Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Fire and Ice
Well, guys, this is the first time I am posting my own fiction here on Children of the Night-- but I hope it won't be the last. I hope this short story "Fire and Ice" will be the first in a very occasional series I'm calling "Deadtime Stories." This story was inspired by photos taken by my friend Tracey's daughters, Chloe Hollister-Lapointe and Willow Hollister-Lapointe, and their friend Maedya Kojis, so huge thanks to them for sharing some of those photos here. And huge thanks to you for reading!
Fire and Ice
by Laura Bradley Rede
I wake up at two a.m. to the smell of something burning. Shivering in my quilt, I roll off the futon couch and stumble the few feet to the kitchenette. Nothing. The microwave is empty, the toaster unplugged, the oven off. Yawning, I head for the Christmas tree. It’s plastic, after all, and covered in second-hand lights, so it’s a holiday miracle that it hasn’t gone up in flames already. But the tree is fine, the tinfoil star on the top twinkling peacefully.
I sniff the air. Still smoke.
Is mom sneaking a cigarette? She sometimes does when she’s stressed out, which is essentially always. I poke my head into her room, ready to scold her, but she’s tangled in the covers on her own futon, safely sleeping behind the barricade of boxes we haven’t bothered to unpack. I stand and look at her for a minute. It’s weird to see her so calm. Her face doesn’t look like her face without the wary crease between her eyes. Usually she’s so vigilant; I’m surprised the smell of smoke didn’t wake her. It makes me wonder if I’m having one of my little psychic things.
But just when I’m starting to worry, a siren screams past our building and I know that the fire isn’t all in my head. I push aside the shade in time to see a second engine flash by. A few blocks away the fire glows like a false dawn. Above it the smoke stretches upwards like a dark thread threatening to unravel the city below.
I feel a wave of guilty relief. There really is a problem.
And for once it isn’t mine.
By the next morning I’ve forgotten all about the fire. I grog out of bed, sleep through my shower, and toss on clothes to match my mood: black on black on black. Back in the kitchenette I help myself to two cups of coffee—also black, as black as my jeans, as black the sky outside. My mother hates it when I drink coffee. “Sabine,” she says, “You’re only sixteen. And you, of all people, can’t afford to stunt your growth.” She’s right, of course, although we both know that it’s the Faery blood that makes me small for my age.
And I’m free to stunt all I want this morning. My mother is still fast asleep, exhausted from working late. She used to try to have breakfast with me to “keep the lines of communication open,” but lately she’s pulling extra shifts, squirreling away money for something secret. A Christmas present for me, no doubt—which I guess should make me happy, except for the fact that I know it’s sort of a consolation prize to make up for the fact that she has dragged me to frigid Minnesota, a world away from my life in New York. My real school. My real friends.
And Hawthorn. Most of all him.
I sip the last of my coffee slowly, trying to store away some of its warmth for my long walk to school. Against my better judgment I turn on the radio weather report but I’ve missed the temperature. Instead the meteorologist is going on about the limited hours of daylight and I realize that tonight must be the Winter Solstice. It’s shocking how out of touch I am. Back in New York I would have been prepping for Solstice for weeks. There would have been rituals and raves and Court functions to attend. Here it feels like just another ordinary day.
I glance in the mirror on my way out the door. Once upon a time I would have bothered with makeup. Today I just scoop my shoulder-length hair into its usual pony tail. The blue dye that used to match my eyes so perfectly has faded to a sort of aqua and the blond has grown out above it. I suppose I should dye it some other color, but I just don’t have the heart. Hawthorn suggested the blue.
Outside I bury my face in my parka, pull my hat low and walk like the Minnesotans around me: eyes on the icy sidewalk, gloved fists clenched, shoulders stooped under the weight of winter.
Which is why I am almost on top of it before I see it, sitting right in front of me like a present: The burned-out hull of what was the Fulton Furniture Warehouse. It is completely gutted, utterly destroyed.
It is also the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
It’s clear that the firefighters tried to save it. They must have sprayed it down with about a billion gallons of water—all of which froze. Now the blackened skeleton of the building is entirely coated in a shining layer of ice. Icicles—some tiny as needles, some thick as tusks—hang in gleaming stalactites from the burnt out beams. The front display window is a gaping hole lined with icicles and razor shards of glass, like the triple rows of teeth on a shark. The sign above the hole has melted and warped, red plastic running into the milky snow like blood.
As I stand there, staring, the first light of day breaks between the buildings and it looks as if the warehouse is on fire again, frozen fire, sparking tongues of flame caught mid-leap. Screw school, I think. Pushing aside the yellow caution tape as if it were a cobweb, I step through the empty door.
Inside is like a crystal cave. I wander from room to room, admiring the damage. The first few rooms are hollowed out by fire but further in some of the furniture has survived. Ice makes abstract sculptures of the melted plastic chairs, like centerpieces for some grotesque wedding. A wrought iron light fixture has been transformed into a crystal chandelier. Frost paints lace on a glass table top. The pendulum of a grandfather clock hangs still, suspended like a bug in white amber. But there is still a steady ticking, the drip drip drip of water from icicles like venom from fangs, which makes me wonder if the fire is still smoldering somewhere in the heart of the wreckage. The sound makes me strangely sad. I want to talk just to drown it out, just to watch my breath bloom reassuringly in front of me. “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice…” They are the first lines of a poem we learned in English class back in New York. I smile remembering the poet’s last name: Frost. “From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire--”
“But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate….”
