by Stina Leicht
"Screw you and your stupid band!" Andi hurled her beer bottle across the rehearsal space. Glass exploded against the wall, just missing Jason's new Gibson nestled in its stand. "I quit!"
She knows I haven't made the first payment, Jason thought, edging in front of the guitar. "You can't quit." He knew it was a mistake the instant the words popped off his tongue.
Andi whirled to face him. "Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?"
Purple Banshee's drummer, Bud, muttered he needed something from the van and vanished to the kick-drum beat of a slamming door. Penny, the bass player, had the presence of mind to grab her Les Paul first.
"South By Southwest is only a month away. Label reps will be there," Jason said, attempting to divert Andi's attention to what was important.
Andi said, "I'm not doing another freebie."
"Andre gives us free practice space. In exchange, we play when he wants," Jason said.
Andi flipped her blonde dreadlocks and snatched her leather jacket from the battered couch in the corner. "Get yourself another lead singer, limp dick." She flipped him off as she stalked out, leaving behind a fog of Black Phoenix perfume.
In a way it was a relief. He'd grown weary of the constant negotiations. For a moment he contemplated dialing her cell and asking for his key back, but he glanced at the beer oozing down the cinderblock wall and reconsidered. He hoped she'd be gone when he got home—she usually was after one of her fits.
"Well, that went over like the proverbial lead floating thing," Penny said, venturing a return now that the sound-proofed garage was clear of vengeful lead singers. She threw herself onto the old sofa and cradled her bass. "What about tomorrow night?"
"You can sing. You've a great voice." Bud checked his drum kit for damage and then flopped onto the couch with a relieved sigh.
"I can't," Penny said. She bit her lip, resembling a forlorn twelve-year-old in spite of the pierced nose and bleached spiky hair. Penny was tiny and would have had a slim boyish build but for the rack. Her bass dwarfed her. Still, she was a terrific musician—a whirlwind of energy, and if she were male, Jason would compare her to Flea. She handled the fiddle with equal finesse, having taken lessons since she was five. He'd known her for two years now, and he never understood why she wasn't with a better band. Well, not completely. Whatever her reasons, he was well aware that Andre, Penny's uncle, only supported them because of Penny. If she left, that'd be the end in more ways than he wanted to count.
"We'll find someone else." Jason packed up his gear.
"By tomorrow night?" Bud asked. "Come on, man. No way you'll find someone that quick."
"We need Penny on bass." On the other end of the spectrum, Jason had known Bud since ninth grade. They'd had many misadventures, including flunking out of U.T. Jason agreed with Bud on most things—just not Penny.
"She can front. Give her a chance."
"My cousin Jolene will do it," Jason said.
Bud groaned. "Oh, man. She's a bitch."
"It's just one night. We'll find someone before South By," Jason said. The subject of himself or Bud singing wasn't broached. Purple Banshee always had a female lead and always would. "Lock up, will you? I'm going for a walk."
"It's three in the morning," Penny said. Worry cast a cloud over her face.
"This is South Congress." Jason refused to call it SoCo like the hipster-yuppies did—as if Austin were New York or London. "What's going to happen?"
Taking a left on Academy toward his shabby apartment complex, Jason ambled down the street with its rows of elegant Victorian restorations. It was hard to imagine now that any one of them had once been a crack house—difficult to imagine for all the houses but one. It squatted half-hidden in a grove of live oaks on the tallest hill, glaring down at its more fortunate neighbors in derelict defiance.
Everyone knew about Maufrais, but no one talked about it, and to his knowledge no one went up that lonely hill but him. Everyone said it was haunted by the ghost of a serial killer whose description coincided with any number of American urban legends made into summer slasher movies. There was a house like it in every town in the United States. As far as Jason was concerned such stories gave the kids ammunition for double-dog-dares and that was about it. He didn't know Maufrais House's real story, but Penny's family did. The da Silva's had lived in the area for over a hundred fifty years and knew all the stories worth knowing, but even they didn't talk about Maufrais House. Jason didn't care. He liked the place. It too had been abandoned and had soldiered on in spite of abuse and neglect. From time to time he would walk among its trees, sit on the back porch and lay a gentle hand on its peeling paint. He'd tell the overgrown garden his troubles and in turn, listen to the house's creaking timbers complain. He imagined he was the only one to risk its scarred and angry exterior, the only one to understand the broken loneliness beneath. Yet, in the year he'd been visiting even he didn't venture inside. Something about Maufrais House forbade it.
He slipped between the rusted iron bars of the perimeter fence with a full moon to light his way. It had rained earlier, and the shadows under the trees smelled of damp earth and rotting leaves. Mountain Laurel bloomed in the dark, filling the breeze with its cloying grape scent. Maufrais' unlit garden provided a haven for fireflies, and the house spent most evenings illuminated in magical fairy light, but the will o' the wisps had taken the night off. He twitched as something flitted through the branches above his head—a bat, he assumed with an uneasy laugh. His short outburst was amplified against an eerie, vacant backdrop.
