“I heard you,” he says, and there is an awful pleasure in the way he says it.
Addie sneers with rage. “But you never came.”
The darkness spreads his arms, as if to say, I am here now. And she wants to strike him, useless as it is, wants to banish him, cast him from this room like a curse, but she must ask. She must know. “Why? Why did you do this to me?”
His dark brows knit with false worry, mock concern. “I granted your wish.”
“I asked only for more time, for a life of freedom—”
“I have given you both.” His fingers trail along the bedpost. “This past year has taken no toll—” A stifled sound escapes her throat, but he continues. “You are whole, are you not? And uninjured. You do not age. You do not wither. And as for freedom, is there any keener liberation than what I’ve gifted you? A life with no one to answer to.”
“You know this isn’t what I wanted.”
“You did not know what you wanted,” he says sharply, stepping toward her. “And if you did, then you should have been more careful.”
“You erred,” says the darkness, closing the last space between them. “Don’t you remember, Adeline?” His voices drops to a whisper. “You were so brash, so brazen, tripping over your words as if they were roots. Rambling on about all the things you did not want.”
He is so close to her now, one hand drifting up her arm, and she wills herself not to give him the satisfaction of retreat, not to let him play the wolf, and force her into the part of sheep. But it is hard. For all that he is painted as her stranger, he is not a man. Not even human. It is only a mask, and it does not fit. She can see the thing beneath, as it was in the woods, shapeless and boundless, monstrous, and menacing. The darkness shimmers behind that green-eyed gaze.
“You asked for an eternity and I said no. You begged, and pleaded, and then, do you remember what you said?” When he speaks again, his voice is still his voice, but she can hear her own, echoing through it.
“You can have my life when I am done with it. You can have my soul when I don’t want it anymore.”
She draws back, from the words, from him, or tries to, but this time he does not let her. The hand on her arm tightens; the other rests like a lover’s touch behind her neck.
“Was it not in my best interest, then, to make your life unpleasant? To press you toward your inevitable surrender?”
“You did not have to,” she whispers, hating the waver in her voice.
“My dear Adeline,” he says, hand sliding up her neck into her hair. “I am in the business of souls, not mercy.” His fingers tighten, forcing her head back, her gaze up to meet his own, and there is no sweetness in his face, only a kind of feral beauty.
“Come,” he says, “give me what I want, and the deal will be done, this misery ended.”
A soul, for a single year of grief and madness.
A soul, for copper coins on a Paris dock.
A soul, for nothing more than this.
And yet, it would be a lie to say she does not waver. To say that no part of her wants to give up, give in, if only for a moment. Perhaps it is that part that asks.
“What would become of me?”
Those shoulders—the ones she drew so many times, the ones she conjured into being—give only a dismissive shrug.
“You will be nothing, my dear,” he says simply. “But it is a kinder nothing than this. Surrender, and I will set you free.”
If some part of her wavered, if some small part wanted to give in, it did not last beyond a moment. There is a defiance in being a dreamer.
“I decline,” she growls.
The shadow scowls, those green eyes darkening like cloth soaked wet.
His hands fall away.
“You will give in,” he says. “Soon enough.”
He does not step back, does not turn to go. He is simply gone. Swallowed by the dark.
New York City
March 13, 2014
Henry Strauss has never been a morning person.
He wants to be one, has dreamed of rising with the sun, sipping his first cup of coffee while the city is still waking, the whole day ahead and full of promise.
He’s tried to be a morning person, and on the rare occasion he’s managed to get up before dawn, it was a thrill: to watch the day begin, to feel, at least for a little while, like he was ahead instead of behind. But then a night would go long, and a day would start late, and now he feels like there’s no time at all. Like he is always late for something.
Today, it is breakfast with his younger sister, Muriel.
Henry hurries down the block, his head still ringing faintly from the night before, and he would have canceled, should have canceled. But he’s canceled three times in the last month alone, and he doesn’t want to be a shitty brother; she just wants to be a good sister and that’s nice. That’s new.
He’s never been to this place before. It’s not one of his local haunts—though the truth is, Henry’s running out of coffee shops in his vicinity. Vanessa ruined the first. Milo the second. The espresso at the third tasted like charcoal. So he let Muriel pick one, and she chose a “quaint little hole in the wall” called Sunflower that apparently doesn’t have a sign or an address or any way to find it except by some hipster radar that Henry obviously lacks.
At last he spots a single sunflower stenciled on a wall across the street. He jogs to make the light, bumping into a guy on the corner, mumbles apologies (even as the other man says it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s totally fine). When Henry finally finds the entrance, the hostess is halfway through telling him there’s no space, but then she looks up from the podium, and smiles, and says she’ll make it work.
Henry looks around for Muriel, but she’s always considered time a flexible concept, so even though he’s late, she’s definitely later. And he’s secretly glad, for once, because it gives him a moment to breathe, to smooth his hair and wrest himself free of the scarf that’s trying to strangle him, even order a coffee. He tries to make himself look presentable, even if it doesn’t matter what he does; it won’t change what she sees. But it still matters. It has to.
Five minutes later, Muriel sweeps in. She is, as usual, a tornado of dark curls and unshakable confidence.
Muriel Strauss, who at twenty-four only ever talks about the world in terms of conceptual authenticity and creative truth, who’s been a darling of the New York art scene since her first semester at Tisch, where she quickly realized she was better at critiquing art than creating it.
Henry loves his sister, he does. But Muriel’s always been like strong perfume.
Better in small doses. And at a distance.
“Henry!” she shouts, shedding her coat and dropping into the seat with a dramatic flourish.
“You look great,” she says, which isn’t true, but he simply says, “You too, Mur.”
She beams, and orders a flat white, and Henry braces for an awkward silence, because the truth is, he has no idea how to talk to her. But if Muriel’s good at anything, it’s holding up a conversation. So he drinks his black coffee and settles in while she rolls through the latest pop-up gallery drama, then her schedule for Passover, raves about an experiential art festival on the High Line, even though it isn’t open yet. It isn’t until after she finishes a rant on a piece of street art that was definitely not a pile of trash, but in fact a commentary on capitalist waste, to the echo of Henry’s mhm’s, and nods, that Muriel brings up their older brother.