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Excerpt for Daughter of Night by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Daughter of Night




By Sasha McCallum






Copyright 2018 Sasha McCallum

Smashwords Edition


Smashwords License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book please encourage your friends to download a copy from their favorite authorized dealer. Thank you for your support.


This is not erotica. This story is fictitious but it weaves mystical elements with sensitive, real subject matter which might upset some people. Characters, locations and incidents are the product of the writer's imagination, any resemblance to real people or events is coincidental.





Table of Contents

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


Part 1


I attended a seminar on anger early in my career - suppressed anger, aggressive anger, passive anger. Expressions of it in all its forms, as described by the experts.

Much of the audience would have been people from my sphere of employment, those who had dealt directly with the results of episodic aggressive outbursts as well as the long-term effects of suppressed anger. Occupational therapists, social workers, counsellors, addictions clinicians, a few CP investigators.

None of the speakers talked about personal experiences; they studied it objectively - labelled, categorized, medicated; treated. It was common, of course, to hear professionals disconnected; it was protocol and the system was broken. Lacking in every respect, I felt cheated by the lectures, they contained nothing I couldn't have read in my own time. I didn't want textbook, I wanted personal, I wanted something to assure me that my work, as sedentary as it felt sometimes, was worthwhile. I didn't know how I expected them to do this but looking around at the other listeners I thought maybe they felt the same - disappointed and trying not to yawn, pick their nails or play with their phones. I remember the urge to stand up and scream 'fakes!' but the system had me in its grip too.

In the end, it was through a very different method that my frustrations were abated, my qualms buried.

Two years ago I would have described myself as professionally overworked and emotionally repressed, a combination that did not result in a particularly gratifying physical state. I might have said I was dull and lifeless. I had secrets but none that were especially unique.

Late on a grey Wednesday in August that began to change. A deeper secret started to manifest, a secret that would switch from deep to dark as well. What started as a barely concealed romantic obsession would lead me into an experience that blew my humdrum reality apart. Though I still don't understand it completely myself, this is the story of those events.

I'd been dating Mathew for about three months and this particular night he was waiting for me outside my building when I arrived home; it was the first time he had done it and I felt a sinking feeling in my chest. He greeted me with a kiss and I smiled weakly back.

"You really should have texted me," I said. "Tonight is not a good night, I've had a horrible day."

"I can make it better for you," he countered cheerfully. "I'll give you a backrub, run you a bath."

It sounded nice but what it really meant was that he wanted a backrub, I knew from experience that his were half-assed and performed only as an obligatory excuse to get one from me. I didn't love him and when they got serious enough to surprise visit me on a weeknight, offering to cure my problems, it was time to back away. I know this makes me sound like a bitch but simple bitchiness only scratched the surface of truth. I had wrongly mistaken Mathew for just as emotionally unavailable as I was.

My normal instinct was to put my own needs aside, invite him in and give him the company he clearly wanted but something was different about that night, I wasn't in my usual pushover state of mind. I stood awkwardly with my bags which, I noted, he did not offer to help me with, a detail that particularly irritated me. He lived only a few blocks over so it wasn't cruel to just send him away. Tonight was not the night for a breakup scene. A difficult case at work had me tired and depressed and all I wanted was to be alone. Mathew would try to make me talk about it, the absolute last thing I wanted to do.

"Tomorrow night, maybe. I need to make some calls and get an early night ...to sleep," I told him. Not a total fabrication.

He held his hands up in surrender.

"Alright, alright," he said and leaned forward to kiss me briefly again. "Call me if you change your mind?"

"Will do," I agreed with a smile of relief and he ambled casually down the sidewalk.

It happened then, as I watched him walking away, holding my bags and despondent at the prospect of letting another nice-but-not-enough guy down. A moving truck hurtled around the corner of Plymouth and Lexington Streets, pulled over and slammed to a standstill at the loading area a few inches from where I was standing. It was so loud and sudden, tearing into my abstraction, my grip loosened in surprise and one of the bags I held dropped to the pavement. I cursed under my breath. Ignoring the burly men getting out of the front of the truck, I crouched to scoop the contents back into their place.

From the corner of my eye I saw a hand reach out to grasp a packet that had rolled further away and for a moment I assumed they were going to run off with it - just my luck.

"It's mine," I snapped loudly.

"I can see that," a woman's voice told me smoothly and moved closer. She held it out as I rose and looked at her.

It sounds farfetched, but I'm sure I felt something inside me shift the second I saw her face. Staring, I took the item and dropped it into a bag without concentrating on what I was doing. It fell straight back to the ground and the woman, who was paying less attention to me and more to the activity going on around the van, frowned and bent to pick it up again.

"Sorry," I said clumsily and watched her push it into the bag herself. I couldn't take my eyes off her. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," she replied, still not looking at me.

"This is the last of it, just a few boxes," one of the moving men called to her as he slid the back door of the truck open.

"Yes." She moved toward them and I watched motionless, all of my previous depression forgotten.

Why the instant attraction I couldn't really grasp; maybe, like an animal, I sensed there was something different about this woman. She was pretty but a lot of people were and even if my same-sex tendencies weren't controlled with an iron fist, she was the complete opposite of my usual type. I had a history of going for dark hair and eyes, while this woman was blonde, her eyes a piercing blue. Besides which, aside from helping me with my parcels, and in doing so making me feel a fool, she had almost totally ignored me, had not even met my gaze. This was something I was unaccustomed to; I drew attention, at least from people seeing me for the first time. Was I in a masochistic mood? Her lack of interest intrigued me.

