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This is a story that needs to be told. That does not necessarily mean that you need to hear it. It is an honest one, though not perhaps a very uplifting one. You must decide for yourself if it is, as the expression goes, your cup of tea. It begins with a traveling salesman. Most traveling salesmen are hucksters, although the stories about them tend to focus on the ones whose wares were worth more than they seemed. This one was about what he seemed, nothing more, nothing less. And the town he came to was abandoned. That was a shame. Not so very long ago, there had been a nice, thriving little borough there, but everyone had either moved along or been driven out since the salesman had last come this way. There was, however, a remnant of the people who had lived here in a pocket hidden within the folds of the adjacent hills that might be worth visiting. Dancing was a popular tradition for the folks who lived in this region. He decided he would like to see them dance again, albeit to a slightly different tune.
Jonah knew that most people would rather he just kept walking. There are secrets buried under this earth that we might be better off not knowing. But ultimately, he could not resist the lure of a good story. Too many people lived their lives, died, and were forgotten. Tonight, they would be remembered. He dropped his bag and sat down on a tombstone. There was much work to be done.
It was late afternoon and very cloudy. Jonah guessed the sun would be setting soon. That was good. This was the sort of thing that was best done at night.
Thunder crashed overhead. Jonah looked up sharply. Rain would not do on a night like this. It needed to be dark, not wet. They were going to have a nice little party tonight, and Jonah wanted his guests to be comfortable. He fished a small, round metal device out of his satchel and began to extend it. From there, he unfolded it until it was much larger and more intricate than what he’d started with, but no less compact. One might ask how this was even possible, and truth be told, even Jonah didn’t know. A witch had made this for him. “Witch” was what the townsfolk had called her, although to Jonah, she was just an exceptionally skilled craftsman. Either way, he had no idea how it worked or what he would do if he lost it. All he knew was how to operate it. “Complexify,” the witch had told him. That was her word for digging into the inner workings of something by trying to see it from the creator’s point-of-view rather than one’s own. He stuck the device into the ground at what was roughly a midpoint between three graves. It looked a little bit like a weather vane, but somehow more fierce and intimidating. He had no particular reason to choose these graves besides the irregular arrangement of tombstones, which placed these three equidistant from what he judged to be the cemetery’s midpoint. No matter. Something told him they would do just fine.
Lightning flashed. On second thought, the storm might be just what he needed. The device did not need one to operate, but there was no denying the correlation between the strength of the weather and the memorability of the encounters. If the faint rumblings he could just barely feel under his feet were any indicator, he was going to complexify some very interesting people tonight.
Something stirred in the ground. Jonah rubbed his hands together in excitement. The dead had always interested him more than the living. People were oblivious when they were alive, never taking advantage of all the wonderful opportunities they had. But cemeteries like this one housed thousands of untold stories, countless lives cut short by one thing or another. The way Jonah saw it, he was doing them a favor, giving the most interesting ones a chance to share their tales with somebody who would actually remember them, even if he didn’t write them down. That night, he heard three stories, the first of which was
The Tale of Robin Goodknight
Robin Goodknight was a funny boy. Actually, that’s not true. He wasn’t a boy at all, although he was the only one who knew that. Nobody knew what to make of him, really. They all knew he’d grow up to do great things, but since none of them knew what those would be, they took his inability to realize his own ambitions as evidence that he was just a late bloomer. And that simply wasn’t true. What is more hurtful than telling someone that they have a great future ahead of them? They can’t carry your dreams around for you, you know. Instead, focus on what they are now, so that they might better realize their own potential. Robin understood this, but since no one would listen to him, he had no choice but to keep it to himself. And I haven’t even gotten around to describing his special talent yet.
