from the chapter “The Calm Before”
from “Imago” (Book 1 of the Fetch Trilogy)
copyright 2009, 2011 arrtemis sere
They arrived in different cars. Hers, a shimmering golden Lexus, and hers, a Green & White taxicab. They couldn’t have been farther apart as they eyed each other in the bumper-to-bumper sidewalk parking, sitting on opposite sides of the street and waiting for the other to make a move. Aurora knew she would lose this match of wills. She couldn’t afford to continue to wait for her whore of a mother to stop playing games, and she chuckled at the thought because, in truth, her mother was a well-paid, much-experienced bitch of the beat. The kids at school loved that. They had great fun with it.
At her expense.
Elsee had been an excellent mentor to Aurora from a distance, a deadbeat mother in every other instance. Aurora twirled a lock of her ruddy hair and peeled the paint of her mom’s shiny sedan with her glare. Her mom looked like a big-eyed pest from a distant planet in her oversized, trendy sunglasses. She wanted to grab her by her alien antennae and thrash her around. She couldn’t believe she was the spawn of such trash. And the cleavage, my GOD. Her mom never went anywhere without showing off the product, as if it was always for sale and the shelves were stacked and packed, just for you. If she learned anything from her mom, she learned that humility was more profitable.
And, judging by her mom’s brutal and painful history, Aurora’s route was safer, nine times out of ten.
“She’s waitin’ for you sweetheart,” the thick ‘stached cabbie said and clicked digits on his sleek, extra-expensive phone with all of the sweet features a fat, toothless, single wheeljockey desires.
Aurora envisioned a phoneful of porn, probably of pigtailed adolescents. And she wasn’t far from the truth. She was repulsed by the driver, but she didn’t want to leave her comfort zone. “She can keep waiting,” Aurora said and looked at the clock. The session was supposed to have started five minutes ago, and they obviously were running late.
The scruffy man rolled his sunken eyes. “Clock’s tickin’ Goldilocks…”
“Thanks,” she replied with a huff. Aurora was used to getting her way. Usually, people were intimidated by the prevalence of black attire and goth stylings, perplexed how a girl so radiant and so beautiful could be so completely dark. She gave him points for ending the discussion with one, complete dismissal. She didn’t have the resources to continue this war of stares with her mom; she had two bills cash and little beyond that.
It had been a very slow week so far at school. “Will you wait?”
“Are you kidding?” The cabbie grinned, punched buttons on his meter, and handed her a fare receipt. “Here’s my card. Call our number when you’re ready to go home. $23.30 princess.”
Aurora tightened the black lace scarf around her neck, as if to remind her fat friend how “unprincesslike” she was. The marks she hid from the world would obliterate any princess talk upon mere utterance of the topic. It did every time. But it also led to other questions. Questions that she was not ready to answer.
For herself or anyone else.
She grabbed her black canvas purse, as non-descript as a shadow itself, and fumbled for her wallet. She stuffed a wad of crinkled bills into the cabbie’s grubby hands, smiled as artificially as she could, and pushed open the cab door. A grumble of curses followed her exit as she clutched her black bomber tight against the autumn wind. A buck wasn’t a very good tip for the cabbie, and Aurora was aware of that. She’d spent most of her time in and out of cabs and was typically generous.
But not today. Today, the world was her enemy and everyone that inhabited it could not be trusted.
Aurora shuffled to the exquisite amber-glassed door of the thick brick building, named The Chapelle after the original designer who, ironically, hung himself in the basement just after the building was finished, never once shooting a glance down the walkway to her mom’s parking spot. It was bad enough she had to be with her for a whole hour, much less listen to her grovel about “how hard she tried to be a mom” and how “complicated her life is”. She’d get weepy, wipe her eyes with a lace handkerchief, blow her congested nose, and swell up like an irritated cyst. It was all bullshit to Aurora. She knew her mom well enough to know which emotions were real and which were fake. Her mom showed her dedication to family when she skipped town less than six months after the birth of she and her brother, leaving her parents to raise the young tots. If it weren’t for the murder of her parents and the kidnapping of her son fifteen years ago, Elsee probably would never have left Truth and Consequences and returned to the Twin Cities.
But, her mom did come back. Mostly. Something happened in the desert of New Mexico that changed her forever; older photos of her mom painted a very different picture, visions of a woman alive and vibrant and celestial, glowing with life and love.
The woman in the pictures wasn’t the Butterfly she knew. Aurora grew up in a muted and plastic world filled with expensive gifts and lavish memories, sponsored by her mother’s boyfriends. She accepted everything generously, but always wondered who her father was. She assumed her father was one of the men in her mom’s rotation, but the past was something they didn’t discuss. At all. Apart from the fact that the suitors were male, her mom had no interest in a relationship with anyone. Sure, each one of the men that called her “baby” thought they had a special connection, but her mom was not to be netted. Love was collateral damage to her, part of a world that was mired in heartbreak, frustration and complication. Her mom stayed away far away from love. It was the easiest answer. Less mess, less stress. An uncomplicated life.
And, most importantly, the past would stay buried.
