The dream always starts the same way. It is night and she is moving through the trees, trying to reach a glow somewhere off in the distance. But it isn’t just night, it is darker than dark; her eyes strain to see, her legs are leaden, thighs aching with each step as though she is struggling through thick mud. And that damned light is always just past the next stand of trees, just beyond her reach.
Jess squinted in the afternoon sunlight and gazed at the trees without really seeing them. She’d been driving around this city forever; weeks, at least, though not quite a month. She didn’t think so, at any rate. It was one very long, very frustrating game of Marco Polo. Or Zen Hide and Seek. But she kept coming back to the park. As much for solace, to see some green among the endless ribbons and rows of concrete, as for the lodestone draw of him. Her? No telling yet.
She didn’t expect it to be easy; important things never were. Not with Kari.
The park was surrounded on all sides, its wildness kept on a tight rein by the sprawl of suburbia. Sure, someone had designated the thirty-plus acres a Preserve at some point, but she knew it was just a matter of time before they’d start carving out bites of the woods and draining the wetlands. Pity.
Jess slung her pack over her right shoulder and started across the manicured ball field, each stride sloughing away another layer of strain and stress. There were too many people around here, and they gave her a headache.
Once beneath the deep green skirts of conifer and oak, she paused, head tilted back, eyes closed, and just soaked it all in. She stood that way for several long, indulgent minutes, not moving, simply breathing and feeling the forest breathe with her.
She had already taken a dozen steps before she opened her eyes and settled the backpack across her shoulders, her curiosity piqued by something she couldn't quite pin down. She was walking in a different direction than she’d taken before, and she was eager to learn what this little slice of wild had to offer. No paved path, no hiker’s trail, nothing but the trees and the birds and the wind stirring the branches above her.
The cache several hundred yards in was a surprise. In a hollow at the base of a particularly large oak, between two roots that spread like hands in supplication, someone had been leaving offerings: stones worn smooth and shiny by rushing water, a blue jay’s feather, one of those lacquered hair sticks with gold-painted glass beads dangling from the end, a handful of pinecones no bigger than her thumbnail, half a tortoise shell hair comb, an acorn cap, a lock of dark hair tied with hunter green eyelet ribbon and a bright yellow buttercup flower, not yet wilted.
Jess looked around, first with opened eyes, and then closed. Nothing. Figures.
She fished around in the bottom of her pack for a treasure to add, her fingers closing on a loose button that…hell, she didn’t even know where that blouse was anymore. As she bent to add the circle of jet to the pile, Jess noticed the curled leaf cupping a small measure of water and the unmistakable ash of spent incense.
A careful scouting for sign revealed that a single person had done this, gathered little bits of precious together at the foot of this tree…in offering. Maybe just a local pagan. Maybe not.
She was willing to bet a night out under the stars on “not.”
~ ~ ~
Jess pulled her favorite duffle from the back of the ’74 Cherokee. If it was possible to love a vehicle her Jeep was worthy of the emotion. Sure, it wasn’t much to look at on the outside, but she had rebuilt the engine over a couple of winters and the beast ran better now than in its heyday. Of course, she’d made a few mods, like the built-in storage system in the back and the six inches of additional ground clearance. Jess wouldn’t think of owning anything she couldn’t work on herself.
She checked the radio for an update on the odd weather that had moved in. “Odd” seemed to be the norm of late. She added the Heatsheet blanket, a couple more Nalgenes of water and a half dozen ration bars to her backpack, checked the charge on her phone and locked up the Jeep. It took almost no time to get back to the first solid lead she’d had since the start of this Search.
Jess headed deeper into the trees, finding a bit of a rise for her camp. The bivy tent was ready in less than five minutes under her practiced hands. She’d written a couple of gear reviews for Backcountry and Backpacker magazines, and Black Diamond had been pleased to sell her one in a less obtrusive color than the standard emerald green.
She loved the crispness in the air, especially in mid-July, the comforting scents of cold and pine took her right back to the Forest. The temperature plummeted when the sun went down and a fire would have completed the memory, but that wasn't an option. Particularly with the bitter wind rushing through the trees. Jess wriggled down into her sleeping bag fully dressed, put her near-empty duffle on top of her boots, and settled in to watch, her breath pluming softly in the darkness.