Suddenly, a low buzz inserted itself into the void, raising the hair on the backs of his arms and making him queasy. Anxiety traced a cool finger down his spine, and he shuddered. The hated sound increased in volume until it transformed into a voice—and what a voice—a woman's alto brimming with a mixture of desolation and yearning. She was waiting for him and only him. She needed help, and he was the only one who could save her. Now. Please. His dread vaporized, and he ran to the source. He was halfway up the gravel drive when his foot caught on a fallen branch. He pitched over, smacking his head on a short limestone wall with a hollow thump that he felt in his teeth. The pain was terrific. By the time his head cleared the song had ended. He found himself on the edge of the drive blinking up at one of the third floor windows, a knot of revulsion twisting his stomach. Sickly blue-green light flickered behind a ragged curtain above.
It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps he didn't know Maufrais House as well as he'd thought.Battling a powerful need to flee, he traced a slow, determined path back to the street. He didn't notice the stains on his white t-shirt until he was through the fence and wiped what he thought was sweat from his eyes. He started when his hands came away covered in blood.
Damn it. If Penny saw him, she'd demand he go to the clinic, and he couldn't afford it. Dizzy, he cleaned his hands on his ruined shirt and continued home. His head pounded to the beat of his heart. The sky was grey when he arrived at the apartment he shared with Andi. He found himself hoping she'd be home after all, but she wasn't. Half-blind, he stumbled to the bathroom, washed his face and swallowed some aspirin dry. Then he fell asleep with a throbbing ache in his head, a bitter taste in his throat and a spike of tension wedged between his shoulder blades.
Jason had no recollection of his mother but for the scent of roses and a haunting lullaby. He supposed that's why the nightmare inevitably started with a woman singing. After that, the dream faded into a more recent memory—one where he was ten years old. It was always the same, and he dreaded it every time—not that it made a difference. He'd just gotten home from school. He'd open the door and notice the house smelled funny. It didn't feel right either. It felt empty.
He and his father watched afternoon cartoons together on Wednesdays after school, but today his Daddy wasn't waiting in the living room. Uneasy, Jason went to the kitchen and fixed himself a glass of chocolate milk. When his Daddy still didn't appear Jason walked through the house room by room, calling for him—an indescribable feeling of dread building up inside and threatening to pour down his cheeks. If the house weren't so silent he wouldn't have noticed it—the buzzing. It bunched his skin in cold clumps. Pushing open the door to his Daddy's room, the terror of what might be on the other side slowed him down. Fear made his heart beat faster and faster as if it might run away all by itself. He didn't understand what the noise meant, but he hated it and the stale meat stink that accompanied it. As he walked hesitantly into the room he saw the bed, the open window, the pile of discarded laundry and the bedside table.
The photo of his mother that his father kept there was missing.
The buzzing grew louder, filling his head with impatient anger. He needed to see. Now. It seemed to be coming from the bathroom. "Daddy?"
He spotted the blood first. It painted the pale green bathroom tiles in haphazard splashes of reddish black. It didn't make sense. It didn't belong. His Daddy was there. No. It couldn't be him. His Daddy didn't take baths with his clothes on, and this man was dressed in his Daddy's job interview suit. He was also clutching the picture from the nightstand. There was a shotgun lying on his chest. His left hand lay limp in his lap, his Daddy's wedding ring on the fourth finger. The man's mouth was open wide. The back of his head rested in a mass of drying gore and globs of tissue glued to the shattered tile. The flies broke the spell. Otherwise Jason might have gaped forever not comprehending. They were big and black, and one of them exited his Daddy's mouth. Another strolled across an open eyeball. The eyes were his Daddy's eyes—eyes that suddenly blinked.
His Daddy sat up. The movement lacked the fluidity of life. His head created a horrible sucking sound as it left its resting place. The mouth hung open, still, but Jason heard buzz-saw words—words that seemed to be powered by the angry flies. "Sssstaaaay. Don't leavvvvve meee."
Jason fled into the hallway. His legs tangled, and he fell. He sicked up chocolate milk onto the brown shag carpet. A flickering electric blue-green light illuminated the hallway. He rolled over and saw his Daddy swaying in the doorway. His head tilted onto his shoulder.
"Ssshe'zzzz commmming forrr you. Sssshe'll havvvvve you."
The flies were everywhere. One lit on Jason's arm, and he shrieked and shrieked and shrieked— Twenty-three year old Jason sat upright in bed, his throat sore from screaming, breathing as if he'd just run a marathon. "Fucking dream," he said, by way of explanation. But Andi wasn't there to complain about him having frightened the life out of her or demand to know why. He was glad of that, at least. He didn't think he had the energy for yet another lie.
