by Michael Marano

Published in hardcover ($24.95 US/ $34.95 CAN), June 1998
by Tor Books -- ISBN 0-312-86432-9

Published in paperback ($6.99 US/$8.99 CAN), September 1999
by Tor books -- ISBN 0-812-54547-8

Copyright 1998 by Michael Marano. All rights reserved.

Chapter Three

Sunday, December 9, 1990. 7:05 PM

      "You want to play pool?"

      The voice came from behind Lawrence's left shoulder, startling him like the buzz of a wasp by his ear. He turned to see a tall, ashen-skinned man with green eyes gesturing toward an unused table. He had a nice smile, and was very good-looking.


      Why not?

      Early Sunday evening, and the bar was not as overwhelming as it had been on Friday night. It felt more like the bars back home--no blasting music, no packs of post-modernists or grinning studs. The place was wonderfully warm in contrast to the weather outside. The bitter cold was returning, temperatures dropping to the low 20s, and a marrow-chilling dry wind cut the air. Lawrence felt cozy here, almost as if he were visiting someone's home.

      Groups of people sat sipping drinks and nursing beers, chatting or watching videos on the big-screen TV in the far corner. Trapped in a smeary picture, Whitney Houston pranced in a shower of confetti and sang of her need to dance with somebody. Two men sat at one of the far tables talking, eyes fixed on each other, steaming glasses of Irish coffee beside them, holding hands.

      The pool tables weren't crowded with spectators making Roman circus cat-calls. Just a scattering of people quietly playing. There was a comfort in the smell of stale beer and old cigarette smoke. He was glad he'd pricked up the courage to come back, forsaking a night of watching romantic movies from his videotape collection. Lawrence still felt on edge, though, on unfamiliar territory.

      "Nine-ball?" asked the tall man.

      "Sure. Let's play for drinks. Best of five wins." Lawrence felt stupid and phony, his words a put on. He couldn't choose a cue. He'd had a favorite cue at each of the bars in Providence, and used to reach for them out of habit. He scanned the rack and grabbed the one closest at hand.

      The tall guy took a cue absently and stepped to the table.

      "Nine ball it is. You got it." The man's voice was too clear, too carefully enunciated, for him to be at ease. He didn't look at Lawrence, and fumbled as he racked the balls.

      Lawrence relaxed; he'd found a kindred soul.

      "From around here?" the tall guy asked as he dusted his cue, smiling.

      "No. Pretty obvious, huh?"

      "Not really." The tall man smiled at Lawrence as he fired the cue ball home; his brown aviator jacket, shiny and stiff, creaked and groaned as he moved. "You sound pretty New England to me."

      "I'm from around an hour away." Lawrence put chalk on his hands, not to help his handling the cue but to dry his palms.


      The tall man sank the two ball.

      "Hour away, huh? Then you're from around here in my book."


      He sank the three ball.

      "Shit," he said. "Where I'm from, we don't think twice about driving two hours to see an hour and a half long movie. When I was a kid, I spent two hours a day with my butt on a lumpy school bus seat. By the time I graduated, I had calluses on my ass shaped like the springs that poked up through the cushions."

      The tall guy never stopped smiling.


      He missed his shot.

      "All yours," he said, sweeping his hand over the table. The green eyes glinted, the grin never faded. His teeth were pearly white and only slightly crooked.

      His mouth was very kissable.

      "So where's that?" asked Lawrence.

      "Where's what?"

      "Where you're from."

      The guy grinned wider as he stepped from the table. The light from the stained glass lamps cast a red glow on his face.

      "Some shit hole in Kansas you've never heard of and you never will. To us, going to Topeka was a thrill a minute, and Kansas City ...whoa, now Kansas City was fuckin' Disneyland."

      Lawrence leaned over the table and sighted the cue ball. He couldn't imagine such a place.


      He missed his shot.

      "I SAY NOW, SON!" the tall guy bellowed.

      Lawrence started.

      "I say now, son!!" the tall guy yelled again, imitating Foghorn Leghorn. "You're doin' that all wrong, boy!! Let me show ya how!"

      He stepped to where Lawrence stood, nudging him out of the way. Then he placed the balls as they had been before Lawrence's shot.

      "You gotta just tap it," he said, pantomiming a light shot with his cue. "Try to hit it dead center. Picture there's a bull's-eye in the middle."

      Lawrence did the shot as he'd been shown.


      The ball sank.

      The tall man leaned against the table. His lankiness and easy posture made him seem a cowboy loitering in front of a saloon, an imaginary Stetson tilted to one side and a match hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

      "Easy as pie. Name's Tom, by the way."

      "I'm Lawrence."

      They didn't shake.

      Instead, Tom nudged Lawrence with his shoulder. Lawrence could smell the clean leather of the aviator jacket, like new shoes nested in a box with tissue paper.

      They played two games; Tom would often stop to give Lawrence pointers or explain how he himself lined up his shots. He would also touch Lawrence's hands, to help him hold the cue at just the right angles to make his shots. Each time Tom touched him, Lawrence felt a jolt of excitement shoot up his arms, through his torso, to his crotch. Tom saw what his touch did to Lawrence, and kept on touching him.