The dream always starts the same way. It is night and she is moving through the trees, trying to reach a glow somewhere in the distance. Abruptly, the light is bonfire bright behind her closed lids, and inside the dream she realizes she’s been sleeping. Crap.
Jess opened her eyes. Despite the deep darkness of the moonless night in the wood, radiance burned through her. She could feel him moving through the trees, bright as a magnesium flare in her mind. She silently unfastened the modifications that would free her of both bag and tent in less than a second if necessary, and waited.
He crouched down about ten feet away, and she felt the shift in his posture, heard the rustle of his clothing, almost tasted his realization that she was awake and that if he ran, she would catch him. Absolute certainty, tinged with something akin to annoyance.
“Why are you following me?” he asked.
This isn’t the way it’s supposed to happen.
Jess remained silent as she looked across to where he still crouched in the darkness. His question hung in the frosty air between them. She turned over the possible responses in her head, but said nothing. The air-raid siren of his emotions screamed inside her head, making her eyes water. It was a maelstrom of anger and fear and disgust at being found— no, at her presence in his territory. His woods.
“Whoever hired you to find me, I’m not going back.” No room for discussion. “Not to my family and not to that place. I’m not crazy.”
His irritation rippled across her skin as something small and black slipped between his fingers. He caught it before it was lost in the leaf litter at his feet, and Jess realized it was the button she had left at the cache. This is all because I messed with his things?
The breeze shifted, brought her the scent of wood smoke, fallen leaves and pine needles, clothing long unwashed, a pang of loneliness buried deep within a slowly growing swell of curiosity.
Jess sat up cautiously. “Crazy?” she asked.
His breath was a cloud of bitter laughter, ‘Schizophrenic with delusional episodes’ more to your liking? I am not going back there,” he repeated. A shudder ran through him, and she felt the horror of his too-fresh memories like a kick in the stomach. Immobilized by drugs and restraints, unable to block out the maddening cacophony of whispers and moans and screams and… Jess swallowed against a wave of nausea.
Interest tainted his suspicion; he’d never told anyone about that.
“...And the overwhelming feeling of joy that follows?”
He was completely still, and she knew she had his full attention.
“I feel it too. Just one day, every year. For as long as I can remember.”
“What is that?” he demanded, his desperation undisguised.
Jess smiled at him in the darkness. “I could tell you what we call it, but I don't know what it is. I do know that I feel it. A bunch of us do. And we are connected in some indescribable way. And we’re… different.”
He was quiet for a very long time after that. She simply sat in the dark under the trees, her legs warm inside the sleeping bag and tent. She would wait as long as necessary, now that she’d found him. And then call in the pick-up.
“My name is Ilya,” he finally said. “Is there some place warmer we can talk about this? I’m freezing my ass off, here.”
“Sure.” He waited while she repacked her gear, laced up her boots.
They walked through the trees without speaking, his footsteps crunching along, hers silent. The white flare in her head from his anger was shrinking into something more manageable, and she could almost hear the rapid-fire questions he wanted to ask her.
His momentum stalled out when they reached the parking lot. His fear spiked again.
“I told you, I’m not going back.”
Jess unlocked the Jeep, slid across the bench seat to the passenger side and beckoned him in, even as she keyed the ignition and turned the heater on full.
“Christ, it’s colder in here than outside!”
“Just give the engine a chance to warm up,” she said, shivering a little as the frigid air blew across her knees. She looked at him huddled behind the wheel, hands tucked under his arms, just as cold as she was. He was so much like her, at twenty. All bluster and bravado and not enough skill to survive winter.
Finally, the heat blew in through the vents. It accentuated his stink.
“How long have you been living in the woods?” she asked.
Ilya shrugged, didn’t look at her. “A while.” He uncurled a little in the growing warmth. “How long have you been looking for me?”
“A while,” she smiled, thinking of the miles of circles she had driven around the park.
“How did you find me?”
“How did you find me,” Jess countered. She met his eyes, saw the same amber hue as her own.
“Are you kidding? Every time you’ve set foot in my woods--” Ilya clamped his jaws shut and looked out the window. Maybe it was the dashboard light that made him look flushed.
