“I wonder how you’ll go,” I say. “I wonder if you’ll shrivel up, or if you’ll melt.”
“I won’t do either of those things,” he says, still smiling.
“And what if I cut off your arm?” I ask as I leap up the stairs, my knife retracted and then slicing out in a sharp arc.
“It will kill you on its own!”
He strikes me in the chest, and my mom and I fall head over ass down the steps. It hurts. A lot. But at least he’s not laughing anymore. Actually, I think I finally succeeded in pissing him off. I gather my mom up.
“Are you okay? Is anything broken?” I ask. She shakes her head. “Get to the door.” As she scrambles away, I stand up. He’s walking down the steps without any sign of that old ghostly stiffness. He’s as limber as any living, young man.
“You might just vaporize, you know,” I say, because I’ve never been able to keep my damned mouth shut. “But personally, I hope you explode.”
He takes a deep breath. And then another. And then another, and he’s not letting them back out. His chest is filling up like a balloon, stretching his ribcage. I can hear the sinews in there, ready to snap. Then, before I know what’s happening, his arms are thrust out toward me and he’s right in my face. It happened so fast I could barely see it. My knife hand is pinned against the wall and he’s got me by the collar. I’m hitting him in the neck and shoulder with my other hand, but it’s like a kitten swatting yarn.
He lets go of that breath, rolling out through his lips in thick, sweet smoke, passing over my eyes and into my nostrils, so strong and cloying that my knees buckle.
From somewhere behind me, I feel my mom’s hands. She’s screeching my name and pulling me away.
“You’ll give her to me, my son, or you’ll die.” And he lets me drop, back into my mother’s arms. “Your body’s filth will rot you. Your mind will drain out your ears.”
I can’t move. I can’t talk. I can breathe, but not much else, and I feel far away. Numb. Sort of confused. I can feel my mom yelp and lean over me as Anna finally blows the door off its hinges.
“Why don’t you take me yourself?” I hear her ask. Anna, my strong, terrifying Anna. I want to tell her to watch out, that this thing has tricks up its rotting sleeves. But I can’t. So my mother and I huddle in between this hissing match of the strongest spirits we’ve ever seen.
“Cross the threshold, beauty girl,” he says.
“You cross mine,” she says back. She’s straining against the barrier spell; her head must feel almost as tight as mine. A thin rivulet of black blood dribbles from her nose and over her lips. “Take the knife and come, coward,” Anna shouts. “Come out and let me off this leash!”
He’s seething. His eyes are on her and his teeth grind. “Your blood on my blade, or the boy will join us by morning.”
I try to tighten my grip on the knife. Only I can’t feel my hand. Anna is shouting something else, but I don’t know what it is. My ears feel stuffed with cotton. I can’t hear anymore.
The sensation is something like staying underwater for too long. I’ve foolishly used up all my oxygen, and even though I know the surface is just a few kicks away, I can barely get there through the suffocating panic. But my eyes open on a blurry world, and I take that first breath. I don’t know if I’m gasping. It feels like I am.
The face I see upon waking is Morfran’s, and it’s far too close. I instinctively try to sink farther into whatever it is that I’m lying on in order to keep that mossy beard at a safer distance. His mouth is moving but no sound is coming out. It’s completely silent, not even a buzz or a ringing. My ears haven’t come back online yet.
Morfran has stepped back, thank god, and is talking to my mom. Then suddenly there’s Anna, floating into view, settling down beside me on the floor. I try to turn my head to follow. She sweeps her fingers along my forehead but doesn’t say anything. There’s relief tugging at the edges of her lips.
My hearing comes back strangely. At first I can hear muffled noises, and then when they finally become clear, they don’t make sense. I think my brain figured it had been torn apart, and now it’s putting out its feelers slowly, grasping at nerve endings and shouting across synapse gaps, glad to find everything still there.
“What’s going on?” I ask, my brain-tentacle having finally located my tongue.
“Jesus, man, I thought you were toast,” Thomas exclaims, appearing at the side of what I can see now is the same antique sofa that they put me on when I got knocked out that first night at Anna’s. I’m in Morfran’s shop.