Living on Borrowed Time
Originally published in Title Goes Here, Issue 4.
Crash went the trashcan as it tumbled over. Mark Wiss watched it roll into the nearby wall, ignoring the twitching curtains in the windows above. Kicking it over probably wouldn’t cure him of his writer’s block, but it had certainly felt satisfying. It was just a shame he hadn’t picked a better target. As it had fallen, the can had scattered garbage in all directions, and being a responsible citizen, he felt obliged to clean up.
He gingerly shoved the remains of a Chinese takeaway back into it with his foot, then swore under his breath as the polystyrene container split open and a dollop of sauce oozed out onto his boot. He was about to stamp on it in a fit of pique, when he had a vivid premonition of the gooey consequences and slowly lowered his foot. He shook his boot clean, and turned his attention to an empty cigarette carton.
When the garbage was all inside, he lifted the can upright and slammed on the lid. The curtains twitched again at the noise, but by this stage, he was already striding out of the alleyway into the street beyond.
Mark was a slim man with shoulder length hair the colour of roasted chestnuts and blue eyes. He had an unconventional fashion sense, and was dressed today in leather trousers, a black t-shirt and a trench coat. A Celtic cross hung around his neck, and his wrists and fingers were bedecked in chunky silver jewellery.
Walking on a few blocks, he paused as the undulating wail of an electric guitar filled the air. The sound was coming from a pub in a narrow side street. He tapped his foot, listening to the interplay of the instruments, and then headed for the entrance. A little live music might be just what he needed to get his creative juices pumping.
As he went inside, an amplified female voice rose above the guitar-line. It was aggressive, but strangely compelling, snarling out lyrics with wolf-like ferocity.
He made his way to the bar. A busty barmaid with strawberry blonde hair smiled at him from the far end as he seated himself on one of the battered stools. “I’ll be with you in a second, honey.”
He nodded, watching her hand a bottle of Budweiser to a gangly youth with a trendy alternative hairstyle. The youth disappeared into the crowd and she came towards him. “What can I get you?”
“Glenmorangie on the rocks,” he replied, struggling not to look at her heaving bosom.
“No problem,” she said. She turned to a row of spirits on a shelf behind her and poured him a generous measure of the Glenmorangie.
Mark handed her a twenty. “Much obliged.” She gave him his change and he headed for the stage. The band had embarked on an epic ballad now, the singer switching effortlessly from bestial growling to angelic alto, the soaring guitar-line full of tenderness and yearning. He studied the four musicians. They were barely out of their teens, yet had already developed a presence that would have put many more experienced performers to shame. This was especially true of the lead singer, who with her stylishly dishevelled blonde hair and multiple piercings, was the very embodiment of punk rock chic.
As the ballad drew to a close, the bass player led them into an insanely catchy anthem. Nodding his head in time to the beat, Mark moved closer. Just then, a woman with bountiful blonde hair bounced into his path, obviously drunk and utterly absorbed in the music. He sidestepped, narrowly avoiding being hit in the chin by her head, and pushed her gently, but firmly away. As he did so, he happened to glance at her face and did a double-take. It was acclaimed rock singer Doro Pesch.
His mouth fell open in disbelief. He had been an ardent fan of this woman since he was ten years old. Who’d have thought he would run into her in such an unlikely place? He looked down at his feet, determined not to pass up the opportunity to talk to her, but not knowing what to say. Then, he lifted his head and took a step forward. To his surprise, she was no longer there. He scoured the audience, but there was no sign of her. He spent the next half an hour threading his way backwards and forwards through the crowd looking for her, but to no avail. At last, he gave up and returned to the stage.
When Mark left the pub, he was a lot less steady on his feet than he had been when he arrived. He clung onto the handrail as he staggered down the steps outside, trying not to fall on his face.
The night air cleared his head a little as he moved away up the street, but he still found himself struggling to walk in a straight line.
Suddenly, he missed his step stumbling off the sidewalk straight into the path of a speeding Mustang. The tyres of the car shrieked like an angry banshee as the driver slammed on his brakes. Mark’s eyes widened and he raised his hands defensively. Then, he noticed something that turned his blood to ice. Flying through the air above the approaching vehicle was a grinning skeleton in a tattered cloak. He wanted to believe he was imagining it, but something inside him told him it was real. He was about to die and the Grim Reaper had come to claim his soul. He screamed hysterically, his life flashing before his eye in a blur of vivid memories and regrets.
He braced himself for the impact, but just when it was on the verge of happening, a pair of dainty but impossibly strong arms seized hold of him from behind and hauled him to safety. The Grim Reaper howled in frustration, before promptly disappearing, even as the car driver thrust his middle finger out of the window and accelerated away.
Mark heaved a sigh of relief. What kind of person could have moved quickly enough to save him? He turned around, expecting to see a superhuman of some description, only to find himself face-to-face with the bouncy blonde from the bar – the woman he believed to be Doro Pesch. She winked at him playfully, pushing her hair back from her face.
For a moment, he couldn’t speak, struggling to catch his breath. Then he said haltingly, “Thank you. I thought I was a gonna.” The woman did not reply. “It’s lucky for me you came along when you did.”
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” she said cryptically.
He sat down on the edge of the sidewalk, massaging his temples with his index fingers. He shouldn’t have drunk so much whiskey. “What do you mean?”
She looked at him intently. “I knew what was going to happen to you tonight and came here specifically to prevent it.”
“I don’t understand,” he replied, continuing to rub his temples.
She sat down on the sidewalk next to him. “I’m not who you think I am.”
“You mean you’re not Doro?” he asked.
“I’m afraid not,” she replied.
He looked disappointed. “Are you sure, because you don’t half look like her?”
“Quite sure,” she replied. “I’m not Doro Pesch. In fact, I’m not even human.”
“What?” he said incredulously.
“I said I’m not human,” she repeated.
He raised his eyebrows, wondering where this was leading. “Then what are you?”
She rose to her feet. “I am Euterpe, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, and Muse of music and lyric poetry.” She flung her arms out to the sides dramatically, only to spoil the effect with what appeared to be a drunken wobble.
He looked at her sarcastically. “Of course you are and I’m Edgar Allan Poe.”
“You might play at being Edgar Allan Poe,” she snapped, “but you’re barely a pale imitation.”
His expression darkened. “There’s no need for insults.”
“I beg to differ,” she retorted. “I cannot abide sarcasm, especially from someone who owes me his life.”
“I’m sorry,” he said half-heartedly. “You have to admit, though, that what you’re telling me does sound a bit far-fetched. Even if the Muse of music and lyric poetry existed, would she really be the spitting image of Doro Pesch? Would she really choose to hang out in a dingy backstreet pub?”
Euterpe produced a small mirror from her jacket pocket and studied her face in the glass as if seeing it for the first time. “I can look however I want to. I chose this face for your benefit – a way of putting you at your ease. I’ve done some poking around in the recesses of your mind and it seems this Doro person really floats your boat.” She coiled a strand of hair around her fingers. “As for what I was doing in that pub, the simple answer is I was there to see the band. They’re protégés of mine.” Slipping the mirror back into her pocket, she whistled a short melody which Mark recognised as the opening to one of the band’s songs.
He grimaced, his head throbbing painfully. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful as hell that you saved me, but this Muse of music and lyric poetry business is frankly...”
She clapped her hands imperiously. There was a rumble as of distant thunder and the ground trembled. Then, she began to get bigger, swelling to three times her former size. Her hair turned to flickering tongues of flame, her eyes blazed with fiery red light and the sky around her grew darker.
He rubbed his eyes in disbelief and opened his mouth to speak, only to find that he’d lost his voice.
“I don’t have time for a long discussion,” she growled. “I am who I say I am; it’s as simple as that.” She turned away from him, her gaze settling on a garish neon sign hanging above the entrance to a strip club on the other side of the street. As she looked at it, her anger subsided and the changes that had taken place in her appearance were abruptly reversed. “I suppose the time has come to tell you why I saved your life. In a nutshell, I did it for love.”
“You can’t be serious,” he said, finding to his relief that his voice had returned. “You’re saying you’re in love with me?”
“Not me,” she snapped, watching disparagingly as a group of businessmen filed into the strip club with much lewd chatter. “My daughter. At least she thinks she’s in love with you. More likely it’s just a crush, much like the one you have on this Doro Pesch.” She looked at him, rolling her eyes as if she found the idea difficult to believe. “Not only that, but she’d like to move in with you. I could do with a break from looking after her, so I don’t have a problem it if you don’t. In return I pledge to keep you safe from the clammy hands of Death. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to abandon you to him - he’s waiting to take you even as we speak.”