Robin had the ability to change his shape. He could not re-form into an animal or an inanimate object, but as long as it was human, he could change into it, or at least resemble it. It took him a long time to figure out just how best to use this to his advantage. Sometimes, he would pose as someone else just to get access to a place he might not normally be able to go. That, however, was more out of curiosity than to further any sort of specific end. Then, he hit upon a better idea: If he could change into anyone he wanted, why not remake himself into the perfect human? He knew he could do it; the only question was: What would such a being look like? He might have to travel far and wide to find the answer. And so he set off, traveling from town to town in hopes of gleaning the best of humanity. Nobody from his hometown ever seemed to miss him much, but with each new village he stopped at, he felt that they missed him more and more. “It won’t be long now,” he told himself, and indeed, he was right. But what happened next, he could never have predicted.
Robin liked to try out a new form with each new place he visited. Sometimes he was dark-skinned, sometimes he was female, sometimes he was a gypsy or a child or a mentally ill homeless person. It was interesting to see how differently people regarded him on the basis of the guise he assumed. A lone child was someone in need of help. People would offer to hold his hand as he crossed the street and stopped immediately if they saw him crying. As a hobo, he was treated as if he were carrying plague. People gave him a wide berth in crowds even though he didn’t smell too bad and avoided eye contact lest he ask them for money (which, to be fair, he sometimes did). But at the next village, he resolved to try out a form he’d had floating in his head for years: a beautiful blonde woman. His plan was to simply walk into a tavern, order a drink, and go from there. With luck, any surprises he encountered would be of the pleasant variety.
The response as she opened the door and strode inside was one of immediate, hushed awe. She stepped up to the bar and ordered mead, her bright red dress standing out in a sea of men in grungy earth tones. Gradually, the chatter resumed. No one seemed quite sure what to make of her. Robin had expected a flurry of attention. She even had a blade strapped to her upper thigh in case anyone refused to take no for an answer. But the room didn’t seem to be sizing her up so much as waiting for her to make the first move. Then again, maybe they figured she had just stopped in for a drink, and would let her leave the instant her glass was empty, no harm done. But there was still an unacknowledged tension in the air. She wondered if she should do something about it.
A clean-shaven man in his mid-thirties took the stool next to her and ordered mead. “It’s good, isn’t it?” he asked as he took a sip.
“Yes,” she answered, very quietly. “Better than the stuff down south, at least.”
“Is that where you’re from?” he asked.
“Sort of,” she said. “But I prefer not to think about where I’m from. I just keep going.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Fancy a card game?”
They found an unoccupied table in a corner by the fire and sat down. She produced a deck of cards from her purse and began to deal. They didn’t bother with money; neither was the gambling type. After a while, the rest of the room seemed to have forgotten them.
“You’re pretty good,” she said.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” he said.
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
They stood up and left. Many heads turned as she went, but for the most part, the patrons minded their own business. Except, of course, for one well-dressed traveler who had managed to avoid attention despite looking almost as out-of-place as Robin Goodknight. That man’s name was Roderick Valentine. He had a ship docked in the harbor, although his crew was nowhere to be found. They might exist, but they were not in this tavern, even though they were sailors and it was the only establishment of its kind in town. He was a man used to getting what he wanted, that Valentine. And right now, he wanted her.
The man never gave Robin his name, although she later learned that it was Kellan. He was sweet, but not in the sense that some men were, who kept pelting her false compliments in the hopes that she would cave in and sleep with them. She’d done that with a couple of men, but they had never stuck around, and she hadn’t expected them to. Kellan was more gentlemanly, but far less overt about it. Robin liked that about him. As they walked along the docks, he spun stories of all the places he’d visited in his youth. Of course, he hadn’t left this town in over fifteen years, but it was a nice place to live, not just a nice place to visit.
“Watch it,” said a voice. Seeing no need to prolong the drama, Roderick stepped out of the shadows.
Kellan stopped walking. “I was hoping I’d seen the last of you.”
“What’s going on here?” demanded Robin. “You know this man?”
“We saw many sights together, although that was a long time ago,” said Kellan. “I hadn’t heard you were in town.”
“I go by many names,” said Roderick. “What is yours, milady?”
“Me?” said Robin, “I’m Robin Goodknight, although I don’t think I need to know yours.”
“Have you been across the sea?” asked Roderick. “I can take you there. I can show you things that this man cannot.”
