Mary of Shadows
Jeffrey Aaron Miller
Chapter 1: Uninvited Guest
It was the screaming that brought the party to an end, the screaming and the blood. Nobody was having an especially good time anyway. Aunt Carole had a rolled up magazine in her hand and was using it to swat flies. Kristen, a sour look on her face, had spent much of her time pushing cake icing around her plate with the edge of a plastic fork. Aiden’s gaze was fixed way off in space somewhere. Perry possessed the only smile at the party, but he was obsessively rubbing his peach fuzz mustache with the tips of his fingers and chuckling for no reason. Mary Lanham, stick in the mud and ruiner of parties, ate her cake and tried not to let her emotions show on her face, but she had never been very good at that. It was her first birthday without Papa. Surely they all understood how hard that made it?
Humid summer heat lay on Chesset like a damp blanket, plastering hair to faces, shirts to backs. Aunt Carole’s makeup ran down her face in long, multi-colored trails. The presents had been opened, but really, what do you give a Lightbearer? Some perfume and lipstick from Kristen, who had been goading Mary into, as she put it, fancying herself up for a while now. A nice card from Aiden with a sweet little note scribbled inside, accompanied by a silver charm bracelet. And, wonder of wonders, a cell phone from Aunt Carole—Mary was the last of all her friends to get one. All of the gifts were now safely tucked back inside one of the gift bags and sat at the end of the bench. Only cake with too-soft icing and melting ice cream remained.
“Fifteen years old,” Kristen said. “Isn’t that the age that you’re officially supposed to go wild?”
“Now, let’s not even suggest it,” Aunt Carole said, fanning herself with the magazine.
And then, as if Aunt Carole’s words were the cue, the screaming began. It came from the far side of the park, a man’s voice but high and cracking. A figure stumbled out of the line of trees, hunched over, a man clutching his face. He wandered into the park, past the swing set and monkey bars, past wide-eyed children and a pair of Corgi dogs on leashes who couldn’t decide whether to bark or whimper. The man’s eyes were covered, but he stumbled right toward the picnic table, as if seeing it in his mind.
Seeing it in his mind! Such a thing was not out of the realm of possibility, Mary knew, and the power surged within her instinctively. Kristen turned on the bench, wiped the icing off her fork and brandished it like a weapon.
“He’s bleeding,” Aiden noted.
Indeed, a trail of blood seeped out from under the man’s right hand and ran down his cheek. He had on a pale blue, button-up dress shirt, but the tail was untucked, and the breast pocket was torn and hung down like a bit of rent skin. His scream became a throaty rasp, as he stumbled up to the table. Aiden and Carole both rose and moved to intercept him.
“Are you hurt, sir?” Aiden asked.
“Do we need to call for help?” Aunt Carole asked.
Even though his eyes were covered, he stepped around Aiden and walked up to the table, brushing against Kristen—she gave a look of disgust and scooted out of reach—and bumped against the corner, knocking over Mary’s drink. Fruit punch splashed in her lap.
“My eyes,” the man wailed. “My eyes!”
Aunt Carole dropped the magazine, picked up her purse and rooted around for her cell phone.
“Get him away from the table,” Kristen said. “He’s gonna bleed on everything.”
Aiden laid a hand on the man’s shoulder and tried to ease him away, but the bleeding man pulled free. He leaned over the table, his breath wheezing in and out through his clenched teeth.
“Something pecked his eyes out,” Perry suggested. Perry’s presence at the birthday party was accidental. He had spotted Aiden walking toward the park and followed him. Aiden had offered to send him away, but Mary didn’t have the heart to do that. He was one of Aiden’s old friends, part of the crew that used to sit with him in the school cafeteria, and despite a bad complexion and a high, nasally voice, he wasn’t half bad. He was, at least, clean and well mannered. “Some kind of bird in the forest pecked his eyes out!”
Aunt Carole had her cell phone open, her fingers poised on the buttons. “Sir, do you need me to call for help?”
Aiden squeezed the man’s shoulder and tried to lean in front of him, but the man only bent down lower, his face close to the table. The trail of blood had run down his chin and neck and was soaking into the collar of his shirt. And through it all, Mary sat still, tensed, aether coursing into her arms and down to her fingertips. Other people in the park began to wander over. Curiosity more than concern brought them, and nobody was moving particularly fast.
“My eyes,” the man said again.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” Aiden asked.
“A bird pecked them out,” Perry said. “Look at all that blood running down!”