It was quiet except for the rumbling purr of the Jeep’s engine and the sound of the heater.
“What?” she finally prompted.
He gave her a look she had seen on Jade a few times. “What?”
“When you know I’m in your woods… how do you know?”
He seemed to deflate a little, and leaned forward to rest his forehead on the wheel. She could feel his entire story bubbling up, filling his throat until it ached with the need to let it out.
“My name is Jess,” she said. “And you’re not crazy.”
Ilya took a deep breath, coughed it out. “I would kill for a hot shower,” he said.
~ ~ ~
In the end, he had allowed her to drive, but only because he couldn’t get the Jeep into gear. Jess headed them back toward the highway, to the little motel she’d found her second week in town. Ilya remained silent and suspicious, looking ready to jump out at the slightest provocation. The rooms were immaculate, with a mini fridge and microwave. There was no room service, but a 24/7 restaurant she’d never heard of shared the parking lot.
Ilya verified that the lock on the bathroom door actually worked, and that there was no way to open it from the outside, before bolting it behind him. Jess wouldn’t have been surprised if he had balanced one of her toiletry bottles on the knob as an extra measure. Good thing they were all plastic; she wouldn’t hesitate to kick in the flimsy wooden door if necessary.
Jess tried to call Kari as soon as Ilya was out of earshot in the shower, but she couldn’t get a signal. She stalked the length and breadth of the room with her cell phone without receiving so much as a single bar. No way was she going outside to make the call. Not and leave him alone on the other side of that steel door with its deadbolt. Lovely. Looks like I’m dealing with this myself.
Jess drew a ragged breath and pulled herself back to the present situation. Did it always have to start with violence?
She pulled out some old fatigue pants, an extra thermal shirt and some good woolen socks. They would fit him well enough.
“Ilya? There’s clothes you can borrow just outside the door, ok?” She left them folded on the floor.
His response was muffled and vaguely affirmative.
Jess ran some water through the coffee maker and made two cups of hot cocoa from her supplies. Chocolate solves everything. She left one steaming cup on the little folding table against the wall with one of its two chairs. She pulled the other chair several feet away by the bed, and sat down to wait.
A cloud of steam preceded Ilya’s hasty grab for the clothes through the narrowest possible opening of the door. A few minutes later, he padded out in sock feet, her shirt and pants hanging on his thin frame. A quick glance took in the cup and her position.
“What’s in it?”
“Just cocoa. I don’t have the kind with the marshmallows.” Jess took a sip from her cup, licked the residue from her upper lip.
Ilya stood beside the chair and looked at her for a long moment. His skin was flushed from the scrubbing he’d given it, and his dark, grown-out hair had that particular look of vigorous toweling. He sighed as he gave in and sat at the table, one fine-boned hand curled around the cup. He took a hesitant sniff, his eyes never leaving hers. Tried one very small taste, and shook as he forced himself to not gulp it all down.
Jess sat calmly as he fought to control himself. She had barely started, and already the kid looked ready to come apart at the seams.
“Ilya--” she started, quietly.
The cocoa abandoned, he leaned forward, head in his hands, shoulders heaving as he struggled against the loss that left him breathless. His anguish was heartbreaking, and she didn’t hesitate. Couldn’t.
Jess crossed the space between them, going to her knees beside his chair as she drew him close, held him as he sobbed. His arms tightened around her desperately, starved for the simple kindness she had shown him. She wept with him, one hand cradling the back of his head, her senses rubbed raw.
“I’ve got you now, Ilya. It’s going to be alright.” She hoped.
When I came out from washing my latest meltdown off my face, the woman who called herself “Jess” was sitting across the room again, all nonchalant, like nothing had happened. She looked at me in that still way of hers, relaxed and ready for anything, a mix of practical and tactical, with her short, no-nonsense haircut and ageless eyes.
I made an effort to emulate the quiet way she held herself, to keep all the nervous fidgets and sidelong glances at bay as I sat there. I was used to trying to fit in, but this whole thing was just… weird.
The room was redolent of hot chocolate, and it suddenly reminded me of my mother. I told her so.
She blew across the surface of her cocoa. “She made hot chocolate in cheap styro cups?”