Tugging on his jeans, he staggered to the bathroom. Familiar anxiety accompanied him. He probed his forehead with a gentle hand and felt crusted blood. Flipping the light switch, the mirror told him how bad it was—and it was pretty bad—then he noticed that Andi's cosmetics and toothbrush were gone. He finished peeing, washed up and went to the living room to assess the damage. Fortunately, he'd been too hurt, exhausted, and disconcerted to notice when he'd gotten home. Afternoon light revealed the television and the DVD player were smashed. At least she'd left his stereo, acoustic guitar, and the Mac alone—he assumed because there hadn't been enough time to load her Honda with all of her shoes and then wreck the place before the mall closed. He stumbled into the kitchen and made coffee, numb. While the coffee filled the kitchen with nutty perfume he returned to the bedroom for his cell and punched Penny's number.
"It's four o'clock, you loser," Penny said without even saying hello. "We have to be at the club at six."
"Don't 'Oh.' me. I called, like, five times. Where have you been?"
"You didn't call Jolene yet, did you?"
"Didn't think so," Penny said. "Oh, man. I'm not going to have to sing tonight, am I?"
"Would it really be so bad? I don't see what you have to be afraid of. You're great."
"I told you—"
"I know. I know. I'm calling Jolene now. But you owe me. This is going to cost."
Penny's nervous giggle bubbled up through the phone's speaker. "See you later, shit head."
"Whatever you say, snot face." He hung up the phone and dialed Jolene.
He was right. It did cost him.
"I had to give her my favorite leather jacket," Jason said. "Man, I loved that thing. It was vintage."
"I'm so sorry," Penny said. "But you'll get another."
"Not for what I paid." Jason sighed. The aspirin wasn't doing shit. He'd covered the nasty lump on his forehead with a black bandana and hoped no one would notice. Outside of making a snide comment about his new pirate look, Penny hadn't spied the bruise.
Penny sat on the edge of the stage, swinging her green Chuck Taylors and knocking back yet another cold one. She was half Irish and half Latino. With bleached white hair, dark green eyes and tan skin, she was striking. She just didn't see herself that way. At the moment she was wearing a ripped Pogues t-shirt, a black vest and tight black jeans low on her hips. She'd found time during the day to paint her fingernails black. The paint was already chipped.
He was feeling resentful even if technically speaking the jacket wasn't Penny's fault. So, he said the one thing he knew would get under her skin. "Tell me about Maufrais house, and we'll call it even."
"I don't think so," she whispered. "Gramma says it's bad luck." She screwed up her face. He knew it was because she was embarrassed about her Grandma's reputation as a psychic. Penny outwardly prided herself in being logical—regardless of what she really believed.
Jason glanced over at his cousin, Jolene, and checked an urge to scream. She was flirting with two guys at once. Bud, on the other hand, was drinking his beer at the bar, merrily pretending not to notice—per usual. He'd gone to the trouble of setting his hair into a Mohawk for the gig, and that was never a good sign.
It was going to be a rough night.
"Tell me anyway," Jason said.
"Gramma wouldn't like it."
"I won't tell." He lowered his voice to the same volume as hers. "Anyway, the bad luck will be mine, won't it? I'm the one who brought it up."
"Okay." Penny glared and then sighed. "But only because I hate your guts."
"You do not. You adore my guts." He cursed himself. Now, he was treading too close to lines he really shouldn't cross.
"Yeah. Yeah." She picked at chipped fingernail polish and looked unhappy. Her discomfort hit him hard, and he almost told her to forget it. "It was built in 1918 by Hugo Maufrais. He owned a construction company and had buckets of money. He was a gangster, Gramma says."
"Thought Gramma said it was bad luck to talk about it."
"Just shut up, will you?"
"Hurry up," Jason said. "Next set starts in ten, and I have to untangle Jolene's tongue from that guy's tonsils before we start. That may take some doing by the look of things."
Penny rolled her eyes. "Okay." She sighed. "Hugo Maufrais was into all kinds of stuff. Some say even witchcraft."
"You mean like Wicca? Crystals, rainbows and fluffy bunnies?"
"I'm going to kick you if you don't shut the hell up."
"Right. Right. Proceed."
"You're such an ass." She leaned over and punched him gently on the shoulder. "Anyway, the stock market crashed in 1929. Everybody lost everything. Not Maufrais, though. So, one night he has this big bash at the mansion on Academy. Hookers. Drugs. Booze. Orgies. You name it. There was a horrible fire. Lots of people died.
"Well, he up and vanished while the house was rebuilt. Went round the world in a yacht, they say. A month after the place was finished, he shows up with this new woman. A big time singer from Broadway, they said. He never went anywhere without her. Then all of the sudden, people started getting dead around him. Flu. Cancer. Drownings. Suicide. Funny thing, no matter how they died when it comes time to bury them? They're missing their hearts. Pretty soon Maufrais doesn't have so many friends anymore. Then one day he comes home and finds his girl with his best friend. Maufrais shoots the friend in the heart. He's supposed to have buried him behind the house somewhere. The girlfriend died soon after. Some say he killed her too. But he loved her so much he put the body in a glass coffin and refused to bury her. Kept her in the house. Pretty sick shit, you know? He died years later, a recluse. They say his estate keeps the place like it is. Anyway, stay away from there. Gramma says it's evil."
