It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult. - Seneca

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Excerpt from, "Haunting Beauty"


The man came to her just before dawn.

Danni had awoken with a start a few moments earlier, tangled in her bedding, unsure of what had pulled her from sleep. The inky blackness outside pressed against her windows, a dark entity that wanted to creep in and take over. Uneasy, she crawled from bed and shuffled to the kitchen for coffee.

That’s when she felt the air turn.

It plunged in a silent, cold force that made her ears ring and her stomach sink. Like a latent memory, the sensation of it was suddenly there, filling her head—familiar and frightening, pressure and relief. She knew it; she feared it. She remembered it, though what the turning air heralded escaped her.

She spun to find the man waiting behind her. Tall, with broad shoulders and the layered muscles of a warrior, he leaned against her counter. As if it was perfectly natural for him to be there. As if he really was in her kitchen.

Dark brows and long black lashes emphasized the unusual color of his eyes—not quite green, not quite gray. Eyes like the sea, relentless and deep. A straight, blunt nose gave balance to his full lips and square jaw. There was a harsh and rugged edge to his features that flawed his beauty and made it something masculine, something more compelling than simple aesthetics. He wore a black leather coat over a crisp white shirt and jeans that tapered from lean hips to long legs. Not just tall. Not just broad. A big man.

He watched her, assessing and judging her with the same weighted concentration she gave him. She felt self-conscious in her faded Save the Children T-shirt and pink boxers, which was ridiculous. He wasn’t really here.

She knew it, but the knowledge didn’t stop her stomach from knotting with uncertainty and fear. Why was she seeing him? What did he want? There had to be a reason. She knew that, too.

Danni sloshed coffee over the edge of her mug as she set it down. She would drop it if she held it any longer. The man interpreted this as acquiescence and began. Sometimes it was like that, she remembered. Sometimes they seemed to take Danni with them, like tour guides on a ghostly journey. Other times they were completely unaware they’d unraveled the fibers of reality and forced Danni to peer in at them.

When she’d been a child, the visits—the visions—had been frequent and exciting. The plunging turn of the air had felt like flying to her. But the visions had stopped so long ago she’d forgotten they’d ever happened at all. No, she corrected herself. She hadn’t forgotten—she’d wiped the experiences from her memory with purposeful precision, because only the crazy saw people and things that weren’t real.

The man turned, gesturing for her to follow as the familiar kitchen walls behind his broad shoulders vanished and, like a painting created before her very eyes, a stark landscape appeared in their place. The image had fuzzy edges and a grainy texture, but it breathed in a lifelike way, just as the man did.

It seemed so real. Too real.

A patchwork quilt of vivid greens, earthy browns and heavy pewter spread out unending. Danni frowned, trying to put a name to the place. Did she know it? Had she seen it before? The man crossed from the pale kitchen tile to a spongy turf that should have left footprints, but of course, didn’t. His steps were as unreal as his presence. Reluctantly, Danni went with him.

It felt like they walked for some time, but she knew they’d never left her kitchen. Still the frosty cold of the earth against her feet, the wintry wind on her face and the damp mist clinging to her hair and scant clothing, chilled her to the bone. The sensations were crisp and visceral and frightening.

Barefoot, still wearing her pajamas, she followed the man across a valley to a destination she couldn’t fathom. The sky above them grumbled and rolled in bleak shades of slate and steel. It seeped down to lush emerald pastures and saturated the air with freezing dampness. The brisk wind carried the spice of sea salt as it tormented the many limbed alders and bandied with the stranger’s long leather coat and short cropped hair. She could hear waves crashing somewhere close.

Where are you taking me?

He paused and looked back at her, as if she’d spoken out loud. There was something in his eyes as he stared. A longing. A need. Her heart thumped painfully at the echo it dragged from inside her. Who was this man? Why did she feel as if she should know him?