“No. Whenever I came home with a black eye, or a split lip…” Or that time with a broken finger. “It always helped.”
She stretched her legs out in front of her, cupping the cocoa in her lap, her head tilted slightly to the side as if she were listening to something I couldn’t hear. “You ready to tell me why you’ve been living alone out there in the woods?”
“Christ, where do I begin with that one?”
“The weather’s not getting any better,” she said. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
I tried to get my thoughts straight. Now that the emotional crap was over, I had the most surreal sense of familiarity, like I’d known her for years. But how could I trust someone I’d only known a few hours? It’s not like she felt things the way I did.
“My whole life has been leading up to that point,” I said, startled by the epiphany. “And not in some hokey destiny way. There just isn’t any other way it could have happened.”
“Care to elaborate?" she asked, and I realized I'd stopped speaking.
My brain was working overtime as all the pieces of my fucked up life fell together and finally made sense. To me, anyhow. Every loss and humiliation had drawn me to the moment when I had accepted that I am not like everyone else. And not in some angsty teenager way. Alone in those woods I had been truly happy for the first time since it all started. She’d probably think I was nuts. Oh, hell. Beginning is a hard evil.
Sitting there in that motel room, drinking hot chocolate with a complete stranger, I spilled out my secrets like a handful of rubies on a Persian rug.
“I was born too early,” I told her. “Thin and sick, and unwilling to stick around. So my mother named me Ilya, after the epic hero Ilya Muromets. You know him?”
“Never heard of him,” she admitted.
“Because you didn’t grow up in my house, where every story was about the great and wonderful Ilya. The Ilya who didn’t walk until he was over 30 and still saved the Russian people. The Ilya who saved Chernigov from the Tatars. The Ilya who defeated the evil Solovey. The Ilya knighted by Prince Vladimir! My first books were all about his adventures.”
I drank some of her good cocoa to wash away the bitterness. At least Ilya had forged my appetite for literature. I had read everything I could get my hands on; it had been a great escape. I could hole up with a book, crank my Walkman and pretend that they weren’t fighting. Again. About me.
“Between that and her fear of the Wilas, I’m surprised I ever the left the house.”
“Your mother was afraid of faeries?” she asked.
“My mother was afraid of everything. But especially Wilas. She’d drag me out to the garden so she could leave offerings for them, warning me the whole time to be good or they’d carry me off. And then my father would come home and yell at her for filling my head with that crap.”
I remembered the sound of her shrill voice and the ugly, guard-dog snarl of his. The house had seemed to shake when they fought, which was most of the time. I shut off the memory, and caught her shudder from the corner of my eye. She tried to cover it by drinking her cocoa.
“And then I was old enough to go to school. At first, I was excited. Then my prodigious imagination was discovered. And when the older kids heard about me, the fun really started. They made fun of my accent, and my vocabulary, and my size and my legendary name. I was soon ‘Ilya the Great Liar,” or ‘Ilya the Great Cry-baby,’ or whatever they figured would push my buttons. I made great efforts to mimic the way my classmates talked, to remove any trace of my parents’ heritage from my speech. Didn’t matter; I was already ‘Ilya the Ruskie.’ At home, I was ashamed of everything I saw in my mother and father, everything that made me different.”
She was composed when I looked over. My story didn’t seem to phase her much.
“Eventually, it was somehow my fault, I was a ‘disruption,’ and I had to change schools. New kids, same bullshit, even after I learned to keep quiet. By then it didn’t matter; I was famous for my inability to defend myself.”
“Sarcasm isn’t much use against bullies,” she said.
“No lie. My father didn’t have much use for it either.” I remembered the shock of his hand as it connected with my already bruised mouth, the way the blow spun me off my feet, the taste of blood and the way it soaked right in to the good carpet in the entry hall, staining the heirloom forever with my father’s disapproval. The one thing she had been able to save from her grandfather’s travels… ruined. My mother shrieked at him, and the way she coddled me distilled his rage into something truly horrible. She had remained defiant even when her blood joined mine on the prized rug.
I saw her wince, as if she had somehow shared the jolting feelings. Yeah, right.
“The next day, my father enrolled me in Systema.”