"Why didn't Maufrais go to prison?"
"Gramma said they couldn't prove anything," Penny said. "Wasn't anyone going to argue. He was connected, you know? The mob."
"What about the dead friend?"
"They say Maufrais told the police the guy went out of town and never came back. But the maid heard everything. She told the police. A friend of Gramma's was close to her. That's how I know. Anyway, police searched but never found a body. The maid? She took a long trip too not long after."
Jason paused. "What if I told you I heard someone singing inside Maufrais House?"
Penny gave him a hard look. "That can't be good."
"Oh, come on. You don't really believe that story, do you?"
Shifting uncomfortably, Penny gazed out at the party-goers. She frowned. "Something tells me you better round up your cousin."
Jason followed Penny's gaze and then his stomach did a panicked flip. Jolene was in the college kid's lap now. His hand was up her shirt. Bud hadn't noticed—not yet. "Oh, shit."
"She's yours," Penny said. "I'll take care of our rooster."
"On it." Jason trotted to the back of the bar as fast as he could without drawing too much attention. "Show's on. Singie singie time. Now."
The kid with Jolene's tits in his hands glared at him. "Dude, don't be an asshole."
Jolene glanced in Bud's direction to check if he was watching and then kissed the kid long and hard. "Don't you vanish on me now," she said, giving the kid's cheek a playful slap. She got up off him and went to the bathroom.
Jason returned to the stage, and they started up the last set without further incident, but it only delayed the inevitable. As soon as the gig was over Bud busted his knuckles on the college kid's jaw. The poor kid was out cold by the time Jason and Penny pulled Bud off him. Andre said he wouldn't call the police, but Jason knew there was a long talk in his future, and it'd be about Bud.
Penny waited to crank up the van until everyone had hopped in. Moments before, Jolene had been dead set on having the college kid take her home. Now she was in the back, sucking Bud's face with an enthusiasm worthy of a porn star.
Steering the van onto the street, Penny leaned over and whispered, "What the hell does he see in her?"
"Really fantastic sex," Jason said without a pause.
"You've got to be kidding."
"Nope. Bud says she can—"
"I really don't need to know."
Penny dropped off Bud and Jolene first. She always did. It didn't matter that Bud lived farthest from Andre's bar.
"Out. Both of you," Penny said. "You're steaming up my windows."
"I'll take care of your kit," Jason said to Bud. Regardless of the fact that it was going to be a pain in the ass, there was an unwritten code between males the world over when it came to sex, and Bud was his best friend.
"Thanks!" Bud smiled, and an unspoken understanding passed between them that a six pack of good beer would be owed.
Jason decided it had better be damned great beer as Bud tumbled out of the van with Jolene. They had barely made it to the front door of Bud's ratty old rental house before Jolene ripped the shirt off him, and they practically fell inside. Jason looked away and tried hard not to imagine what would come next.
It definitely was one of those nights.
Penny backed out of the driveway. "Bud is a walking cliché."
"Oh, I suspect Bud isn't going to be able to do much walking tomorrow, let alone as a cliché."
Penny leaned over and punched him on the arm again. "What is it with men and women like that? She's only going to leave him for someone with more money. Does it to him every time. God, I don't know why I'm talking to you. You're just as bad as he is."
She shook her head. "You're going to tell me that underneath it all, Andi was a nice person?"
"Underneath it all Andi was naked. Really, really naked."
Penny assaulted his arm once more. "Pig."
"That's going to bruise, snot face."
"Serves you right, shit head."
By the time they'd unloaded the van at the practice space and locked up, it was four o'clock in the morning. Penny was silent and had one of those thoughtful looks on her face. Worried, Jason prepared himself for the inevitable chat. She could be frighteningly perceptive. He'd been in and out of therapy for years as a kid and hadn't known anyone who could see through him the way Penny could. He'd never say so to her face, but she was practically psychic.
She waited until he slammed the garage door and locked it. He decided to avoid the whole situation and turned to the street.
"Get in the van," she said.
"I can walk."
"Not tonight, you're not."
He sighed. "Can I have a drink before you start the interrogation?"
"You've already had twelve on my last count and five of them were whiskey shots," she said. "I know what that means. Get in the van, or we talk about it here in the street."
All he wanted to do was take five or six aspirins and pass out, but he got into the van anyway. His headache never had gotten any better. It was worse now.
She climbed up into the driver's seat and slammed the door. "You gonna tell me about it?"
"Tell you what?"
"You've been sleeping like shit. And you never drink like that unless something's got you bad. What did Andi do to you?"
"She didn't do anything," he said, hating the sound of his voice. "She was going to leave anyway. My relationships never last. We both know that."
