Kirryn Lia Todd

ASCENT

Book One of The Risen and the Fallen on the 7th Floor

 

i. disremembrance

I lived in 7F. My apartment was about seven metres by nine metres, on the seventh floor. Seven of ten floors. The less money you had, the further they put you up. I’m not sure how that works — maybe views of the city aren’t the same as views of the ocean, or something like that? Shrinivas Sugandhalaya’s Nag Champa incense was extremely cheap and didn’t give me a headache, so that’s what I burned. It also stunk of cigarettes (although I had no problem with the smell, when my mother visited — I can’t remember when that was, but it was surely after I’d turned eighteen and was allowed to smoke — she wrinkled her nose and looked as if I’d made the place smell that way solely to offend her). That’s because we weren’t allowed to smoke in our rooms, or in the apartment complex at all, to be perfectly honest, but there were no smoke alarms in the halls, so people lit up while going outside to leave quite frequently. Sometimes I smoked while leaning halfway out the window, but only when I felt really good, on the days when I didn’t believe that just by standing near the window would make the hotel suddenly crumble and fall to the ground, taking me with it for daring to thumb my nose at heights. Heights are one of the things I’m afraid of — sometimes.

Anyway, the cigarette smell came from the Marlboro smoke that permeated through my clothes. I used to smoke lights, but once I accidentally asked for Reds and that was it, I loved them. They made my head hurt if I smoked on an empty stomach, but if I put them together with milky cold coffee and music it was better even than drugs. And the drugs had been pretty good, in an awful way.

I read somewhere that burning Nag Champa was supposed to stimulate creativity. In those days it was synapses shorting out and not communicating or something that mostly stimulated creativity, although the Nag Champa was nice enough. It helped me sleep when the city air got too heavy and crept in through the windows at night in summer. It was just too hot to shut them. Wender had warned me that some cat burglar would crawl in through my open window and rape me, but…

I can’t really remember what I replied. But I didn’t start closing my window at all. And Wender had been absolutely furious with me for about a week afterwards. But Wender’s not much better off than me, when it comes to stable moods and all that.

My room was a collection of…I don’t even know if there was a set theme at all. It was just my stuff. My mother had put me and everything I owned into boxes and shuffled me off to the Hae Plaza Apartment Complex — which we all called ‘the hotel’, for some reason, even though I don’t think it was a hotel at all…I’m not sure, maybe they did the whole overnight stays thing, I can’t remember. I don’t think it matters, because my story mostly figures around permanent residents. Everyone I could talk to was a permanent resident.

People would come into my apartment and tell me how pretty it was, gush over the strings of peace cranes, my bottles of lucky paper stars, the glitter butterflies I’d stuck around, the pink wall clock, two calendars, pillar candles, books — eight shelves of them, the Nag Champa scent and the secret whisper of Marlboro. I had a television, but I didn’t watch it — it served as a makeshift shelf for some more of my stuff.

The thing is, though, most of that stuff that’s cramming up my apartment — particularly anything origami — is a result of my being crazy. I’ve even got a certificate from the government that says that under the diagnosis of some chick down at Centrelink a number of years ago, I was officially classified as disabled. I think, before I ended up here at the hotel, I had been a campaigner for disabled rights, something like that. But eventually I stopped. I would get sneered at and belittled because my body was in one hundred per cent working order, and that I was never in any physical pain, apparently. I guess I wasn’t disabled enough for people? But that was before, when I could at least function, remember stuff, things like that. When I wasn’t here at the hotel.

But the origami. It’s because I’m crazy. Some days I can’t do anything, nothing at all. I’ll crawl out of bed and try and fix my hair and still it’ll be like someone’s closed a door behind my eyes. Those days, I look like a junkie, although I move like a slug. Those are the days I sit down and fold crane after crane, or millions and millions of stars. Just fold, fold, fold…until sleep comes. Sometimes I’m lucky, I’ll fall asleep and wake up, and not even remember the way I felt the day before. When I became conscious that I was doing that, I was sort of frightened, as if knowing I did it would render me unable to do it anymore. What’s the word? Psychosomatic. But no matter how aware of it I am, I still have evenings where sleep will finally overtake me and grant me some respite from my own insanity, and then I wake up and feel fine.