Mark leant forward, planting his elbow on his knee and resting his forehead in the palm of his hand. Euterpe hadn’t mentioned her daughter’s age, but the image he had in his mind was of someone in her late teens. If this was right and she was anywhere near as pretty as Euterpe herself, having her move in with him wouldn’t be all bad, but it would still mean a significant loss of freedom. “Exactly how long are we talking about?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “As long as she wants. It could be days or it could be years.”
“Then what?” he asked.
“She moves out, our bargain comes to an end, and you go off to meet your maker,” she told him. “Now, if there are no more questions, what is your decision? Do we have a deal or not?”
He rose unsteadily to his feet. “Are you kidding? Of course we have a deal; what choice do I have?”
The corners of her lips curled upwards in a satisfied smile. “Great! I’ll go and get her.” She walked a little way down the street, stopped beneath a lamppost and let out a piercing whistle. The surrounding buildings threw the sound back at her in a series of diminishing echoes which seemed unnaturally loud. As the last of these echoes died away, there was a dazzling flash at the top of the lamppost and a strange misshapen creature appeared out of nowhere. Moving with the agility of a monkey, it scampered down the lamppost and leapt onto her shoulder.
He stared at it curiously. Was this really her daughter? How could someone so beautiful have given birth to something so grotesque? Scrawny looking with pointed ears, bulbous eyes and glistening fangs, it reminded him of the goblin in Fuseli’s famous oil painting The Nightmare. Its skin was a sickly shade of green, streaked with livid blotches, and it had a long tapering tail, which twitched every so often for no apparent reason. Clinging to Euterpe’s neck, it peered at Mark shyly. She patted its head reassuringly and came towards him. “Et voila – my daughter, Rhete.”
“She doesn’t look like you,” Mark observed, hoping his face didn’t betray his revulsion.
Euterpe nodded sadly. “She doesn’t look like her father, the river god Strymon, either. I wish I could say her strange appearance was merely a twist of fate, but it wasn’t - it was my father’s doing. He wanted to ensure his grandson – Rhete’s twin brother, Rhesus - was strong and fine so he interfered in the development of the boy’s foetus, and in so doing warped his granddaughter. Please don’t be put off by her appearance, though. She really is a wonderful child and I love her dearly. She’s all I have left. Her brother was tragically killed by Diomedes during the Trojan War and her father deserted me centuries ago.” Her voice faltered as she said this and a tear trickled down her cheek. “But enough about the past; let us look to the future. I’m sure the two of you are going to get along famously. Come over here and say hello.” She beckoned to Mark with her forefinger.
Mark moved reluctantly closer and held out his hand. “Hello Rhete.”
“Hello,” Rhete replied in a rasping voice. She dropped to the ground and scampered forwards, sniffing his hand with an air of suspicion and coating it with a fine spray of snot. Finally, she grabbed hold of it and shook it. It was like touching a toad and he couldn’t help flinching. Fortunately, neither she nor her mother seemed to notice.
He wiped his hand surreptitiously on his coat and made an effort to smile. “I must say, I was impressed by your entrance. I’ve never seen anyone materialise at the top of a lamppost before. Can you do any other magic?”
“She can’t do any magic, I’m sorry to say,” Euterpe interjected. “She lacks the mental capacity. Her materialisation was my doing.”
Mark could see the goblin was a little crestfallen by this, so he did his best to look consoling. “Who needs magic anyway? I’ve lived my entire life without it and I’ve done all right for myself.”
Rhete said nothing, but her eyes spoke volumes. She was hanging on his every word, relishing being the focus of his attention.
Euterpe clapped her hands in satisfaction, a beaming smile on her face. “I have a feeling this is going to work out rather well,” she enthused. “I’ll take my leave of you now. I have work to do. Look after her, Mark. Remember, you’re living on borrowed time.” With that, she kissed Rhete on the cheek, thrust her fist into the air in a classic rock star pose and vanished.
Mark gave a resigned sigh. So that was that - two mouths to feed and a proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over his head! He looked Rhete up and down. She was staring at him as if he was the eighth wonder of the world. Suddenly, his heart softened. Although she was ugly, there was something sweet and endearing about her. He mentally reproached himself for the way he had reacted to her before and took hold of her hand, this time managing not to flinch at her touch. “Come with me.” He said kindly, and together they headed off down the street to his apartment.
Mark woke the following morning with a vicious hangover. He started to get up, then thought better of it and flopped back down onto his bed. The daylight was painfully bright and his head felt like it was being battered repeatedly with a welding mallet. He shook his head, trying to make sense of his patchy memories of the night before. He was just telling himself that the encounter with Euterpe couldn’t possible have happened, when Rhete came charging into his bedroom.
“Rhete tired of waiting,” the goblin girl said in a gravelly voice. “Time for Mark to get up.” With that, she clambered onto his bed and began bouncing up and down.
Mark rolled over, letting out a low groan. If Rhete was really here, then the rest of it was true too, which meant... Actually, he didn’t want to think about what it meant, at least until his head stopped hurting. He squeezed his eyes closed, hoping the girl would disappear, but she remained at the end of his bed, jumping around like a demented kangaroo. He shrieked as her foot came down on one of this shins. She bared her teeth in a grin.
He felt like shouting at her, but stopped himself. If he was unkind to her and she went running home, he was a dead man. With a forced smile, he sat up on the bed. “You’re absolutely right - it is time I spurred myself into action. Why don’t you fix us some breakfast while I get dressed?”
To his relief, she nodded her head and scampered out of the door. He glanced at his pillow regretfully, wishing he could bury his head in it and go back to sleep, before swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and rising to his feet.
Entering his kitchen a short while later, Mark found Rhete sitting at the table in the corner, clutching what appeared to be a dead sparrow. She waved to him cheerily as he came into the room and then bit off the bird’s head with her glistening teeth. Blood gushed from the tattered remains of its neck, splattering down onto a dinner plate in front of her.
He retched violently as the blood began to spill over the edge of the plate onto the table beneath.
She gave him a curious look, clearly failing to see anything wrong in what she was doing. “Rhete got breakfast,” she announced proudly. “You like them?”
He was so horrified by what he was seeing he could hardly speak. “Them?” he queried at last, his voice sounding hoarse and strained. Even as he said it, he noticed a second bird laid out on a plate in front of one of the vacant chairs. Its wings were twisted and broken and its lifeless eyes seemed to be staring straight at him.
“One each,” she said gesturing at the spare bird, even as she took a further bite of her own. “If Mark wants more, Rhete can get more.”
He shook his head quickly. “Mark doesn’t want more! He doesn’t even want this one.” He tipped the second bird into a trashcan beneath the sink and dumped the plate on the nearest countertop. “I don’t eat raw birds and I don’t want to see you eating them either – it’s disgusting. In there, please.” As he spoke, he removed the trashcan from under the sink and thrust it at her.
She shook her head, clutching her so-called breakfast closer to her chest. He jerked his head at the trashcan, eyes narrowing. She hesitated for a minute as if contemplating further defiance, and then threw the mangled bird reluctantly inside.
“That’s a good girl,” he said. “Now, clean yourself up, while I see if I can find us something less revolting to eat.” Putting the trashcan back in its place, he tossed her a wad of paper towels to wipe the blood from her hands and mouth, and took two boxes of breakfast cereal from a cupboard. “Do you want Cornflakes or Cheerios?”
When Mark had finished eating his cereal and Rhete had finished pushing hers around her bowl with her spoon, Mark decided he needed to go to the local library to do some research. It was his intention to leave Rhete behind, but she was determined to go with him, so he found himself having to come up with a way to disguise her strange appearance. His solution was to envelop her in a baggy hooded sweatshirt. “Make sure you keep this over your head at all times,” he instructed, pulling up the hood. “If anyone sees your face, it’ll cause us all kinds of problems. You’ll probably end up in a laboratory somewhere being poked and prodded at by men in white coats, and I’ll be left at the mercy of the grim bloody reaper.”
She pressed her fist to her chest in a salute of some kind. Cast into shadow by the hood, her eyes gleamed eerily.
He tossed her a pair of sunglasses. “You’d better put these on as well. Glowing eyes are a definite no-no when you’re trying to look incognito.”
She put the glasses on obediently. They were too big, so he took them back and bent the metal nose bridge to make them tighter. After that, they fitted perfectly. Taking a step back, he nodded his head. “You look great. Now, let’s get going.” Taking hold of her hand through the sleeve of her top, he led her out of the apartment and along the corridor to the elevator.
A few minutes later, they were hastening through the streets of New York in Mark’s car. Rhete had never ridden in a car before and spent much of the time switching positions in an effort to see as much as possible out of the various windows.
“Would you stop doing that?” he pleaded as she clambered into the front for what must have been the tenth time. “It’s distracting.”
He sighed as the fidgeting continued and pulled into a gas station. “I’m going to grab some smokes. Do you want a candy bar or something?”
She looked at him blankly. “Candy bar?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never had a candy bar before,” he said incredulously. “You don’t know what you’ve been missing. They beat the hell out of dead birds. I’ll get you one. You’re in for a treat.”
Striding up the ramp to the kiosk door, Mark was ambushed by a female fan. He knew she was a fan as soon as he saw her by the look in her eyes – a mixture of awe and disbelief. Ordinarily, he avoided such people at all costs, but the girl in question was so beautiful, he couldn’t bring himself to snub her. Tall and slender with waist-length brown hair, she was dressed in dark jeans and a bodice which clung to her body with tantalising tightness. In her hand there was a diamante studded dog leash, fastened to the harness of an immaculately groomed Chihuahua. “Say, aren’t you Mark Wiss?” she asked, bending over to tie the dog leash to a newspaper dispenser.
His eyes fixated on her pert rear. “I sure am.” He looked away quickly, pretending to be studying a poster in one of the kiosk windows as she turned around.
She took a pen and a piece of paper from her backpack and handed them to him. “Wait till I tell my friends. They’ll be so jealous. Can I get an autograph?” He signed his name in his usual flamboyant style. “Thank you so much,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to meet the great Mark Wiss. What brings you to this gas station?”
Mark shrugged his shoulders, passing the paper and pen back to her. “It was just a convenient place to buy some cigarettes and a candy bar.”
You’re here for candy?” she asked. “Me too. It’s my biggest weakness.”
“Well, it certainly doesn’t show,” replied Mark.
She blushed and walked past him into the kiosk. “So what’s your latest project?” she asked as he followed her inside. “Anything exciting?”
“A short story about one of the lesser known Knights of the Round Table,” he said. “Does that qualify as exciting?”
The girl looked genuinely interested. “You bet. I love all that chivalry stuff. Is there a dragon in it?”
He shook his head. “No dragon, but there is a damsel in distress.”
“And do she and the knight end up riding off into the sunset together?” the girl asked.
“Ask me again when I’ve finished writing it,” he said, looking for the confectionary aisle.
The conversation continued, and it wasn’t long before the two were exchanging telephone numbers. Then the girl, whose name was Skyla, got a call on her cellphone and Mark slipped away.
He paid for his purchases, and had just stepped out of the door to return to his car, when the heavens opened, throwing rain down on him with such force it was almost painful. He was about to duck back into the kiosk to offer Skyla a lift, when he remembered Rhete. Bringing the goblin out in public had been enough of a risk, without giving a relative stranger the opportunity to see her up close.
Pulling his coat tighter around him, he started to hurry down the ramp, and then stopped abruptly. There was something wrong - Skyla’s dog was missing from its harness. His heart skipped a beat as he noticed a trail of blood on the ground and followed it with his eyes. It led to his own car.
He raced down the ramp to investigate. What he saw when he wrenched open the door horrified him – Rhete was sitting in the passenger seat with the half-eaten remains of the Chihuahua draped across her knee. Most of the flesh from the animal’s head was missing and there were four bloody stumps where its legs should have been.
Slicing open the dog’s stomach with one of her talon-like nails, she began pulling out and devouring its intestine. She had placed the eyeballs on the dashboard and there was a small pile of bones by her feet. She smiled at him cheerfully and pointed at the mangled carcass. “Rhete couldn’t wait for the candy bar. Rhete got this instead.”
He averted his eyes. “What did I say to you earlier about what you should and shouldn’t eat?”
She thought for a moment. “Mark said Rhete shouldn’t eat raw birds and Rhete isn’t doing. This is a dog.”
Mark cast his mind back to their earlier conversation. She was right - he had made specific reference to birds. “Eating a raw dog is just as bad as eating a raw bird,” he said angrily. “I’d have thought you could have figured that out for yourself.” He glanced at the kiosk. To his relief, Skyla was still inside. If she came out and saw what was going on, she would never speak to him again. Fortunately, he didn’t have to worry about her noticing the trail of blood, as the rain had washed it away.