Penny harrumphed. "The women you date, that's no surprise."
"Where are we going?"
"I'm too tired to play Soul Calibur II."
"We're not going to play video games, shit head." She was smiling.
"Oh? What are we going to do?"
"We're going to do the one thing we've both wanted to do from the day we met. We're going get naked, and I'm going to do things to you until you scream for mercy," she said. "Then maybe I'll let you sleep."
"Oh, no we're not."
"Because I said so. That's why."
"You don't find me attractive?"
Jason choked and shifted in his seat. If there was one thing he found Penny, it was attractive. At the mere mention of sex he had a terrific boner, and she hadn't even touched him. He had it that bad. "That's not it. I told you why."
"I'll take the chance. Don't you love me?"
"I do. More than anyone."
"But not like that?" The hurt in her face made him want to kiss her more than anything. Her cheeks were wet, and she stared out the windshield as if she were afraid to look at him. "Well?"
He turned away before she could tear out his heart. "I can't lose you."
The van slowed to a stop. "Jason Findley, you're going to lose me if you don't. Maybe not tonight, but one day. I don't know what she did to you—"
"Andi didn't do anything—"
Penny slammed her hand against the steering wheel. "I'm not talking about Andi!"
Jason swallowed. "Who, then?"
"Her! Whoever it was that hurt you so bad that you can't ever risk it again. God, I hate her. I really do. And you can't even talk about her. That bitch."
"She wasn't a bitch!" It came out before he had time to retract it.
Penny turned to him, shocked by his vehemence. "Who was she?"
His heart racing, he stared out the window beyond Penny's face and saw Maufrais House. The world tilted. Maybe he should talk to her. Maybe. This time. Give her one small thing. Buy time. Maybe she'd stay. He could drag out his confession for a year at least. Keep her guessing. Women prefer mystery over misery. Right? "Okay. I'll spill. Just let me show you something first." He was drunk. He might regret talking, but he wanted to give it a try, and there was only one place where he'd been able to put his feelings to words.
She parked the van where he told her. He staggered onto the pavement with a simultaneous feeling of hope and dread. She followed him to the fence and watched him slide between the bars. It was late, but the fireflies were out in force. He felt grateful that the place seemed to be putting on its best face for her.
"Where are we going?" She stayed where she was, her expression pinned between fear and amusement.
"I want you to see the garden. Then I'll tell you everything. I swear." Way to go Sheherazade, he thought. However, he'd grown tired of living a half existence where the only person who knew a damned thing about him was Bud, and truth was, Bud didn't know all that much.
"Cross my heart."
A smile flitted across her face. "Okay." She glanced around and seemed to relax a little. "I love fireflies," she said, her voice just above a whisper. "I've never seen so many in one place."
He led her through the woods with a certainty that he didn't feel. When he reached the pond he stopped and motioned for her to sit on the stone bench.
The pond was choked with life—weeds, blooming lily pads, dragon flies, frogs and fish. A statue of a mermaid lounged in the center. She appeared to be singing, one willowy arm stretched up to the stars. Fireflies blinked, dancing around her. The air was heavy with the scent of magnolia. He waited for Penny to sit and then took a deep breath, but the words jammed in his throat. She'll have you. He coughed, smelled the ghost of drying dream blood and wished he had more whiskey. His heart did a slam dance against his breast bone and refused to stop. Turning, he faced the mermaid statue.
"I can see why you like this place," she said. "It's beautiful."
"You don't have to tell me anything," she said. "I just thought... well... you'd feel better if you did."
You're going to lose her if you don't, he thought and took the plunge. "Mom left when I was four. My Dad killed himself when I was ten. I'm adopted."
"Oh." She paused. "I didn't know. I'm so sorry."
"My Mom, she didn't want me. Still doesn't. I don't even know her name. And my Dad. He decided he'd rather be dead than stay with me."
"I'm sure he loved you."
"Just listen, okay?"
"I was angry for a long time. Got into a lot of trouble. I don't know what the Findleys saw in me, but they adopted me when I was thirteen. Still don't know why or how I got so lucky. They're wonderful people. I'd be nothing but for them. They bought me my first guitar, you know? They died when I was twenty, though. Truth is, that's why I flunked out of school."
Penny stayed silent, but she was staring. He could feel it. He faced her. He had to. Now. If he didn't, he'd stop and nothing good would happen.
"Penny, I don't know if I can—"
A blue-green dream light twinkled in the third floor window of Maufrais House. The buzzing began again.
"What's wrong?" she asked. Then Penny heard the singing too. She leapt up from the bench and grabbed his hand. He could feel it warm in his and part of him was happy. But the woman inside the house needed him. He'd dropped Penny's hand and was running up the path before he knew it.
"Jason, don't go up there. Please!"