Feeling like an idiot for simply standing there, I pulled my gaze away and fumbled to get into the building and my first floor apartment. I saw boxes on the second floor landing above and my stomach jumped into my throat when the blonde woman followed the moving men in and led them up the stairs.

It was one thing for her to be in a neighboring building but to have her right upstairs from me? That was another. I had known that number 5 was vacant; I'd heard work being done at odd hours and then for the past week, nothing. Inside, I greeted Gene and unloaded my bags but could not think about relaxing for the night; couldn't distract myself from the woman's pristine image. I had to investigate. Normally I ignored neighbors, kept more to myself that anyone else in the building but this was different. My initial reaction to her must be false; an introduction would lay my mind to rest - she would turn out to be quotidian and I could relieve myself of her company quickly and continue my boring night in peace. I locked my door and ascended the stairs in a worrying state of excitation. When I reached the top the two movers were just leaving.

"You need anything else, give us a holler," the larger one yelled.

"Thanks guys," I heard the woman call from the depths of number 5 and the older man winked at me as we passed each other. I approached the door which stood open, inviting and knocked on the side of the frame cautiously. She emerged from an inner room, all honey-colored hair, creamy skin and bright eyes.

"Hello," she greeted mildly and moved toward a dark stained mahogany table on which two boxes sat. I peered around; the dining and living areas were open plan and a view through to the recently renovated kitchen was relatively unobstructed from where I stood.

"They've got this place looking good," I commented. "I never saw it before all the work though."

"It's comfortable," she agreed, rummaging with her things.

"Is it one bedroom or two?"

"I live alone if that's the purpose of your question," she said, smiling into a box.

I had yet to respond to her greeting or to introduce myself and it struck me as strange that she was willing to reveal she lived alone first. But it had been the reason I asked and the furtive smile on her rosebud lips was ...yummy.

"I saw you downstairs." It had been a long time since someone's mere presence had done this to me.

"Yes," she nodded. "You dropped your birth control pills. Twice." And another smile.

Fuck. Was that what it was? I had not been paying attention.

"I wanted to meet you properly. I'm Eden, I live in number 3." She still didn't look at me and I was fully embarrassed for the few moments that lapsed before she answered.

"Directly below me," she mumbled then lifted her head. "You're going to hear noises." She caught my eye for the briefest of moments. "Don't call the police."

"Ah." I raised my brows but she had turned back to her boxes. It had to have been a joke, a woman with a black sense of humor. Unfortunately my interest was not being laid to rest as expected. "Do you have a name?"

"Sarah."

She didn't seem like a Sarah, but I couldn't think what she did seem like. I watched as she began pulling lap tops and desk top components out of a box - some of the equipment I could not identify.

"That's a lot of hardware. Are you a technician?" I asked and she narrowed her eyes at me, as if to say 'what's it to you?' It stunned me how good it felt to have her even glance my way, I wanted more but she was a surprisingly inattentive person. I'd never been one of those women who wanted things just because she couldn't have them - my very first feelings on meeting Sarah.

"I'm an art historian," she sighed, as if she bored herself.

"Are you new to the city?"

"Not exactly."

I was going to ask her to elaborate when another knock came from the open door and I turned to see Rico, the married man from the fourth floor peering in at me then refocusing on Sarah as she looked toward him, waited for what he wanted.

"You shouldn't leave your boxes on the landing. I'll help you with them for a coffee?"

I watched as Sarah went to the open door, stood close but didn't look at him; her head was down as if she was more interested in the polished floor.

"No, thank you," she said and shut the door right in his face.

"Um..." I stammered, surprised.

"The boxes are empty anyway."

"That's Rico, he's always hanging around, watching."

"Like you are?"

"Well..." Dammit, she was right, I was being weird. "Would you like me to leave you alone?"

"You're not bothering me."

But Rico did? She had gone to him, as if she was judging the vibes coming off him. She had made a decision she didn't want him around or even to be polite but I was allowed to be here watching her unpack? She was good at that, making people feel either special or terrible. Well, making me feel special simply by accepting my attendance and no one else's. I always made an effort to at least be polite to Rico but she didn't feel the need. Right from that first day she had decided I was okay, and in doing so, hooked my curious and receptive heart.

"Have you met Rico before?"

"I have a superb sense of smell."

"Really?"

"No. But he's got potential. If he tries anything I'll chop his balls off with a lathe hammer," she told me and began pulling cords from her box.

My eyes widened involuntarily. I didn't know what a lathe hammer was but assumed having ones balls chopped off with one would be nasty. I'd never heard such things from a relative stranger. Even the words might not have been so unusual if they had been accompanied by a chuckle or a smile, but she said them with a calm, slow certainty, like she knew things no one else did. If a little creepy, Rico seemed mostly harmless to me.

"Are you a bit psychotic?" I ventured, wanting to engage but also genuinely wondering if she was.

"Yes, probably," she nodded, without expression and she sealed my fate. She didn't know me from Eve but she obviously didn't care what I thought of her. Or maybe she liked certain people viewing her in certain ways. Questions began to formulate in my mind, the kind of questions I'd never asked myself about anyone outside of work. Never cared enough.

I tried to observe the apartment instead of staring at her as she fiddled with her belongings but my thoughts were far from the decor.

"You don't look like an art historian named Sarah." I hadn't really meant to say it out loud but it was true, it couldn't have been more discordant to the impression she gave off. As soon as the comment left my lips a few different caustic responses occurred to me, but she didn't give any of them.