I can’t work my brain out. I should probably give up, but…lately I can’t quit anything. Eating bad food, smoking, wanting to figure things out, spending money I don’t really have. Everything has its cycle, true enough. But the cycles are circles and come around and around again. Nothing’s ever really abandoned with me, not usually.

Which is why it was so funny when I woke up that morning and realised that, for the past twelve or so months, I had scarcely any memory of what the hell I’d been doing. It was like I’d fallen asleep for a year and only just now woken up.

I lay in bed for about half an hour before getting up, just moving my fingers and toes, making sure I was in my body and not somewhere else, making sure I wasn’t dreaming. I have a lot of lucid dreams, which is fun, but a lot confusing, sometimes. Back when I was still trying to complete my degree, I’d had a lucid dream concerning university…and completely skipped three tutorials and a lecture, thinking I’d already been. After a while I kind of got the idea that crazy people really shouldn’t be going to university, but I didn’t drop out. I waited until they kicked me out, for having too low a grade point average. I suppose they had reason.

I glanced at the digital clock on my nightstand, which proclaimed it was about seven o’clock…in the evening. When had I gone to bed? Had I talked myself into another all-nighter, and sent my sleeping schedule topsy-turvy once again? I tried to remember, but panic took root and blossomed wildly throughout my stomach when I realised that I couldn’t.

I swung my feet around and sat on the edge of the bed, gazing out the window. Same as always, out there — nearly-summer night creeping up the sky slowly, indigo and stained orange glow towards the bottom of the horizon. Outside, more apartment complexes, none of them quite as weary as the hotel was — some lights on, some lights off. The traffic was a constant noise that I had to really make myself notice, after four years of living here.

Five, I realised, and the panic grew wider, stretched out lissome limbs and snaked around my fingers like fine cord. I’ve been here five years. I know that. I do. So why can’t I remember…?

I got to my feet, and stumbled around the studio, not really knowing why. The fluorescent light above the kitchen area was still flickering minutely, as it had been doing for the past two years — I’d lost count of the amount of times I told Wender I needed it fixed, but he never got around to it, and in the end I decided to fix it on my own…but never got around to it, either. Good going, I know. The fridge was still obnoxiously loud. My keys were still thrown down next to the much-beleaguered kettle. I poked my head into the bathroom-cum-laundry, and that was still the same. Not enough room to swing a cat, just as normal.

What happened? What was the last thing I remembered?

I tried to pinpoint a specific date, but came up with nothing but a murky kind of…feeling, that perhaps it had been the end of the last year — December, November, perhaps even October at the earliest.

I remembered the music.

Yes, the music. The guitars that gleamed like a sunburst and the voice…

The voice? Whose voice was that?

What was I remembering?

“The music,” I whispered to the empty space, which swallowed my words like a needle slipping into a vein.

 

ii. music

Hae Plaza wasn’t a bad place. Well, perhaps that was a lie — it probably was. Any place that could let studio apartments in the middle of this city for $180 a week to crazy people like me was probably not likely to be the home of anyone rich, famous, or generally sane. It probably was ‘bad’. But my family needed to get rid of me, desperately, and the hotel was there for the taking. Those with certificates and meagre pensions couldn’t usually afford to move out of home, but the hotel let them. It let me, at least. So it became my home. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. Well, maybe I loved it a little, in my own fragmented way. It was hard to tell. Maybe I hated it, too.

When I realised that I was effectively being ousted from the home I did some of my growing up in, I was in a pretty high mood, so I didn’t get offended and it wasn’t a shock, either. What actually surprised that they’d left it so long. Living with someone like me probably wasn’t fun, exactly, especially towards the end of my time there, wherein I just…stopped fighting, I guess you could say.

