It is no wonder she didn’t see him; dressed in black, from his shoes to his collar, he blends right into the dark. She is already murmuring apologies, already backing away when her gaze lifts, and she sees the line of his jaw, the raven curls, the eyes, so green despite the lack of light.
He smiles down at her.
That name, it strikes like flint on his tongue, sparks an answering light behind her ribs. His gaze drifts over her new dress. “You’re looking well.”
“I look the same.”
“The prize of immortality. As you wanted.”
This time she does not rise to take the bait. Does not scream or swear or point out all the ways he’s damned her, but he must see the struggle on her face, because he laughs, soft and airy as a breeze.
“Come,” says the shadow, offering his arm. “I will walk you.”
He does not say that he will walk her home. And if it were midday, she would scorn the offer just to spite him. (Of course, if it were midday, the darkness would not be there.) But it is late, and only one kind of woman walks alone at night.
Addie has learned that women—at least, women of a certain class—never venture forth alone, even during the day. They are kept inside like potted plants, tucked behind the curtains of their homes. And when they do go out, they go in groups, safe within the cages of each other’s company, and always in the light of day.
To walk alone in the morning is a scandal, but to walk alone at night, that is something else. Addie knows. She has felt their looks, their judgment, from every side. The women scorn her from their windows, the men try to buy her on the streets, and the devout, they try to save her soul, as if she hasn’t already sold it. She has said yes to the church, on more than one occasion, but only for the shelter, and never the salvation.
“Well?” asks the shadow, holding out his arm.
Perhaps she is lonelier than she would say.
Perhaps an enemy’s company is still better than none.
Addie does not take his arm, but she does start walking, and she does not need to look to know that he has fallen in step beside her. His shoes echo softly on the cobblestones, and a faint breeze presses like a palm against her back.
They walk in silence, until she cannot bear it. Until her resolve slips, and she looks over, and sees him, head tipped slightly back, dark lashes brushing fair cheeks as he breathes in the night, fetid though it is. A faint smile on those lips, as if he’s perfectly at ease. His very image mocks her, even as his edges blur, dark into dark, smoke on shadow, a reminder of what he is, and what he isn’t.
Her silence cracks, the words spill out.
“You can take any shape you please, isn’t that right?”
His head tips down. “It is.”
“Then change,” she says. “I cannot bear to look at you.”
A rueful smile. “I rather like this form. I think you do as well.”
“I did once,” she says. “But you have ruined it for me.”
It is an opening, she sees too late, a crack in her own armor.
Now he will never change.
Addie stops on a narrow, winding street, before a house, if it can be called that. A slumping wooden structure, like a pile of kindling, deserted, abandoned, but not empty.
When he is gone, she will climb through the gap in the boards, trying not to ruin the hem of her new skirts, will cross the uneven floor and go up a set of broken stairs to the attic, and hope that no one else has found it first.
She will climb out of her storm-cloud dress, and fold it carefully within a piece of tissue paper, and then she will lie down on a pallet of burlap and board, and stare up through the split planks of the ceiling two feet over her head, and hope it does not rain, while the lost souls creep through the body of the house below.
Tomorrow, the little room will be taken, and in a month, the building will burn down, but there is no sense worrying about the future now.
The darkness shifts like a curtain at her back.
“How long will you carry on?” he muses. “What is the point of dragging yourself through another day, when there is no reprieve?”
Questions she has asked herself in the dead of night, moments of weakness when winter sank its teeth into her skin, or hunger clawed against her bones, when a space was taken, a day’s work undone, a night’s peace lost, and she could not bear the thought of rising to do it all again. And yet, hearing the words parroted back like this, in his voice instead of hers, they lose a measure of their venom.
“Don’t you see?” he says, green eyes sharp as broken glass. “There is no end besides the one I offer. All you have to do is yiel—”
“I saw an elephant,” says Addie, and the words are like cold water on coals. The darkness stills beside her, and she continues, gaze fixed on the ramshackle house, and the broken roof, and the open sky above. “Two, in fact. They were in the palace grounds, as part of some display. I didn’t know animals could be so large. And there was a fiddler in the square the other day,” she presses on, her voice steady, “and his music made me cry. It was the prettiest song I’d ever heard. I had Champagne, drank it straight from the bottle, and watched the sun set over the Seine while the bells rang out from Notre-Dame, and none of it would have happened back in Villon.” She turns to look at him. “It has only been two years,” she says. “Think of all the time I have, and all the things I’ll see.”
Addie grins at the shadow then, a small, feral smile, all teeth, feasting on the way the humor falls from his face.
It is a small victory, and yet so sweet, to see him falter, even for an instant.
And then, suddenly, he is too close, the air between them snuffed like a candle. He smells of summer nights, of earth, and moss, and tall grass waving beneath stars. And of something darker. Of blood on rocks, and wolves loose in the woods.
He leans in until his cheek brushes against hers, and when he speaks again, the words are little more than whispers over skin.
“You think it will get easier,” he says. “It will not. You are as good as gone, and every year you live will feel a lifetime, and in every lifetime, you will be forgotten. Your pain is meaningless. Your life is meaningless. The years will be like weights around your ankles. They will crush you, bit by bit, and when you cannot stand it, you will beg me to put you from your misery.”
Addie pulls back to face the darkness, but he is already gone.
She stands alone on the narrow road. Inhales a low, unsteady breath, forces it out again, and then straightens, and smooths her skirts, and makes her way into the broken house that, tonight at least, is home.
New York City
March 13, 2014
The bookshop is busier today.
A kid plays hide-and-seek with his imaginary friend while his father turns through a military history. A college student crouches, scanning the different editions of Blake, and the boy she met yesterday stands behind the counter.
She studies him, the habit like thumbing through a book.
His black hair tumbles forward into his eyes, unruly, untamable. He pushes it back, but in seconds it has fallen forward again, making him look younger than he is.
He has the kind of face, she thinks, that can’t keep secrets well.
There is a short queue, so Addie hangs back between POETRY and MEMOIR. She raps her nails along a shelf, and a few moments later an orange head pokes itself out from the dark above the spines. She pets Book absently, and waits for the queue to thin from three, to two, to one.