He turned his attention back to Rhete. She had stuffed the remainder of the dog’s intestine back into its stomach and was holding the animal out to him with a resentful look on her face. Part of him wanted to take it from her and shove it into the nearest trashcan, but it was too risky. Skyla could emerge at any second. Besides, if he left it in the local vicinity, she might find it. Better to take it with him and dispose of it later. “Keep hold of it for now,” he barked, waving the bloody remains away. “We’ve got to get out of here.” Shutting the door, he hurried around to the other side of the car and climbed into the driver’s seat.
It was at this point Skyla left the kiosk. She noticed immediately her dog was gone and began looking frantically around for it. Spotting Mark in his car, she came towards him. He pretended not to have noticed her and drove away.
“Damn it!” Mark exclaimed, realising his door key was missing from his pocket. Thankfully, it was just a minor inconvenience, as he had Rhete to let him in.
In the weeks that had passed since the death of Skyla’s dog, he had started to warm to his new companion. Not only was she extremely supportive of his writing, but she also spent a great deal of time tidying the apartment. True, her penchant for killing things was less than ideal, but so far, he had managed to keep this in check.
Stifling a yawn, he rang the bell. Hopefully the goblin would be quick. He’d spent the evening drinking at a bar with Skyla and needed to pee. Five minutes passed and still the door hadn’t opened. He was about to knock again, when he heard her approaching. He tapped his foot impatiently.
Finally, she opened the door, wrapped in a towelling bathrobe he’d purchased for her a couple of days earlier. Normally when he arrived home, she’d fling her arms around him with childlike enthusiasm, but on this occasion, she hung back. The impression he got was that she didn’t want him to get a good look at her, the more so because she had neglected to turn on the lights. He eyed her suspiciously. “Call me crazy, but I have a feeling you’re up to something. Am I right?”
She feigned a yawn and started to move away. “Rhete just tired. Going back to bed. Goodnight.”
Mark seized hold of her arm and pulled her back. “Am I right?”
Instead of answering, she attempted to break free. He tightened his grip and switched on the light. His throat tightened. There was blood on the goblin’s face and she was in the process of swallowing something. “What have you done?” he demanded.
She managed to break away from him then and tried to shut herself in her bedroom, but he was not to be denied. Wedging his foot in the door to prevent her from closing it, he followed her inside.
She glared at him coldly. “Rhete wants to be alone! Go away.”
“Sure I’ll go,” he replied. “Just as soon as I’ve had a look around.” Turning on the light, he scanned the room. To his surprise, everything looked normal.
Rhete put her hands on her hips. “Satisfied?”
The look of righteous indignation on her face made him wonder if he might be maligning her unfairly. He nodded his head sheepishly and turned to go, only to catch her shooting a glance at a camphor wood blanket chest. He bounded across the room to examine it. She tried to intercept him, but he brushed her roughly aside.
“Don’t!” she protested as he reached for the lid, but he paid no attention, flinging it open so hard it almost broke away from its hinges.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw. Lying on top of the neatly folded sheets and pillowcases inside the chest was the mangled corpse of a naked baby boy. So much flesh had been torn from the child’s face and head that parts of the skull were showing through. The hands, feet and penis had been bitten off and there was a gaping hole in the chest.
Mark gave an involuntary cry which was half sob and half bestial roar. In all his life, this mess of blood and bite-marks was the most sickening thing he’d ever seen. He staggered backwards, doubling over as a torrent of vomit blasted from his mouth.
Then his horror gave way to a raging anger. Hurting the goblin was a sure-fire way to send her running back to her mother, thereby cutting his own life short, yet he found himself fastening his hands around her throat. Whatever the consequences, he couldn’t stand around waiting for her to repeat her heinous crime. His grip tightened and then relaxed again. He couldn’t do it. If he did, he’d be no better than she was.
Suddenly, he had an idea. He would lock her up. That would stop her from killing. Admittedly, her mother would be less than happy when she found out, but he had a feeling it would be some time before this happened. The muse had never come to check up on him and he knew for a fact Rhete had no way of contacting her. He glanced at the walk-in closet at the rear of the room and gave a grim smile. It had all the ingredients for a good prison cell – a sturdy door, a robust lock and no windows.
Lifting her into the air he carried her towards it. She kicked out at him violently, but he took no notice. Then she sank her teeth into his arm. They were like tiny knives, penetrating deep into his flesh and sending pain blasting through his body.