Briefly, Robin considered it. He was an unusually forward man, but she was an adventurous sort. Then again, a quiet life in a small town certainly had its charms. “I think I’ll stay in Provincia,” she said.
Roderick laughed. “But will he still want you when he has seen the real you?” With a sweep of his arms and a flash of light, he was gone, his voice echoing across the shipyard that she could still find him on the Voyager if she got there by dawn. Robin stood naked and exposed, his thick brown hair cut short, his penis visible in the moonlight.
“Goodnight,” said Kellan. “I thought there was something funny about you.”
“This isn’t the real me,” begged Robin. “Please—“
“I’ve met your kind before,” said Kellan. “Been fooled once or twice, I don’t mind telling you. But not this time!” He dealt a blow to the side of Robin’s head that laid the boy flat on his side. Kellan stalked away, the lonely young man he had once thought himself in love with clutching his head in pain, sobbing and alone on the dock.
Robin lay there for a long time. They say it’s always darkest just before the dawn, but that’s not true. The darkest part of the night is the middle of it; before the dawn, the first rays of sunlight begin to peek over the horizon. Robin didn’t wait that long to pick herself—or rather, himself—up and start walking again. Roderick hadn’t taken away his ability to shapeshift, he’d only forced him to revert to his original form for a minute. The more time Robin spent in this body, the more he decided he didn’t like it. It wasn’t just that he preferred a female body—no, this had more to do with movement than anatomy. The woman who walked into the tavern last night was truly beautiful, but somehow, no one was intimidated. The pretty girls in Robin’s hometown had all either flaunted their looks or downplayed them, but Robin Goodknight just carried them. There was strength in that. Vulnerability, too, but anyone who thought they could avoid that was a fool. You just had to pick the kind that worked for you, that was all.
She had thought about taking Roderick up on his offer, but decided against it. No, this rogue, whoever he was, was just that: a rogue, and she would not be shamed into following him.
The sun was starting to rise. It was quiet now, but in just a few minutes, that would change, and she would need something to cover herself with. Not to worry. She found the tailor’s shop and hid in the alley behind it. He would help her. She had met him at the tavern last night, and he seemed a decent sort.
The tailor didn’t need much persuading, nor did he ask for explanation. He provided her with some suitable garments, she promised to pay him back should she ever come that way again, and they parted with full knowledge that it would be a long time before they ever met again, if they did at all.
Robin had a sense of what Kellan would be up to at this hour, but she asked around anyway just to find out if anyone had seen him. He had not come to work that morning, which led her to one of the less-traveled roads leading in and out of town. If he had left immediately, she would have an extremely difficult time catching up with him. But something told her he hadn’t done that. He would have packed up a few things, left a message for anyone who came around to check up on him and see where he’d been, maybe even slept a little. Sure enough, there were tracks in the grass behind his house that led to the road. They were faint, but fresh. She raced after him. A mile up the road, she stumbled, cutting her forehead on a loose stone. With no handkerchief with which to stem the flow, she stood up and kept moving, the blood running down her face. By the time she caught up with him, it was almost dry.
He stopped and turned, his traveling pouch tied to the end of stick that he carried over his shoulder. She stopped about fifteen paces away, waiting for him to say something. He merely stood, regarding her. She stepped closer. He remained immobile. She took another step, then another, then another. When she stood at arm’s length, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, handing it to her. She pressed it to her face, soaking up the few drops of blood that were still wet.
“Should we…” she began.
“No,” he said. “He’ll be fine.”
She started down the road. He turned and followed her, catching up after a few paces so that the two walked side-by-side, heading off to whatever adventures awaited them further along on their travels.
Roderick’s ship was still tied up at the dock. He knew she wasn’t coming, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. In all honesty, he had never expected her to join him in the first place. The dream was alive in his head, as vivid and colorful as ever, but for the life of him, he could think of no way to make it happen. He lay on the floor of his cabin. His crew had deserted him. He could sail for short distances all by himself, but anything more than that would require a crew. Maybe he had enough in his storage chest to hire a few. He crawled over and took a look. It was enough, albeit just barely.