"You don't look like a warrior," she offered instead, confusing the hell out of me. One of the lesser reasons I found this statement odd was that I hadn't seen her look at me properly yet.

"Warrior?" I asked, wondering if I'd misheard her. "Perhaps that's because I'm not one."

"Ah, a warrior unaware of what she is," she chuckled for the first time, but I couldn't enjoy it.

"I don't... Are you making fun of me?"

"No," she stated categorically, only increasing my confusion. "You fight."

"I should go, leave you to it," I said and headed for the door.

I was embarrassed. I didn't know this woman, had intruded on her privacy long enough. I was also slightly insulted - the warrior remark had thrown me out of orbit, as if I wasn't already.

She told me it was nice to meet me as she continued her activities and I slipped out of the apartment, down the stairs and locked myself safely back inside my own inner sanctum. My goal in going up there to settle my mind had failed miserably and I spent the night replaying the conversation at number 5.

As I went over Sarah's words my discomfort slipped away. It was the warrior part that had bothered me most but it occurred to me later that there was nothing inaccurate about it. I fought every day in my own way; a constant struggle for the rights of victims. That she could tell this without asking anything about me was eerie. I sincerely hoped it wasn't as simple and ugly as seeing the stress of my job written in lines on my face. My embarrassment switched character, I was ashamed of my ignorant reaction, my need to escape.

Lying in bed I found myself listening intently for these 'sounds' she had warned me of, waiting for them, but I heard nothing, not even the creaks the last upstairs tenants used to produce as they walked across my ceiling. I fell asleep easily but dreamed of work - bruised faces trapped behind mountains of paperwork.

When I sat at the kitchen table in the morning with my decaf the usual crowd of thoughts assaulted my brain. I have to see little Bevan at 9.30 with his mother. It won't go well. Will it rain today? Must take the umbrella just in case. Should I try to eat something? I'm not really hungry yet. I feel like chocolate. Does chocolate have caffeine in it? I haven't called Dex for a while, I should do that tonight. I still haven't heard any sounds from upstairs. I wonder what Sarah's morning routine entails. And once her image was in my head it was stuck there for the day.

I went back that evening of course - she had me ensnared already. I went with the vague plan to apologize for excusing myself abruptly the day before but when I knocked on her door, saw her beautiful face again, and was allowed entry so easily, I realized she had not been offended, she was oblivious to my turmoil.

The apartment, which had seemed unnaturally light and airy the night before was darker now, in more ways than one. She had been busy, the white walls around the dining table, which was still strewn with her computer equipment, were hung with dark posters and printouts of paintings, all of them morbid to varying degrees.

She greeted me with a gentle smile then sat down at her computer again, outwardly insouciant to why I was back, leaving me to study the walls in silence. I was drawn to a 22"/24" sized print of Massacre of the Innocents by Matteo di Giovanni.

"So, you're an art historian," I led as I stared at the depiction.

"Yes."

"Are you religious?"

"No," she answered simply.

"Why all the Christian imagery then?"

"Not all of them are. Do you find them vulgar?"

"I'm not sure such quality could be termed vulgar."

"Are you an art person?"

"I can appreciate the beauty even in the macabre. But there's a strange theme going on here." I turned from the detail of the poster and observed her. "It makes me wonder about you."

"As you can see, they are cheap copies, not for decorative value." She looked around at the variety of icons hanging on her walls, almost as if she herself was offended by them. "They keep me focused. One day, I won't need them."

"Focused on what?" I asked curiously.

"The malevolence is applicable to what we encounter on a daily basis; they are valid representations of exactly how evil we can be, both as individuals and as a supposedly civilized culture. It's important to never forget, this is the world we live in."

"Yes," I agreed and stared at her. She didn't say these things as if she were informing me, but rather like she herself needed reminding by saying them out loud. Her refusal to answer the question directly made me think this wasn't about what she did for a living. This was something else. "I heard this quote once 'Life is a shit storm and when it's raining shit, the best umbrella you can buy is art.'"

"I like that one," she smiled. "A bit coarse but still relevant."

"How did you know? That I fight?"

"It's psychology, isn't it?" She brushed the question aside with a smile, mischievous dimples appearing in her cheeks. "We all fight."

"I work for the Department of Social Services," I said and she nodded but did not ask for details.

She got up and moved toward a smaller image closer to the kitchens entrance.

"This one might interest you," she said and I wandered over. The painting was of a man in a loin cloth, struggling up a cliff face with an enormous object on his shoulders. "Sisyphus by Titian. Do you know it?"

"No."

"According to Greek mythology Sisyphus was a King punished by the Gods to push a huge rock up the side of a hill. Every time he reached the top the rock would roll back down again, he would have to repeat this task for all eternity."

"It's horrific."

"Yes. Some people believe it is a metaphor for life, the human condition. That here we are all sinners banished to a life of toil without reason."

The hairs on the back of my neck prickled and I turned from the picture to stare at her, only inches away.

"Is that what you believe?"

"No. I keep this to remind me of its self-defeating futility. It is too easy to lose sight of an end goal." She met my gaze all too briefly. Her irises were darker on the outside, paler moving inward so that the contrast against her pupils was stark, disconcerting. She returned to her table and computers and I remained dumbstruck, her words cutting into the pulsing heart of my work frustrations.

"You shouldn't think that though," she continued clicking at her mouse, screen not in view. "There is an end for everything. We are here to define those ends."