“Just get him away from the table,” Kristen said, still brandishing the plastic fork.
“I see red,” the man said. “I see red!” And then he rose up tall, gasped for breath and lowered his hands from his face.
There was a splatter of blood high on his cheek, just below his right eye. Kristen made a disgusted sound and turned away. Perry pointed. But Mary saw no sign of actual injury. Both eyes were fine, and she saw no cuts or scratches. Then he thrust his hand at her, and she saw the object he was holding. Indeed, as Perry had guessed, it was a bird, but dead, mutilated and bloody. Aiden saw it and cried out, snatching at his hand, trying to get it away from him.
“Get back, boy,” the man snapped, elbowing Aiden in the stomach.
Aiden lost his breath and fell back, landing in the grass.
“This is what happens to little birds,” the man said. “This is what happens.”
He tossed the dead bird onto the cake. Blood mingled with white icing.
“That’s it, I’m calling the police,” Aunt Carole said, dialing numbers.
Mary didn’t need police. She could deal with the problem herself. She reached for the man.
“Do what you want to me,” he said, spreading his arms out wide and backing out of reach. “It doesn’t matter. There will be more of us, more and more, like sand on the seashore. We’ll keep coming and coming. You’ll never be rid of us.”
Mary considered this and lowered her hand to the table. “What do you want?”
Aiden picked himself up, but he was clutching his stomach and struggling to catch his breath. Aunt Carole had the phone to her ear.
“We want to know where Leonard is,” the man said. “Leonard Watt. Where have you hidden him?”
“Leonard is gone,” Kristen replied, and jabbed the fork in his direction. “Mary turned him into a— ”
Mary shushed her. She considered this strange man, this Looker. Were they really as numerous as sand on a seashore? Surely not. She recalled another threat that had been made to her once—You will lose friends and family, you will lose everyone you’ve ever cared about. Was this the beginning of that threat’s fulfillment? Despite her growing confidence, despite her growing trust in the power that so completely filled her body, she felt a little flutter of fear.
“Leonard is gone forever,” she said. “I can’t give him back to you, if that’s what you want. Tell your friends their time is over. The time of the Lookers is over.”
“A bold claim,” the man said.
Aiden sniffed, clenched his fists and took a swing at the man, but the Looker dodged the punch and lashed out with his foot. He caught Aiden on the shin and sent him sprawling. Kristen had had enough. She lunged forward and stabbed the Looker with her fork. She hit him on the upper thigh, but the plastic tines broke off, and the fork did not penetrate. The Looker grabbed her by the forehead and shoved her back off the bench. She hit the ground with a thud and a loud curse.
Mary rose from her seat and took a step toward him.
“Go ahead,” the Looker said. “Do what you will. There are countless others waiting to take my place. Provoke the Reapers further and see if we don’t take everything from you.”
Reapers, yes, that was what they called themselves. Not Lookers. Lookers had been her Papa’s term for them, for these magic-seekers, these servants of the Devourers. And Mary did not doubt they would indeed take everything from her, if given the chance.
Aunt Carole still had the cell phone pressed to her ear, but with her free hand she picked up the uneaten slab of cake from her plate and heaved it at the Looker. It hit him right in the center of the chest, splattering icing and cake all over his shirt. He frowned, glared at her briefly, then turned back to Mary as if Aunt Carole were scarcely worth his time.
“Where is Leonard Watt?” he asked again. “And where is our master? You confronted them both at Devil’s Den, and they both disappeared.”
“Your master is dead,” Kristen shouted, picking herself up off the ground and throwing the broken fork at him.
Mary shushed her again. “I’m not going to bargain with you people,” she said. “Your time is over.”
To her surprise, this made the man smile. He had no fear. No fear whatsoever. How could that be? It reminded her of another Looker, a cold-eyed woman in a black dress--Iris, who had once intentionally goaded Mary into attacking her.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said. “Our time is over, indeed.”
Mary had had enough. She went for the Looker, reaching out to take hold of him. To do what, she did not know. Instinct would guide her. Aether would guide her. An old promise to herself—no more violence, only helping and healing—crossed her mind and then was gone. Intruding on her birthday party, intruding into her life, into her melancholy, no, she would not have it! The Looker saw her coming and drew back, and now a hint of fear did show on his face, if only for a moment.
“Sand on the seashore,” he said. “Reapers without end. You will return to us what is rightfully ours.”