She nodded. “Good fighting style. Great way to learn pressure points.”
I laughed a little, humorlessly. “Great way for me to get my ass handed to me. Daily.”
“How’d he find an instructor? I thought it was just for Secret Service and Special Forces types.”
“A couple of guys my father played cards with knew someone, who knew someone else. Questioning my father about anything was never smart. Wasn’t long before he decided to help me practice at home. He was certain that when push came to shove I would prove myself, as if I’d learned Systema by osmosis or something. What a fucking joke.”
My cup was empty, and I stared at the residue of chocolate that ringed the bottom. I considered tearing the styro apart to get to it, but didn’t want her to know I was that desperate.
I was surprised that I cared what she thought; I didn’t know her.
I fished the button out of my left pocket and put it on the cheap tabletop where she could see it. I needed to know more before I could unload anything really important.
“What’s the deal with this?”
“It’s from my favorite shirt,” she said.
“And that was reason to desecrate my offerings?” My anger at her interference wanted out again, but I kept it in a chokehold.
She started to answer, then paused, tried another route. “I was under the impression you don’t believe in faeries."
“Look,” I said. “There’s no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny. There’s no such thing as vampires, werewolves or goddamned faeries.”
“So, why did you leave the offerings?”
Despite everything, my mother had absolutely believed. “Just in case,” I said. I met her eyes, and realized they were the same odd color as my own. She had the whole enigmatic smile thing down solid, and she flashed me one of her best. She took another sip of cocoa, and it hit me.
“You’re left handed?” The oddest sensation settled in my stomach, something like panic.
“Just like you are, Ilya.”
I stood up so fast the chair fell over. My heart pounded as I checked the distance to the door and wondered if I could make it, sock feet and all. Eventually, I got a grip and convinced myself to sit the hell down.
She hadn’t moved. Even so, I could tell she’d been ready, that I wouldn’t have made it ten feet.
“You didn’t answer my question,” I said, and I sounded like a five-year old to myself. Christ, grow a set already.
“I don’t know why I left the button. I saw the other things there, and it was simply necessary, and it felt… right. I’m sorry I can’t give you more of a reason. Don’t you have intuitive moments sometimes? Or feel things without explanation?”
“Are you kidding me? It’s all I do!” There. I’d said it. Now would come the inevitable ridicule.
Only it didn’t.
She leaned forward in her chair, forearms slanting across her thighs, the styro cup held between her knees. “Me too.”
I stood up. Sat back down. Listened to her with that part of myself I don’t have a name for, but that is never, ever wrong.
“Mostly, it’s the big stuff,” I said. “Full-on, open tap emotions. I always knew when my father was pissed, when my mother was actually afraid of him.” I tried to steer away from those memories, and saw her eyes narrow slightly.
I raked my fingers back through my hair. It was longer than it had ever been, and I felt like a hooligan.
“It really hit the fan when puberty got a hold of me. Not enough that I couldn’t control my body; no, I had all these extraneous feelings leaking into my head, too. I knew when the bullies were coming from the stink of their hate.” I let myself remember, just a little, like worrying a sore tooth. “They really enjoyed beating the crap out of me.”
I rushed headlong to the best part. “And then That Day kicked my ass in First Period. Apparently, it’s not normal to have a complete meltdown in Phys Ed,” I said. “Naturally, the school recommended therapy.”
My eyes slid her way again, and she was looking right at me. The ache of her emotions dragged through my throat.
“My father was incensed,” I said, and my voice cracked. I could feel her just resonating in her chair. It took a few minutes to break free from the memory of his fists trying to pound out all that was wrong with me, all the disappointment that I was to him.
“The therapist was more like a drug dealer. She got me calmed down, all right. You know that groggy feeling after a nap, when your thoughts don’t quite mesh? That was me at peak performance. And someone really should have read the warning label, because I was looking to settle accounts with life pretty quickly.”
I shrugged, rubbed my palms dry on my thighs. “After the first attempt, it was decided I needed more… direct supervision. And stronger drugs. What a fucking nightmare.”
