, this magic, this miracle or whatever it was.
My hands shake, above the keyboard. I’m so anxious. It feels like I’m about to kill the most important person in my life. She sits next to me and closes her beautiful caramel eyes. Her hands get inside mine. It’s like putting them under warm water. I feel my fingers moving alone.
I can’t help it. Tears run down my face, inside my blue collar. A bird sings, in the silent street.
Chewey meows, scared too. I mumble something, a weird throaty sound. I don’t even know what I want to say.
Faster, even though I try to stop with all my might, the last three letters click.
E. N. D.
My heart breaks into multiple pieces. A sharp pain pierces my left side. I want to scream but no sound gets out of my mouth. I pretended to be okay with this but I’m not. I want Grandma to stay with me.
“Please!” I manage to articulate.
She just looks at me, watery pearls on her calm face.
“I’ll be with you. Always,” she tells me as her colour fades away.
For a few seconds, I have a star in my living room. I hide behind my arms, the light is too powerful for me to look. Then, after a sigh, she goes away. Forever.
I look at the rain, the thick curtains opened. I’m chewing on a toothpick to avoid smoking. Today, I don’t think I’ll work in the little park, in front of my building. Spring was hot, summer is cold. Nothing makes sense anymore. But since the quarantine started, reality has been in shambles anyway. Lockdown has been over for a few weeks and I’ve let the novel rest ever since that day. Both because it has to be left alone but also because I’m scared to look at it again. I don’t want to be disappointed and it reminds me of too many melancholic things.
“You’re impossible,” I tell myself.
Grandma worked so hard to help me achieve my dream and now I can’t even think about it without crying.
The rain stops as abruptly as it started. The weather seems to have something to say. Or maybe I’m just so accustomed to magic that I see it everywhere now. The world wants me to resume writing, perhaps. But maybe, just maybe, I want to write. And I’m looking for excuses to justify myself. I’m being childish. I don’t need excuses. I need to move my sorry arse. I sigh and grab the manuscript, my coat and a pencil. I’m going to start revising. In honour of Grandma… and for myself. I have to start moving, going forward. I have to stop living in the past. And trust in my gut. Chewey meows, not wanting me to abandon him. Or to encourage me. I don’t know anymore with that animal…
I sit on a bench, as dry as possible, under a weeping willow. Under the canopy, I feel safe. It’s kinda like being inside but also taking advantage of the fresh outside air. The ducks wait for me to toss them something to eat. I ignore their disappointed look, smiling. Smiling has become a habit. A surprise, for sure. But a welcome one.
I work for an hour, annotating all that needs to change, all that’s good enough, all that needs to go… It’s calming. As Grandma promised, I feel connected to her again. She seems to be watching over me. I can hear her voice advising me. I’m just imagining things, of course, but whatever. I’ll take what I have. She’s gone, it’s painful. But it’s a natural part of life. And I know she’s happy and we parted having said everything that needed to be said. And not everyone has that chance.
A shadow approaches. I raise my head and see a beautiful woman. Her deep brown skin glows under the pale sun. Her long braided hair is tied in a knot behind her head. Her golden eyes sparkle with cleverness and confidence.
“You’re the writer,” she says. Her voice is warm, like Grandma’s.
“I’m Camille, your neighbour. I could hear your typewriter, day and night. You work hard.”
“I… I do my best. I’m Miranda, sorry for the noise.”
She sits down next to me. She smells like roses.
“Don’t mind it. I’m not angry,” she says. “ And pretty name, by the way. What’s the book about? If you don’t mind… I’m a bit curious.”
“It’s fantasy,” I answer. “About two women fighting against invaders in their country. To reclaim their land and rights.”
“Great! It seems interesting. Something I would read.”
Her smile is bright, like a star sitting too close to me. And I made her smile. How amazing is that? A human, living being, around my age, smiled thanks to me. Someone is interested in me and my work. I can’t even begin to comprehend what’s happening.
She gets herself comfortable and grabs a drawing pad.
“I’m glad I met you,” Camille says. “I’d just moved in when the lockdown started and I don’t know anyone in the building.”