They reached the edge of a precipice hanging out over the churning sea. A foot path cut a sharp trail down the side. Even as she prayed he’d turn away from it, the man started down the steep slope. His long legs covered the distance easily as he descended but Danni had to scramble to keep up—certain a deadly plunge was in her future—not so clear on what that might mean to her real self. If she died in a vision, would it be for real?

The sounds of the tide thundering relentlessly were louder now and she smelled the sharp scent of brine. She sensed something big looming high up to her left, but didn't know if it was real or imagined and couldn’t turn to look back.

Enormous rocks poked from the hillside, forcing them to weave as they descended. The exertion warmed her and now she could hear sounds rising from down below. A woman’s voice. Danni paused, listening to the agitated tone. Frantic, pleading. There were other voices too. A man, maybe two. And children. Frightened children.

Danni’s blood raced so fast she felt sick. The sound of their young, scared pleas propelled her back into her own history. To nights in the communal bedroom of the group home, where someone was always afraid, always crying.

Solemn and intent, the man continued down with effortless grace. Danni remained frozen where she was, listening to the troubled but unintelligible words. Whatever was happening down there, it wasn’t good and every instinct Danni possessed urged her not to continue.

There was a loud bang—a shot followed by screams. Danni trembled, her palms slick with clammy fear. Her shaking dislodged pebbles that rappelled down the hill. She didn’t want to follow the man anymore. She wanted out of this vision. She wanted to be back in her kitchen where it was safe. She clenched her fists tight, wanting to escape it. Reject it.

The man paused and looked back. It seemed he knew what she was thinking. His eyes darkened with compassion, but also with disappointment he couldn’t quite hide. She felt it as much she saw it. He gave her a small nod. Go ahead, he was saying. The gesture came without condemnation. He was giving her permission to turn away. To run away.

For a moment the steep sea wall, the glowering sky . . . the compelling man watching her . . . It all wavered and Danni could see her kitchen through the overlaid image. All she had to do was step through, step out.

Down below the children sobbed and the woman beseeched with frantic incoherent words. Danni felt her despair, her terror. Her desperate need . . . .

The man started down again, now with urgency. Danni clenched her eyes tight and breathed deeply. Knowing she couldn’t turn her back on such desperation, she mentally closed the passage to her kitchen, slamming the door on safety and sanity. She began to follow once more, hurrying to catch up as he disappeared into the deep gloom covering the bottom.

Broken shells and rocks crusted the shallow strip between massive boulders and angry surf. It crunched painfully beneath her feet as she followed the man to a door cut into the base of the wall rising up to the cliffs. Danni peered through the gathering shadows and thick fog that hugged the ground, obscuring her feet.

She couldn’t see anyone until she reached his side. And then, with the pop of her ears clearing and a surreal rush of color and texture, the source of the voices emerged from the blur into shocking focus.

Danni was suddenly inside a cavern of some sort that hunkered low over a tide pool. A stone floor circled it and on the far side she saw people standing in the glow of a lantern. The muted lightening turned their faces into masks, distorting their features with ghoulish hollows and shiny plateaus. They stood in a cluster—a woman with two children. A man knelt on the ground just at the edge of the lantern’s glow. He held something in his arms Danni couldn’t make out.

She wanted to move closer. She wanted to see their faces. But she stayed where she was, motionless beside the green-eyed stranger as the scene played out.

The children she’d heard crying clung to the woman’s legs, trying very hard to be a part of her. A boy and a girl, Danni thought. She guessed their ages at four or five, but she couldn’t be sure. The woman was speaking again, her voice high with fear. Someone cloaked in the concealing shadows, responded. The voice was deep and masculine, but Danni couldn’t see the speaker or understand what was said.

The green-eyed man Danni had followed from her kitchen approached the woman. Pausing to look back at Danni, he lifted the hem of her light jacket and blouse, revealing the bulge of an early pregnancy and . . . bruises. Huge discolorations that covered her ribs and abdomen in a mottled mixture of black, blue, neon yellow, and sickly green. Old and new, the marks layered one on top of the other.