I freeze. I would know that voice anywhere. I hear it in my dreams. “Hawthorn.”
I turn and there he is, sitting in a charcoaled arm chair like a prince on a dark throne. He smiles at me, the beautiful, crooked smile I remember so well from New York. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed you.”
His breath doesn’t plume when he speaks, but I know that it would if he wanted it to. Hawth does an amazing impression of a human. I fell for it completely the first time we met, totally believing that he was just the rumpled preppy boy who sat beside me in English lit-- maybe a little too good looking, maybe a little too smart, but I assumed completely human.
It’s hard to imagine that, now that he has abandoned the human thing completely. He looks nothing like he did the last time I saw him. Like everyone in the Faery Court, Hawth changes his appearance with the seasons, as easily as an arctic fox changes its fur. When I last saw him a year ago this fall his hair was warm cinnamon, his eyes the color of caramel apples. Now his hair is spiked short and so blond it’s almost white. His eyes are the pale blue of the sky before snow. Only his clothes are dark, the traditional black of Winter Solstice, the Victorian jacket and slacks so different from his usual jeans and t-shirt.
But his quirky half-smile is the same, and his voice is like coming home.
“Hawthorn, what are you doing here?”
He stands with that fluid Faery grace and takes a step towards me. “What am I supposed to be doing here, you mean? The Queen’s bidding, of course. What choice do I have?” There’s a bitter edge to his sweetly musical voice. “She saw this place in a dream and sent me to prepare a circle here for tonight’s revels. You know she can’t resist fire and ice. She’s greedy for beautiful things.”
Things like you, I think. Hawthorn is beautiful, even for his kind. If he weren’t would Queen Madhart have bothered to collect him the way she did? “Then,” I say carefully, “You are here on official business.” I try to sound casual, but I know he must hear the disappointment in my voice.
“No.” He takes a step closer, voice lowered to a whisper. “I came for you.”
Those are the words I’ve been waiting to hear, the ones he has said in my dreams a thousand times. So maybe my dreams were premonitions after all and not just wishful thinking. Still, I know it’s too good to be true. “You know what the Queen said. No liaisons with mortals. She threatened your life.”
We both know it’s not an empty threat. There is very little that could kill a Faery like Hawth. For a human to do it would take an iron weapon specially forged and enchanted for the purpose. There are only a few enchanters strong enough to make them. But for Queen Madhart, killing Hawth would be easy. She already owns his soul.
“No liaisons with mortals. The Queens hasn’t changed her mind. But…” He hesitates. “But I hoped that you might have changed yours. Sabine, there is enough Faery blood in your veins that you could survive the Change. If you chose to embrace it, to claim your magic--”
“And give up my humanity. Yes, I know. And I’ve thought about it. I really have. I barely think of anything else.”
I can hardly stand to extinguish the spark of hope in his eyes. “And I’m still not ready. I mean, life here sucks sometimes, but to give it up, to pass through the Veil completely and become something else, to watch my mom and my friends get old and die… It’s different for you. Faery is your world, and you can visit this one whenever you want. But once I pass through the Veil I can never come back to this world. And Faery isn’t my home.”
“It could be.” His voice is quiet. “Faery can be a beautiful place.”
Beautiful. And terrible. Hawth knows that as well as I do—better, really. I shake my head sadly. “I can’t.”
His face is full of pain. “If that is how you really feel.”
Is it? I’ve made the decision a thousand times over in my head, but now, looking at him, I find myself wavering. That’s certainly how I felt back in New York, when I had so much human life to lose: my friends, my aunts and cousins, my photography, even school. But my mom took me away from all that when she took me away from Hawthorn. Now I wonder if her plan has backfired. Trying to save my human life, has she screwed over everything that made it worth living?
But there is still her. Angry as I am at her, I love my mom. Could I leave her alone completely? This isn’t leaving for college or even running away from home. There would be no coming back.
Hawth sees the answer in my eyes. His own gaze drops to the icy floor. “Then I will have to be the one to change.”
“What?” His words catch me completely off guard, “What are you talking about?”
“There are ways, Sabine. Ways that a faery can become mortal. It isn’t easy. There would be pain. But it can be done. I had considered it before, as a way to escape my servitude, but there was never enough to motivate me. Until now.”
“You would do that for me?” I am thrilled and horrified at the same time. The thought that Hawthorn would love me enough to sacrifice his magic is more than I would have dared to hope. But the thought of him mortal and vulnerable, able to age and die… “The Queen would be furious,” I say, “She would hunt you down.”
Hawth shrugs. “She could do that now. As long as she owns my soul, I’m hers to do as she wishes.”