“I’m glad too…” I answer awkwardly.
“D’you mind if we work together and chat?”
“No. Not at all.”
We talked for hours. About the novel, about ourselves. She’s in my living room now. We are watching The Fellowship of the Ring (long version, of course) and eating popcorn. It’s so easy with Camille. I’ll wait for her to know me better before reciting all the lines of the movies we watch together though. Not everyone has Grandma’s patience.
Plus she’s a painter so she understands in a way. The creative process, the struggle to get something out of your guts and to work your butt off. She also didn’t insist on seeing the first draft but she made me promise to be the first beta reader when I’m ready.
“I want to feel… represented and empowered for once,” she admitted.
“That’s why I wrote it. Women deserve that.”
She had smiled and sipped a bit of beer.
I’ve never been so close to a stranger. All because she heard the typewriter. All thanks to Grandma. She also heard me talking alone though, but she thinks it’s part of my process. I told her that I talk to Chewey to find the best dialogues possible. She finds that funny and normal. A small lie. But a necessary one. She’s my first almost friend in years after all. I ain’t gonna lose her because she thinks I’m cuckoo.
“Miranda,” she asks suddenly as Arwen saves Frodo’s sorry ass. “Do you think magic exists? Because I do.”
“Me, too,” I answer, my throat tight.
The question was innocent. And because we just saw magical horses made of water run over the Nazguls. She doesn’t know it has a deeper meaning for me. It’s batshit crazy how she manages to be on point at every turn without realising it.
“Weird, it smells like almonds, doesn’t it? Is it your perfume?”
I whisper, “It does, and it’s not...”
I look at the typewriter. The fading sun sparks on the thick plastic frame. Its warmth diffuses the rich scent all over the room. I will never see you again Grandma, but you’re still here. Like you promised. I can feel you.
“And then, the old woman closed her eyes, a smile on her face,” I say. Tom’s irises are sparkling in the moonlight.
Around us, his toys are scattered on the floor. He’s in bed while I sit on a small chair, near the window. In the shadows, I can see posters of Disney movies, plushies and a doll house.
We’ve been neighbours for two weeks now. In the beginning, he was always saying “I don’t want to play with a girl.” But when I started telling him my stories, he changed. He loves stories as much as I do. Scary ones, nice ones, old and new. I’m happy he changed his mind, he’s my best friend now.
“Did she ever wake up? Tell me, Elisabeth,” he whispers.
We’re having a secret sleepover in his house. Mine is just across his garden and neither my Mum nor his parents know we are together. Mum doesn’t like him. I can’t help it. I wish she could see him as I do. A nice, kind person.
“No. She was at peace, surrounded by everyone she loved,” I answer softly.
“Isn’t it sad she died?”
“Well, she was old. And she got to see them again…”
We hear footsteps. I dive behind Tom’s door as it opens.
“Who are you talking to?” asks a furious adult voice.
His father enters the room. He’s tall and broad. He’s scary when he gets angry like that.
“No one, Dad,” says Tom with a small voice.
Not convincing. He pulls his sheet up to his eyes, not daring to let his face betray our secret.
“I heard voices, don’t lie to me!”
Tom’s dad slams the door shut behind his back. I don’t move, paralysed. If he turns --when he turns-- he’ll see me because I’m so afraid, I can’t do anything.
“Are you using your phone to call your friends?” he asks, walking towards the Cars bed.
“No! I’m just having a sleepover with Elisabeth!”
Tom sits in his bed, pointing at me. His Dad sighs into his black beard:
“How many times did I ask you not to use your pretend friend to…”
And then he turns, facing me. It’s the first time he has seen me, truly. I know what’s going to happen. Mum warned me. His face distorts in disbelief. He goes back and forth between my face, my nightgown and my bare feet. And then, the horror. The adults never understand, Mum says. They don’t try to. His large brown eyes widen as he struggles to walk backwards, grabbing Tom as if to protect him. They both scream, the Dad shouting for the Mum, and Tom scared of his father’s reaction. So I sigh and go away.