"Do you have some kind of sixth sense?" Under the circumstances I thought it was a perfectly legitimate question but Sarah only laughed without looking at me.

"We all do," she said, attempting to throw me off her scent, but I wasn't so easily swayed. I could play games too.

"Who's we?" I asked and she looked pensive.

"We are many different things, difficult to define precisely out of context. How would you define yourself?"

I couldn't think of an answer, quickly her game became superior to mine. I could refuse to play or allow her to dictate even my own moves. At that moment I felt weak, ineffectual.

"Any way you define yourself, resorting to Sisyphean defeat isn't the answer," she said firmly and again I stared, wide-eyed.

"What about these others?" I asked, for want of anything better to say.

"You mustn't kill babies either," she said with a smile and I relaxed marginally. I realized Sarah was easiest to be around when I wasn't taking her too seriously.

"It's alright to slaughter adults though, right?" I asked. "If not, I'll have to change my plans for the week."

"Some people need to be removed from the world."

"Interesting way to describe murder." Another picture caught my eye on the far wall and I moved closer. Three female figures shrouded in white and surrounded by blackness; it was more modern than the rest and almost photographic. "This one's different."

"Like it?"

"Yes, it's less tortured than the others."

"They are the Norns of Norse mythology; supernatural entities who rule the fate of Gods and men, spinning the thread of life and death. Synonymous with many cross-cultural parallels - the Greek Moirai, even the Three Witches from Shakespeare's Macbeth."

"Do you believe in reincarnation?" I said, still entranced by the figures. I hadn't intended to ask such a thing but the idea had been on my mind lately and given what we were talking about I was interested in her thoughts.

"Sometimes." She had this strange habit of going completely still and looking into the blank space in front of her, it was as if she wasn't there for a moment. "It's possible we're sent back again and again until we get it right."

"So you do believe we're sinners being punished?"

"No, I don't think it's that simple, or that bleak. Our lives here could be viewed more as a classroom or a training ground and everyone has different lessons to learn."

"You think we're being watched?" I asked and she shrugged.

"Maybe they don't have eyes so they're not going to care about the special relationship you have with your shower head or the toys you keep in your bedside drawer but they might get pissed about cruelty."

I stifled a snort which came out anyway as a kind of awkward squeak, blushed and tried to stay on topic.

"Why is there no communication with them? No knowledge?"

"We have to earn our way to their level. And we have to earn it without knowing what we're trying to do, that's why we're born with no memory."

"You mean like, if we knew what we had to do, there would be some level of deception involved?"

"Exactly. The changes we make need to slice right to the core, no bullshit allowed. If we know what our goal is, humans will bend every rule they can in order to get to it. Best they reach their target without knowing what it is."

The strangest thing about this exchange was that I understood what she was saying. I didn't know if she was crazy; even taken totally seriously her theories were no worse than your average zealots.

"Most of the time I'm convinced we're living in a computer simulation," I said wistfully.

"Yes," she agreed. "It seems unlikely that we'll ever be able to understand what's out there in space, let alone get to it."

"Because it's a mirage?" I asked and she shrugged again. "How old are you?"

"Breaking protocol? I thought we might just stick to unconventional conversation."

"You look young but you don't act it," I commented.

"I'm pushing 30. You?" She didn't ask as if it was a question she needed an answer to, just one that was expected of her.

"I'll be 28 in January. Scary."

"Why?"

"I haven't done anything."

"What would you like to do?"

"That's the really sad part," I said gloomily. "I don't even know."

"I don't believe you," she stated, staring at her screen. "I think you know."

"Maybe. At least I need to feel alive again."

I was late to Mathew's door that night but I don't think he minded. The feel of his physical body beneath mine had never had such an effect on me. My eyes were closed though, and in the blackness behind their lids a piercing blue looked back at me.

"Whoa, babe," Mathew gasped and turned to me with a huge grin. "Where did that come from?"

It was her, I knew it. I wasn't one of those women so deluded they didn't even know they wanted other women - I knew, I just refused to give over to it. Sex with men had always come with a generous dose of guilt. Guilt that was in the process of sharpening dramatically. It was a lie, I knew most of the boyfriends I'd had would be hurt, or at least insulted, if they realized what I was really thinking about - that a big part of me was somewhere else. I wondered if sex with a woman would be free of guilt, or if it would only change shape.

I didn't stay at Mathew's, I made my excuses and left. I wanted to spend the night beneath her, listening for her sounds.

I'd always kept my feelings for women strictly closeted. I guarded them closely since they first surfaced when I was a teenager. My family were bigoted and my experiences with friends weren't that much better. Things had changed since, naturally, but I was in deep; the habit of keeping a boyfriend around to be sure no one suspected my sexuality continued. I liked men, I got along well with them, generally better than the needy, clingy women I knew. As the lie continued and grew with each passing year so did my guilt over it. I would never be able to get rid of my feelings for women and I was way off if I thought men were a sound substitute. But I was so used to it, living that fallacy, and once a prejudice has become ingrained it's hard to overcome.

By the time Sarah entered the picture I was at a point where the scales were tipping heavily in favor of changing my lifestyle. I couldn't continue using men and hating myself the way I was. I preached tolerance in every aspect of my professional life but I didn't have the courage to practice it when it came to my personal one. I wasn't interested in playing the lesbian field, I think I just wanted to fall in love; and there Sarah was.