“They’d ease back on the drugs, and I’d play their game for a while, be a good boy. Some of the people in there were absolute raving lunatics. And sooner or later one of them would get in my face. There was this one guy, Richie, who would wander around a few steps at a time, and then stand for hours staring into space. He kept following me, and then just… loomed. The nurses spoke to him like a child, but the filth and hate just poured out of him.” I looked her straight in the eyes. “The day he touched me I tried to kill him.”
I let the memory blossom between us, wondering if she could feel the suppurating vileness of the contact, the viscous, rotting-corpse horror of his malevolence. I was surprised to watch myself flawlessly execute Systema as I removed his hand from my shoulder, kept forcing it back until he was down, writhing. I had added a well-placed elbow to his face for good measure. There had been a split-second of lucidity in his eyes and the flicker of a blood-smeared smile as they wrenched me off of him, dragged me away.
“That led to restraints and serious drugs. It was months before I could do more than drool and piss myself in misery. The meds made everything seem far away, except the feelings. Those were fun-house distorted and over-emphasized, and I couldn’t shut them out.” My hands were clenched fists on the tabletop. I made a conscious effort to open them out flat.
“What about your parents? Didn’t they visit you?” She seemed pale and faintly nauseated.
“Not that I’m aware of. I’m sure my father wouldn’t have allowed it. Couldn’t accept the stain on his honor.”
She looked like she wanted to say something, but I pressed on. I needed to get it out, tell someone, even a stranger who seemed frighteningly like me.
“My big break came this spring. One of the crazies managed to set himself ablaze, and we were all evacuated while the fire department took care of it. The drugs had me so sensitive… I could feel that none of their attention was on me. I just slipped away in the confusion.”
She nodded. “And then?”
“Most people go out of their way to not see the homeless in a big city. I won’t say it was easy, but there are places that provide meals, clothing, stuff like that. I kept my head down, never stayed put for long and kept moving further away. Being around too many people gives me a headache.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Eventually, I found the woods. I can breathe there. It feels like home more than any other place. Even sleeping under a stolen tarp in all my clothes. And then you showed up.”
“You have me at a disadvantage,” I said. “You know all my dirty little secrets, and I still know almost nothing about you.”
She nodded. “I’ll tell you what I can.”
“Great. I have about a hundred questions, all in the ‘why’ category. Why have you been following me?”
“I’ve been looking for you. It’s what I do. I find people.”
“You’re a private investigator?”
“Not exactly. I search for a few, very specific types of people.”
The few, the proud, the Marines. “What kind?”
“People like me,” she said, matter of fact. “Left-handed, amber-eyed people who feel that one day in Autumn.”
She said it so casually, as if all this weirdness were as ordinary as toast. In my world, I was the only strange one, and it had been more convenient to pretend it was somehow all in my head than to admit I was a freak of nature. But here’s this stranger saying that I wasn’t alone in my oddness--that she had tracked me down because of it.
“There are lots left-handed people in the world.”
“Yes, there are,” she agreed.
“But the eye thing… That’s got to be kind of rare. I mean, no one else in my family has this color— Oh.” I sat back in my chair, suddenly sick as the realization wrenched through me. “My father thinks I’m not his. Christ, no wonder he hates me.” I understood all their fights, all the dark looks, his brutality. How stupid was I to have missed it? It was so fucking obvious.
I sat staring into space as the memories marched behind my eyes, one after the other. Yet another set of events that had inexorably led to my current situation. I realized my face was wet and blinked myself back to the present, wiping at the tears with the heels of my palms.
“I’m a fucking train wreck,” I said, suddenly exhausted and hollow. I no longer cared how I appeared to her. “What do you want with me?”
“You're like us.”
I looked at her blankly. “I’m not like anyone.”
“Ilya, I know you feel things.” She looked me straight in the eye, serious as the dawn. “I know you could feel me in the woods, the same way I could feel you as soon as I reached the city limits.”
I shook my head, in full denial mode. There’s just no way…
“You are different,” she persisted. “Like the rest of us. I know it.”
“I’m living in the woods under a tarp, for fuck’s sake,” I said weakly.
She crossed her arms, not backing down. “You know I’m right.”
“Who is ‘us?’” I finally asked, not ready to give in, even though I could feel the truth in her words.
“They’re… some other people I know. It’s hard to explain without sounding… crazy.”