All he had to do was turn his back on that sound, grab Penny's hand and take her to his apartment. They would make love until neither of them could move anymore. It would be miraculous. He would love her more than he'd loved anyone in his life, and in return, she would save him just as the Findleys had. All he had to do was turn away from that voice. But he couldn't. His mother was in that voice. He had to go to her. He knew it just as he inwardly quailed from it.
His boots hammered the porch. His hand twisted the glass door knob, and he was through before Penny had time to catch up. The interior of the house reeked of mummy dust. Floorboards groaned. Roaches scurried in packs. Rats chittered. The electric blue-green glow pulsed at the top of the rotting stairs. She's waiting. Grasping the wobbly railing for support, he took the steps two at a time. He discovered a narrow hallway at the top. Nightmare-light seeped from the cracks around the door at the end, and the musty odor was overpowered by the smell of ozone. The aftertaste of bile and chocolate milk haunted his mouth. The singing grew louder. He still couldn't make out the words. Pushing open the door, he was immersed in pulsing blue-green. It made him feel as if he'd just plunged into an ocean—not the Gulf, but a deep Atlantic. The room was huge and empty with a high ceiling and tall double-paned windows draped with ragged lace curtains. Wallpaper curled off the walls. In the center sat a glowing glass... freezer? It looked nothing like anything he'd seen before. The base was finely made of wood and metal with Art Neaveau flourishes. The sound it gave off was familiar enough. It buzzed like the flies in his nightmare. It hummed. He gritted his teeth against it. Then he saw the shadowy figure frozen inside. A female figure.
Thoughts rushed through his mind to the rapid drum beat of his heart. He remembered a carnival placard in a Ray Bradbury book he'd read in school. The most beautiful woman in the world! And like the man in the story he yearned to thaw that cold and let the ice maiden trapped inside swim free. He touched the glass and then dared to wipe at the frost.
The Singer floated lithe and bare beneath the glass. He couldn't make out the color of her hair. Pale blonde, he thought. All of her was pale and distant, diluted by cold and glass. Although her eyes were closed he knew they'd be a deep green. The warmth of his hand resting on the glass did something to the machine that buzzed around her. Its hum changed pitch. Condensation sloughed off the top of the freezer and ice clattered to the wooden floor.
"Jason!" His name floated up the stairs. It had no meaning.
The Singer opened her eyes. They were as green as he knew they'd be. Underneath his palms, a clamp on the side of the tank popped open with a clang. Hoses hissed. The Singer smiled. Her teeth were perfect, white and even, but something about them suggested the word "sharp." Against his will, his arms went through the motions of shoving the glass freezer lid wide and then her smooth cold skin was under his hands. There was something alien in the color of it, something green that wasn't entirely the fault of the light from the tank.
Come to me, my hero. My savior. My prince. Warm me with your body. I'm so cold. So... hungry.
Her voice was as inviting as her skin was chilled. She opened her arms to him. Long fingernails dug into the skin of his shoulders and back. He felt a substance burn in his blood. It made him dizzy and sick. He didn't care. She released his arm and traced a burning scratch over his heart. Her breasts were firm under his hands, and he lowered his lips to one perfect nipple. She tasted of saltwater. Pushing him back, she sat up and laughed. Her voice was an arctic winter.
I open my mouth wide and eat your beating heart.
The Singer paused, blinking.
"Let him go, bitch." Penny stood defiant in the flickering doorway. With the light painting her form, she seemed as alien as the creature who gripped him.
Warm sweat oozed down his back and arms, tickling as it went. When he risked a glance he saw that everywhere the Singer had touched him was etched in blood. Not sweat. Blood. His shirt was shredded.
"You are not alone, my Prince." The Singer sat up. It was then he noticed what looked like fine scales, covering her legs from hip to webbed feet. "This isn't how the story goes, is it?" Naked, she swam the watery blue-green light toward Penny with the grace of a sea predator. No human moved like that—at least none that wasn't on a horror movie screen.
Penny, get out of here! The Singer was a monster, and now he'd released her. He should pay the price, not Penny. He struggled to move or speak and couldn't. The burning in his blood wouldn't let him.
"There are other stories," Penny said.
Stories? Penny, damn it, run!
"The stories. Yes. There's magic in stories. Yes?" the Singer asked, circling Penny with a hungry gleam in her eye. "I know another. It involves... bargains."
"I know what you are. And I don't have to give you anything."
"He's mine, little witch. Mine. And I will not give him up lightly."
Penny lifted her chin. "What do you want?"
"No!" His fear for Penny finally tore through the venom holding him in place. He stumbled toward Penny, but the Singer held up a hand and the acid in his blood burned. He screamed.
"Stop it!" Penny held up a fist. "You're hurting him!"
The Singer tilted her head sideways, listening. "You are not... lovers." Her voice drifted into the watery light. She laughed. "A bargain, little witch. One you may even enjoy. Your body for his. Do you accept?"
He couldn't move or speak no matter how he struggled.
Penny looked to him, tears in her eyes.