Always waiting until darkness fell, I began visiting number 5 regularly. Sarah never demanded I talk about work or my private issues, she was easy to be around. She didn't seem to mind my visits, showed little interest but never turned me away. She dismissed me only when she had to leave the apartment for something - a Muay Thai training session, a self-defense class, a late slot at the shooting range. For weeks I was sure she was kidding when she mentioned these things, that she was probably going to the grocery store or to visit a friend. I learned quickly that my delicately probing questions, intended to get 'normal' information out of her, would not be successful and began to wonder if she had any normal attributes. It was hard to tell when she was joking but I never picked up on an actual lie from her; if she didn't want to answer a question, she just didn't.

Quite early in life I'd assumed the role of caretaker, an automatic thing I fell into with my younger siblings, friends, boyfriends, even my parents. It was the type of person I was, I had even made a career out of it. I was drawn to Sarah for reasons that went consummately against my usual. She didn't need me, not for anything. She didn't need help, reassurance, validation, protection, someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on. She never seemed curious about why I visited her, often continuing whatever she was occupied with at the time; fiddling on her computers, shuffling with her printouts and notepads. She rarely looked at me but I could always count on her to understand what I said without going into detail and to offer something bizarrely insightful in return. She gave off the sense that with or without my presence was fine by her. Which made her company irresistible to me.

It wasn't until about three weeks after my visits started that I followed her into her bedroom one day without really thinking about it. We were in the middle of one of our weird back-and-forth's, so of course I followed her when she wandered out of the room.

"This quote 'It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all'; what do you think of it?" she asked immediately after my arrival, staring at her desktop screen. She did insist on launching into the most difficult questions, pontificating on subjects I rarely thought about before her. Without even saying hi or how are you first.

"I suppose it depends on whether you want to face great pain or to remain empty," I replied.

"You think without love there is only emptiness?"

"Honestly, I'm the last person able to give any accurate conjecture on such a topic."

"You are human, you feel love; and I don't ask for accuracy, only subjective theory," she smiled mysteriously. The smile that affected me deeper every time I saw it. Why did she speak about love now? With me? I sat down at the table uninvited and tried to think of an appropriate response.

"A hypothetical question," she announced in response to my silence. "Would you risk prison, becoming a social pariah, to perform a morally just act?"

"Our laws are generally moral."

"With or without law, good and bad happen."

"If the crap hit the fan I'd like to think I would be willing to make sacrifices for my principles, yes."

"Many people's principles are questionable," she said quietly, staring at her wall. "But yours are untarnished."

Untarnished? Her comments often made me feel warm, while at the same time raising another ten questions in my mind. Asking her these questions proved fatal; she fed my confusion into a positive feedback loop.

"You act as if you already knew the answer. Why ask if you know?"

"Conversation?"

"Damn, you're annoying," I said with a shake of my head. "I think deep down you're a mystic."

She looked at me funny then - actually looked at me. I twiddled my fingers anxiously under her penetrating gaze.

"Why do you say that?"

"You're searching for answers you can't find in society, philosophy, art, law. You're searching for answers you can't even find in science or religion. Hence - mystic."

She chuckled at me and finally averted her gaze.

"You're all good with me," she concluded and again I felt warm.

"Don't you consider yourself spiritual?"

"The subject of what happens after death isn't my business. It's here we have to worry about."

"Why isn't it your business? We all die."

"Death schmeth."

I narrowed my eyes and studied her.

"What is it that worries you here?" I tried.

"Bad decisions. Bad people."

"Bad people can make good decisions and vice versa."

"There are certain decisions from which redemption is impossible. You have a remarkably positive attitude for someone in your line of work. Is it a cover?"

"Without it I might wither and die," I admitted and she looked thoughtful.

"What about killing very different birds with the same stone. Do you think it's possible?" she asked. She talked in code so often I was getting used to these kind of questions.

"I believe in laziness," I said and she laughed.

"I'm not talking about laziness, but rather proficiency," she quipped.

"Women are great multi-taskers so... What are you referring to? What birds?" It had become common for me to stop in the middle of a discussion and question what we were actually talking about, even if only to myself.

"Love and hate," she replied simply.

"Sometimes not so divisible," I thought out loud.

"True enough," she agreed. I didn't understand how we had managed to bypass all regular routes for getting to know one another but it didn't bother me; instead it solidified my sense of kinship with her. "Betrayal and loyalty then?"

"One can easily lead to the other."

"Good and bad?"

"Also not mutually exclusive."

"Oh wow." She shook her head, rose from her chair and said, "You really have been here too long," then wandered down the hall. My eyebrows flew up and I followed her with the intention to get a proper answer about what she meant. Suddenly I was confronted with her bedroom as she crossed to a chest of drawers and fiddled in the top drawer. I swallowed when I saw her bed, all black sheets and pillows, and the topic of discussion drifted off my radar. I was about to back out of the room when I saw the objects on the top of the dresser and my eyes widened in surprise. She found what it was she wanted and turned, stopping when she saw the look on my face and followed my eyes.

"I thought you were joking," I said, not knowing how to react.

She was not fazed by my seeing them, she beckoned me over and I went.

"Sig Sauer P229. Smith and Wesson Shield 9mm. This one is the Beretta 92FS, standard issue for US military." She pointed to each as I stared. "Don't be scared, they're not loaded."

I wasn't completely unfamiliar with guns; my father had been a marine. At least two of Sarah's guns were compact enough to be considered concealed-carry weapons.

"Were you serious about the self-defense too?" I asked.

"Of course," she said simply and I followed her back out to the living area.

"Why?" I asked after she had settled back in front of her screen.