Mary grabbed at his wrist. He twisted to one side. As he did, Aiden came at him again, swinging both hands. One fist caught the Looker in the side of the head. The Looker grunted, stumbled, then lashed out, catching Aiden by the back of the neck and shoving him violently toward Mary. Mary and Aiden collided and went down in a heap. Kristen, inspired perhaps by Aunt Carole, picked up another slab of birthday cake and heaved it at him, but she missed by a couple of feet, as it went sailing over his shoulder and landed in the grass.
The Looker laughed and turned. Curious bystanders were getting close now. Mrs. Fenster, owner of the anxious Corgis, was the closest. She had a leopard-print blouse on, lavender velvet pants, a massive necklace of some vague tribal design. With the loss of her husband only a month earlier, she had filled the void with dogs and eccentricity.
“Oh, my,” she said, gesturing toward the Looker with one ring-drenched hand. “What is going on here? What happened to you?”
His face dripped blood, the front of his shirt was splattered with icing. But he bowed politely toward Mrs. Fenster.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he said. “I experienced a minor incident, but I’m doing much better now. I take my leave of you.”
And he took off running. Aiden tried to hop up and go after him, but he was all tangled up with Mary. They watched helplessly as the Looker dodged bystanders, raced past the swings and disappeared back into the forest. Aiden pulled his arms and legs free, helped Mary to her feet and turned, as if he meant to follow him.
“Let him go,” Mary said. “It doesn’t matter. He’s probably right. There will just be more of them.”
Mary sat back down at the table. Aiden stepped up behind her, and for a moment, everyone just sat there in stunned silence. There had been no such encounter since the incident at Devil’s Den back in March. Indeed, there had been no indication whatsoever that there were any other Lookers. Mrs. Fenster stared at them, clearly seeking someone to disapprove of for causing her Corgis such stress. Finally, she sniffed and walked away.
“Well, I never,” she muttered.
The other onlookers gradually wandered away, whispering to one another. And then the birthday party guests were alone again.
“Well, geez, what was that all about?” Perry asked, finally, still stroking that embarrassment of a moustache.
“Weren’t you paying attention?” Kristen responded. “I’ll recap. A man ran out of the woods with a ripped-open sparrow splattered all over his face, and he tossed it on the cake. I thought that was pretty clear.”
“Yeah, I saw it,” he said. “I just…don’t…” He shrugged.
“Carole, ma’am, did you call the police?” Aiden asked. He seemed too restless to sit and began massaging Mary’s shoulders.
“I did not,” Carole said with a sigh, dumping the cell phone back in the purse.
“Why not?” Kristen asked.
“Because…” She paused, glanced at Perry. “Because they might have asked that man questions, and he might have answered them.”
“So what?” Kristen replied. “As long as they lock him up somewhere, let him answer whatever questions he wants to answer.”
“He didn’t do anything illegal, as far as I know,” Aunt Carole said. “What would they lock him up for?”
“He caused a public disturbance by screaming like a maniac in a public park,” Kristen said. “And he mutilated a poor, innocent bird and threw it on our food.”
“Well…” Aunt Carole glanced at Perry again and said no more. She didn’t need to. Mary understood. Aunt Carole was afraid that the Devil’s Den kidnapping case might be reopened, that uncomfortable questions might be asked. Some key things had gone overlooked in the investigation. A pillar of smoke rising from the forest floor as the Devourer dissolved in the sunlight, nobody had asked about that. Even now, the ashes of that monster rested somewhere beneath the cave entrance, waiting to be stumbled upon. As for the disappearance of Leonard Watt, he had left not a trace, and the search for him had stalled. Nobody suspected the truth—how could they?
“He said a name,” Perry noted. “Leonard something-or-other. Wasn’t that the name of the guy that tried to kidnap you all a few months back? I remember when that was on the news. He went into hiding, didn’t he? Is that who the guy was talking about?”
“Sure,” Kristen said. “And Mary hid his body in the basement.”
“Let’s not even speak of that man,” Aunt Carole said, sharply.
The dead bird had landed right in the middle of the cake, the poor thing’s head twisted and its body torn open. Mary reached out and scooped it up, getting a generous amount of bloody icing in the process.
“Ew! She touched it,” Perry said. “You’re getting blood all over your hand. Look, its guts are falling out.”
“Mary, what are you doing?” Kristen asked.
“Don’t,” Aunt Carole added.