Don't do it, Penny. I'm not worth it, he thought.
Penny said, "Yes."
"Then come to me," the Singer said, beckoning.
Unable to act, Jason watched the Singer wrap herself around Penny. The Singer's lips touched Penny's. The creature's presence left his mind, and the fire in his veins was snuffed out. He took a careful step, testing his freedom. The Singer twitched as if to pull away, but Penny clutched tighter. Certain now that neither noticed, he rushed over and then shoved them apart with all his strength. Both women collapsed to the floor. The Singer weakly writhed like a beached fish, sightless and struggling to breathe. He grabbed Penny and rolled her onto her back. Her skin was cool but not cold. Her pulse tapped a distant drumbeat under his fingers.
"Wake up, Penny. Please." He rubbed her arms.
She was breathing. That was good. When he lifted her from the floor the light flickered out, and the buzzing stopped. His head cleared. There was a muffled sound from the floor, but he didn't dare look. Carrying Penny, he took the rickety stairs as fast as he could. Somehow he got to the bottom without falling. "Don't leave me. Please. You can't die."
He carried her outside. As he reached the garden, the sky was pink with the approach of dawn. He laid her on the stone bench and looked into her face. The corner of her mouth twitched.
"Stay alive." He kneeled and kissed her. "Please. Don't die. Don't leave."
Penny's eyes fluttered open, and her mouth made a languid curl. "Never."
Relief threatened to knock him over. Emotions he couldn't bring himself to name built up force in his throat. He sicked up the painful lump in a gush of words. "Move in with me. Tomorrow. Please?"
Her eyelids closed. She took a deep breath and swallowed. Terrified, he waited for her to say no.
"Promise to haul my bass amp to our gigs. Like, forever."
He blinked away blurriness. "Promise. I swear."
She sat up, slowly. Then she threw her arms around him. "Dibs on the right side of the bed. And you do the dishes, shit head."
After the scare at Maufrais House, Jason watched Penny for side effects. She talked in her sleep, but then he wasn't sure she hadn't done so before Maufrais House. He told himself he was being paranoid. She looked like Penny. She sounded like Penny—even moved like Penny, but a happier, more confident Penny. He came to understand that he genuinely loved her. It wasn't just because of Maufrais House, at least he didn't think so. Everything was different. She did little things for him, like leave him love notes on the fridge. The sex was the best he'd ever had. Jason knew he should be happy and for the most part, he was, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong.
The things she says in her sleep, he thought. Things about swimming.
"What are you looking at, shit head?" Penny asked, thumbing the pause button on Soul Caliber II.
She'll have you. "Nothing," Jason said.
"You're staring at me like I've three heads. Talk."
He hesitated. "Are you okay? I mean—"
"I'm more okay than I've been in my whole life." She smiled and nudged him with an elbow. "I'm winning."
"No, I mean—"
"You aren't letting me win, are you? Because if you are, you're on the couch tonight." She raised an eyebrow.
"Good. Back to the game. I'm going to finally beat your ass down."
"But the other night. That... thing. Maufrais—"
"Don't!" She dropped the controller and placed her hand across his mouth with a shudder. "It's bad luck."
"You are too," she said. "We've been sleeping together for two weeks. And you haven't picked a fight yet." She shrugged. "It's just your fear of being happy playing up. Okay? I'm not going anywhere. I promise. You got that?"
He nodded and decided to change the subject. "Sarah called. Bud's friend, the one who just moved in from Shreveport? She's pregnant. So, she can't front. We need a lead singer. Again."
Penny looked away. "South By is a week off."
"I'll do it."
"You don't have to. There's always next year. It's too bad. I really thought we had a shot—"
"I want to."
"Wait. You do?" He checked her expression for a sign. That's not like Penny. Can't be. "You're sure?"
Penny smiled and tilted her head. "Sure, I'm sure, shit head."
Bud wasn't at practice that night. Again. Ryan, the new guitarist, was, however. So, they practiced anyway. It was the third time Bud had missed in a row, and Jason was worried. He left Penny at the apartment to get some sleep and then drove Penny's van to Bud's place. Bud answered the door dressed in a stained Clash t-shirt and a pair of blue boxers. His mohawk hung flat in his pale face, revealing a half-shaved head. He had at least a week's worth of beard stubble.
"You look like shit," Jason said.
"Hello to you, too." Moving like an old man, Bud scratched his head. "Flu, man. I got it bad."
Jason held up his index fingers to make a cross. "Don't even breathe in my direction."
"I'll be there for the gig. Doc says I'll be fine by Thursday. I swear."
"You went to the doctor? You never go to the doctor."
Blushing, Bud said, "Yeah. Jolene drove me to the E.R. Hell, I didn't know she cared. Doc said she saved my life. Said my heart would've given out. Dehydration. I didn't even know there was a problem."
His heart. Oh, God. Jason thought of the story Penny had told about the people dying around Hugo Maufrais. Didn't Penny say some of them died of the flu? "Why didn't you call me?"
