“Does this mean that you’ve forgiven me?” the man-thing said, his voice just as urgent as his eyes. His claws bit into the meat of my shoulders, and I gasped in pain.
“Let me go,” I said, and he did, skittering away from me as if struck, as though I was the one doing violence to him.
“I am so very sorry,” he said. “Please, Brigid, say that you forgive me.”
“That’s not my name,” I said, now looking around frantically for someone, anyone, who might be witnessing this. But the park seemed empty, aside from the two of us. Dusk had quickly turned to full-on darkness, and I shivered; the night had brought a chilling wind with it.
“I don’t know who—or what—you are, or even what’s really happening right now, but I need to go home,” I said. I grabbed my black lump of a purse and fished around until I found my iPhone; the time was six-thirty, and I had missed three calls from my mom.
I decided that I was hallucinating, that my brain was somehow damaged from trying to sit primly on an uncomfortable rock for two hours, and that I would just walk away. He watched me as I set off for my car at a brisk pace, my eyes forward and my posture stiff. The parking lot was not far from the stream, and I reached my gleaming Lexus—last year’s sweet-sixteen present—after a few minutes’ walking. The car beeped comfortingly as I unlocked it on my approach. Several other vehicles dotted the lot, and I wondered where their owners were and why they hadn’t seen the strange man-creature accosting me.
Convinced now that he was an illusion brought on by fatigue, I opened the driver’s side door and slid into the front seat.
“Brigid, what manner of carriage is this?” He was in the passenger’s seat, his gravelly voice full of wonder, his cat-like pupils dilated with interest.
“You’re a figment of my imagination, so could you shut up, please?” I said. “I can’t drive well when I’m distracted.”
His earlier anxiety resurfaced; he wrung his hands and said, “I did not mean to be so forward, but I’ve been imprisoned for such a long time. Longer than I had originally presumed, for I find nothing familiar about my surroundings.” He leaned forward, and I pulled away, pressing against the hard, cold glass of my window. “Aside from your face.”
“We-well,” I said, hating my nervous stutter, “I read on Wikipedia once that everyone has a few people who look just like them, so I think you’re mistaking me for someone else. How’s about you go invade her mind and personal space, huh?”
I jammed the key into the ignition and the car growled to life. The guy-whatever panicked, extending his massive wings like a frightened bird. I was momentarily blinded by a mass of black feathers. Coughing and spitting, with my foot firmly on the brakes, I cried, “Stop! Stop.”
I reached through the swirl of feathers to touch him, both to check my understanding of reality and to, hopefully, calm him down. My hand brushed against the sharp, bony ridges of his horns, and I forced myself not to recoil. Instead, I endured the strange texture, running my fingers over his head until I felt a soft shock of hair. I petted him gently, like someone trying to soothe a fussing cat, because that was the only experience I had to draw from.
Fortunately, it worked. He settled into the seat, retracting his wings to the point that they disappeared. I blinked and began to feel a little faint.
“Okay,” I said, through gritted teeth, “I need to drive home. It’s two miles down the road. If you’re going to hang around, could you not move or talk for the next five minutes?”
“Of course, my lady,” he said, his eyes half-closed in pleasure, as I was still rubbing my thumb against the back of his neck. Maybe treating him like a cat was the right instinct. Maybe he was a dream-version of my cat and I had imagined this entire day, had lost my nerve at leaving the house in my frilly clothes and instead daydreamed a scenario in which I was brave. Maybe I was actually sitting on my bed at home and would wake up soon. But the scene never shifted abruptly to my room, and his breathing was too audible and his skin too warm to be anything but real.
I withdrew my hand, and he slumped down, sullen but docile.
He remained that way until I pulled up the drive way to my house, which was big, bright, and free of human life, as usual. Mom insisted that I keep all the outside lights—including the pool lights—on constantly, and that I make sure at least three of the windows facing the street were lit up, too. She thought this would deter home invaders. I glanced at the persistent figure of memory/mythology beside me and concluded that my mother’s efforts were in vain.
He followed me up to the door, staring silently as I went in, disabled the alarm, and then headed to the kitchen. The answering machine had six messages on it, and I knew without listening that at least four of them were mom. As I punched in the numbers for her office, my figment asked me what year it was.
“We are firmly in the twenty-first century, Buck Rogers,” I said.
My mother picked up on the second ring. “Ciara, where have you been?” she hissed. “You know you’re supposed to check in with me every day, before dark.”
“I know, ma,” I said. “I was at the park and lost track of time.” And possibly my sanity.
“But you’re at the house now, right?” Over a full minute passed before her reply, and I could hear other people trying to catch her attention in the background.
“Obviously,” I said.
“Sorry, we’re about to start a conference call. I’ll call you later. Make sure the doors are locked!”
“Little late for that,” I muttered, but she had already hung up. My mother practiced intense and largely ineffective long-distance concern. I doubted that I would see her until the middle of the week—when she was in the middle of an important deal, which was constantly, she often rented a hotel room nearer to her office and slept there instead of coming home.
Figment-thing had inspected the kitchen while I talked on the phone. His head was in the freezer when I turned back to him.
“Enjoying yourself?” I said.
He rumbled with dissatisfaction and stepped back from the fridge. “That’s truly the most advanced ice-box I’ve yet seen. This is the twenty-first century, you say?”
His accent was vaguely British, and he pronounced words carefully, as though he thought for a second about each one before saying it out loud. When he moved towards me, his body was awkward, loping, like a large and uncertain child. Still, he crossed the room in two strides, stopping right in front of me again, staring at me.
“You are not Brigid,” he pronounced.
“My name is Ciara Fisk,” I said. “Mistaken identity, I’m telling you.”
“No,” he said. “I am not mistaken. Her blood is yours.”
“Her—what—?” I glanced at the receiver in my hand. This was progressing from unnerving to creepy real fast.
“She is your relation,” he said. “You have no one by that name in your lineage?”
I was about to say no, and then paused. I had done an ancestry project in social studies ages ago, and an image of my clumsily drawn family-tree popped up in my memory. My father’s great-grandmother had that name. Or great-great. It was way up the branches.
“So what if I do? She’s been dead for over a hundred years now,” I said.
“And I have been locked away for that long, Ciara Fisk,” he replied. “Only her blood could break the spell set on me, and so it has.”
“Blood spell?” I whispered, clutching the receiver so tightly that I accidentally dialed a random mish-mash of numbers. A computerized woman droned that my call could not be completed as dialed, but my mind had turned to cotton. “What are you, exactly?”
“Mordecai,” he said, extending his hand with a flourish. “Demon prince of the lower depths. I am esteemed to be in your service.”