They were concerned because Perry was at the table, she knew that. She also knew their concern was unwarranted. She was unable to do what she wanted to do. Nevertheless, she would try. She held the little bird in the palm of her right hand and cupped her left hand over the top of it. Then she turned her body away, so that Perry would not see. She envisioned the little bird whole and full of life, spreading its wings and taking flight. She heard the high warble of its tiny voice in her mind. And the power danced upon her fingertips like soft, living flames and entered the broken body. There was a series of very soft snaps, a faint blue glow flashing out of the spaces between her fingers.
“Are you planning on keeping it?” Perry asked. “That’s evidence, you know. You should hand it over to the cops.”
Mary removed her left hand, knowing what she would see but hoping anyway. The little bird was whole, its head untwisted, its body sealed back up. The blood was missing. Its feathers were shiny again, and its beak was open, as if in silent song. But it was not alive. She could put a body back together, but, for some reason, she could not restore life once it was gone. It was a lesson she had already learned on more than one occasion from unpleasant experiments with road kill. Mary could try to put a dead body back together—sometimes she succeeded in mending the wounds, other times she blasted the body to bits—but even when she succeeded, she only wound up with an empty shell. She didn’t understand it, and she still had trouble accepting it. Even now, she held the bird for a few more seconds, wanting desperately to see its eyes open, to see that tiny chest move as it took a breath. But, no, it was gone.
She grabbed a napkin and wrapped the dead bird it in, carefully folding the edges, and sat it on the corner of the table. She felt the barest hint of an ache in her arms, a glimmer of weariness passing through her mind like a faint fog. It paled in comparison to the disappointment she felt, like a hollow space eaten into her heart. She could not restore life. If the Lookers were as good as their word, if they killed any of her loved ones, she would be unable to bring them back. They were all still slaves to death. Somehow, having so much power only made the sting of it worse.
“Let’s all have another slice of cake, shall we?” Kristen asked. “Just carve around the spatters of blood and feathers.”
“Yuck,” Perry replied. “No thanks.” He rose from his chair. “Actually, I think I’m gonna just head on home.” He nodded at Mary. “Happy birthday and all. Sorry for the weird…thing that happened here.”
“Thanks,” Mary replied, listlessly.
“Aiden, I’ll, uh, talk to you later.”
Aiden paused in massaging Mary’s shoulders long enough to clap Perry on the back. “Sure thing, pal. Just do us all a favor and don’t talk about this to anyone.”
“What--about the bloody screaming guy? Everyone in the park heard it. It’ll be all over town in…” He glanced at his watch. “…oh, right about now.”
“Of course,” Aiden replied. “Just, you know, don’t be a spreader of the gossip.”
“I’ll leave that to Mrs. Fenster and her Corgi pups,” Perry said. “Later.”
He sniffed, adjusted his glasses and headed off toward Main Street.
“He’s gonna blab,” Kristen said. “You know that, right? He’s gonna blab to the first person he meets.”
“You’ve got to watch what you say around people, all of you,” Aunt Carole said. She produced a small trash bag from her purse, unfolded it and began to dump paper plates and cups into it.
“There’s nothing we can do to stop gossip if some Looker is going to run up screaming about Leonard Watt,” Mary said.
“That’s true, but we can still watch what we say,” Aunt Carole replied. She slid her hand under the remainder of the birthday cake. It was a sheet cake, far too big for such a small party, white icing and yellow cake on a cardboard platter. Five slices had been removed, about eleven slices remained, but she scooped the whole thing up and dumped it into the trash bag.
“Well, I guess that means the party’s over,” Kristen said.
“The party’s over,” Aunt Carole replied, jamming a fistful of mostly clean napkins in on top of the cake. “Sorry, Mary. It shouldn’t have been like this.”
“It’s not your fault, Auntie,” Mary said. She stood up and stepped away from the table. Suddenly, she wanted very much to be alone, away from people, out of the public eye. “I’m going for a walk.”
“Alone?” Aiden asked.
“No, you can come,” she said, favoring him with a smile, though it was half-hearted.
“I suppose it’s just the two love birds,” Kristen said, and Mary wasn’t sure if the sulky look was playful or not. With Kristen it was hard to tell where sarcasm ended and genuine bitterness began.
“Oh, please don’t mention birds,” Aunt Carole said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kristen said, waving her off. “It’s not a big deal. That’s how this whole boyfriend thing works. I get it. It’s fine.” And now she managed a smile that seemed genuine.
“Okay, I’ll see you later then.” Mary reached out and patted Aunt Carole. “Auntie, see you at home.”
“I’ll clean up and bring the presents,” she replied. “You go on ahead.”