Crying out, he flung her into the closet and then ducked in after her. It was no longer enough to incarcerate her; now he wanted to hurt her as well. Ignoring the blood streaming down his arm, he pushed the door closed with his back and ripped the metal clothing rail from its wall mountings. It was hollow in the middle, but it would still make an effective weapon. Brandishing it in his hand, he moved torwards her.
Paying the driver and taking her change, Skyla stepped out of the cab and gazed up at the apartment building in front of her, wondering if Mark was inside. She’d been trying to contact him for the past three days without success. Was he avoiding her or had something happened to him? She supposed she could have come to investigate sooner, but she hadn’t wanted to crowd him. The turning point had come when she’d found his keys under the passenger seat of her car, where he had presumably dropped them as she was driving him home from their last date - the perfect excuse to pay him a visit.
Walking into the plush foyer of the building, she took the elevator to the top floor and made her way along the corridor to his apartment, pausing briefly to check her reflection in a convenient mirror. She rang the bell and waited for a minute, but there was no response. She tried again, pressing her ear to the door. Presently, she detected a faint thumping noise coming from somewhere inside. It sounded like someone trying to attract her attention.
Pulling Mark’s keys from her purse, she opened the door and peered tentatively into the hallway beyond. The lights were off and the banging was the only sign of life. “Mark!” she called. “Are you in there? It’s me – Skyla.” She stepped into the hallway. “Mark!” She , listened for an answer, but none came.
Turning on the light, she followed the thumping sound through the apartment to one of the bedrooms. It was coming from a door at the far end.
She took a step forward, eying the key in the door’s lock. “Who’s in there?” The banging grew more frantic. Whoever it was they were obviously in a blind panic. What if they were dangerous, though? She pushed the idea from her mind. She’d probed too far into the mystery to turn back now. Taking a deep breath, she rushed across the room, unlocked the door and pulled it open.
At once, a diminutive figure in a towelling bathrobe sprang towards her. She dodged to the side to avoid being hit, tripped on a child sized shoe and fell heavily to the floor. By the time she’d picked herself up, the figure was already disappearing out into the hallway. Not before she’d identified it as a little girl, though.
“Wait!” she shouted, following her out of the bedroom. “I won’t hurt you.” She did her best to make her voice sound reassuring, but the girl wouldn’t stop. Out of the front door she went and away along the corridor.
Skyla went after her and was just in time to see her ducking through a door beside the elevator. Again she followed. The door led to a flight of concrete steps, which the girl was hurrying up.
“Please come back,” Skyla said. “I just want to help you.”
The girl ignored her, opening a door at the top of the steps and hurrying onwards. Skyla ran after her, taking the steps two at a time. Bursting through the door, she found herself on a flat rubber roof, dotted with air-conditioning units. There was a knee-high wall running around the perimeter with a few nondescript patches of graffiti scrawled across it. To her surprise, the girl was nowhere to be seen.
Skyla bit her lip. Was it possible the child had hurled herself over the edge? She went to have a look, but to her relief there was no sign of a body on the ground below. Her next idea was that the girl had concealed herself somewhere. The air conditioning units looked like a good spot. She examined them in turn, peering through openings and vents, but there was no sign of her. Placing her hands on her hips, she gazed around, oblivious to the gusting wind, before finally giving up and making her way back downstairs. Obviously the girl had managed to slip past her somehow and made good her escape. All she could do now was confront Mark, ask him what the hell was going on. Returning to the apartment, she settled herself in an armchair to wait.
An hour later, she heard the front door of the apartment open and went to investigate. She was met in the hallway by Mark, who was clearly more than a little taken aback by her presence. “Skyla! How did you get in here?”
She produced his keys from her purse and dangled them in his face. “With these. You left them in my car.”
Mark took hold of the keys and shoved them into his pocket. “I was wondering where those had got to. Thanks for bringing them back. Now, if there’s nothing else, I have some work to do.” It was apparent from his tone that he was keen to get rid of her.
“There is something else, as a matter of fact,” she said. “I want you to tell me why you’ve been keeping a little girl locked in a closet.”
His eyes widened. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again and sprinted past her to the spare bedroom. Seeing that the door at the back of the room was ajar, he smashed his fist into the wall and came storming towards her, his face red with anger. “Where is she?”
She backed away. “I let her go.”
“Idiot!” he shouted, kicking the wall. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“Never mind what I’ve done; it’s what you’ve done we should be talking about,” she said reproachfully. “I assume there is some kind of explanation.”