      They drank two rounds of drinks, chatting, telling jokes and anecdotes about their respective home towns. Lawrence paid for the first round, of course. Then Tom threw the second game to pay for the second.

      A half hour after their second round, the two men arrived at Lawrence's apartment, spilling across the threshold as a single person, arms entangled around each other's waists. They acted as one person as well--Lawrence throwing the light switch as Tom closed the door--kissing as they did so.

      Lawrence had never picked up a man like this before, not so soon after meeting. His mind was fragmented, butterflies in his stomach and weakness in his knees. His pulse raced with excitement and fear and need and worry. In the midst of this storm of anxieties was one stable thing he could focus upon. And that was the thing that was not happening: the fantasy he'd had for months about his first encounter in Boston, how it would come about, what kind of man it would be with, the first gentle bedding culminating after weeks of flirtation and dating and that single, wonderful candlelit dinner.

      Lawrence knew, as he stood in the front hall of his apartment kissing Tom, the hardness of their crotches pressed close together, that this fantasy was nothing but stupid romanticism. Fluff. Jacob had been his only lover. Lawrence had never had a candlelit dinner in his life.

      Yet he clung to the fantasy, holding it close. He mixed memory and desire, imposing the comfort of the dream upon the arousal of his body, trying to keep himself calm as he came to grips with the looming fact that he was going to sleep with this man.

      The fear was too strong: his steadiness buckled. He didn't want things to happen this way, not yet, not so quickly.

      "You want a drink?" he asked as their lips parted. Lawrence had no alcohol in the apartment, only soft drinks and juice in the fridge. Perhaps they could drink coffee and talk for an hour before going to the bedroom.

      Tom slipped his hand low over Lawrence's ass and pulled him closer; his long, wiry arms were surprisingly strong. "I want what you want," he said as he placed his mouth over Lawrence's.

      Lawrence stifled his fear, he made himself think of this encounter as a rite of passage, a confrontation with the shameful prudishness he'd felt two nights before. He felt outside himself, seeing his actions as another person's. He wanted to be a witness to what was about to happen as well as a participant; he needed to remember the event clearly, in the smallest detail.

      Lawrence lost this detachment in bed, bathed in the pleasure of Tom's touch, the feel of his firm, knotty body against his own. His fear dissipated like smoke as he and Tom kissed, caressed, tasted each other, the perfume of pre-ejaculate thick in the air.

      Lawrence's certainty shattered when Tom balked at using a condom.

      "What the fuck are you doing?" he said as Lawrence reached into his night stand drawer.

      Lawrence didn't speak. He only showed Tom the foil-wrapped prophylactics.

      Tom drew his hand off Lawrence's skinny chest, as if he'd just set it down in something unsightly and corrupted.

      "You're ruining the mood."

      Tom's eyes seemed a shade deeper green and the shadow of a sneer crossed his face. There was a heavy silence, broken by the hissing clank of the radiator as steam from the boiler far below wound its way to the top floor.

      Lawrence was stunned. His friend Martin had died of AIDS, twenty years old when his own blood poisoned him and left him dead like the husk of a fly. He'd died alone in a ward, rejected by his parents, who were too steeped in the judgemental ire Providence bred so well to care for their son, who'd shamed them by being a sinner.

      Lawrence could not bear the thought of dying alone.

      "I'm not wearing one of those fucking things." Tom propped himself up on one elbow and absently looked down at his own sparse chest hair, running his fingertips through it as if combing it into place.

      The radiator continued its hissing chorus.

      Lawrence found he wanted to cast the condom aside, to comply with Tom's wishes. To please Tom. To be liked by Tom.

      He felt like a child again, remembering the times he'd buckled in the hope of gaining approval, remembering when his older cousin Fred had dared him to sled down a steep hill without holding on tight to the reins, had told him not to be afraid, had laughed as Lawrence trudged up the hill bloodied and, later, had been so very silent as Lawrence's father slapped Lawrence for being careless.

      Not again.

      Not now, at this point in his life when he was trying to shed his childhood. Not now, when the shadow of this night could walk behind him, haunting him--giving him six months of sweating anxiety until he could get an accurate HIV test--and possibly one day killing him.

      Lawrence made himself a witness again to his actions, to give himself the distance to stand up to Tom and his own need to please Tom.

      "Then I guess you can go home." The words felt unreal, sounds he as a witness created that intruded upon what he observed.

      Tom stopped his cat-like grooming of his chest and flashed Lawrence a look. Lawrence saw that Tom was used to his looks getting him what he wanted. Lawrence called on the witness, his other self, to take advantage of Tom's surprise.

      "Unless you want me to wear the condom."

      The sex was horrible.

      Lawrence was too used to Jacob's love-making to have any enjoyment. He tried to imagine he was with Jacob, but Tom was an overwhelming presence, angry and frustrated, needing to punish Lawrence for forcing the condom issue and forcing him to wear the fucking thing.

      Tom did not wipe the excess K-Y Jelly from his hand on the sheets, but left it there as he placed his palm on the small of Lawrence's back, bracing himself as he entered.

      Afterward, the two retreated to opposite sides of the bed, no words spoken as the sounds of the radiator died.

      Each clung to his share of the covers, marking his own space.

      His own territory.


      Lawrence heard his father's voice saying the word with a contempt that seemed to have physical weight. He relived a moment when he was sixteen, first experimenting with his desires with a guilty weight in his chest. He'd been watching the local news with Dad. In a report about Gay organizations on Brown's campus, a spokesperson was interviewed about frat members demolishing the large pink triangle placed on the quad in honor of Gay Rights Week.

      "Faggots," his father snorted as he separated his mouth from a bottle of Narragansett Beer. "Listen to that little shit whine. They ain't got no fuckin' guts or spines. All they fuckin' do is whine and want things their way. Little shits, every one of them...."

      The voice of his father...

      Every time he felt bad about himself, it spoke to him.

      Lawrence was furious, sad, lonely... homesick.

      He wanted the comfort of familiar places; even when Jacob was at his drunken worst, Lawrence hadn't felt this shitty or belittled. He was exhausted, but was too on edge, too nervous about Tom to drift off.

      A sense of violation burned inside him, beyond the physical intrusion of Tom. He'd been forced into the same power games he'd despised at the bar Friday night, here, tonight, within his own home.

      Within his own bed.

      And he felt cheated, trapped, by stumbling into a scenario that fit his father's conception of faggothood so perfectly. Now Lawrence lay next to a man to whom he'd given his body, whom he never wanted to see again. Emotional fatigue, not physical, made him drift off. His tiredness was a hollowness in his chest, a buzzing ache in his head.

      His mind dimmed, drawing darkness over itself like a blanket for warmth and welcome numbness.

      And then the nightmares took him, much worse than they had two nights before.

      No clear image or continuous form revealed itself in the dream. Lawrence knew only a heap of broken images, a sleep riot of subtle sensations and a burning fear of death. The dream was alien, intrusive, probing deep with roots that clutched at his most basic sense of self. His perceptions were distorted, warped by the weight of the dream. His mind folded inward upon itself, like the surface of a pond in the instant a thrown stone touches it.

      Lawrence dreamt of an arm draped over his face, with skin soft as rose petals that smelled of incense.

      The kind that is burned in church.

      The flesh of the arm trapped its scent in his lungs as it suffocated him.

      Quick, strobing images of eyes like a doe's crying.

      The taste of tea and milk.

      The feeling of holding a woman's hand on a scarred wooden table, the smell of air that had been breathed too many times in a crowded place.

      The sense of being surrounded by chatting people who did not matter.

      All that mattered was the feel of that hand against his own.

      A waxen grey shadow, hot and viscous like filthy bath water, broke over him in a wave, erasing his smallest sense of self, his smallest sense of awareness.

      Neither living nor dead, knowing nothing, Lawrence floated like wet rags in the void. There was no time in that dead place, no sight or word. Then a shrill tone beckoned him. He focused on it, went towards it, a moth to flame.

      The tone had a silvery materiality, like the glow of clouds near the moon.

      He broke the surface, his eyes seeing only the snowy whiteness of the sheets.

      The alarm clock had brought him from the dream, its electronic drone like the chirp of a mechanical bird.

      Lawrence started to reach to shut off the alarm...

      ...but couldn't move.

      Limbs knotted, he was frozen in fear, his body unable to answer his mind. He heard the throb of blood rushing in his ears. The alarm. The flow of air into his lungs.

      He blinked twice and tried to move again.


      As if he were fixed by the gaze of a snake.

      The alarm kept beeping.

      Lawrence took as deep a breath as he could, forcing air into his lungs.

      That broke the spell.

      Clenched muscles fell lax, as if the cords holding him taut had been cut.

      He reached over and shut off the alarm.

      His arm was tired, sore and weak, his fingers tingling and numb; the joints of his legs and feet ached.

      Tom was gone.

      He was relieved.

      And disappointed.

      Disappointed that there was no chance of a good-bye, no chance to try to stay on good terms.

      To try again.

      Then Lawrence was angry at himself for being such a God-damned Pollyanna.

      Tom was a creep.

      End of issue.

      He got out of bed, feeling shaky and sick.

      And hating himself for caring, he searched the room for a note, a slip of paper with a phone number, an article of clothing, anything to mark Tom's passing.

      Soft light of winter dawn filled the room as Lawrence searched. The warped resonance of the dream was still with him, making his vision vibrate. His gaze fell on the condom, cast aside by the bed like the skin of a snake.

      That was all Tom had left behind--only that, and an empty space in the living room where Lawrence's VCR had been. It had been a gift from Jacob. All the cash was gone from his wallet as well.

      Lawrence went to his bed and quietly sat, waiting for his limbs to stop quaking.


Monday, December 10, 1990. 11:51 AM.

      The Succubus smelled the church before she saw it. The scent cut through the quilt of stenches made by traffic, dirty ice, misting human breath, and steam churning from manholes. It lodged on the back of her palate like dust, acrid and sickly-sweet--a combination that echoed cinnamon and hot ash, touched with the taste of still air in the moment before a lightning strike.

      The smell startled her, snapping her thoughts from the new weight of Andrew's soul inside her and the first angelic sphere his soul had afforded her, from daydreams of her promised Name, her Father, and the lovers she'd configure within herself to gain greater materiality, and so ascend the angelic spheres still separating her from her Name. She looked upwind toward the source of the smell and gasped.

      For the church was dead, a de-consecrated hulk, office space and high-rent apartments built into what had been cathedral, modern architecture of red brick growing as geometric cancer from the Gothic edifice. The additions rose high as the main spire, yet the place still had the angry cold aura of a living church. The grey stones seemed held in check by the additions grafted atop them.

      The structure was a confabulation of deadly sanctity and grotesque banality, dominating the corner it stood upon despite being the smallest building there.

      The Succubus walked toward the church, crossing Beacon Street to see it more closely, with the aspect of her vision that transcended the physical.

      The husk of the place's holiness remained; the sickening intrusion of its sanctity into the ether was visible to her like the ghost of the sun etched upon the retina. The husk was the shape and color of a robin's egg cupped over the church and its grounds.

      Yet the shell was dead.


      It could not harm her.

      She felt a mild, quaking nausea from being so close to the thing. The shell of sanctity had a sundering power about it--like a wave frozen at its crest.

      She walked the periphery of the church grounds, along the side that faced Massachusetts Avenue. The place was very near the Charles River. The river's strength was like a living presence standing by her shoulder. She watched the church as she would a snake coiled under a bush, uncertain if it would strike, uncertain if its death were a sham to lure her close so it could devour and obliterate her.

      And then the Succubus saw the scars.

      The church had been burned. Gutted by cleansing flame. Striated marks rose from the church like waves of heat from a forge. Yet they were still, frozen in the air.

      The nave, once filled with wooden pews and prayer-mumbling hypocrites, was now open to the sky, made into a courtyard visible through archways that had once held stained glass windows. The wall stood like a disconnected rampart, reduced to a tall stone fence marking the western boundary of the courtyard.

      In the courtyard, new brick walls faced old stone walls mutely. The ground of the courtyard was marked with a crisscross pattern of dirty brown paths trod into the snow, connecting the structure's courtyard entrances. Bits of trash, carried by the cold wind, danced and scuttled where parishioners had once lined for communion.

      Leafless, dead-looking trees grew between the icy sidewalk the Succubus stood upon and the soot-blackened nave wall, making the place all the more desolate and pleasing to her eye. There was a squirrel's nest among the naked branches, yet the tree gave shelter to no living thing. She smelled no life; the animal that had made the nest was dead, frozen or starved by the brutal cold that had taken the city. The skeletal fingers of the branches held the nest as an offering to the dead church. As she stared at the tree's offering, something caught her eye that made her cover her mouth prettily to suppress a giggle.

      For a bronze statue of a very feminine angel stood atop the nave wall: a lonely sentinel frozen in mid-step on the rampart, dusted with soot and snow. Tears of ice ran down her face. The angel looked down at the passersby, who, with their eyes fixed before their feet, took no notice of her.

      How abandoned she looked.

      How forgotten.

      The Succubus would never be forgotten, like this nameless, blasphemous cousin of hers. The Name she'd earn would be hers for eons, long after this graven image whose face was taken from that imagined by men for the mother of the Kristos, fell--no longer able to hold on tight with mortar to the top of her wall.

      She looked at the corpse church for an hour, watching tumor-ridden pigeons perch upon the spires, their images warping slightly as they passed through the dimmed shell of sanctity. People's images warped too, as they passed through the shell, coming and going from their work in the new office space, which buzzed like a hive in contrast to the stillness of the areas that still had the semblance of a church. At times she retreated to the opposite side of Beacon Street when the death-smell became too strong for her.

      She was very much a child, with a child's sense of the wondrous, unaware of her past life and damnation. She believed her pilgrimage now to be the first time she'd walked the earth, ignorant that she'd once been a living woman of unchanging flesh, that she was not conjured from the essence of her patron like a homunculus. She did not know that her form had as the base of its substance a dead soul.

      A damned soul.

      She had no memory of another burned and gutted church in her past--before her death and her second birth through her Patron's hand--where two centuries before and half a world away she had serviced an officer of the New Caesar atop an altar stinking of oily smoke. He paid her in stones pried from the looted chalice. She had no memory that the smothering of the child born of that union had dropped her to Hell. She did not know that the hybrid demons she looked upon with aristocratic disdain once shat into her screaming mouth, a mocking re-creation of her own crime against Heaven.

      All this was forgotten.

      As a child she saw herself.

      As a child she saw the world.

      As a child she moved and dreamed.

      And so she had spent this day wandering the city, in the body she'd used to kill Andrew, testing things dangerous to her, seeking them with a fascination like that of an infant's with flame.

      She'd gone near a synagogue and a mosque; within each place prayers were held that made the air around her sting like sour pollen. She retreated from the sickness and pain those places caused her.

      She wandered to a graveyard near the old center of the city. The cemetery had been given over to tourism because of its age, and was now barely sacred, holiness trampled from the soil. Traces of holiness emanated from the tombstones that leaned like rows of crooked teeth through the snow.

      The cemetery rose to a hilly place where the stones were scattered among a handful of sepulchers which had cracked under the weight of years, mortar and stony rubbish tumbling to the ground like spilled goods. Beyond, a gate of iron spikes lead to an alley between the tall buildings that pressed close to the graveyard.