Our neighbours usually never stay long in the pretty home with walls of red stone and a roof of grey tiles. The ones that do always end up living with us. They always ask, “What about the shack?” and the sellers always answer the same thing: “It’s always been there. It could be useful if you repaired it.”
I look through the broken window as Tom’s Dad takes him and his startled wife in their car. Tom looks at me through the car window. The last thing I see is his Mum covering his eyes and screaming, looking at me.
“They’ll never accept us,” says a coarse voice. An old woman is standing next to me, her translucent skin almost glowing.
“Tom did!” I say. “He’s my friend!”
“And now he’s gone. Forever. We can’t mingle with humans. They either try to destroy us or go away,” she explains to me kindly. “Children can sometimes see who we really are. But it rarely lasts.”
A cold, dark shadow hides the stars and dims the moon. My mother arrived and that dark aura means she’s furious.
“Mum,” I whisper.
The look of disappointment on her face pierces through my evanescent body.
“I told you not to do it. We almost disappeared once, reduced to exist in this… disgusting thing, leaving our home. And now, they could destroy us forever. Because we have nowhere else to go.”
I know this tale, but I don’t accept the end. It happened so long ago. In the 15th century! My family gathers around me.
Mum’s long low-waisted dress and her cape float in the winter wind. I take her hand, admiring her beautiful face.
“But it won’t happen again, Mum,” I cry. “They don’t believe in us anymore. They’ll think they had a hallucination or—”
“I recognised the look on that man’s face,” she interrupts me. “He thinks he’s protecting his wife and child.”
All around us, the members of my family listen. Some from centuries ago in old clothing. Some from just a few decades ago in jeans and flannel. A few show how they died. Not everyone can get past their stories. Twenty stories I had planned to tell Tom. I only had time for four. As the sun rises, we take each other’s hand, waiting for what’s to come.
“Tom won’t let them hurt us. He’ll help!” I say.
Nobody answers. They don’t believe me. I’m not sure I do either.
The car comes back in the morning. We hide in the sunlight, invisible to the living. Hope burns in my chest. But then, another car parks near Tom’s parents’ car. A man and a woman get out. He’s tall, even taller than most adults. She has red hair and a lot of jewels. They go inside the house and close the door. Tom tried to see me, I know it. But I had to stay hidden. To protect my family.
Suddenly, I hear my name. Someone’s calling for me. A warm, kind voice. It echoes through the air, attracting me. I try to fight it but I can’t help myself. It gets me angry. I‘m in the big house’s living room. The red-headed woman has her eyes closed. Her jewels in her hands, she’s the one calling for me. They’re all seated on the carpet. Only Tom and his Mum are missing.
“Good morning, Elisabeth,” says the tall man. “My name is Jonathan. And this is my wife Lisa. We are here to help you.”
“I don’t need your help,” I answer.
A weird feeling ties me to the woman and I can hear my words coming out of her mouth instead of mine. It’s like shackles that link me to her soul. Chains of lead crushing me. I hate it. I can feel something growing inside of me, along with my anger.
“I just want to live in peace with my family. And play with Tom sometimes.”
“There are more of you?” Jonathan asks.
I almost say a bad word. I shouldn’t have told them that! A glass shatters.
“Just leave us alone. We won’t hurt you! Please! We were just playing!”
Jonathan places a hand on Lisa’s shoulder. She’s covered in cold sweat. That bridge she built between us seems to affect her a lot more than it affects me. Good, I should have the right to talk for myself.
“All we want is to help you and your family join the afterlife. Your place is not among the living anymore, do you understand that?” Jonathan says. Why, it’s not fair! I think but say nothing. Out of nowhere, Tom arrives, his mother running behind him. Tom’s Dad, who was staying silent, looks at me like I am a disgusting monster and screams. But all I can hear is Tom.
“They want to kill you, Elisabeth! Run!”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong! Why…”
And then I see myself. No, not myself. I see how they see me. The living that aren’t Tom. There is a mirror hanging on the wall upon the chimney. I can see how translucent I am. My deep eyes with black marks under them. All the blue and black veins under my skin. My hands and feet look purple and black and my nightgown is stained. Like that night when my first Mum killed me. Before my true Mum took me in. Yes, I do look like a monster. But…
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” I scream.