And so Mary Lanham walked away from her own birthday party, and eyes were no doubt upon her, and whispers were no doubt already going forth. Once again, Mary was the target of strange people, what could she be hiding? That was how the gossip would go, she imagined. She skirted the edge of the park to avoid most of the stares and headed for Main Street. Aiden was at her side, as always these days, and he took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze—his way of letting her know that he understood her worry. They walked in silence all the way to Main Street, then crossed the road and headed up Neser Hill.
A warm summer breeze sighed through the trees, and low shadows spilled across the winding road. Aiden finally broke the silence.
“Should we have stopped him?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Maybe. It caught me off guard.”
“You were close enough to touch him. If you’d moved a little faster—”
“Yeah, but you know I don’t want to do that sort of thing anymore,” she said, and was she the tiniest bit annoyed at him for bringing it up when they had already talked about it many times? She did not want to use her power to hurt people ever again. He knew that.
“Well, not to hurt him then. Just to hold him in place somehow, so he couldn’t run away.” He gave her hand another squeeze. She understood it to be an unspoken apology.
“Maybe I should just give Leonard back to them,” she said. “He’s still out there.” She thought of Leonard Watt, the one who had kicked down her front door once upon a time and threatened her father with a knife, the lunatic in the long, gray cloak. She thought of the tree bark flowing around him like water, flowing into him, becoming him, leaves sprouting from his fingers, his hair becoming twigs.
“He’s gotta be dead by now,” Aiden said.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “I think aether fused him with the tree. I imagine he’s getting some kind of nutrients from the roots.”
Aiden grimaced at the thought. “Really? How can that be? I mean, biologically how does that work?”
“I have no idea,” she said. “That’s the strange thing about this power. If I am clear in my thinking, clear in what I’m trying to do, then aether fills in the details for me.”
“Interesting. How can aether fill in the details unless aether itself is somehow intelligent?”
“Maybe it is. I don’t know how it works or why. I only know that it does…most of the time. Sometimes it all goes wrong, especially when I’m uncertain or doubtful about what I’m doing. ”
They rounded a bend and saw the little house sitting back in a small clearing, a wall of trees behind and beside it. Aunt Carole’s battered old Chevy Malibu sat crookedly in the driveway, the back bumper covered in faded ski resort stickers from her years in Colorado. The house was looking rough, the paint on the trim cracked and peeling, loose shingles and black stains on the roof, but two things stood out—the front door with its fancy little brass door knocker and the living room window. They were both newer than the rest of the house and made it look that much worse by comparison.
“What about that little bird?” Aiden asked, after a moment’s pause. “If aether fills in the details for you, why didn’t it bring the poor thing back to life?”
Mary sighed. “I wish I knew. I pictured it whole and unharmed, spreading its wings and taking flight again, and the power went out of me. I think all of the organs were fixed, but somehow life won’t return. It’s like something—call it the soul, call it whatever you want—leaves a body at a certain point, and once it’s gone, nothing can bring it back.”
“Does a bird even have a soul?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just…like, a pathway in the brain or something that I can’t cross. Whatever it is, for some reason I cannot bring back the dead. That’s all I know.”
“That’s kind of sad.”
They came to a stop at the end of the driveway. Aiden slid his arm up around her shoulders and drew her close. In the three months they had been together, she had become very comfortable with the feel of him, the warmth of his arm around her.
“There will be more of them,” Aiden said.
“There will be more of them,” Mary echoed.
He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek, awkward and shy. It still embarrassed him, she could tell, and she found it all the more endearing.
“I’m sorry your birthday wasn’t more fun,” he said.
“It’s not your fault.”
“You always say that,” he said with a smile.
“It’s always true. You can’t take credit for every bad thing that happens to me.” And now she, too, was smiling, despite herself.
They stood there a moment longer, holding each other—clutching on for dear life as the shadows of a scarier world loomed somewhere in the distance—and Mary thought that this, if nothing else, made her birthday alright. But it was a moment she could not cling to. She had to think, and she had to prepare. She had once dared to believe that her enemies were all gone. Now she knew better. Sand on the seashore. Reapers without end.
“I think I’ll go in now,” she said, slipping out of his grasp. “I just want to be alone for a little while.”
“I understand,” he replied. “I’ll call you later.”
“Please do. Thanks, Aiden.”
She started toward the house, feeling the crunch of gravel beneath her shoes, the warm breeze pulling her long hair off her shoulders. Aiden let her get halfway to the porch before he called after her.
“Happy birthday, Mary Lanham!”
* * *