      The gravestones on the hill draped in forgetful snow reminded the Succubus of strayed lambs grazing on a frozen field. Crouched low, behind a stone carved with winged skulls and lamenting angels, she reached down and tasted the snow the flock fed upon.

      It was gritty, peppered with soot.

      And what grass there was beneath the snow was the color of the brown fog of a winter dawn, blanched of life, blanched of sustenance, blanched of all hope of the rebirth April would bring.

      The trees in the graveyard had roots that clutched deep through the unblessed soil, nourished by rotting vessels that had once held precious human souls. She saw the roots grasping through the dirt into the solid shadows of coffins underfoot.

      She stayed until her essence began to feel oily as the water under a blister, and a sensation of slowly being scalded crept upon her. Traces of sanctity in the stones had started to affect her, taking her like fever.

      She felt no such fever now, in the shadow of this beautifully murdered church. She was becoming used to the death-smell, and the skeleton of the church's sanctity did not frighten her as it had before.

      And this gave her a spark of courage.

      Courage to do something extraordinary.

      She would enter this church--violate it for the sake of her Patron--carrying the part of Hell she held within herself into what had been God's domain, carrying the aspect of her Patron's essence her body represented into the mind of the hatefully Divine.

      The Succubus steeled herself, banishing the fear that the church would lash out as she stepped into its maw. The place was dead, the shell not a true barrier. When she crossed the threshold, she'd not be obliterated, blasted to a handful of dust...

      An animal growled at her.

      The Succubus' eyes snapped downward. A small dog gnashed at her feet, straining its leash. The dog's mistress tugged the dog along, staring at the Succubus over her shoulder, as if the Succubus were someone she knew from long ago but did not like or trust.

      Her eyes were touched with fear.

      And the Succubus realized her body had drifted with her mind. Her features and aura were reflecting the ethereal impressions of the city, the roiling bustle finding outlet in her face and body while she'd been held by the church's gorgon-stare.

      She pulled the collar of her pea coat high. Then she walked, eyes cast downward, to the entryway of a nearby apartment building. Facing the shining bronze mailboxes by the door, she refined and softened her features, cleaned the aura she projected, changed the texture of her scent, and made pretty again the false soul she carried in her eyes. As a final touch, she made her cheeks flush red, rosy and glowing from the cold air.

      She felt almost as beautiful as she did in her natural form. 'Jeannette,' she thought. The name of this mask is 'Jeannette.'

      A dapper old man in a cashmere coat emerged from the apartment building, and, upon seeing her, smiled and held the door open for her. The Succubus shyly shook her head no.

      And as a human, as Jeannette, she walked toward the door of the dead church.


Monday, 12:45 P.M.

      Lawrence awoke for the second time. After the helpless rage of being robbed close upon the mind-games and nightmares of the night before, he'd curled up in a fetal ball. He'd fallen asleep almost as if in a swoon.

      Now the telephone jarred him to an ugly wakefulness and the ugly certainty that what had happened was not a dream. Aching, he walked to the hallway and picked up the phone as his answering machine message clicked on. The Tommy Dorsey band played as Lawrence's recorded voice said: "Hello! You've reached Lawrence's number. I can't make it..."

      "Lawrence?" The whining voice at the end of the line cut through the music and Lawrence's taped voice.

      "Yeah. Hold on."

      "...to the phone right now, but if...."

      He shut off the message, the corners of his vision unfocused, as if full of television static. A crick throbbed in his neck.

      "Why do you have to have that music on your phone?"

      It was Angie, Lawrence's sister. She was thirty, with a thirteen year old son (whom Lawrence hated) and high blood pressure. She worked at the Rhode Island College bookstore, and her current boyfriend was a skinny, acne-ridden twenty-three year old flunking out of the R.I.C. teacher's certification program.

      Lawrence mumbled something in reply as he sat on the hallway floor, eyes cast low, the grey winter light on his chest making him look newly dead.

      "Are you drunk?"

      "No. No, I'm just really tired. That's all."

      "Why can't you put something nice on your machine?"

      Angie's definition of "nice" was "non-threatening." Even Tommy Dorsey was suspect, smacking too much of individuality--deviance, even. Because old people were supposed to like Tommy Dorsey, and when they did, well, that was nice.

      "Because I like the music I've got on it now."

      "Well." The one syllable closed the issue, for obviously Angie had more pressing things to discuss. She hadn't called just to be set off and find comfort at her stupid kid brother's expense, as she had so often before.

      "What are you doing for Christmas?" Her tone was accusing, but tightness in her voice made her sound afraid.

      "I don't know. I hadn't thought about it." Lawrence rubbed his neck, wishing Jacob were there to make the vertebrae crack, the way he used to before things got bad, by gently twisting Lawrence's head to the right and to the left.

      "Aren't you coming home?"

      "Well, yeah. I just don't know when."

      "What do mean, you 'don't know'?" Her voice went up a note.

      "I mean, I don't know when I can get off work."

      "You know this will be Mamma's first Christmas without Daddy..."

      Yes, I know that, you fucking cow. You think I'm as stupid as you?

      " ...and we should all be there for her."

      "Yes. I know. I'll be there. Maybe Christmas Eve. It depends on how the buses and trains are running, all right?"

      Lawrence's voice cracked on the last syllable. His breath quickened.

