Emily and Electra
by Chris Castle
“Something like a miracle you ain’t dead, girl,” the voice muttered in her ear as she was pulled upright against the wall.
Emily opened her eyes and saw Old Man Bryant standing a few feet away, the fire in the middle of the room, the coffee pot bubbling overhead.
“I’m thirteen. I’m not a girl,” she said defiantly, immediately trying to draw herself up to a standing position and failing miserably.
“Hell, you ain’t old enough to even drink coffee,” he said, looking straight at her. If her weak legs hadn’t caved in, she thought, that stare would have done it.
“You want to freeze yourself up and meet your momma, is that it?” He lifted the coffee cup to his lips, not taking his eyes off her. They were the most amazing blue. To one side of him her cloak hung, red side showing, almost dry. A fear dried her throat.
“Relax, girl. You ain’t been here more than an hour. You ain’t lost so much of your precious time. Your momma? Is that the reason for the foolishness?”
“It’s not foolishness and it’s not my Ma,” she said, finally dragging herself up. She fell back against the wall, but didn’t sway. Something told her not to show any weakness while she talked.
“They took my friend, the bad men in town. I know what goes on there and I want it to stop.” Her hands were balled into fists and a part of her was ready to fight.
“You know what they do down there, missy?” he set down the cup and stood by the fire. He didn’t look real, not like a man at least, but his voice held her.
“I heard some, not all,” she whispered. It was true. She didn’t want any bravado. She needed it all if she was going to save her friend.
“Then you already heard enough, girl. But I can see your momma in you, alright, and I know you ain’t gonna stop, so you’d best hear it all.” Despite what he’d said, he handed her a tin pot of coffee. It almost burned her hands but the warmth was welcome all the same.
“They take a child every month, just like you heard, I figure. They seize one and they take from them. The children are dead, heed me on that, child. There’s no afterwards when they take them inside that town hall. But it’s what else they do that you ain’t heard about, is it?” He took a step closer to the fire and for a moment Emily thought he’d almost stepped inside the flames, he was so close.
“Tell me. I don’t want to know, but I got to hear,” she managed to say. The weakness in her body was sloughing off now and she felt her strength returning. But she felt her head lighten with what he was saying.
“They take a bone from each boy and girl, like they’re building a new body. Each month, a new bone. You know how many bones there are in a body, girl?”
She shook her head instead of giving him an answer.
“More than there are days in a year. And they film it. They have one of them computers, only one in town, only one for miles, far as I know, and they film all the ugliness they do. You don’t understand why and neither do I, but that’s how it is.”
She shook her head and saw he was doing the same. A flicker of a flame twisted into something like her Ma’s eyelashes and she took a step forward to be closer to the man.
“They get paid handsomely by those who watch, girl. That’s why no-one can touch them. The law, the townfolk, all of them. The rich men who watch keep them safe. They call them the bone pickers, girl, the watchers.” His voice was hoarse and thick and without thinking she placed her hand into his. It was soft and not at all what she had braced herself for.
“I can’t go down there, girl, if that’s what you’re thinking. See, magic’s a two-way street and they got me locked up from it, ball and chain and all. It’s my punishment, see, to know what happens and have it all in my head. It’s my sentence.” His hand trembled and she gripped it harder until it stopped.
He looked down at her then and his eyes had something like wonder in them. Emily understood it was something of her Ma he was seeing then and she could almost mouth the words that were going to come out of his mouth next.
“You got your momma in you, girl, ain’t you? I can see that clear as day.” He nodded as though confirming the sighting of a ghost.
Maybe he was, Emily thought, not unhappily.
“I need to go and get my friend, Mr. Bryant,” she said and the two of them let their hands slip away and turned to the fire. Her Ma danced slowly inside the flames and they both watched her for a good long while. It wasn’t until she slipped away that he began to speak again.
“I’ll give you what I can. Five pieces to fit inside your sack. You won’t need more than that. I’ve set them by the door for you, girl.” He pointed to the small woollen bag by the front. Emily wondered how long ago he had set them aside there, waiting for her to collect them.
“I’ve put some more food in your sack, nothing too much. Retribution takes time, girl, so don’t you rush down to town, you hear? It ain’t gonna happen until the thirty-first. Take your time and then head out quick after it’s done, and no fooling; clear?” His voice had steadied and he was back to being unknowable again.
Emily nodded, a part of her glad they had broken apart whatever had linked them together for that brief time.
“I understand, Mr. Bryant, and thank you.” She walked away from him, setting down the coffee pot and reaching for the cloak.
“Don’t thank me, girl, and don’t go looking for any help in town neither. No-one speaks because they don’t want to lie. But don’t worry about that town, because it’s rotten to the core. You just see about your friend; clear?” Her back was to him as she slipped on the cloak. When it had settled, she turned and faced him.
“I understand, Mr. Bryant,” she said and nodded. She collected the sack, slipped the things into the side pockets. It felt no heavier sitting on her back than it did before and she wondered if that was what true magic was: simple acts, largely unnoticed. Emily stood by the door and said goodbye.
“Look after yourself and Electra; nothing else matters.” He nodded and turned away, leaving her to close the door with a small slam.
She had not told him her friend’s name, though that hardly seemed to matter now. Emily walked on, the snow barely in the air now and the sun almost pressing through the thick bunches of cloud.
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Copyright © 2011 by Chris Castle