The front door of iron and amber swung open with a squeak. Leaves swirled and trailed as Aurora entered into the foyer of the exquisite building. Majestic ironworks and large, towering palms stretched throughout the entryway, with the gentle trickling of a hidden fountain giving the whole room a lush and sedgy feel. It was impressive and beautiful, but nauseatingly overdone. Aurora really wanted to vomit in one of the plant stands, just to prove how plastic and counterfeit the Chapelle’s well-manicured lobby was. But she didn’t. If there was a chance that she could’ve vomited in such a directed outpour that it would overrun the edges of the plant stand, stream silently and slimily through the elevator bays and into the lobby, and trip up her mother upon her entrance into the building, sending her synthetic figure and silicone punching bags sprawling to the cold, dirty floor, she would’ve considered defacing the public place.
But scraped knees wouldn’t change the ways of the Butterfly. They both knew the low world well.
She pressed the glowing number 8 on the elevator keypad and listened as the box screamed downwards, its whining and whirling gears and cables screeched for a measure of autonomy it would never find. The Chapelle was an older office building, yet maintained well. Aurora was impressed by its marriage of wrought iron and vine, a modern attempt at mixing greenery and industry. The arrogance and self-importance of family counselor Barb Baroni aside, her building did have an exquisite interior decorator.
Then, the light changed as the shadow of a person approached the front door of the Chapelle. The whole lobby became a shade darker as the figure moved closer. Not wanting to deal with a tenant not named Barb Baroni, she pressed the elevator button again, hoping to speed the drop of the elevator.
The figure stopped before the front door and stood unmoving, its shimmering visage captured clearly in the amber glass. The image felt familiar, but she could not place its origin. It was too tall to be her mother, too lanky to be a classmate. While she wasn’t scared, she was definitely not in the mood to deal with a stalker hoping to score a sweet connection with an unprepared sixteen-year-old, in daylight no less. Both prepared and petulant, a combination which had led to her expulsion from high school a few weeks ago for attacking a cheerleader, Aurora became unnerved by the watcher. The Principal had called it an “attack”; Aurora saw it as justice. Elsee saw it as stupidity and scheduled family counseling sessions to help curb her daughter’s appetite for destruction.
But Aurora knew she set the cheerleader straight. There would be no further trouble or words between them. In fact, she felt like she gained respect through the encounter, even if it came at the heavy expense of fear. She pressed the elevator button again, hoping the urgency of her request was heard by the elevator elves in the Chapelle’s machinery. Fuck, she would’ve settled for a Keebler revolt at this point, anything to get the creaky lift to move faster.
Beyond the lobby, the dark figure did not move from the door. It stood still and silent on the other side, a tall blur in a brownish pane, watching her every move. She considered that now would be a good time to have a cell phone, that her off-the-grid lifestyle didn’t offer many options for dialing a savior in a time of need. Scanning the elevator bay, she realized that she was at a dead end, with the elevator banks her only visible method of escape. Her breath quickened as she realized she was trapped.
Faster and faster and faster until she was spinning.
And darkness, full and complete, consumed her. Her muscles felt tired and weary, drained from the stress of fear and…. something else. The darkness was thick and murky, with stale air hanging like failing cloud. The smell of soot, rot and expired life made her gag, almost sending her stumbling to the plant stand in her memory, from a place that was now ominously unfamiliar. She struggled for breath and, slowly, breath returned to her collapsed lungs.
Aurora tried to estimate how long she had been without air, and then realized that she wasn’t holding her breath at all.
She was being constricted.
“They call for his head milady,” a deep, solemn voice cut through the stillness.
Aurora shook her head, hoping the agitation would reorient her, but dizziness followed. She was someplace different now; the world itself felt older, slower and mercurial. The air moved with greater purpose and liberty, and the heartbeat of something distant and sovereign echoed in the obscurity. “I know,” she replied with words that surprised her, and with a huskier tone that was completely curious to her.
“What is your wish?”
Aurora was still not strong enough. Her balance wavered in the full dark. She remembered being pushed into a shadow-filled train tunnel once as a freshman dare. Football players and other blowhard athletes had lined the middle of the tunnel to freak the newcomers into respecting their power through fear. Only, she never made it to the other side. Her classmates searched for her for hours, and when they had given up hope of finding her, they reported her as missing. The authorities had tried to get a hold of her mom, but, as was typical on a Friday night, she was relatively unreachable. When she showed up at school the following Monday, she was questioned by counselors, police, teachers, friends… The attention brought an end to freshman hazing in the tunnels, but it also enlivened suspicion and awakened questions that Aurora worked painfully hard to keep buried.
A strong arm grabbed around her waist as she began to feel feint and kept her from collapsing. “Milady, are you alright?”
She strained to see who was holding her up, and could not through blurred vision. She could feel his strength rippling beneath the threads and armor and bindings that separated them, but try as she may, she could not identify the person that offered support. “Yes, I’m fine. Thank you,” she said and tried to stand on her own.
“He should’ve stayed dead,” the voice lamented from behind.
“Who,” Aurora asked between gasps for breath. Before an answer could be uttered, her strength gave out completely, sending her into a painful freefall toward the cobblestone floor as darkness overwhelmed her senses. She fell forward and, luckily, her collapse was broken by the soft, cold, unconscious, naked flesh of a man. It was a most uncomfortable pillow, but she felt an odd sensation as she drifted away: