Gothic

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Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack
Excerpt

One

He was there when Johnny fell from the tree. The crack of the branch, that double sound, a cra-crack warning before the final, disappointing snap. Then the slow-motion tumble through the air as the wood gave way. It was impossible to get to him. A slow-motion pantomime where the force of a turbo engine wouldn’t be quick enough. He twisted and spiralled, taking leaves and twigs along with him. Those were the only sounds: the snaps, the cracks, and the rustles. Then, finally, the thud of his body touching down.

Hadn’t they been warned about climbing? That smothering, mothering voice, “Well, don’t come crying to me if you break your necks!” But that hadn’t discouraged them. After Gareth emerged the climbing victor, up to the tippy-top and down again, it was Johnny’s turn.

“Higher! Higher!” Gareth called out.

Johnny, being light and adept, was only too happy to comply. Until the top branches could not bear his weight. Surely it was not high enough to break his neck. It was only a few feet over their heads. An oversized bush, really. A hawthorn, Gareth thinks, but perhaps that’s just because of the word thorn following “haw, haw, haw.” But no one was laughing. No one ever laughed. And no one ever mentioned how Gareth had called Johnny a “scaredy-cat” that hot afternoon.

The scream sent Gareth running. After an initial pause of frozen realization, his legs moved on their own until he was nothing but pounding heart and pounding feet, faster and faster across the field, over the fence, past the barn to the driveway and up the newly painted steps.

“Gareth, I told you! I just painted those!” Johnny’s mother, Hilda, shrieked, but one look at Gareth’s face and she began running in the direction from which he had just come. Finally, Gareth just stood there, catching his breath, squeezing his eyes, willing it all to go away.

He didn’t go back to the tree that day. Didn’t want to see the blood or his screaming friend clutching his eye. He turned his face toward home. To the understanding embrace of his mother.

“Good thing it was his bad eye,” his older brother, Tristan, declared when Gareth delivered the awful news.

“What do you mean, Trist?” their mother asked.

Tristan regarded his mother with the weak disdain that only first-borns possess. He tossed back his mass of blond curls and planted his feet squarely, hands on his hips. His knowing look to his younger brother, then his inhalation followed by a slow exhaled sigh, all pointed to the fact that he had been alive an entire year and a half longer than Gareth. He knew things. He knew all sorts of things.

“Well, if he can still see then he only hurt the lazy eye. It’s not the eye that does all the work.” Then Tristan took his hand and covered one eye and then the other to make his point. “You know. Try it! See … can’t see … see … can’t see.”

And so on one hot day at the start of June, Gareth’s best friend lost his eye to a thorn bush and it was discovered that Gareth’s older brother was blind in one of his.

It was far easier dealing with his brother’s blind eye than his friend’s. Nothing had really changed for Gareth’s brother, after all. Tristan didn’t think twice about it. He was used to being monocular, having had single-eye vision since birth. Sure, their parents fretted over it but deep down Gareth knew that nothing had changed for Tristan that day. He was blind in his left eye when he woke up and still blind in his left eye when he went to bed. Besides, the dud eye functioned as though it were a seeing eye. It moved as the good eye moved, following the stronger twin. Never letting on that it was in any way less.

But Johnny was another story. His new eye was, for the most part, unmoving. It was freaky how it sometimes stayed, staring blindly ahead, while the other did as it pleased with no regard for the replacement eye. Gareth assumed that his friend’s old eye hated the new one. It must have missed its matching eye and begrudged the new eye’s placement in his friend’s head.

Johnny underwent surgeries and procedures throughout that entire summer. An enucleation to remove the eye happened just days after the accident and Johnny was required to wear a patch to cover where the eye had been. Gareth didn’t understand why the eye had to come out, why they didn’t just let it get better. His eye always got better when he accidentally poked it! Sure, this was worse, but why not give it a chance?

“Well, Gareth, his eye had too much damage. They had to take the eye out because if they didn’t then he could go blind in the other eye,” Johnny’s mom explained to him carefully with her deep, strange voice.

“Why? He didn’t hurt the other eye.”

“It’s a strange thing that happens. When one eye goes blind, sometimes the brain gets all mixed up and then the other eye goes blind, too. Especially with kids,” Hilda explained, although she, too, didn’t quite believe it. She had wanted to wait and see. Perhaps his eye would be fine. But the surgeon had been insistent. So she sat outside the surgery door. She waited. Even when her husband suggested they go have a coffee, that they should take a break, Hilda stayed behind, feeling those first pains of separation. How could she leave her son to those consoling strangers with their sharp scalpels?