See, that’s the thing. Society expects you to fight your own nature, if you’re insane. They make a lot of noise about being non-discriminatory and making allowances for crazy people, but in the end, they’re expecting you to magically become sane overnight because they do so. People get mad when you don’t show any signs of not “returning” to the status quo, mentally. (Because everyone started there, apparently. I don’t know about that, personally.) You have to try hard to fit in and react the right way and not feel when it’s inappropriate to have emotions and to deal with all sorts of things. I did that, as best I could. I could have passed as normal…until I snapped. I snapped, and suddenly, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t stop twitching when I got on the bus, I couldn’t walk in public without wrapping my arms around myself like a shield, I couldn’t restrain myself from whirling around and snarling at someone who bumped into me without even apologising. Social contact became a chore and then an exercise in torture. I had no idea what to say, so I stopped saying anything, stopped reminding myself when to laugh or nod seriously, to say thank you and please and feel. I couldn’t.

The world rushed against me like a dammed river someone had opened the floodgates to. I could have crouched and whimpered and let it batter me until I was nothing but a walking bruise, but I was so tired. I just let go, and let it wash me along with it. On some level, I probably knew that would spell the beginning of the end, for me — that I’d never pass for normal if I let it. But I was exhausted, and unhappy, sick and lonely and dancing with razorblades too often. So I severed the guy-wires that kept me suspended and swayed in the wind.

The funny thing was, according to the doctors and my parents and other completely random people, I was certainly damaged, after I’d done so. I was ‘troubled’, they said. But I wasn’t, really. I knew I was mad, and I knew people snickered, but I felt almost joyous. Free. It wasn’t that I wasn’t lucid — I was — I just saw the world from a different state of lucidity. The moods still buffeted against me, and I took from them…perhaps that was why my family put their feet down, decided that I needed to gain some semblance of independence.

It seems kind of weird that I had to let myself go completely mad before they’d let me have that.

Like I said, Hae Plaza wasn’t as bad as it probably could have been. The bathrooms were old and Wender never fixed anything, and the halls smelled of second-hand smoke, and the elevators were so clunky they scared me, and the air conditioner made a noise akin to a Mack truck about to run out of fuel, but it was better than a hospital. There were arguments over how to pronounce ‘Hae’ between us residents. ‘High-ay’ and ‘Hay’ seemed to be the most popular, and were used interchangeably, when they were used it all. It was just “the hotel” most of the time. As if we’d all only be there for a little while. I didn’t understand that — the only other place I could go other than the hotel was back to my family’s house, and that wasn’t exactly an option. The hotel became home, my apartment became my castle. I decorated. I invited my family over for dinner, very occasionally. I sometimes even made friends, or people who put up with me, at least. Nutmeg was one such.

Nutmeg lived next door to me, on the left. Apartment 7G. I don’t think her real name was Nutmeg, but even Wender called her Nutmeg. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life, with huge dark blue eyes, waving gold hair, and a savage, emotional face that could have been carved out of crystal. There was something wrong with her, of course — there was something wrong with most of us here. Divorcees, runaways, mental patients, junkies, dole bludgers, abused children, illegal immigrants. Too many eyes closed by bruises, too many lovely crazy people that made me look completely sane, but nowhere near as creative and alive.

Wender told me to shut up when I first asked about Nutmeg, then he told me she was a sociopath, which is why someone who was so well-spoken and impeccably groomed was here in the hotel. I suppose I should have been frightened, but I wasn’t — not of the possibility of her being a sociopath, at least. I’d summoned my courage and knocked on her door the next week, with a gift of caramel rolls. (They looked a bit sad, but tasted pretty good. I’m an excellent cook, as long as I’m judged solely on taste and not on presentation.) She’d invited me in, we’d talked somewhat…she didn’t seem sociopathic in the least, not to me. She did seem sadder than anyone else I’d ever known, though. There was a photograph of a redhead on her coffee table, a tall young man who couldn’t have been all that much older than me. I saw her glance at it, that first time we met, and the sadness sliced through her heart like a diamond-bladed knife — it slid through her so quickly it was almost like it hadn’t happened, but she was bleeding inside from it. (That’s another reason why they sent me to the hotel, I think — my family got sick of me knowing how they felt, or sick of me saying so. People aren’t supposed to do that.) I wanted to ask her about him, but her wound was deep enough without me probing at it.