He reached up and grabbed a pillow from his bunk, laying his head down on it and shutting his eyes. All this reminded him of that one night that Kellan had lost everything to Roderick in a game of dice. By the end, Roderick had his money, his clothes, and his lady for the evening. The woman giggled. She was pretty, with long, brown, curly hair and a buxom figure. Roderick told her to wait for him outside the parlor. As she left, he laid a hand on Kellan’s shoulder. “You can repay me someday,” he said. “But if that’s all you care about, you’ll lose yourself in the process.” Kellan sobbed. Roderick patted him several times, then straightened up. He had much left to do tonight, and tomorrow would be even busier. And of course, the woman was waiting for him. He exited the parlor and stepped out into the street, but she was already gone.
The 20-Year Suicide
Chloe watched them go, waving merrily. She was so blessed to have such wonderful friends! They’d all turned up for her party except Ty, which was fine, because he’d had to pick up his mother after surgery, and they’d called him from the party to let him know they all hoped she made a speedy recovery. Ty’s mom was so nice. In fact, she was one of the nicest people Chloe had ever met.
When her friends had all gone, she shut the front door and went into her room. Her parents wouldn’t be home for some time yet, and she wanted there to be no doubt as to what had happened when they arrived. She’d thought about leaving a note, but what use was there? They’d never understand. This wasn’t about them, anyway.
She drew the gun out of her drawer and aimed it at her head. It had taken considerable effort to procure this, and she saw no reason to prolong the agony.
“Don’t do it!” said a strangely familiar voice. She dropped the gun and spun around. It was Julius, pale but very much alive, although the scars on his wrists were still visible.
“You!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“I came back,” he said, coming closer. He was the same well-built, handsome young man she’d fallen in love with all those years ago. “To stop you from making the same mistake I did.”
She slapped him. Hard. It was cathartic, except not quite, like something she’d been meaning to do for ages but hadn’t really needed to. “I guess I deserved that,” he said.
“How could you?” she sobbed, collapsing onto her bed.
“That’s a hell of a statement, considering what you were about to do,” he said.
“I have no one!” she bawled. “I’m all alone.”
“That’s how I felt.”
“And you did it.”
“I don’t regret it.”
“So why are you here?”
“To talk you out of it.”
For a minute, she stared at him in utter disbelief. Then she burst out laughing. He stared back, saying nothing. She was in hysterics. Tears literally rolled down her face. Julius waited patiently, hands folded on his lap. She had grown very familiar with that pose back when he was alive. This was his “I’m serious” pose. When she saw him sitting with his legs crossed, blinking at her from behind those glasses like a goddamn shrink, she tore up again, this time kicking the bed as she lay facedown on top of it. When at last her mirth subsided, she turned over onto her side, then pushed herself up to a sitting position. “Your mother still blames me for what happened,” she said.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Is that all you can say?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to leave me alone so I can get on with it!” she shouted. “At first, I thought it was selfish, you leaving and the rest of us just had to wonder what happened. But that’s only because you’re selfish. You didn’t like holding my hand in public.”
“Yeah, that was pretty shitty,” he said. “I guess I just didn’t want to be one of those couples that was, like, PDA all the time.”
“But holding hands—“
“I know. It was shitty. I’m sorry.”
“But now you’re trying to talk me out of it.”
“I don’t think it’s right for you.”
“Why was it right for you?” asked Chloe.
“I wasn’t happy,” he said, uncrossing his legs.
“So? I’m not happy either. That’s why I’m doing this!”
“Yeah, but—I guess I didn’t feel like I’d ever be happy. Like, I had a feeling that God made me wrong. I was treating you like shit, and I knew it, and I didn’t know how to make myself act different, so I stopped.”
“But you weren’t always a bad boyfriend,” she said. “Our first date was really great.”
“I got that out of a book on creative dating.”
“It was still good.”
“I never liked it when people say that suicide is selfish,” she said. “It’s like, what, am I only staying alive for you? I’m not here just because you want me to be.”