"Why what?"

"Why guns and Muay Thai? You don't seem the type, I mean, look at you."

"What's wrong with me?"

"Nothing, you're gorgeous, classy." Times like these I was hopeless, I couldn't express myself properly without hinting at both my attraction and my culturally challenged bias. I winced at my own idiocy, but Sarah was not in the habit of pointing out my weaknesses.

"All the more reason to learn to protect myself," she said. "You should learn yourself, the body alone has enormous potential to cause damage to someone trying to hurt you."

"Yeah…" Was that an offer? Besides the tingle of fear that went down my spine from her words I had a powerful urge to beg her to teach me. Maybe she would have to touch me.

"There are a lot of dangerous people in the world. You of all people know that."

"I get the feeling you're one of them," I said, still distracted by my thoughts.

"You know what they say about fighting fire," she smiled slyly and I had a slight mindgasm.

As if they hadn't been vivid enough, my fantasies about her catapulted after that. It was like she was two people, the art-historian who discussed philosophy and the martial-artist who owned guns. It occurred to me that there was a point these two people met - her constant preoccupation with distinguishing right from wrong, darkness from light. I didn't understand what any of it meant, but the possibility that she might be preparing or planning for some kind of exploit made my blood boil; I'd never fantasized about anyone the way I did her.

My interest in Sarah didn't lapse as the weeks went by. The ease of being around her offered respite from the tension of my day that I was slowly becoming hooked on. I found myself putting off more pressing matters - finishing paperwork, calling my mother, grocery shopping - so that I could make my nightly visit. I'd never known anyone I could talk to the way I did her; with a kind of disconnected intimacy we discussed pivotal things without going into detail. Death, sickness, emotion, history, belief, lack of belief, behavioral patterns, psychology - it was all on the table. She didn't just haunt my dreams physically, it was her opinions, her expressions, her laughter. It was the way she made me feel like I wasn't a lie.

It didn't happen all at once in some great breakthrough, but my attitude altered. First the guilt became more pronounced, especially since I was using Mathew more instead of following through with my plan to break it off with him that day on the street. And use was definitely the word for it - I avoided spending full nights at his place and never asked him to stay at mine. Why I couldn't just buy a sex toy I didn't know, but flesh is flesh.

Some nights when I went to number 5, Sarah wasn't home. I missed her, looked forward to when I could visit her again. I felt a tug when I did see her, a tug that became stronger. I often had to force myself out the door when I left, feeling an inclination to linger as long as possible. It was absurd, I pined after her like a lost puppy. I fell asleep imagining that she was pressed against my body, I dreamed of her through the night and my concentration at work was lagging as fantasy infected my days. It was the kind of thing that happened to childhood crushes not grown women.

I never mentioned her to anyone else. Aside from the strong sense that she wouldn't want me talking to others about her, I liked that she was mine alone. My secret, which was rapidly turning into the best part of my life.

One morning after a particularly vivid dream I glared at myself in the bathroom mirror. I'd never been dissatisfied with my looks, there was nothing wrong with me physically. My long, brown hair was thick and silky; so high maintenance I often thought about cutting it all off. My eyes were green, a gift from my father, and my olive skin was unlined as yet. But Sarah barely looked at me.

I considered the probability she was totally straight. Aggressive hobbies aside she was overtly feminine. I found her constant high dress standard both intimidating and incredibly sexy. Even from that first day moving in, messing around at home, leaving the apartment for one of her classes, she stayed close to casual maxi and sheath dresses. I'd even seen her scrubbing her kitchen floor in a pencil skirt and button down shirt once. Did she own any sweatpants? I couldn't quite picture her doing martial-arts training in a dress.

Who scrubs their kitchen floor in work clothes? I'd spent an embarrassingly long time watching her backside that night while she mumbled about executions throughout history and tried to extract an opinion from someone whose thoughts were elsewhere. She seemed to have these hyperactive moments, when she was performing a task in a slight frenzy and her speech became more convoluted, more insistent. I liked catching her at these times, she was human, vulnerable.

So, yes, maybe she was straight. But I'd known plenty of straight girls who still admired my features. And I'd never seen Sarah look at anyone else properly either, she was equally disinterested in everyone - an observation that either comforted me or deepened my frustration depending which angle I came at it from. As far as I knew, I was the only other person she allowed into her apartment. I'd never seen her have a visitor, never even heard her talk on the phone or to someone out on the street. At times I wondered if she was a figment of my imagination, but then Rico would ask annoying questions about her at the mailboxes and I knew she was real.

It hit me then, peering at my mirror image critically - I was boring. It would take something other than physical beauty to capture Sarah's attention and I simply didn't have it. Recognizing this deficiency in myself was just another part of the slow decline of my self-esteem due to dishonesty, I realized this later, away from my condemning gaze. Changing the root cause of the problem meant working towards telling the truth.

This was of great worry to me, the idea was scary and when Mathew rung my buzzer that night I let him in quickly, welcoming the distraction from my petty torment. But it didn't work. It wasn't his fault of course, but he was part of the problem and having him there wasn't helping. I enjoyed listening to him mess around on my decks for a while but when we got into the bedroom all I could do was stare at the roof and wonder why I was here instead of up there visiting.

He rolled off me.

"Okay, what is up with you?" he asked. "The last few times you couldn't get enough and tonight you're just lying there like you're waiting for me to finish."

He was angry and that made me impatient, pushed me over the edge I was tottering on.

"And apparently you're not going to," I said. "You should go."