So Nutmeg probably had something wrong with her, but wasn’t a sociopath. She had more likely ran afoul of Wender, somehow. It wasn’t hard. Wender would pant after anything with breasts, and Nutmeg was as well-endowed as she was spoken. She had an edge to her tongue, though, which she probably gave Wender a taste of. I figured all that out pretty quickly. Perhaps I’m not as crazy as I think I am. Or maybe I’m crazier. Who knows.

So it was Nutmeg’s door I knocked on when I finally gathered enough momentum to stumble out of my own apartment, wondering where time had gone. Or more appropriately, where I had gone while time was being typical time. I rapped against the green door three times, feeling like someone had thrown me into a pool of calm, warm water, surrounding me and cradling me and making me dizzy all at the same time.

“Elouise?” Nutmeg’s surprised face appeared behind her chained door, blinking at me. Suddenly, I had no idea why I’d come to her. How was I supposed to explain that I had some kind of amnesia? That everything that happened for the last year had definitely happened, but it was like it happened to some other girl? There was crazy and then there was really, really crazy. “Are you all right?”

“Y…yes,” I managed, somehow. I watched as Nutmeg’s elegant fingers unchained the door and her danger-tinted sapphire eyes took me in, scanning me like a computer, knowing something wasn’t right, but what exactly, she didn’t know. I must have looked as pale and bewildered as I felt, because she frowned.

“Are you all right, Elouise? You look…”

“I’m…I’m sorry,” I replied, suddenly feeling even giddier than I had previously. “I just…thought that…that’s…it’s just that I…”

Nutmeg’s frown became even more puzzled, and I shook my head. It made my temples throb, painlessly, though unpleasantly. I wasn’t sure if I was going to throw up I not. I certainly wouldn’t have been the first person who had thrown up in the halls of the hotel, but it wasn’t a distinction I was gunning for in particular. Vomiting all over Nutmeg was even further down the list of things I wanted to do.

“I…just felt a little…giddy. Shaky.” I waved my hand in a seasickening motion, back-forth sway sway. “And, uh…I don’t have any painkillers. So, could I borrow a card of Panadol?” This was a complete lie, but I had to think of something. Most of the residents knew about me, about what happened when I accidentally disconnected from real life and began operating in an underwater fashion. Sometimes it just involved someone talking to me in a gentle voice, but once it had involved hospitalisation, so I had been extremely careful since then. I had to stay lucid enough for them to believe I actually was lucid.

The worry vanished from Nutmeg’s fair face and she smiled sympathetically. “Of course,” she replied. “Stay right there and I’ll grab them for you. There’s been something going around, according to those in the know.” I suppose, by the slight curl of contempt around the vowels in that sentence, she meant Wender.

As she vanished back into her own apartment, I noticed she was wearing her black and burgundy silk dressing gown with the golden butterflies screened on it. Nutmeg was an insomniac, and I had often seen her walking, almost gliding, through the seventh floor’s hall at ridiculous hours of the night, even by my standards. She was always clad in that terribly elegant robe. It must have been later than I thought — she didn’t usually don the dressing gown until well after ten. How long did I daze around in my apartment, wondering where time had gone? I’d completely lost track. This was all too bizarre for words.

There couldn’t have been a chance that I slept for twelve months, surely. Someone would have noticed. Wender would have raised hell about me not paying the rent, for one thing.

Nutmeg reappeared in a swirl of jet and maroon and pressed half a card of Panadol into my hands with one of her gentler smiles. “Here you are. Take two of them and get an early night for once, all right?”

I nodded, curling my fingers around the plastic card. I still couldn’t quite look her in the eyes, but I said, “Okay. Thank you, Nutmeg.”

“It’s not a problem,” she replied, and she moved to close the door. I turned away.