The power that has been growing surges through me. The anger did something to my essence, turning it into a force I cannot control. It painfully explodes out of my body. The windows and the mirror shatter. I don’t understand why but I feel relieved afterwards. The link between Lisa and me breaks and I turn towards the two men.
“You’re mean, we have the right to be here,” I hear myself growl in my own voice before I flee. The last I see of them is the blood leaking out of their ears.
“I’m sorry, Mum,” I cry. “They pretend we aren’t at peace and they want to help us but…”
“I know, baby girl, I know…”
“They just want to get rid of us! Like in your tale!”
I’m sitting on her lap in our small home. The entire family awaits, as, in the descending sunlight, the man and woman walk towards the shack. We say how much we love each other, and how everyone will be missed. How we hope there is something after so we can see each other again. Outside, the mean adults talk. All I can hear is “purification” and “salt and fire”. They create a circle with salt around our shack and light torches. Jonathan reads from an ancient book. Tom’s Dad throws his torch on our home.
After that, everything is pain. The salt feels like shards of glass under my skin when Lisa throws it on us. The fire devours my soul. It digs its way under my frame and starts eating away every millimetre of my being. Until all there is left is cold, darkness and the faintest trace of light. The chants are so loud, I can’t hear my own screams. But had I been alive, my throat would have bled.
It’s Tom’s voice. I open my eyes with difficulty. I’m in his bedroom. The shack is still smoking. Under the pale moon, I can feel all my family has disappeared. One by one, they have been “purified”. But I’m still here! Why?
“I called for you. I prayed like in church and you came,” says my friend, crying.
His parents are downstairs, looking at the massacre. I sit on the bed and weep. Even though he can’t touch me, I know Tom would hug me right now.
“You can live here,” he says. “In my room. And finish all the tales. And when we get older, we will tell our own. Invent them or even find others, like you found your family’s tales.”
He opens the doll house. Now that I see it up close, I can tell how beautiful it is. It’s ancient, probably from a few centuries ago.
“I found it in the attic. My Mum helped me make it pretty to put it here as decoration. It’s yours now.”
Seventy years have passed by. Tom sleeps in an adult room now but he always kept my home near him. His living family surrounds him as he coughs, lying in his sick bed. Every night, we would tell each other a new tale, true or invented. Scary or nice. Old or new. Often, he wrote them down and he became famous for that somehow.
I wait. Slowly, his eyes turn to me. I smile, and as he draws his last breath, I see him calm and happy.
“We have all the time in the world now.”
“I’m glad you came back looking like when we met,” I say.
“Well, that’s who I truly am. But if the living were to see me, I’m sure I would look like a scary old fart.”
We laugh. That tale will be fun to give to the next child clever enough to appreciate it. Together, we go inside the doll house. Inside our home.
The weak wind almost steals my top hat. My golem and I have been sitting on this bench for almost an hour now. The gaslamp flickers above us, its sound covered by the creaking of the boats on our right. I can feel my companion’s impatience growing as it moves and grumbles.
“Hours waiting, doing nothin’. If things keep going like tha’, I’m going to erode,” it says.
“I have always found your eagerness fascinating,” I answer, trying not to smile.
“What’s it to you?” it snaps back.
“You are made of stone, Isham; and yet you can’t just stay in one place… Fascinating indeed. Maybe I should have chosen a wooden golem instead.”
I lean back against the bench. No one is passing by, nothing is moving. The street resembles a dream. In the shadows, I can distinguish the shapes of the flowers and plants that the mortals put on their balconies.
Isham is still mumbling.
“And why’s it always me that carries the bag? It’s big and long. Me arms and legs are short. Would be much more logical for you to carry it.”
“Well, because that is what you were made for, old friend. I need you to carry everything needed for my craft.”
“No, it’s what you bought me for. And it sure ain’t the same, wizard.”
This is a conversation we’ve had for almost a century. And yet, Isham seems always to have something to add. It may resemble stones more than I give it credit for. Never stopping, never giving up.
“And what we waiting for this time anyway?” it finally asks.
I stand up, my joints protesting a bit. Searching in my long overcoat, I unfold an official-looking letter.
“The order was sent to me yesterday morning,” I say, giving it to Isham.
The street is still holding its breath. At this hour of the night, it should be full of people having fun, drinking, laughing, strolling and all those things that mortals do to forget about their condition. Even the buildings are dark. Isham gives me back the letter.
“Not even a cat in tha’ damn street,” it murmurs.
“Not even a cat.”
And then, I can feel it. We stay still as the energy flows around us in a whirlwind. The houses shake and tremble as the magic pulses. Ivory stones start to grow from the ground. Against the dark sky, the stone glows as the tower pushes its way to reach the moon. A peculiar smell of rot, rose bushes and blood rushes over me.
The door is made of cast iron. I light the oil lamp Isham hands to me. A message reveals itself, engraved with black magic:
I swallow with difficulty. I tie my silver hair back and put on my monocle. Isham gives me my silk gloves and I put my hand on the gigantic door looking down on us like a snarling guard dog. Electricity tickles me. That lock is strong. Often, the simplest charms are the most dangerous. They are created with a lot of emotions. I take my time, borrowing strength from the wind and the nearby harbour’s water. Finally, as I struggle to breathe under the pressure of the magic, the Ivory Tower’s gate opens. I can hear the target scream in fury from the top of the building.
I get inside. The interior is bare. Dust, a marble floor, and, in the centre, a metallic spiral staircase. No windows. As we walk, my oil lamp dims. The air is freezing. Whispers tell us to go, to get out, to leave her alone. But we won’t. And she knows it. The darkness is so thick that Isham’s bag makes almost no sound. Thousands of cursed steps to reach the top. And with each one, pain. Like needles piercing my skin then nails trying to rip my face off my skull. My heart twists and tightens. My body can’t handle it anymore. I ask Isham to stop.
“I need a scroll.”
“Are you sure you’re up for… her?” it asks, giving it to me.
“Do I have a choice?”
I start to write a protective charm. Not an easy task here. My magic is Light, its source is life that I can bend and order with my Will. But the Ivory Tower is so full of darkness and death that I struggle to find energy. In the end, I have to use my own life force. Through my monocle, I see the shapes of dark entities, like shadowy smoke. I ignore them, to protect myself. But their nails brush my neck, and their distorted faces haunt me. If I lost my concentration, they would easily kill me. I sit down. My hand shakes. When I am finished, I put the scroll in my coat pocket. Walking is easier now.
Reaching the top, I put out my lamp. We listen, still hidden. Someone is playing the violin. A lullaby. A curtain of dusty lace flows. Her hair is long, touching the dirty floor as she sits on a wooden stool. Of a bluish-black, it rains on her white shoulders. The dress she wears was probably white, a long time ago. Her bare, tainted feet poke through. The last soft note of the song echoes in the room.
“You can’t stop me,” she says without facing me.
I push away the lace and enter the room. A nursery. For a painful second, I see it as it was, thanks to my monocle. Pale yellow walls, with clouds painted on the blue ceiling. Furniture of white wood. A rocking chair on my left, and a small padded bed on my right. And a big chest for all the best toys. Now, it is nothing but decay. With her violin on her lap, she waits for us to come further. The only thing left here is the bed. Isham goes to it. I don’t need to look inside to know.
“He is almost back,” she whispers.
“You know it isn't true. You have always known it,” I answer.
The little I see of her skin has violet scars.
“I am bringing him back,” she continues.
She stands up, her instrument falling to the floor.
“Maybe you shouldn’a said that,” says Isham, running back to me.
The walls turn pitch black. The windows disappear, ivory covering them. My hand stretched, I take my wooden staff from Isham. Her long hair floats around her decaying figure. I focus. My silver life force crackles. It creates streaks of lightning as it strikes against her black tentacles. Will against will. My spirit touches hers. Her roots run deep and she feeds on everyone in this city. From the bag, I get crystals used for purification rituals. She screams.
“You won’t take him from me again!”
“Whatever this is, it isn't him,” I answer.