I thought about her gear, her practical outdoors clothes and her uncanny supply of hot cocoa. “Don’t tell me,” I mocked. “You’re a cult of survivalists ready to ride out the end of the world with a metric ton of rice and beans.”
She laughed a little and I couldn’t help but feel like an idiot for suggesting it.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” she said. “I haven’t told it before, but I believe it.”
“I get to be first? Thanks so much.”
Her smile was patient, but thin. “Kari usually tells the story. But he’s not here, and I don’t see how I can wait for him, because you need to hear it. I’d like to say it will answer some of your questions, but in all honesty…” She paused again. “I think it’s true in a lot of ways.”
I pulled the energy bar she’d tossed me in the woods out of a pocket. The wrapper seemed unnaturally loud as I tore it open and took a bite. I was so hungry; it seemed like the best thing I’d ever tasted. Mouth full, I gestured at her to start.
She nodded and looked thoughtful for a few moments. “There used to be a race of people indigenous to the forests of northern Europe. It was a really long time ago. Back before Homo sapiens was the only hominid species left. But they were closely related. ‘Like a wolf to a dog,’ one of my… associates likes to say.”
She shrugged a little, and I wasn’t sure if she was uncomfortable with the analogy or the story itself.
“At any rate, this tribe was different in ways that allowed them to hunt down and exterminate many of the worst things in the forest. Dark things that had no other predators.”
I watched a ripple of memory accentuate her words, and I couldn’t help but wonder. She seemed to believe her own story. But that didn’t make it true.
“They were a small tribe, they lived a long time and the way they lived was very different from any of the other groups that came into the region. I think that what they did and the way they did it was the basis for much of the folklore that survives today, those stories about mythical people of the forest. The ‘wee folk.’ The warriors and hunters became creatures of myth and campfire stories, coming out of the trees and barrows to..well, that's not part of this story. Yet.”
“Like my mother’s stories of the Wilas,” I said. I thought about the reverence and fear in which she had made her offerings.
“Just like that,” she agreed.
“She used to tell me not to go into the garden at night, because that’s when they were out, moving through the trees, as silent as ghosts. And if they took you underground, you’d find that months or years had passed while you’d been gone only a few minutes with them.” I was a child at my mother’s knee again, remembering. “And when you tried to tell what happened, the memories would just… vanish. I used to be afraid to look out my window at night, afraid that I would accidentally see them about their business, and that they would catch me at it.”
I tossed the crumpled, empty wrapper at the plastic waste bin. It unfurled to balance precariously on the rim before sliding down to rest on the floor.
“What ever happened to these mythical people?” I asked. “Are they still around, pretending to be human?” I could play along. I had nothing to lose.
She smiled, sadly. “Their story is the same as most other vanished species that came up against the wandering tribes of Man.”
“Logically. Most likely.”
For a moment I almost bought into it, and then reality slapped me in the head the way my father had. “What the hell does this ridiculous story have to do with me? You aren’t actually trying to tell me that I’m related to this fantasy tribe of long lost humans? How fucking stupid do you think I am? Just because a bunch of people have the same colored eyes and are left-handed, it doesn’t mean dick. That far back, we’re all related, and anything special that might have been in that tribe-- which probably didn't exist anyway-- has been diluted to nothingness. What are you trying to sell me, homeopathic faeries? I’ve got a good imagination, but give me a fucking break!”
She tried to say something, but I wasn’t finished.
“Even if there was some tribe that got wiped out by humans, or something. Who’s to know? One year of biology, and I know it’s all guesswork. Except for maybe Mitochondrial Eve. But still-- even if it’s all true, there’s no way anyone could know. Not me, and not you.”
“I could if they weren’t all killed.”
She said it with such complete sincerity I almost laughed in her face.
“Even if I accepted, just for the sake of argument, that this lost tribe existed, why would I ever think that I’m related to them? What possible motivation would I have to believe that I’m somehow their descendant? Do a bunch of us get together and play dress-up in the forest? Make special appearances at renaissance faires? WHAT? I’m already a freak. Why would I buy into this ludicrous fucking theory?”
“You get to know what you are.”
And she believed it.