It was then that the music came back.

Just an acoustic guitar, being played like drops of sunlight from the strings. A tune that glittered and sank into my ears and nerves and soul like a balm or like a beam of sunlight across the crest of a wave. I staggered backwards, my balance shot. I remembered that sound.

“Elouise?!” Nutmeg had rushed forward when I’d tottered backward, and had her hands on my shoulders. “Are you all right?!”

The strains kept melting into my ears and my heart. I was suddenly filled with an aching so vast that I was afraid I couldn’t contain it a moment longer. Were my hands shaking? I couldn’t tell.

“Elouise!” I turned around unsteadily to face her.

“Do you hear that?” I whispered hoarsely, not focusing on her face. “Can you….can you hear that…?”

“That?”

“The music! Can you hear it?”

Nutmeg looked baffled. “What about it?”

“You can hear it?!”

“Of course I can hear it! It’s just Killian playing his guitar again. What’s the matter with that? It’s not too loud, is it?”

I stared at her blankly. “Who?”

“Killian. Killian Lanois? He’s been here a whole year…he lives right across the hall from us.” She raised a perfect blonde eyebrow, pointing to Apartment 7C’s closed door. “You know Killian, Elouise.”

I swallowed hard. “Nn. Oh. Of course. Silly me. I’m sorry. It’s one of those weeks, you know. Brain. Working is optional, it seems.”

“Tcha. Sweet pea.” Her smile was tired, but affectionate. She patted my cheek with her soft hand. “What are we going to do with you?”

We said our goodnights once again, and I turned as if to walk back to my apartment. But when I heard the chain slide into place on Nutmeg’s door, I whirled around and stared owlishly at the door to Apartment 7C, where the sundrop swirls of guitar were still spilling out from behind the door.

The truth of the matter was that I had no earthly idea who Killian was, and no memory of him moving in whatsoever.

 

iii. Mephisto

The thing with being crazy is that you can get away with a lot of things that most other people wouldn’t. If I had been sane, my freakout in the hallway that Nutmeg had seen would have cause more than just a stir. It would have been talked about for the next ninety days. Nutmeg wouldn’t have even had to have told anyone about it, I’ve found that when you’re sane (or pretending to be), rumours tend to fly a lot faster, sharper and heat-seeking. Before you even leave your house the next day, you’d be face to face with stories of what you’d done and said and how you’d reacted, even if you couldn’t recall doing anything in that way.

Being crazy and doing something that seemed crazy was just par the course. It wasn’t worth commenting on — if anything, it almost seemed rude to do so. Everyone I lived near knew that I was crazy, so when I did something crazy, or at the very least a little out of the ordinary, it was...well, it was my ordinary, so it didn’t make a blip on anyone’s radars.

I'm inordinately thankful for that.

I walked back into my apartment eventually — even I wasn’t so insane as to think I could stand outside in the hall for the rest of the evening listening to the music coming from Apt 7C. But when I got back inside, I didn’t bother crawling into bed again, or switching on my bed lamp, or changing into sleepwear. I just crouched by the door, my ear pressed to the thin line where the door met the frame, listening to the soft sound of this Killian’s guitar.

It was definitely the music that I was remembering, when I first woke up from twelve months of not sleeping only a few hours ago. That was the sound that made me realise that I had been asleep for so long. And I needed it more than I’d ever needed anything else in my life…which was saying something, as I’d had quite a bad (or possibly good) relationship with certain not-quite-legal drugs when I was about nineteen.

I don’t know how long I crouched there, just listening — could’ve been minutes or hours. Time stopped existing while that music was playing. It wasn’t that the guitarist was particularly talented — in fact, it was somewhat the opposite. He stumbled over quite a few notes, and there were stops and restarts peppered through the music. But the sound, the song was too beautiful for me to comprehend. The lucid, sane part of my brain gave way willingly to something deeper than my insanity, somewhere deeper than my bones, futher in than my marrow, and more permeating than my blood. It wasn’t music I understood — it was music that had to be felt. I knew that, semi-instinctively. It sunk in, and I soaked it up. I wondered a few times if I closed my eyes and wished, if I’d be able to grow luminous white angel wings. I felt like I could.