Her sorrow surges through her body, destroying the floor. My crystals fly around me. They create the circle I will need to ease her pain. We fall through the Tower. The magical energies slow down what would have been a mortal fall even for magical beings like us. Isham has grabbed my leg.
“She too powerful! For how long she been there? How come the Council didn’t-”
“It is not the time!” I scream.
She creates her own circle of blurry dark orbs. The staircase explodes, spikes of iron almost pierce me. Isham blocks one of them with its foot. Grumbling, he rummages through the bag and throws tarot cards. I add them to the circle for a more physical shield. But then, she calls the entities. Isham climbs my body to be on my back.
They attack us. When my shield gets hit, it hurts. My legs ache as if teeth had ripped off my flesh. I can’t even scream. One of them reaches through my magic and pierces my hand. Isham howls and punches it. But it’s too late and I almost let go of my staff. My circle of purification slows.
“She could at least face you. She tryin’ to kill you!” says the golem.
“She has been avoiding reality for too long. She will never be able to face anyone anymore.”
We touch the ground. On my knees, I tremble, nauseating. I almost let go of my staff but Isham faces me, forcing me to focus.
“Let me go at it.”
“No!” I scream. “I can do this. She is-”
“Going to kill ya,” it snaps.
Bricks of ivory crack on Isham’s back, almost destroying our bag. Everything inside me hurts. The woman, her own circle almost finished, walks backwards toward us.
“My son will soon be here,” she says.
“No. Something else will be there. And every soul in this city will be dead.”
I manage to stand up. My circle restarts stronger. But a baby starts crying.
“Give me the sanction,” continues Isham, enduring the fight against the entities.
“I can do it. She is mourning Isham. She-”
“The thing is coming!”
The padded bed reappears. I can hear the creature inside it moving. Coming to this world. Crying, I try a last time.
“If you stop now, I could help you see him again. The real him.”
But she only mumbles, “My baby… my baby…”
So, my throat sore, as a darkness and cold like I have never felt before start to destroy the Ivory Tower of Despair, I say the words.
“Isham, I give you the sanction.”
The bag falls on the floor. The sigil it was hiding on the golem’s back glows. It grows two meters tall and grabs the dozen of entities bare-handed, unstoppable. They vanish in smoke, screaming. At last, my circle comes together, my protector deviating any attack. Step by step, Isham goes. Coming closer and closer to the woman and the baby’s bed. And I walk alongside it, managing to capture the spirit of the woman in my purification trap.
“NO!” she screams.
A scream that turns everything into shards inside me. Isham strangles the demon trying to pass through the veil and devours it in a flash of light. And everything turns black.
The woman is lying on her back. The tower is gone. In the street, she looks almost human. I brush her hair with my bloody hand, finally able to see her face now that she’s dying. Her blue, cracked lips release a moan. Her pale eyes are full of tears.
“You killed him. You killed my son,” she says, her voice shaking.
“No. I freed you. I could still help you. Help you see him. Join his spirit in the Light.”
She does not listen to me. Isham, back to its small size pats my back.
“It’s no use. You said it. She long gone.”
He hands me my atame. And murmuring a few apologies, I stab her heart with the silver blade.
The street is full of noise. People come and go, having fun, drinking, laughing, strolling and all those things that mortals do to forget about their condition. They can’t see us. We look at the dust that has become the mourning witch.
“I could have…” I start, almost sobbing.
“Nah. You always want to. But ya couldn’t.”
Isham is right of course. But sending a soul in the Deep… the soul of a mourning mother entrapped by her grief and a bloody demon. It is never easy.
“Ya have to talk to the Council though. She shouldn’t ha’ been that strong. She musta’ been here for at least…” the golem tries to calculate.
“A century. Slowly feeding on the city for her ritual.”
“It shouldn’t’ve been like tha’. They could’ve called someone sooner.”
I get up.
“It isn't our place to judge Them, Isham.”
Adjusting my top hat, I drink a potion that will slowly heal my injuries. Then, I start walking. My old friend still mumbling, the mortals ignoring us as usual, we disappear into the night. Waiting for another letter. For another mission.