“Yeah, me too,” he said.
“What’s it like?” she asked.
“I can’t really remember.”
“What do you mean?”
“The last thing I remember, I was slitting my wrists. Then I was outside your door. I just knew what I had to do. It’s like I was asleep. I don’t know if I dreamed or not.”
“So you don’t know if there’s an afterlife?”
“I have a hunch. But I’m not ruining the surprise. Why do you care?”
“I don’t know. I guess I was just curious. It’s sorta weird,” she said, standing up and walking a few paces. “I’m not really scared of dying, but I am kinda scared of the afterlife. It’s like, what if there is an afterlife, but it’s just really boring or something? The whole reason I wanna kill myself is to escape all this.”
“I know what you mean,” he said. “I mean, I can’t really say it’s any worse than sticking around. But I’m not really sure if it’s better.”
“It’s not like I was even that depressed. I just…couldn’t connect.”
“I know what you mean.”
“You keep saying that.”
She started opening her blinds. Normally, she kept them closed, but today, she felt like letting the light shine in. “What happens if somebody sees you?” she asked. “The neighbors remember you. They know you’re supposed to be dead.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said. “I go back as soon as I’m finished with you.”
“What does that mean?” She turned around to face him.
“You don’t really want to kill yourself, do you?”
For a long time, she didn’t answer. Then, ever so slightly, she shook her head. “Did you?”
“Oh, yes. That’s why I did it. The universe has a way of correcting stuff like this. People who don’t want to kill themselves usually don’t do it.”
“I have a gun.”
“I said usually. Besides, you haven’t succeeded yet.”
She picked up the gun and stared at it for a minute. “Who are you kidding?” Julius asked. She put it back down.
“I don’t think I can go through with it.”
“My work here is done.”
“Wait! What if you’d gotten here a second later?”
“I’m back from the dead, Chloe. Zombies are never late.”
“I used to go up on my roof and think about jumping off. I kept hoping someone would see me and stop me. But nobody ever did, so I couldn’t go through with it. But something was different this time. I think…some part of me actually wanted to die.”
“Is it still there?”
“Maybe. Why did you do it, really? I know you weren’t always unhappy. We had some good times together. You shared stuff with me. How the fuck is it that you felt somebody just made you wrong?”
Julius sat at her desk for a while, silent. When he began again, he sounded different, not quite so self-assured as he had before. “You know how sometimes you have to ask yourself if you’re giving in or just being reasonable? Like if I decide I don’t like a certain company because they make all their stuff in sweatshops or something, but then I go to a store and find there’s something there I wanna buy that’s by the company, I have to make a decision.”
“So you buy the thing. It’s not your fault they use sweatshops.”
“Isn’t it? I just feel like there’s no point in living my life if I can’t live it the way I want to. I saw this Korean movie where these Buddhist monks are living on a raft. There’s an old guy and a young guy. The old guy tries to teach the young guy to be kind, but it doesn’t work and he runs off with this one girl who’s come to visit ‘cause she’s sick or something and she needs healing. Then the old dude hears that the young guy killed the girl because she was screwing some other guy. So he sets himself on fire and just dies. But then the young guy gets out of jail and comes back to the raft and starts raising a little kid there ‘cause he hopes this time will be different. It’s like, we tried it once and it didn’t work out so great, so we’re going to try again.”
“Shouldn’t that make you want to live your life?”
“No. I don’t think I’m the young guy. I think I’m the old guy. You’re the young guy. I tried to teach you something, but it didn’t work, so I have to go away.”
“What did you try to teach me? You were a total shit!”
“You could be kind of a bitch, too.”
That stopped her. Chloe had always thought of herself as a nice person. But nice and good, as Julius always said, were not the same thing. Still, she thought it was pretty pompous of him to act like his mission in life was to change her.
“What did I do?” she asked. “This better be good.”
“I’m not going to run through everything. It’s basically the way you demand things from everybody. Like if I can’t back something up like, this instant, that means it’s not true. But just because you can win an argument doesn’t mean you’re right. You’re a pretty good person. You just think that it’s like your job to make everyone better.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing right now?”