"What the fuck, Eden? Have I done something wrong?"

"I'm not in the mood."

"Women," he snorted, got up and started pulling his jockey's and jeans on. The prospect of him leaving without protest cheered me slightly.

"You didn't do anything wrong. But..." I took a deep breath. "You and I, we should call it quits." Best to tear the band aid off fast.

"Hey, wait a second. It's one bad night." He looked at me with concern but thankfully continued buttoning his shirt. "I shouldn't have been rude. Say you don't mean that."

"I do mean it," I said without looking at him.

"Okay, look, I'll call you tomorrow when you're feeling better. We'll sort it out then."

I didn't speak to him again as he saw himself out. I didn't like the idea of a further confrontation but my mind was made up, I wasn't going to chicken out this time.

It didn't really matter if Sarah didn't want me; I couldn't deny my feelings anymore, I'd reached a point where I wouldn't be able to take care of other people until I paid some serious attention to my own problems.

For the first time observing women from a distance wasn't enough. I wanted to touch the fantasy, kiss it; give myself over to it completely. I didn't know how I would do it, if I could do it, but breaking up with Mathew seemed a good place to start.

When he knocked on my door the next evening without calling first my heart sank; I wasn't big on hurting people, but I knew he would be better off finding someone who could give him what he wanted. This needed to happen.

He leaned forward to kiss me in the doorway and I dodged the kiss. His expression fell and I gestured for him to come in; I didn't want an audience, even if it was only a loitering Rico.

"You're still pissed at me?" he asked as he followed me into the kitchen and gave Gene, sprawled on the floor a curt pat.

"I'm not pissed at you," I stressed. "But we are over. I can't be with you anymore."

He ran his fingers through his dark hair, shut his eyes and puffed out heavily.

"Why?" he asked.

"I've got …issues, Mathew, I can't give you what you want."

"What is it you think I want?"

"Equal opportunity?"

"I get it, you know. All that shit you're exposed to at work. If that's what this is about..." He looked around the kitchen, lost. "Why can't you just leave it behind when you get home, Eds?"

On the rare occasions that people called me Eds, I cringed - I hated it. Its use now helped me say what I needed to.

"That's not what this is about. It has nothing to do with work."

"Okay," he dropped his head and my stomach lurched. "I thought we had something."

I took a deep breath.

"We did have something. And now we don't. I'm sorry. I'm in love with someone else," I said in a halting manner that made me cower inside and beg him with my eyes. He looked up at me sharply, angry now.

"Bullshit," he said. "It's an excuse with you. You're incapable of feeling. I was warned."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Hilly and I are friends, remember, he told me you did the same thing to him. You couldn't love anyone. Fuck, what a waste of... Just fuck." He met my eyes for a second then turned and made his way to the door. "You're going to die alone, Eden," he called back to me in disgust before he slammed the door in his wake.

I studied my fingernails. He was angry, his ego bruised, he was welcome to a snide remark or two. Besides he was probably right; I would die alone, we all do. Living a life with someone I didn't love just to pretend that I wouldn't die alone was a cosmic joke.

Once the initial recoil had worn off I felt some relief at having broken ties with Mathew. But again it was sheened over by my unwillingness to tell anyone - for the next week I simply went about work as though nothing had changed. I continued to remind myself that it was an important part of a much bigger process and that I should take my time, allow for adjustment, but I was becoming anxious. It wouldn't be long before I would have to tell people, they would hear about it anyway. The community I circled in was relatively tightknit, family and friends mostly knew each other and although I'd distanced myself substantially over the years, it only appeared to make people nosier. The small amount of time that I had the opportunity to think, I felt the weight of my lying life more heavily than ever, sometimes I was not convinced I could ever escape it.

A week single and I still hadn't told anyone. I went upstairs and knocked on Sarah's door. When I followed her into the dining area she quickly clicked a laptop closed as she sat down. She'd never done that before.

"Watching porn?" I asked in amusement but she did not laugh.

"Something like that."

"Are you okay?"

"The world is full of disease," she said, once again staring into the blank space between us. She was different, she looked like she'd been crying; I'd never seen her this way before. Did she finally feel a need to vent to someone? To me?

"Yes, it is," I agreed. "Behind many different forms and faces."

"People think there is no way to fix things. That it's an abortive mission."

"It often is. But in my line of work, even a small thing can make a difference."

"You know better than even me what it's like in this fucking place. Always questioning what the right thing to do is, how far is too far, which way is better or worse. How are we supposed to know? The rules don't work, they can be improved, can't they? Everything can always be improved…"

She was ranting, she was hyperactive and possibly having a meltdown.

"Sarah, tell me what's wrong."

"Sometimes you have to do something wrong to make things right. One step back, two steps forward."

"There's always a price to pay for that," I said, attempting to bring myself to her level.

"Always a price for everything. But a single, courageous act can alter history, not just for one person, but for many."

As I looked at her in worry she went still for a moment then without preempt let out a high pitched scream. I jumped in shock and stared at her agape. She scrunched her eyes shut for several seconds, the sound of the scream reverberating around the room, then she opened them and relaxed her face.

"That's a bit better," she said and I put my hand on my chest.

"Jesus. A bit of warning next time?"

Every time I thought I had put of piece of her puzzle together she surprised me again. A third face to Sarah had emerged; an emotional one, an angry one. I cannot say I was put off by it - though it surprised me with its intensity and with its mystery, it was no less appealing than any other aspect of the woman. I had a niggling sense that I was blinded by my own emotions, swept along on a tide of adoration. Now I know it was the love itself which was the delusion, not the purity of Sarah's being.