He stopped playing, finally, possibly somewhere around midnightish. I kept my ear pressed hopefully to the door for a while, but no more music came from the hall. Understandably, after all, everyone needed to sleep, and most people slept during the night. I tried to, whenever I could, but sometimes it tended to be easier said than done.

I got up shakily, and that was when I saw the demon.

He was standing against my open window, gazing out at the night with what seemed to be an extremely amused grin. At least, I thought it was amused. Perhaps devils and demons and various other scary monsters (and super creeps? I remembered David Bowie’s music, but how could you forget that?) had different emotions to ours, and expressed them differently. I didn’t know. But the quirk of his mouth and the raised state of his upswept eyebrows communicated amusement, to me. I wonder what was so funny about the city?

He was definitely a demon. I knew that because of his horns. (See, I meant it when I said I knew some things.) They weren’t massively long or curling or anything like that, not ram-like nor goat-like — just two blood-red horns, perhaps a few inches long, jutting out from amidst impeccably groomed midnight coloured hair, which was swept back from a face that, for some reason, reminded me of Nutmeg’s. Recklessly attractive. Also, dangerous. Very dangerous.

He was also smoking one of my cigarettes.

I blinked at him.

He smiled at me, pure hedonism curling around his lips, and suddenly I remembered that I was a girl. Not that it was a bad thing. Just an odd thing.

“That’s one of my cigarettes you’re smoking,” I said to him, stepping away from the door and into the main area of my apartment. I didn’t want to get too close — well, all right, that was a complete lie. I wanted to reach out and grab him by the lapels of his finely tailored suit to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. Then I wanted to touch his horns, which, upon closer inspection, looked like smooth red ivory. That is, I wanted to make sure he was real.

“I’d hoped you wouldn’t mind,” he replied.

“Well, of course I mind,” I spluttered. “They’re twenty five bucks a packet, Reds. And I go through a few.”

His smile merely got wider. It was far too insidious and elegant to be called a grin.

“So, you never share your cigarettes with any of the residents of this fine establishment?”

I squirmed a little. “Well…” The fact of the matter was that I did. Whenever anyone asked. But it wasn’t too often, because Nutmeg claimed she didn’t smoke cigarettes, and poor Vincent in 7E was trying to quit, so I was careful not to smoke around him now. I only ever shared with Wender when I was in a particularly good mood, however. That was not often.

The demon laughed, the sound rich and pleasant, a lot like a swathe of red velvet converted to sound. Or perhaps a swallow of good Scotch whisky, heady and delicious. I hadn’t had any good Scotch since I had moved into the hotel, although the aforementioned Vincent would share his bad Canadian whiskey with me. (Nutmeg much preferred wine, the more expensive, the better. She really did stick out like a sore thumb in these parts.)

“I am a resident of this hotel, from now on,” the devil said to me. “So I’m sure you would share a breath of smoke or two with me, wouldn’t you?”

Something about the way he said that made me blush right up to my ears. I could feel the heat rising from my neck and crawling upwards, a rush of prickling warmth that took over my face and made me feel heady. The demon noticed and laughed again, which only made the blush worse.

“Ah, Ms. Sievers. How normal you seem, sometimes. Like any other girl.”

“Something tells me that you know I’m not,” I replied, looking at him askance. “If you know my name, you probably know that I’m not normal.”

“I did say ’sometimes’,” he replied, exhaling a cloud of smoke that looked charcoal blue in the night light of the city flowing into the apartment. I tilted my head.

“Are you a hallucination?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Do you think I’m a hallucination?”

“I have trouble distinguishing reality from hallucinations, sometimes.”

“Have you done anything that would cause you to hallucinate, this evening?”

“I don’t know,” I said, thinking back to the beautiful sound, manically pressing my ear to the door, not wanting it to stop or ever let it go. “I heard some music.”