"Shit. Jolene said she'd do it. Sorry, man." Bud looked even more tired than he had when he opened the door, if that was possible.
"Get back to bed. I'll call you tomorrow."
That night, Jason lay awake until Penny was asleep and then left the apartment as quietly as he could manage. Within moments he stood in the street in front of Maufrais House, a tire iron in hand. The house seemed empty. Blank. Even the fireflies seemed to have abandoned it. Terrified, he pushed through the iron fence and walked purposefully up the hill. He would do this for Penny and for Bud. He would get to the top of the stairs and enter that room, and if that creature was still there, and he'd kill it. He'd—
The buzzing started the instant he put a hand to the crystal doorknob. She's alive, he thought. Alive and lying in wait. He paused, poised between running for his life and pushing forward. His hand tightened on the tire iron. They were marked by the Singer, he and Penny, and something told him that if he didn't carry though with this that voice would haunt him until he came back. Or until Penny does.
With that thought, he forced the weather-damaged door open. He was terrified. It was one of the toughest things he'd done in his life. He didn't bother being quiet as he climbed the stairs. She knew he was there. The sound of his own heart filled his skull. He was sure she could hear it. She began her song. He stopped, frantically fishing inside his jeans pocket for the second thing he'd brought with him to combat her—an item that every rock musician with any sense carried with them.
The moment he'd stuffed them into place he felt better, more himself. He hefted the tire iron. I can do this. He'd been in fights before. He'd even done time in juvie for beating the shit out of another kid at age twelve. He had it in him. He could kill the thing. For Penny and for Bud.
When the door at the top of the stairs swung open he saw the Singer sitting on the edge of the tank. She looked sick and starved but somehow still beautiful. The scales on her lower body had begun to flake. She seemed even less human than before.
Is that for me?
He looked at the tire iron in his hand while her laughter echoed inside his brain.
Steel clanged on the wooden floor. He wished now that he'd never come back. Even weakened, she was too powerful. Her poison was in his blood. It was too late for earplugs. He could hear her no matter what. What's the use? His hand went to his left ear and removed the bit of green foam before he could stop himself.
Clever. So clever, my Prince. She opened her arms wide and arched her back, presenting herself to him. Come collect your reward.
He shut his eyes and fought against the surge of arousal. This isn't me, he thought. This isn't what I want.
Come now. How do you expect to fight me with your eyes shut?
She was right. Could he make his way out of the room, blind? And even if he did, what use would that be? She would still be here. Waiting. If she could call him to her, she could call to Penny. And Penny would still be in danger.
You're no different than your father, the Singer said. He was just as weak.
He felt her hand on his arm.
That's when he heard the second song. It took him a few moments to recognize Penny's voice. She had followed him after all. Her song came to him muted from the room below, yet, somehow clear and strong. The lyrics swelled with hope against disappointment, love against fear. He stayed as he was, paralyzed. It was an old Fleetwood Mac tune—a Stevie Nicks solo piece from the album Tusk. The only reason he knew it was because Penny had sung it to him the first time he'd turned her down. She hadn't sung it since. It was called "Beautiful Child."
Don't listen to her. Listen to me, the Singer said, but her words were fragile.
Jason opened his eyes.
The Singer smiled. Come to me.
Her voice pulled at him, but then so did Penny's. Both made promises, begged and seduced. The pressure to choose grew too huge to contain. He felt he was being ripped apart. He shuffled forward, wishing an end, even if it were the wrong one. He reached out, and his fingers brushed against icy skin. Triumph and hunger mingled in the Singer's eyes.
"Yes." The Singer licked her lips.
He shoved her into the tank with all his might and slammed the lid. Shaking, he scrambled to lock the clamps. The Singer shoved against the glass, and the lid opened half an inch, briefly releasing a putrid sea odor before he smashed it closed again. Her muffled screams stretched into inhuman shapes. The sound of it ripped at his mind. His hands slipped. Penny suddenly appeared at his side. He only managed the last clamp because of her. The final metallic thump vibrated through the floor. He scooted backward, unbelieving. Beneath the glass, the Singer begged for mercy and for a moment he almost went to her.
He grabbed Penny as if she were a life-preserver and he, a drowning victim. They stumbled out of the room together, clinging to one another. On the stairs, he tripped, almost falling through one of the broken steps. He scraped his ankle on splintered wood. She yanked him back, saving him a second time.
Pain seared up his leg, but he ignored it. "Oh, God. Are you okay?"
"Am I okay?" She answered by giving him a little shove. "You, dumbass! Why the hell did you come here?"
A loud thump came from the room upstairs.
"I'll explain later," he said. "Let's go."
"We will," she said, reaching into her pocket and producing a lighter. "But there's one last thing I came to do. And I mean to do it."
Thirty minutes later, they walked home hand in hand with Maufrais House's funeral pyre to light the way.