The woman spun with a gasp, her eyes wide and frightened. She stared at the empty space where Danni stood for a long, breathless moment. Danni felt the contact of the woman’s gaze as it settled on her face.

She can see me . . .

But that wasn’t possible. Danni wasn’t really there. None of them were. This was a vision . . . a hallucination . . . wasn’t it?

The woman continued to stare right at Danni as she searched for the cause of her discomfort. Danni saw a shiver work its way through her body, shuddering down to the hands that held onto her children. Who was she? How could she . . . ? The thought died suddenly as recognition covered Danni in an icy sweat. She looked at the boy standing so quietly beside his mother then at the little girl holding her other hand. The child’s face was tear-stained, her eyes big and gray, hair golden brown. She blinked back at Danni with wide, knowing awareness.

It felt like a giant fist had punched through time and yanked Danni from her body. The little girl was no stranger, but neither was she an acquaintance or a friend. Like the vision itself, she was of the impossible.

She was Danni . . . Danni as a child. I’m looking at myself . . . .

Herself as she’d been twenty years ago. Danni’s eyes were hot with feelings she couldn’t process, couldn’t comprehend in this moment that had no place, no substance in the world she knew. Slowly she shifted her attention back to the woman, now seeing the familiar features, remembering how it felt to put her arms around her, to be held by her.

The woman was her mother.

The mysterious male voice said something in a vicious, sharp tone, jerking her mother’s attention abruptly away.

“No,” Danni shouted. She rushed forward and tried to turn her mother back around. Tried to touch her, hold her, beg her to see Danni again. But whatever connection had been made for that brief instant was gone. The little girl began weeping inconsolably and the man who knelt beside them rose unsteadily. Through the twilight, Danni saw a face wet with tears, swollen and red, ravaged by grief. She felt his pain pulsing off him like the lapping waves in the pool at her feet.

The tension in the air tightened around them, like a noose of thin wire that would soon cut through the skin. There was terror in her mother’s eyes. In the way she flicked her gaze back and forth between the disembodied voice and the man at her side. He lifted his hands, holding them away from his body, palms out—the universal sign for compliance.

The hostile words exchanged between the woman and her unseen antagonist grew louder until they echoed all around them. Why couldn’t Danni understand what was being said? Why did her mother’s answers come in as an indecipherable and discordant throb?

Suddenly another bang resounded in the cave and Danni’s screams joined those of her mother and the children. A gun, she thought. That was a gun. Even as her mind catalogued the sound, her body reacted to the bite of pain slicing through her. She felt it—felt it —as if a bullet had burrowed into her heart. She looked down, expecting to see blood. To see her life draining out of her. But there nothing, nothing to explain the bewildering agony. She looked around her in shock, in panic, seeing again the crumpled shape on the ground beside the cluster of frightened people. Only then did she grasp what it was—what the man had been holding when they’d first come in. It was a body.

She managed to turn to the stranger who’d brought her here. He only watched her, his face impassive. His presence neither comforting nor threatening. As she stared at him, she felt trapped by his gaze. She couldn’t look away, couldn’t turn back to the unfolding drama. The voices of her mother and the children waned, taking with it the searing pain. They were fading—all of it, vanishing.

Danni wanted to cling to her mother like the child she’d once been. But she couldn’t break the hold of his enigmatic green eyes, couldn’t make her legs support the weight of her need.

Again a swirling mixture of grays and browns frosted the air, making Danni think of a giant God creating sand art on an unending pane of glass. The light changed from dark gloom to hazy murk and they were outside again. The wind joined the sensation of biting fresh air and bitter cold. It was just the two of them now. The crushing pain of the gunshot was gone but Danni’s heart filled with grief at the loss of her mother. Again. Again Danni had been abandoned by her.