      "Good. We all have to stay together for Mother's sake. You know that, don't you?" With the cracking of her brother's voice, Angie sounded relaxed.

      "Yes, I know that. Look, I've got to go to work. I'll call you later, okay?"

      "All right." She said this as if she were indulging a transparent excuse.

      They each said good-bye and hung up.

      Lawrence stood and went to the bathroom mirror. He looked awful: bags under his eyes, skin puffing out. He turned the hot water tap, lathered his face, shaved.

      Angie had reminded him how much he hated the holidays.

      Thanksgiving had been a nightmare, the first family gathering since his father's funeral in June. The empty chair at the head of the table made the atmosphere unbearable. As eldest son, Lawrence should have taken the chair, but by unspoken family proclamation this simply would not be. His family was not aware that he was gay, but they sensed something unacceptable about him. Thus, through unspoken, unanimous decree, Lawrence was relegated to be the black sheep.

      The same silent coalition decided it was a bad thing for Lawrence to move to Boston the next day. Surely he could stay until the first of the month to be with his mother. What was his hurry? Just because he had a job lined up and had his foot in the door of a rent-controlled brownstone with a view of the river and most utilities covered? Just what was his hurry?

      The air was thick with veiled attacks, just as it had been during the Sunday dinners when Lawrence had first moved in with his "friend," Jacob. But now Lawrence was leaving Providence altogether, and all his sins must surely be remembered, from the ever-so-funny stories about him falling down the stairs when he was six to the time Uncle Johnny tried to teach him to fight when he first went to high school.

      He and Angie had fought after dinner in hissing tones while they washed a mountain of dishes and the rest of the family watched football and drank beer. Lawrence didn't love Daddy enough, she said. And why did he have to leave? Why did he have to go to Boston? Wouldn't he be happier with Mama, living with her while she was so lonely?

      Never mind that Angie and her bastard brat could have moved into the attic at any time.

      The issue wasn't Mother living alone. The issue was that Angie, and Lawrence's other siblings and cousins, as well as their spouses, needed him around to shit on, to make themselves feel better about their doomed existences in a dying industrial town. That Lawrence was removing himself from their abuse and from what they saw as his responsibility, however remote, for his father's death was profoundly unforgivable.

      Lawrence grimaced as the razor nicked a blemish on his cheek. He blotted the cut with toilet paper and dried his face.

      He still looked and felt awful. He thought about calling in sick and sleeping the day away. But Lawrence knew that hiding from the world under warm covers was a defense he'd developed as a child: if things were too horrible to face, take a nap and they'll go away. Dreams afforded temporary shelter, until the inevitable shouting and yelling from downstairs woke him. Besides, if he called in sick, he could lose his job. He'd been working at the bookstore less than three weeks.

      Lawrence was about to shower when the thought struck him that Tom had helped himself to other things besides his VCR and his cash, small things he could carry in his pockets while both hands held the VCR, that Lawrence wouldn't notice were missing right away.

      A sick feeling filled his stomach. He put on his robe and went to the living room.

      A good deal of his things were still in boxes in the far corner: summer clothes, books, his Walkman. The boxes were not opened.

      He went to the kitchen.

      The cabinets had all been opened.

      Tom had helped himself to breakfast. A new box of cereal had been opened; a milk carton, almost full, had been left on the radiator to go bad. A dirty bowl and spoon lay in the sink.

      Lawrence's jaw clenched, his hands became fists.

      The rest of the cabinets seemed undisturbed. Nothing worth stealing in the kitchen, really, but something was not quite right.

      It was the garbage bags.

      The box of garbage bags that had been flush with the sides of the cabinet above the sink was now in the middle of the cabinet. Why would Tom take a garbage bag?

      To carry the VCR in. So he wouldn't be noticed walking down the street with it.

      The fucker.

      Aside from that, nothing worth stealing in the kitchen.

      Then he remembered the valuables in the bedroom; he rushed to his night stand. The condoms were shredded, cut up by a pocket knife, maybe, and covered in spit.

      But his silver Saint Christopher's medal was safe, far enough back in the drawer to escape Tom's notice. It had been a Confirmation gift from his Aunt Sarah, one of the few relatives whom he could stand. One of his few relatives who truly loved him.

      His silver cross was safe, too.

      He put medal and cross back in the drawer, threw out the shredded condoms. Then he went back to the kitchen and threw out the milk, bowl and spoon. He wouldn't give Tom the satisfaction of washing up after him.

      The shower felt wonderful.



      Washing away the stink of the past night and this day, cleansing his body from Tom's touch.

      Things are okay, said to himself as he dressed. That fucker took my paycheck. But I can get by on my savings until Friday. I can afford a new VCR soon. Pick one up at an after Christmas sale. That'll be okay. I can get over this.

      Lawrence had half an hour to get to work. He could grab a sandwich on the way, go past the bank and take the first few dollars out of his savings account. He put on his coat and left his apartment.

      Standing in the hall, hand thrust in his pocket, closing around his key chain, he felt something wrong.

      He was wearing the jeans he wore last night.

      The ones he threw by the side of the bed.

      The ones Tom would have tripped over getting out of bed before helping himself to Lawrence's wallet in the back pocket.