"Sometimes it's all too much," she paused. "What do you do when you get frustrated?"

"It varies," I said awkwardly. "Sometimes I just spend the night at ...my partners place."

"Yes," she nodded knowingly. "Love must be nice."

"I don't love him." I was so weak, why couldn't I just admit I didn't have a partner anymore?

"Oh?" she asked with a frown that somehow spoke of all my guilt then her expression changed abruptly into one of levity. "Don't tell me you're one of those people who think an orgasm can fix everything?"

"What?" Again, I doubted I had heard her correctly, but the half-smile she maintained told me I had. I felt heat rise to my face and thanked God I didn't have too pale a complexion. "Of course not," I stammered. "How... God, you're impossible."

"You think so?" she chuckled. "It's just, you're quite cute when you're embarrassed."

I almost bit my lip and blushed even deeper, but as usual she wasn't looking at me so it went unnoticed.

"How do you know that?" I asked, trying to cover my shame with anger. "You never look at me!" It was totally the wrong thing to say because she looked at me then, turned the full force of her piercing eyes on me and held them for what felt like eternity. I didn't know whether to pee myself or just run away; I was sure she could see all the private thoughts I'd had about her. What color my face was at that point I couldn't tell you, I couldn't feel my body at all, only those eyes. Then she looked away with a smile and refocused on her desktop screen. I could breathe.

"Sometimes, you don't need to look at people to know they're embarrassed... Or cute," she said and the ability to breathe evaded me again. "I'm sorry."

What was she apologizing for? I didn't understand anything, she had me stupefied.

"Why are you sorry?"

"I'm sorry you're angry because you think I don't look at you. I don't want to upset you."

"You are the most ...interesting person I've ever met." I came far too close to using a different word and my embarrassment amplified.

"Eden," she shook her head. "And I thought I didn't get out much."

Was that the first time she had spoken my name? It rolled off her tongue so beautifully. My presence seemed to have calmed her down, which was a nice feeling.

Focusing on the table nervously I noticed an old book, out of place amongst all the electronic equipment. I picked it up and flicked to the blurb.

"This book looks …off-kilter." Of course it did, it was in Sarah's apartment.

"Oscar Pettersson, a Swedish activist and genius. He wrote it in a fit of depression and not long after was sent to a mental asylum and put on Thorazine. Chemical lobotomy, he never wrote again."

"Hell," I said, thinking about the amount of people who must suffer similar fates. "That'll be me in a few years."

"Yes," she agreed. "I can just see you, shuffling around the psych ward in a shabby smock and worn slippers, looking lost; a bit of drool hanging from your lip. Before you're 40."

She said it with a completely straight face but I couldn't help breaking into hysterics. Was I just in a highly excitable state? Several times I thought I'd controlled myself, the image she described ran through my head again and it was hard to recover.

"Sorry," I said finally, wiping the tears from my eyes. "You have a way with words."

"It's nice to hear you laugh."

"Where will you be while my grim future unfolds?"

"Bathing in blood. Enjoying eternal life and eternal damnation."

"Ah ha. I knew you were spiritual."

"The soul - where art is information."

"Would you ...like to come to my place for dinner?"

"What are you having?" She appeared to catch herself and change her mind. "You're a good person. You really should stay away from people like me."

"Museum curators?"

"Yes. Have you ever met a good museum curator?"

"I... You're the only one I've met."

"Exactly."

"You've never even seen my apartment."

"Is it amazing?"

"No. But you could meet Genesis."

"Your boyfriends name is Genesis?"

"No. Mathew doesn't live with me." And he's not my boyfriend anymore. "Genesis is my dog."

"Oh." She made her signature move. "You have a dog,' she said thoughtfully.

"Not a dog person?" I asked, disappointed. I adored Gene, any incompatible obsession was difficult.

"Isn't it cruel to keep a dog in an apartment without a yard all day?"

Perhaps she didn't hate dogs.

"Maybe for a young dog but Gene is old and almost totally blind, I got her from the shelter on Boulcott Street, she was going to be put down. I take her for walks every morning and night, I'm surprised you've never seen me with her."

"Maybe one day I could meet her, but not today," she said, and I didn't know how to feel about it.

"What do you have that needs fixing so badly?"

"I can fix my own problems."

"I know that but everything always feels so one-sided with you. I know almost nothing about you."

"But you frequent the place I live."

"Ah..." She had a point. And how could I argue with her anyway, I had too many things to hide - namely the fact that I was totally infatuated with her - the reason I wanted to know everything about her and for her to express at least a small amount of enthusiasm at the idea of visiting my apartment. For dinner. And drinks. And a life together. FUCK!

"I would say you know more about me than I know about you," she stressed. "So what is it? What is this irresistible thing that you need to know so badly? You're searching for something."

"Where do you go at night?" I asked, taking a chance. "You disappear for hours every night."

"That is restricted info," she laughed. "You are a curious cat, aren't you?"

"Yes," I said, resentful now. I shouldn't have asked, I knew from her reaction she wasn't going to tell me. "I worry about you. With your guns and your self-defense and all your talk about fixing things and staying focused. It's all very fucking worrying."

"Worried my foot, you're inquisitive. Don't sulk, Eden, it doesn't become you. Embarrassment suits you better."

"You..." Are the most irritating, frustrating... "No dinner then," I said dolefully, gazing at my shoes.

"Are you attracted to me?"


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