“Not really. I can leave anytime.”
“But I won’t.”
“’Cause I don’t think you quite get it. This isn’t about me and it’s not about you. It’s about us. You have to let go.”
“What does that mean?”
“Oh, come on. Tell me there wasn’t some small part of you that was like, ‘If I go through with this, I’ll get to be with Julius again.’”
“What are you going to do now?” she asked after a brief pause.
“What do you mean?” he responded.
“Well, you’ve talked me out of killing myself. Aren’t you going to go now?”
“Sure. Wanna get ice cream with me?”
“Are you serious?”
“Sure. I don’t have to go back right away. Nobody will see me. Or if they do, they won’t believe their eyes.”
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
“Okay. Just one more thing…”
“Can I have the gun?”
Her eyes dropped to where it lay, still on the floor. Loaded, safety off, and best of all, nobody knew she had it. She’d managed to get her hands on it without going through the legal channels. “I’ll hang onto it,” she said.
“Bye, then. I love you, Chloe.”
She watched him go. He didn’t look back, at least not at first. Did she like him? Hard to say. But she didn’t have to eat ice cream with him to know that she’d probably never see him again. Perhaps that was for the better.
Julius knew she was watching him from her window. He could feel it. So he turned to wave, possibly to ask again if she’d like to join him, but she was already gone.
Ride the Lightning
He understands the lightning, she thought.
Lightning isn’t like fire, and it’s not like plasma. It’s a different beast altogether, an electrical pulse that, if one is properly attuned to it, can help one reach new heights of discovery…and ecstasy.
“Shut if off!” he screamed. She pulled the failsafe lever, and the bolts that had been running through his body disappeared. The skylight began to close, and the platform descended. He sat on the floor in the center. The coils on opposite sides of the disc-shaped structure were dark. Something had gone wrong.
Normally, he shook her off when she tried to help him, but not tonight. There was no doubt as she lifted his arm over her shoulder and raised him to his feet that he was completely drained. His breath was ragged and sweat poured down his face, drenching his collar. No sooner had she sat him down than he vomited all over the floor. “Stay,” he gasped as she was about to go grab a mop.
She waited. He sat still, eyes closed, head back. It was a full five minutes before his breathing was steady enough that he could say anything else. “Equipment…failure,” he said at last. “The platform is supposed to keep me grounded, so that any excess charge is absorbed by the coolant. It’s not working. I almost overheated.”
“The doctor said—“
“I know what the doctor said!” he shouted, then fell back, that short outburst having been more energy than he could spare at the moment.
She watched him for a minute, then spoke again. “It wasn’t just the equipment,” she said. “You know that. You’re reaching your limit. If you go any farther—“
“Julia, please,” he said, raising a hand. His voice was different now—quiet, but still gravelly. He took deep breaths. His eyes opened. He sat forward a little. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Do you mind getting this?”
She fetched the mop and pail and cleaned the area around his feet. By the time she was finished, some of the color had returned to his cheeks. She asked if he would like some warm broth. He said he would. So she walked down the tunnel back to the main cellar, where she found a servant and asked them to prepare it. By the time she returned with the tray, he had his meteorological charts spread out on a table and was comparing them with recent data. “There’s going to be another storm next week,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be ready. Orville says the omens are not good. The skeletons do not like what I’m doing. They think I’m meddling. Maybe I am.”
“Eat up,” she said, laying the tray before him. Reluctantly, he started in. She examined his charts. “This storm is going to be the biggest one in a long time, and there might not be another for some time. If you think there’s a chance you’ll be ready, Hugh, you need to summon up your energy.”
“Do you want me to die?” he said. “You’re pushing me even harder than I am.”
“I want this to succeed as badly as you do. Now finish your soup.”
The servants were no doubt getting suspicious as to why their masters were spending so much time behind a locked door in the cellar. Surely it couldn’t take them that long to polish off family heirlooms, could it? But she would venture that none had made the connection between their disappearances and the increasingly frequent thunderstorms just yet, nor had they noticed that lightning always seemed to strike the barn. Beatrice might have noticed, but she could be dealt with, if necessary.