The man moved, not giving her time to mourn. He had a mission. She’d forgotten that he was there for reasons of his own.They were back in the valley. Danni followed him as he strode away, a tall dark figure in a world painted with shades of obscurity. Their time was nearly at an end. She could sense it, feel it in the crackling air. It would turn again and the vision would be over.

Towed in his wake, Danni trailed the man to a mound of dirt amidst the lush pasture. Silently she waited by his side, once again aware of something huge casting a shadow on them, but unable to turn and face whatever it was.

They’d stopped beside a shallow grave, freshly dug and unmarked. The bitter scent of tilled earth mingled with the damp fishiness wafting from the sea. She could hear waves crashing furiously against the rocks below.

Her stranger wore an expression of inconsolable remorse as he looked upon the open hole gaping in the oasis of green. Danni swallowed painfully, more afraid than she’d ever been. The grave was an ominous symbol in this vision. Or was it real? The muddied ground at her feet seemed to call out to her. It coaxed her closer. It promised sweet and seductive rewards.

Danni slowly leaned forward and looked into the hole. There were two bodies sprawled at the bottom, as if they’d been carelessly tossed in. One was an adolescent boy and some shadowy part of her mind said his was the body she’d seen in the cavern. He was gangly-limbed and hollow-chested. His legs were twisted beneath him in an unnatural position and his face turned away. Crumpled beside him was a woman wearing leggings and an oversized t-shirt—an outfit reminiscent of the eighties. Her long golden-brown hair lay in a fall over her shoulders and against the boy’s chest. Half of her face was concealed, but the other half . . .

Danni gasped and stumbled back, her mind fighting what her eyes displayed as truth. Once again, she was face-to-face with herself. The woman in the grave was Danni.

The man beside her stared at the bodies for another introspective moment. Then he looked to the distance at the stark precipice that plunged down to the turbulent sea. Danni felt his grief and anger mix and grow until it burned like the whipping wind. She felt the power of it consume him, drive him to a point as perilous as the cliff’s edge.

Then suddenly he turned those desperate eyes on Danni. He reached out, as if realizing for the first time that he might touch her. She waited for the contact with a biting combination of terror and anticipation nipping at her insides.

Visions couldn’t touch, couldn’t feel . . . .

He brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers and his warmth was electric against her cold skin. She stared at him, stunned, seeing her own astonishment mirrored in the glittering silver and green of his eyes.

He touched her again, settling his palm against her jaw, cupping face—both hands now. Both hands warm and rough and undeniably real. Transfixed, she stared at him, catching her breath when his gaze shifted to her mouth. He was going to kiss her.

Her hands came up to the muscled wall of his chest, feeling it rise with his deep breath, grappling with the feel of his heart beating beneath her palms. Her fear knotted with the rush of sensation and became a ball of heat in her belly, a longing that smoldered and sparked. She waited as his head bent, his lips moving closer to hers. But the air was turning—she could feel it coming. Even as his mouth hovered over her lips, his breath a hot whisper, a seductive secret she couldn’t quite hear, he began to fade.

She tried to stop him, tried to hold back the air even as it hissed away. In an instant, the man, the grave, the steel wool sky . . . all of it became a mist that floated just on the surface. Beneath, Danni’s kitchen waited for her to come home.

She felt a ripping sensation as it sucked her back to where she’d begun. She sagged against the counter, drawing in deep breaths of warm air. Her cup sat just where she’d left it, coffee not yet cooled, though it seemed hours should have passed. She couldn’t stop the shaking in her legs or slow the pounding of her heart. She sank to the cold tile and curled in on herself.

She didn’t understand what the vision meant, who the man was or why she’d seen the mother she remembered only from the single photograph she possessed. She knew one thing, though. The green-eyed stranger was looking for Danni and when he found her, she would have to make a choice. Go with him and answer the beckoning grave, or deny the call of her mother and everything she’d wished for her entire life.

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Pat McDermott said...

Very exciting excerpt, Erin. You have a fine story here.

Nicole North said...

Awesome excerpt Erin!!

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