She glanced at the door, and then back at me. She was all fluid grace as she crossed the room and pulled the curtain aside, looked out the window.
I could see her relief reflected in the glass as big, wet flakes fell outside. I shivered as I thought about how unprepared I was for this weird weather. For any of it.
There was a knock, and she smiled as she opened the door.
The adrenaline surge of panic had me on the other side of the table before I’d even registered that she was letting someone in, someone I hadn’t even known was there. I pulled the box cutter from my pocket as my eyes made a futile search for another exit.
“What the fuck is this?” Terror washed through me as I realized I was cornered.
“They’re friends, Ilya.”
“Fuck you!” My dismembered corpse would be discovered in a shallow grave, if at all. Panic purged all rationality from me.
Two men stood outside, as the malevolent cold night air rushed into the room through the open door. One had blonde hair halfway down his back. He was very fair and hardly dressed for the weather, wearing only lightweight trousers and a shirt. The other man had very short, dark hair, and was obviously from someplace warmer; bundled up against the cold, his tanned face was flushed from the biting temperature. They both had amber, predatory eyes.
“Jess.” The blonde man spoke her name with a smile as he moved to her side. He put a hand on her shoulder, but most of his attention seemed to be on me.
I was completely freaking out. The plastic sheath of the box cutter was slippery in my sweaty fist, and my heartbeat was a deafening thunder. Fear blocked every other emotion in the room as my fight or flight instinct was pegged in the red. The man with the short hair smiled at me in an unnervingly friendly way, even as he blocked the exit, closing the door behind him with is foot. I tried to keep from hyperventilating. It was ridiculous to think I could take him, that I could even survive the freak snowstorm, but I was desperate. I put everything I had into my one shot at getting out.
He brushed aside my slash with the box cutter and used my forward momentum against me with a dancer’s ease. My dubious skills meant nothing to him. The floor slammed into my back and drove the air from my lungs. As I struggled to draw breath, he smiled down at me, my weapon in his hand.
No way I was giving up that easily. I tried to lurch to my feet, and damned if he didn't nail me with a sucker punch to the solar plexus. I crumpled to the cheap carpeting, gasping and coughing. One more desperate, sloppy scramble toward the door, and he had me on my stomach with my left arm wrenched painfully behind my back.
Hot tears of frustration leaked from my eyes as I waited to die.
“This is Ilya,” I heard her say, and I wished I’d never told her my name. I bit my tongue against the moan as a fresh wave of fear burned through me like acid.
The dark-haired man was still smiling in that damned friendly way. “Are you ok?” he asked. “You took that fall pretty hard.”
I closed my eyes and shivered as the cold from the floor seeped into my bones. “Just get it over with,” I said through gritted teeth.
I had no choice but to open my eyes, to look up and see the blonde man crouched beside me. The warmth and compassion emanating from him soothed my panic like a warm blanket on a frosty night. His smile reached past his eyes and into his soul, and at that moment, I knew with absolute certainty that everything she had told me was true.
“Jess,” the blonde man said, still smiling at me where I lay on the floor. “I need you to go with Jade. Right now. He’ll fill you in on the way.”
I heard her move past us to gather her things. The dark haired man pulled me to my feet and handed the box cutter back to me. “Be careful with this thing.”
My hand fumbled it into a pocket. The laugh of disbelief caught in my throat, as the feeling of belonging nearly made me weep. As they left, the blonde man pulled the chair up to the small table and sat down. I joined him without hesitation.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” he said. His voice made me think of those stories about Angels, but it may have been due to the visceral connection I felt with him. “You might find certain parts of it quite ridiculous and far-fetched, but it will ultimately have something to do with you.”
"Long ago," he started, "beyond the edge of history, there lived a tribe of people in the far north of what is now considered Europe.”
“Wait.” I held up one hand to interrupt him. “I’ve already heard this story.”
"Oh?" His brow made a half-quirk of slight surprise. "Good for Jess," he said. Then he leaned in a little and looked at me. It was the kind of look I felt straight through me. The kind of intense scrutiny that laid all my secrets open like gutted fish.
Finally he stood up and smiled in a way I have since come to think of as magical. “You know it’s true, then,” he said. “So, are you coming with me, or not?”