Clenching his fists, Mark made a visible effort to curb his temper. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Suffice it to say, if I don’t find that girl I’m going to die.” He sounded utterly sincere.
“I must be out of my mind, but I believe you,” she said.
He gave a sigh of relief. “Great. Now, tell me where she is.”
“I can’t,” she replied.
He looked desperate. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t know,” she told him. “I followed her as far as the roof and then I lost her.”
He stepped past her. “The roof you say? Perhaps she’s still up there.”
“And if she is?” she queried. “What are you going to do to her?”
Mark paused to consider this as if he wasn’t quite sure himself. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
“Mark wait!” she exclaimed, but he was already vanishing through the door. She followed him into the corridor and up the steps to the roof. Stepping outside, she was hit by a blast of cool wind. She huddled in the shelter of the doorway, watching as he strode to the nearest of the air conditioning units. He examined it carefully, before moving on to the next.
He searched the roof even more thoroughly than she had done, but with no more success. He walked to the perimeter wall, gazing into space. He looked so unsettled that she couldn’t help feeing sorry for him. She walked across to him and laid her hand on his arm. “Why don’t we go back inside?” she said softly. “It’s obvious the girl isn’t here.”
He whirled around, seizing hold of her shoulders. “That’s right – the girl isn’t here! She’s left me and it’s your fault. You’re the one who let her out.”
She tried to pull away from him, but he was too strong.
“Is there anything you haven’t told me?” he demanded. “Anything that might help me find her? Think, damn it, think!” He began shaking her, throwing her back and forwards with such force it took her breath away. All of a sudden, she lost her balance and found herself tripping over the wall, pulling the hysterical Mark after her. She let out a terrified shriek as the ground came rushing towards her.
She looked around desperately for a way to save herself, something she could grab hold of. As she did so, she caught sight of a figure in a hooded cloak sweeping towards her from out of the sky. Fear gripped her as the figure came closer. It was the Grim Reaper.
She closed her eyes, waiting for the impact, but it never came. Instead, she simply ceased to fall.
Tentatively, she opened her eyes. What she saw defied all logical explanation. The people and cars in the street below had come to a standstill. She and Mark were floating twenty feet from the ground and the Grim Reaper was hanging motionless in the air above them. It was as if the hands of time had ceased to turn. She blinked in amazement.
“It’s peaceful isn’t it?” said a familiar sounding voice. “The hustle and bustle of humanity brought to a grinding halt.”
She turned her head to see who had spoken and saw her all time favourite rock star Marc Bolan leaning out of a window above. Yet how could that be? Marc Bolan had been dead for years. “Aren’t you Marc Bolan?” she asked in disbelief.
The singer looked exactly as she remembered him from pictures and music videos, right down to the corkscrew hair and glitter on the cheekbones. It came as something of a surprise, therefore, when he shook his head and said, “Sorry to disappoint you, but no, I’m not Marc Bolan. I borrowed this form to put you at your ease. I am really Euterpe, Muse of music and lyric poetry.”
Since this claim seemed no less likely than the idea she was talking to a ghost, she didn’t question it. “Well whoever you are, thank you for saving my life.”
Euterpe’s mouth shifted in a suggestion of a smile. “I haven’t,” she relied. “Not yet, but I will, if you will do something for me in return...”
“Done,” Skyla interrupted.
“You might want to listen to what it is before you agree,” Euterpe suggested.
Skyla shrugged. “It won’t make any difference. What matters is I’ll still be alive.”
“Indeed you will,” Euterpe agreed, “and you’ll stay that way for as long as our association lasts. By which I mean, Death will be unable to touch you.” She glanced meaningfully at the Grim Reaper.
“Sounds great,” said Skyla. “What is it you want me to do?”
“Look after my daughter for a while,” Euterpe replied. “Apparently, you set her free today after your scumbag boyfriend beat her up and locked her in a closet, and she’s taken quite a shine to you.”
Skyla looked at Mark. So that was why he’d been so desperate to find the missing girl – as long as she was with him he was effectively immortal. And now it was her turn. “Agreed.”
Euterpe’s pixie-like face lit up. “Excellent.” She reached out of the window and wrapped her arms around Skyla, hauling her inside. At which point, time restarted, sending Mark plummeting to his death. Skyla watched as his body thudded to the floor, and then turned her back on him - she had a child to look after and it was time to get started.
The right of C. J. Carter-Stephenson to be identified as the author of this story has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author, or a license permitting restricted copying.