      When he read the note written on the slip of paper attached to the key ring, his arm convulsed, keys jangling in his palm, an awful rictus in his biceps.

      The fucker had taken the wrong key, thank God.

      He'd taken Lawrence's key to his parents' house, thinking it the key to his apartment.

      But the note left in its stead still froze Lawrence's heart, blinding him with new rage and a new sense of violation:



Monday, 1:00 PM.

      The Succubus looked back, as a person who has escaped the sea looks back from shore, and saw upon the church's husk the bloody mark of her passing blossom like a wine-stain upon linen.

      As she had passed through it, so had it passed through her, rupturing her inner essence, so that it seeped from beneath the false skin of humanity she wore. She stifled a scream, feeling something inside tear like gossamer in heavy rain.

      As she had walked the aisle of ice toward the church's husk, she burned as the desert does beneath the sun. The bitter wind off the river cut through her, and with the awful heat and cold, the feel of sanctity ran over her like a sweating palm, soiling her aura, making her breath oily and heavy with the church's death smell.

      She wanted to turn back, flee the fire, the cold, the viscous sanctity. But thoughts of the angel and her martyr's vigil atop the church wall beckoned her. She'd not be driven from the ramparts the angel guarded, defeated by the graven image. She'd penetrate the angel's stronghold, fell its walls, for the glory of her sweet Father.

      Love for her Father, summoned from deep inside herself, brought her through the husk and quieted her fear and pain. He, reflected through the prism of Materiality as a presence beside her and brought from without her, escorted her to the other side. And once through the wall that had barred her from the angel's realm, she sang a song of thanks and praise to her Lord, using not her physical voice, but the voice of her aspect that walked through human thoughts, that tasted dreams and extinguished souls.

      Then she watched flecks of trash dance in the wind beneath the red mark of her passing, which seemed to wave and flap in an ethereal wind like a sheet.

      Aware of people walking by her, she touched her face. Her image had held; the husk's soiling of her aura fell away. She turned and walked along the empty riverbed of the icy sidewalk, toward the looming mountain of the church, called by the resonate specter-voice of what had been the bells in the steeple; their vibrations still marked the air, still made echoes, distant and warped, like bells rung on the bottom of the ocean.

      She would come back through the stain she had made; it was part of her realm, now.

      As was the tomb before her that had been the home of God.

      She crossed the threshold praying, as a pilgrim would entering the chapel of saint.


Monday, 1:00 P.M.

      The walls had been smashed.

      A great, unforgiving fist had crashed from the night sky and obliterated her secret fortress, her protecting, nurturing tower. Cold, brutal darkness flooded in, and the child who had been safe within the tower now lay screaming, rocking back and forth, naked amid broken stones and mortar.

      With closed eyes, protected by a shell of White Light within her Comfort Place, Miriam watched the child cry. She had not been within this part of herself since Thanksgiving, when her mother had spoken those awful words with the heavy venom only the most vicious lies can hold.

      Miriam reached inside herself, visualizing herself clad in the white robes of a Healer amid the tower's ruins. With trembling, determined hands, she began to rebuild the walls she had once so lovingly assembled.

      "You are the first stone. You have the patience and strength of all the Earth. Upon you and your strength will rest all the stones that shall follow."

      The child's cries quieted, ever so slightly, with the placing of the first stone. Miriam held this quieting close, embracing the hope that with the placing of each protecting stone, the child would become more comforted, more healed.

      "I am Miriam, child of light, and with this stone, I reclaim my name."

      She set the next stone in place.

      Again, the child, the wounded little one who had always been deep inside her, quieted her cries.

      Miriam gathered the next silent, wise stone and set it with the first two.

      "I am Miriam, child of light, and with this stone I reclaim what was taken from me."

      She continued the slow process of rebuilding her inner place of safety, while physically she sat nestled within the part of her home where no one could come without her permission or grace--her place of healing ...healing of her mind and heart and soul. The place where she could make herself stronger, where everything she did was for herself, where she could be away from Elizabeth and the baby and find the balance, the peace and serenity that she deserved.

      The child within herself was no longer so naked, no longer so vulnerable. Miriam had rebuilt the foundation wall of her tower to the height of her waist when a truck rumbled past the apartment building, rattling the windows, crunching ice and rock salt strewn on the pavement outside. But she was stronger than that distraction, maintaining her concentration, her determination to complete her tower and so make herself complete.

      I am Miriam, child of light, and with this stone I...

      The phone in the next room rang; she had forgotten to shut it off. She could be stronger than this distraction, too ...stay focused within herself and...

      Her mother's voice.

      It intoned over the answering machine, cutting through the thin walls, cutting through her precious shell of White Light.

      "Miriam ...this is your Mother. Call me. We need to talk about...

      The fist crashed down again from the awful, moonless sky. Miriam fell back from the wall she was rebuilding...

      " ...what's going on with you. You can't..."

      And the child inside Miriam screamed, began its spastic, wounded rocking again, curled up in a fetal ball.

      " ...keep hold of this crazy idea..."

      Miriam herself fell back from her meditation pillows, rolled to carpeted floor. Her mother's voice. So full of venom, so full of lies.

      " ...without hurting everyone around you, not just yourself."