“But my brother is blind in one eye and the other one didn’t go blind.”

“That is because he didn’t suffer a trauma. It’s different.” She wanted to let it drop, not wanting Gareth to feel responsible for the accident. Not wanting to remember.

Eventually, the patch came off and Johnny was allowed out to play. He had a pair of glasses on, for protection. Gareth stared at his friend in shock. It wasn’t the strangeness of sudden glasses that bothered him; it was that the bad eye had been replaced with something that seemed to have a drawing of an eye on it. Unmoving. Hard. And just a little bit creepy.

“Not catch, Gareth. What if that baseball hits Johnny in the eye? But you can look at comic books together. I got the new Spider-Man one for the both of you.”

Gareth didn’t know if Johnny’s mom was more worried about the fake eye or the seeing eye. If the ball hit the seeing eye, and Johnny got a shiner, then he wouldn’t be able to see at all, not till the swelling went down. But what if it hit the fake eye? Gareth imagined shards shooting out of his friend’s eye socket. Like the crystal vase that had slid from his hands when he was helping with the washing-up. Hundreds of sharp little splinters that cut into his hurrying fingers as he tried to pick it all up before anyone noticed.

“We want his eye to get better, don’t we Gareth?” Johnny’s mother asked, her w’s sounding more like v’s than the way other mothers said words starting with the letter w.

Gareth nodded. Of course, he wanted the eye to get better, but he knew deep in his belly that the eye wouldn’t get better. It would never see again. Gareth wondered why Johnny’s mother didn’t know that, as well.

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Arborescent

Arborescent

edition:Paperback
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The Winters
Excerpt

One
Last night Rebekah tried to murder me again. It had been a while since I'd had that dream, not since we left Asherley, a place I called home for one winter and the bitterest part of spring, the dream only ever recurring when Max was gone and I'd find myself alone with Dani.

As always, the dream begins with Asherley in the distance, shining from afar in a bright clearing. There is no greenhouse, nor boathouse, just a stand of red canoes stabbed into the pebbly beach. In fact, the Asherley of my dream looks more like it might have back in its whaling days, when from the highest turret you could still spot tall ships dotting Gardiners Bay.

Overpowered by the urge to be inside the house again, I pass easily through the thicket of forest that surrounds the property. I want so badly to wander its wood-paneled halls, to feel its plush red carpets beneath my bare feet, to move my fingers in the play of sun through the stained-glass windows, but an invisible force keeps me out. I'm relegated to the bay, where I float like a sad specter, made to watch those who still haunt Asherley act out the same strange pantomime.

I can see Max, my Max, relaxing on an Adirondack, one in a line like white teeth dotting the silvery-green lawn. He's reading a newspaper, framed by the majestic spread of Asherley behind him, its walls of gray stones, its crowd of terra-cotta peaks, its dentils studded with carved rosettes, anchored by the heavy brow of its deep stone porch. Every lamp in every room of the house is lit. A fire roars in every fireplace. The circle of windows at the top of the high turret burns like a sentinel over the bay, as though the house were about to put on a great show for me.

I call for Max but he can't hear me. I want to go to him, to touch his face, to smell his hair, to fit my shoulder under his arm, our sides pressed together. My throat feels strangled with that longing.

On cue, she strides out the back door, carefully balancing a tray of lemonade. She's wearing a white lace dress with a red sash, her blond hair glinting in the sun, her face so eerily symmetrical she'd almost be odd-looking except for the singular perfection of each and every one of her features. Here is Rebekah making her way down to Max, changing her gait to accommodate the steep slope of the back lawn. Now Dani bolts from the house behind her, laughing, her chubby legs charging straight for the water and for me. She's three, maybe four, her hair, far too long for a child, is the same white blond as her mother's. I often wish I could have met Dani when she was this young and unformed. Things might have been very different between us.

My body instinctively thrusts forward to catch the girl, to prevent her from running too far into the bay and drowning.

Rebekah yells, "Be careful, sweetheart," which Max repeats. She puts the tray down. From behind, she wraps her arms around Max's shoulders and warmly kisses his neck. He places a reassuring hand on her forearm. They both watch as Dani splashes in the shallow water, screaming and laughing, calling, "Look at me, I can swim."