The demon nodded as if this was a completely acceptable answer. “Music has strange effects on some people.”

“This wasn’t just any music,” I insisted. “It was…like…a new sun being unleashed from the strings of a guitar.”

That made him whirl right around from his leaning position and pin me down with a gaze so full of raw power that it frightened me. His eyes were a burning blue, I noticed then — bright, burning the colour of thunder. I’d never seen blue eyes like that in my life. I didn’t mean there was anything unnatural about them — I’m sure there are men in the world with eyes that particular shade of blue (although I don’t think it would be terribly common…I’m no social butterfly but I’m sure I would have seen them before in someone else if they were), but there was something about those eyes that was simply…more than blue. Deeper. As deep as the music had flowed into me, before.

“Perhaps you’re exactly the one I’m looking for,” he murmured, maybe to himself, maybe to me. The sound of his voice made all the fine hairs on my body stand up lightning-straight, low electricity hummed through the air. He stalked across the apartment, feral and dangerous and impossibly sensual.

“What…what’s your name?” I blurted out. I felt that just by looking at him, I would pass into something very akin to the state I had been in while listening to Killian’s guitar. I wasn’t sure if I could handle that twice in one night.

His amused look returned at my question. “I’d hoped you’d guessed my name.”

“Is that how you knew mine? Guessing?”

“No, no,” he smiled again. “I know everybody’s name. I know you probably even better than you know yourself.”

“That wouldn’t be hard,” I commented wryly. “I am insane, you know.”

He laughed at that, a full laugh, but never lost the savage, slick elegance that he possessed. Once again he turned his candle-flame gaze on me, but his eyes were turned up in mirth.

“My name is Mephisto. And you are Jade Elouise Sievers…of course.”

It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Me…phisto. The Mephisto?”

His smile turned dazzling and more than a little mocking. “I only ever knew of one.”

“You haven’t confirmed or denied your status as a hallucination,” I pointed out.

“That is true,” he replied. He moved forward. I suppose I should have moved away, or flinched, or something of the like — but I couldn’t. Thinking back on it, I don’t know if I was frozen with some kind of emotion other than fear (because I wasn’t frightened of him) or if I was just stupid, or maybe it was a little bit of both. I honestly couldn’t tell. So I stood there, still as a standing stone, while the devil — Mephisto — brushed the tips of his fingers along my cheekbone with a softness and strange gentleness that I thought belonged more to angels than to demons. I blushed immediately, but that wasn’t my chief concern. As soft as his touch had been, it was a real, tangible touch. He didn’t fade away, or turn into a blurred image and waver without any senses except maddened sight responding to it. He was real.

I suppose that meant something dire, Mephisto appearing in your apartment.

“Do you know,” he asked, tucking a lock of my hair behind my ear — more evidence that he was here and real — “Most young women would have reacted a little differently to that touch than you just did?”

“To you touching me? How so?”

Mephisto smiled, more genuine amusement along with a flicker of smooth, liqueur-coated malice dancing across the planes of his face. “The best of them usually lose most of their motor control. The worst…tend to go mad.”

“I’m already mad,” I said. I felt oddly proud, although I wasn’t sure exactly how much talent it took to be mad. Or if it was really all that helpful at all, from a wider perspective.

“Thus, my charms won’t work,” he chuckled. “Alas, alas.”

“Maybe they do,” I replied. “And I’m just too mad to know it?”

He blinked at me for a moment, before bursting into laughter. He flicked the butt of his (my) cigarette out of my open window in an elegant motion, and put his hand on my face again, patting my cheek the same way Nutmeg had earlier in the evening. I wondered if I could actually feel my skin tingling beneath his touch, or if I was just hyperwired, feeling everything and nothing coming at me from all sides and nowhere. I thought Mephisto being real would provide clarity, instead I just felt more confused. But it was a gentle, rocking sort of confusion that cradled me as much as it shook me.

“You are amazing,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. If it’s all right to think of a demon having a twinkle in its eye. “I’ll quite enjoy my stay here, I think.”


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