Hugh laid down his spoon with a clank. “I’m done,” he announced.
“You’re finished,” she replied, picking up his tray. He seemed fit enough to stand by now, although for some reason, he waited until she was almost out of the lab before getting up to follow her. “Turn off the lights,” she said as she left, and he did. He even scooted his chair back in.
Orville examined the signs. They did not look good. The skeletons in his secret library had made it quite clear that to roll a six on this night would mean that a great evil is coming. And he had just rolled three sixes in a row.
He gathered up his instruments. His work here was done for the night. Even though he was in a windowless room, he could hear the whistling winds outside that caused the old house to creak and groan as if it were bearing a great weight up a hill. He imagined he could hear a bit of whistling under the house as well. That library could just as easily be called a catacomb. And it was growing less hospitable by the day.
The wind picked up a little as he donned his coat and left the house. He thought about having Winston drive him over, but decided that was cruel. This weather was not merely unpleasant, but downright nasty. He saddled up his favorite horse and rode out of the gate, anticipating fallen trees, poor visibility, and endless swamps of mud. The rain was ice cold and coming down at a slant, the sort that seems to blow into your face no matter which way you’re facing. And the wind, of course, was no better, cutting through every layer of clothing and nearly knocking him off his horse with the stronger gusts. It was exactly the sort of night for a very dedicated, very brilliant man to do something unfathomably stupid.
Orville reached the Forsythe Manor with surprisingly little incident. He passed a carriage lying on its side in a ditch somewhere in the wood, but as it was empty and any tracks that might have led away from it had been washed away, there was little he could do but press on. The manor looked spooky in the open field, candlelight from a few windows standing out as pinpricks against the gloomy and imposing façade. Lightning flashed as he approached the front door, and for a second, the whole building appeared in silhouette. Doubtless Hugh and Julia were already hard at work. There might be time enough left to stop them. He lifted the heavy knocker and pounded on the door loud enough to be heard even in the most remote corner of the house. The instant it opened, he brushed past the servant and headed straight for the cellar. There was no point in trying to keep secrets anymore.
The experiment was already underway by the time he reached the lab. Julia stood by the controls, her eyes fixed on Hugh, who stood on the platform, lightning coursing through his body. His eyes opened. They locked on Orville. “You!” he shouted.
Julia spun around. “Get out,” she said.
“This has to stop,” said Orville. “It’s not only dangerous, it’s destructive.”
“The skeletons lied,” said Julia. “This won’t harm anyone.”
“Oh, I think it will,” said Orville. “There are implications you haven’t considered, side effects this could have—“
“We have considered every possibility,” snapped Julia. “Now begone!”
Orville turned to leave. Perhaps they were right. Maybe he had placed too much faith in an old superstition, too little in a good friend. It wasn’t as if they were trying to cure every disease anyway, just harness the power of thunderstorms. To be able to store even a fraction of that would solve energy problems the world over.
He stopped. Beatrice stood at the door, pistol in hand. She must have stolen in after him once he’d picked the lock on the door in the back of the cellar. He had forgotten to shut it in his haste.
“Lower the platform,” she said, raising the gun. “I want to be up there with him.”
“Don’t!” cried Hugh. “Beatrice, it’s all over. I never really wanted you.”
Julia gaped at him in shock. “You—“
“You think this has anything to do with you?” laughed Beatrice. “I’m over it. I just want to get up there and feel the ultimate power. I want to ride the lightning.”
“It’s not that easy,” said Julia. “It’s not an art, it’s a science. You have to know the rules.”
“Rules?” said Beatrice. “There are no rules. This is magic. You have no idea what you’re doing.”
“Magic is just science that we can’t explain,” said Orville. “Beatrice, I’m telling you, if you get up on that platform—“
She shot him in the leg. He collapsed. She pointed the gun at Julia. “Lower the platform. And get him off of it. I want to go up alone.”