Then, as she always does in the dream, Rebekah becomes the only one who spots me bobbing in the bay, too near her daughter for her liking. She straightens up and walks towards the water, stalking me like a lion not wanting to disturb its prey. Still in her dress, she wades into the water, moving past a frolicking, oblivious Dani, until we are finally face-to-face. Her eyes narrow, forming that familiar dimple over her left brow.

I try to flee but my legs are useless.

"Who are you?" she asks. "You don't belong here."

Rebekah's mouth is close enough to kiss, a woman I'd seen in hundreds of photos, whose every contour I'd memorized, whose every expression I'd studied and sometimes unconsciously mimicked in my darker days, when my obsession was most acute and I had no idea how to live at Asherley, how to be a wife to Max, or a friend to Dani.

"I do belong here. She needs me," I say, pointing to Dani, my impudence surprising even me. I try to move but my feet are rooted in the sand below, arms floating beside me like weeds.

"She doesn't need you," Rebekah says, placing her hands on my shoulders in a reassuring manner. "She needs her mother."

Then she rears back slightly. Using all of her weight, Rebekah shoves me under the waves with a sudden violence, flooding my vision with air bubbles. I fight for the surface, to scream for Max to help me, but she's stronger than me, her hands a vise on my shoulders, her arms steely and rigid. In my dream, she's not angry. Rebekah kills me slowly and methodically, not with hate or fear. She's being practical. I am channeling vital resources away from her, rerouting Dani's feelings, altering Max's fate. My murder is conducted with dispassion and efficiency. And though I don't want to die, I can't imagine going on like this either, careful of my every move, looking over my shoulder, afraid to touch anything, break anything, love anything, worried his past will surface again and ruin what I've worked so hard for, what we've worked so hard for. Her task complete, my body painlessly dissolves into the waves and I disappear. I am dead and made of nothing. I am gone.

I woke up gasping for air, my hand at my throat. I kept reminding myself that everything is okay, we are okay, that we are alive and she is dead, cursing the fact that the dream had followed us here, our last stop, I hoped, for a good long while.

***
 
My back ached when I stretched that morning, unfamiliar beds the only downside to our decision to travel for the rest of the year to shake loose the recent tragedies. We found it helped to establish a routine. I would get up first and make us breakfast, for we only stayed in places with kitchens, a homemade meal the best way to start our wide-open days. We tried not to think too much about the past, about Asherley. It was gone, along with all of its secrets. We were building new memories, creating new stories, ones we might find ourselves telling new friends one day, finishing each other's sentences, saying, No, you go, you tell it. No, you-you tell it better.

Mostly our days were languid; sometimes I'd plan a museum tour or we'd take a long drive past ruins. Our nights were spent reading rather than watching TV, sharing the couch even if armchairs were available, our toes gently touching. There were few conflicts, though I was no longer naive enough to believe two people as different as we were, who'd spent as much time together as we had, would never bicker. But the truth was we were still getting to know each other.

Waiting for the omelet to thicken, I poked my head into the bedroom, resisting the urge to caress that thatch of dark hair that I had come to love in a quiet, calm way, a marked difference from how I loved just a short while ago. Hard to believe it had been less than a year since I'd met Max Winter, a man whose love seized me by the shoulders and shook me out of a state of dormancy, and who ushered in another emotion I had yet to meet in my young life: jealousy, the kind that grows like kudzu, vining around the heart, squeezing all the air out, fusing with my thoughts and dreams, so that by the time I understood what was happening to me it was almost too late.

I carefully closed the bedroom door, padded across the cool tile floors of the living area, with its dark armoires and overstuffed armchairs, and threw open the musty blackout curtains. I stepped barefoot onto the hot stone terrace, the sun so bright it hurt my eyes. In the distance, warm air steamed off the sea. From below, I could hear the Spanish-speaking shopkeepers already arguing over sidewalk space, and I was gut-punched by long-ago memories of a mother who sang to me in her mother's language and a father with sunburned shoulders, pulling fish out of the sea, their silver bodies violently jackknifing on the scarred deck of the boat we once lived on, our sleeping quarters the size of the smallest pantry you could find at Asherley. I could have fainted from an old grief. Here they were again, coming at me from afar, watery mirages of the people who once loved me, and I them, their long shadows cast by a low morning sun.

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