      Miriam lay upon the floor, in a fetal ball, rocking and crying softly, in unison with the innocent child she had failed by letting her mother invade this sacred space.

      "Miriam, are you there? Will you pick up?"

      Eyes closed, tears streaming down her face, Miriam visualized her mother's eyes, now, as she spoke into the phone: the same look of contempt, of sickened condescension that Miriam had faced when she'd confronted her mother over Thanksgiving.

      "Miriam, will you do the courageous thing and pick up this phone and talk to me? We have to talk..."

      The look of contempt in her mother's eyes when Miriam had told her about what her father had done to her, in the night so many times when she was a girl. How he had invaded her and stolen her childhood, her innocence, her very sense of being by forcing himself inside her, making her do those awful things for him.

      "All right, then. If you won't pick up call me, when you're ready to talk."

      And her mother had met Miriam's gaze and spoken those heavy, wounding words that cut through all of Miriam's defenses and brought the fist down upon her inner tower.

      "Your father was impotent. He fell off a ladder when you were two and damaged the nerves at the base of his spine. He didn't do those things to you. He couldn't."

      Almost an hour passed before Miriam could stand and erase the message.


Monday, 1:02 P.M.

      "Can I help you, honey?"

      Ghosts of prayers from before the church had been gutted were trapped within the fabric of the stones, the rafters, the air. They were dead prayers, spoken without enough faith to lift them past the mundane world, yet they had been invested with enough desire that they lingered and were visible to her now: faint grey shadows that floated and spun like feathers in still air. Her own murmuring orisons had struck them as she'd entered, illuminating them in stark relief, as if by lightning. Now they nestled in the periphery of her sight.

      There were new prayers here, as well: vibrant prayers of need and hunger and want that she could see here in the entryway, that she could sense packed tight within the dead church like atrocities within the mind of a lunatic.

      They were prayers spoken in desperate silence for wealth and power and acclaim, for stability and respect and influence. Prayers spoken while the new congregation hunched over desks as the believers who had once come here had hunched over their own clasped hands while kneeling. She could feel these desires ulcerating in the hearts of the people who worked here, misdirected desires germinating in covetousness before being breathed into the unfocused buzz this place had...

      "Can I help you, honey?"

      The Succubus turned slowly and smiled, calling upon the warmth of the mask called "Jeannette." The woman behind the desk in the entry way was in her fifties, plump, with soft brown eyes. The Succubus met her gaze, and could tell the woman had a daughter about the age her mask appeared, could smell the motherly pang within her heart through the ashen abattoir scent of the church. She drew her woolen coat tight, touching the woman's maternal instincts with this small, awkward gesture as she walked to the desk.

      "Oh, it's nothing," she said. "It's just...." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Do you have a Ladies' Room?"

      The woman's smile touched the Succubus' face like a caress.

      "It's around the corner and down on your left, honey."

      She walked down the hall, feeling the gaze of two men in wool suits upon her as she passed them. Their conversation muted while they both shot their attention to their left, to watch her as she walked past.

      She wanted them. She wanted to take their male sureness, their fragile convictions of their own power, and hold these parts of their identities--translucent and quivering in her hands--as she robbed them of their lives, as she pulled them from their bodies.

      Yet their souls were sickly as runt infants, not worth her while. But she made shy eye contact with them both, for the pleasure of seeing the rush of want whispering in their minds and streaking through the glow of their bodies like sunlight rippling upon water.

      When she was stronger she could pursue such frivolous prey. Not now, while so much was at stake.

      As the two men walked away, she was aware of one of them looking at her back, and the other bristling that his companion would dare covet what he coveted.

      Then in mid-step...

      ...she had a sensation of being on her back, a welcome strong weight on her belly and chest, the smell of blistered mahogany and the feel of dappled sunlight on her face, of a man's lips on her own.

      A glow spread over her, sensuous as the taste of candlelight. A need to be near a being of power and strength filled her, suddenly replaced by the sting throughout her body of residual sanctity. Her skin and aura tingled and itched; she would have to leave here, soon. She placed her hand on the bathroom doorknob, collected herself, and went inside.

      The metal pipes resonated with the traffic that rumbled past the building, the footfalls on the floors above, and the flow of water surging within them. She was alone, but could smell traces of women who came in this room, the cream sweet scent of infants laid upon the changing table and the afterbite of human waste in a place where the air had once been thick with the smell of incense and candles.

      The Succubus leaned against the door of a stall, wishing she were material enough to defecate here, within this once Holy site. Perhaps later, when she had taken more lovers and attained a state closer to True Flesh. Such a gesture would please her Father so. For now, she'd leave something else behind, one final desecration for this savaged church.

      She walked to the mirror above the sink and touched her reflection. Beneath the blue glow of fluorescent lights, she breathed out part of herself, a tiny cloud, exhaled as spiritus. She gritted her teeth, clenched her fists, as the last strands separated from her. It felt as if skin had been flayed from inside her lip.

      She willed it up into an air vent. She felt it float there. As she let go of it with her mind, she was aware of it drifting through the narrow metal corridors like a jellyfish carried by tide. When the time was right, she would know of its landfall.

      On her way out the lobby, she thanked the woman behind the desk, who beamed at her and said, "Take care now, honey."

      "You, too. And God bless."

(End, Chapter Three)

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