“But there are laws about killing Fae,” I say, “There’s protocol. But mortal life means nothing to her.” I should know. I’ve come close to being her prey many times over.
“But at least I die free,” He says. “At least I die with you.”
With me. My heart is screaming yes yes yes! But free? Sure, he would be free of servitude, but Hawthorn doesn’t know what it’s like to be mortal. How would he feel, trapped in a human body, his cells aging and dying all around him? The way he looks now—frost glittering in his white-blond hair, his skin smooth and shining like the surface of a frozen lake—he is so clearly a creature of magic. How could he stand to be an ordinary guy? How could I stand to see him become one? The shadows of the icicles fall across his perfect face like the bars of a cage. “No,” I say, “I don’t want you to.”
“What?” The hurt and surprise on his face make him look more human. “I thought you would be happy.”
I have to lie, for his sake. “The truth is, I was just starting to get over you. To move on. I can’t get dragged back into this whole thing. I… I just don’t have the energy.”
He lowers his gaze. Somewhere nearby an icicle cracks and falls, shattering like glass. It’s like the sound of a heart breaking. “As you wish, my lady. I’ve only ever cared for what you wish.”
What I wish. No, if things were as I wish, Hawthorn and I would be together forever. If they were as I wish he would take me in his arms and kiss me now.
Well, at least I can have part of what I wish. “Goodbye,” I say, and I kiss him.
His peppermint lips are cool, his arms around me solid as frozen ground, but they send a warm thrill through me that melts something in my core, something that has been frozen since the day I left New York. I can feel myself going liquid at his touch. The heat between us is enough to burn this building all over again and send the flames leaping even higher than they did last night. Fire and ice. Two things that can never coexist.
Two completely different worlds.
“You can’t have her.”
The voice behind me breaks the magic silence. I pull away from Hawth and spin around. “Mom!”
She is standing there, her winter clothes bundled hastily over her flannel pajamas, a huge iron sword in her hand. I understand too late that all my mother’s working and saving wasn’t for a Christmas present to impress me. It was for a weapon that could kill the boy I love.
I back away from Hawthorn. “It was a kiss goodbye.”
Of course she doesn’t believe me. I barely believe it myself. Her voice is quiet and sure. “You can’t just walk away from his kind. He has you enchanted, Sabine.”
“Mom,” I say, “It’s not like that with us.” But how can I convince her, after what she went through at my age? The Fae can be so cruel to mortals with the Sight, seducing and using and abandoning them like they are the groupies of some endless band. Nothing I say will change her mind.
And there’s no time for talking. Not now, with my mother gripping the giant sword in both hands like a baseball bat. To mortal eyes, the iron looks dark and clumsy, but as I shift into the Sight I see it in all its glory: flaming like a Solstice bonfire, so magically powerful it fills the dark warehouse with its light. It must have cost her a fortune, everything we have and then some. Anything to save her little girl from the one thing that makes me happy.
“Mom,” I say, “Put the sword down.” She’s no swordswoman, but it wouldn’t take much skill. Even one cut from a weapon like that would be enough to wound Hawth badly.
"I won’t.” Her face is dark and cold as the iron. “Not until he leaves us alone.”
Hawth’s hands are up in surrender. He keeps his voice calm. “I have no desire to come between you and your daughter.”
Hawth forces himself to look away from the threat so he can look me in the eye. His voice is quiet. “Is that what you want?”
I believe that even with his life at stake, Hawthorn would stay if I asked.
But I nod my head. “Yes. You should go.”
For a moment he looks every one of his two hundred years. “As you wish.”
And then, as suddenly as he came, the one good thing in my life is gone. All the warmth in my body seems to go with him and I am suddenly aware that I am standing in a cave of ice on the coldest day of the year.
But that isn’t why I’m shaking. The tears I’ve been holding back for months now threaten to freeze on my cheeks. My mother lowers her sword, takes off her knit scarf and wraps it tightly around me, using the edge of it to dab at my eyes. "There there," she says, "It's over."
Yes, I think, that’s what I’m afraid of.
That was almost a year ago and we’ve been everywhere since—Austin and Savannah, San Francisco and D.C.—anywhere we can lose ourselves.
But tonight I’m done running from my problems. Tonight I’m running towards them.
“Gonna be a long, cold night.” The guy in front of me turns around in his seat and gives me a nicotine-stained smile. “Kinda makes you lonely.”
Well, I could say, tomorrow is the longest night of the year. But I decide it’s better to just ignore him. He probably thinks I’m defenseless, a teenage runaway on a Greyhound bus. Well, I’m about as well defended as people get. I shift and feel the weight of the stolen sword in the bag across my lap. Its magic glows warmly in response.
“What?” The guy says, “You got a boyfriend?”
I look out at the frozen cornfields as they flash by in the dark. Almost to Minneapolis. “Not yet,” I say, “But I will.” As soon as I fight the Faery Queen and win Hawthorn’s soul back once and for all. I have a sword now. A sword, and a whole box of matches. And I know the Queen will come. Because, like Hawthorn said, she can’t resist the power of fire and ice.
Really, I think, who can?