Slowly, desperately, Julia reached for the lever. Before she could lay a hand on it, something unprecedented happened. Hugh reached out. A lightning bolt shot from his fingers. Beatrice screamed, dropped the gun, and fell to the floor. He sank to his knees. Julia pulled the lever. The platform began to descend. She rushed to Beatrice, bent down, then stood back up very quickly. “She’s dead,” she said, then crossed to Orville.
“I’ll be fine,” said Orville. “I just need something to bind it with.”
“You need more than that,” said Julia. “I’ll ring for the servants. Have them fetch Dr. Mortimer. He never asks too many questions. I’ll take Beatrice’s body out and bury her. We can say she went back to Ghastholm. She doesn’t have many friends here. No one will notice she’s gone.”
“Julia,” moaned Hugh. She rushed over to him and cradled his head in her arms. “I don’t have long left,” he said.
“No, Hugh, you just need some rest. I’ll take you up to your room.”
“I’ll never make it. Listen: As soon as Orville has recovered, have him take my diaries over to my colleagues at the university. There is knowledge there that might help someone. After that—“ He croaked. His body went limp. Just like that, he was gone.
“No,” whispered Julia, but she knew he was so. She laid him down, then stood back up, straightening her dress. Orville had torn his handkerchief and was using it to stem the bleeding. The bullet had missed the artery. He’d be fine.
“Where are you going?” he asked as she headed for the exit.
“To fetch you a doctor,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”
“He was a brilliant scientist, you know. He just saved both our lives.”
“It wasn’t science that saved us; it was magic.”
Of course, thought Orville. Magic is always slightly out of place. She helped him prop his leg up on a chair and wadded up Hugh’s shirt to make a pillow as he lay on the metal floor. It wasn’t too comfy, but it was the best they could manage. Then she turned to leave. He couldn’t see her go, but he could hear her footsteps diminishing as she entered the long tunnel back to the cellar. There was no bell here, but there was one back there. Neither Julia nor Orville saw any need to let the remaining servants in on what was happening here, even now. She was a remarkable woman. Hugh’s diaries most likely did contain some valuable information, but as far as he was concerned, the real hero here was her. She had just lost a husband, but still had the energy to help an injured friend and bury her lover’s murderer. What did she get out of all of this? Orville was parched. He thought to call out and ask if she could bring him some water from the well, but she was already gone.
“Do you regret it?” Robin asked Julia. The weather had cleared up. They sat, the three of them, in a circle on the ground. Jonah, still leaning against a tombstone, watched in silence.
“Not really,” she said. “Men are all fools anyway. At least I got one with ambition.”
“Hey,” said Julius.
“You killed yourself,” said Robin. “Do you regret it?”
“No,” said Julius. “Besides, death isn’t so bad.”
“It’s much better if you’ve had a real life first,” said Robin. “People should love and be loved.”
“I loved,” said Julius. “I helped Chloe let go.”
“Did she love you back?”
“Maybe. In her own way.”
“I hate to break it up,” said Jonah. “But the dawn is approaching. I’m afraid it’s time for you to go back where you came from.”
“It’s okay. I’m tired anyway,” said Robin. “Sweet dreams, Julia.”
“And you, Julius.”
“Right back atcha.”
“You’ll bury us again, won’t you?” Julia asked Jonah. “We can’t be lying here exposed.”
“I’ll take care of it,” he said. “Don’t you worry about that.”
“Hey, why did you do this?” asked Julius as he climbed back into his grave.
“You know, I’m not really sure how to answer that,” said Jonah. “I guess I just like to learn about people.”
Julius nodded, then lay back down. The others did likewise. Jonah waited a moment to make sure they were asleep, then pulled a shovel out of his back and started refilling the graves. They would notice that the dirt had been disturbed, but he would be long gone by then. Besides, the bodies were still there. He had much work to do, many more towns to visit, and he would keep going as long as his equipment and body held up. He had much of his life still ahead of him, and as far as he was concerned, there was no point in dying until he had a firm grasp on just what he was doing here in the first place.
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