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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: The Infernal Machine, by C.W. Snyder

Happy Sunday! Today, you can catch the first TWO chapters of C.W. Snyder's upcoming Steampunk Fantasy, The Infernal Machine, here on our blog!


Arthur lives as normal a life possible, tending cemetery grounds—until a mysterious warlock bestows him a clockwork heart, and a dark future to come...



Pre-order The Infernal Machine for Kindle, Nook, or paperback!



Chapter One


Mr. White unbuttoned his shirt, his hands shaking only a little. In the mirror over the sink,

he saw the tattoos that spiraled down from his shoulders and over his chest, moving in swoops and

whiorls that grew smaller the closer they drew to the keyhole in his chest, the bone outline white

under the fluorescent light.

In the early morning silence, he heard the tick of his heart, small but persistent. A chain

around his neck glinted in its reflection, the key on the end swinging in time. He frowned, a bit of

poem licking at the edges of his mind.


Did I request thee, maker, from my clay to mould me man?


His finger traced the scar on his chest and the hole there. He imagined he saw the hint of a

gear in the mirror and knew his imagination played with him. It didn’t make it easier.

Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?


A rush of memories flooded in.


*


“Have a seat.”

Arthur looked at the man sitting in darkness on the headstone. The nearest light shone by

the cemetery gates, and shadow obscured the man’s face. He wore an overcoat and slacks, and his

shoes shone a dim black in the moonlight that peeked in occasional bursts from the intermittent

clouds.

It had been a hard night, walking among the crushed stone paths that shone a spectral white

by the light of the moon, making sure no one tried to climb the stone walls or the wrought -iron

gate of the cemetery. Arthur had been caretaker for the dead since the war ended, a lonely job, but

one that allowed him time. The time he needed to think, to heal. If that healing included a bottle of

liquid anesthetic once in a while, well, he supposed the dead could be trusted to look the other way.

Loneliness was an ebon knife that split the chambers of his heart, dividing him again and

again until he was small beneath the weight of solitude. He lost men he called friends in the war, the

hammer and crunch and pop of rifle and artillery snuffing them like flames caught in a gale. Worse

still, he lost family while there, separation and woe taking some, insidious disease others. Time

marches on, an implacable foe incapable of feeling or mercy, trodding those he called home to

flinders beneath its heels.

He gave a little jump when he’d first spotted the man; surprise gave way to anger as he

realized someone slipped in through the locked gates after all. For a moment, he wished for his

service pistol. He shook the thought off and realized that to shoot someone for startling him was no

better than a cat who lashes out at its owner for rubbing it the wrong way. Instead, he placed himself

between the man and the exit, intending to knock him silly should he try anything.

“Sorry, the cemetery’s closed,” he said.

The man smiled and nodded. “I understand. If you’ll allow an old man an indulgence?”

Arthur eyed him warily. “Which is?”

“I came with the intention of paying respects to an old friend, but you know how it is.”

“How what is?”

“Age. There are so many rows, so many names. Easy for an old man to get turned around.

Even easier for him to become frightened. The world keeps turning, keeps claiming us, and all we

can do is stumble through the rows and hope to avoid the reaper’s scythe.”

Arthur thought it a bit morbid but allowed the man his speech, as he’d seemed to have built

up a head of steam.

“And so I lost myself here by the sycamores for a time. By the time I found her grave, the

light had gone, and I saw no harm in spending the gloaming with her. The dead are, after all, the

best listeners. Besides, I thought, who would begrudge an old man a conversation with a loved one?

Surely not a fine caretaker like yourself? You seem the kind sort, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

The compliment seemed sincere, if unfounded. Still, the man made him nervous. Most

people didn’t stick around graveyards after dark. Superstition and the collective unconsciousness

kept them away as sure as slavering dogs guarding the grounds. Something about meeting a stranger

in the dead of night sent similar shivers down Arthur’s spine. Moreso when he thought about the

type of person who would willingly spend their free time amidst the dead. Even Arthur didn’t linger

as the hours wore on. He thought of the flask in his pocket and the cigarettes in the other and

decided that despite his misgivings, he could use a drink. To calm his nerves, of course.

He sat in the grass across from his would-be companion, careful not to sit on a grave.

Though he usually possessed a level-headed nature (the dead were dead, after all), some things—like

superstition—could be contagious, and he suspected he’d caught a little from the countless families

that wandered these grounds even in the daylight. The cool and damp ground sent a chill creeping

through the fabric of his pants. He pulled out his flask and took a swig. Asw an afterthought, he

offered it to the man, who declined. He followed up with a cigarette, and the man also partook.

They sat in the quiet for a few moments, Arthur feeling the warmth of the bourbon creeping

into his bones against the chill in the air and enjoying the way the cigarette made him a little light-

headed. He watched the stranger on the headstone. The man crossed his legs and blew a plume of

pale smoke into the air, where it curled away in tatters. The cherry on the cigarette glowed bright red

but did little to illuminate the man’s face. A chill ran across Arthur’s skin, a ghost trodding on its

own grave, and he tucked his legs in a little closer,; crossed his arms to avoid showing the gooseflesh

raised there. After a moment, he spoke, trying, and succeeding to his own surprise, to keep the

shudder of unease from his voice.

“I didn’t catch your name,” he said.

“Aldous. You may call me Mr. Black, if you like.”

It was an unusual name. To Arthur, who considered the setting and time, it seemed fitting.

“Do you know what I do, Mr., ah—”

“White,” Arthur supplied.

Mr. Black seemed to mull the name over, almost to taste it. “Ah, yes. Mr. White. Do you?”

Arthur shook his head, frowning. How could he? he thought.

A smile entered Mr. Black’s voice, though Arthur could not tell if he were truly smiling since

the moon had slipped behind a cloud, and no sign of the man’s teeth showed. “Of course not. How

could you? We’ve only just met, after all.” He took a final drag on his cigarette and flicked the butt

away, into the headstones. “I’m what you would call a seeker. A philosopher of sorts.”

He reached into his overcoat and pulled out a small round object on a chain. It glittered in

the moonlight. He sat silent for a moment. The stranger took a deep breath and spoke.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? Everything in its place, no piece superfluous, all working toward a

common goal.” He flipped it open, and the glass on its face caught the light. “Nothing wanted,

nothing wasted. Wind it, and you’ll always know the time. You’ll always know just when you are.”

A thought occurred to Arthur. “What about knowing who, or where, you are? Isn’t that

important, too?”

Mr. Black closed the watch and tucked it back into his coat. “Well, yes, I suppose. Not as

important as when though. You see, if you know when you are, you’ll know the person you are by

extension. It’s only through a reference in time you can know your true position in the world.” He

pointed at a headstone. “That bit of rock there? I know where it is,, and what it is, but without the

date on it, I don’t know why it is. Make sense, Mr. White?”

Arthur tried to parse it and lost the thread, but he nodded anyway.

“Well, then.” Mr. Black patted his palms against his thighs and stood. “Speaking of time, it’s

time I should be going.” He looked around the graveyard. “Quiet here. I think you’re safe to nip out.

I don’t think the residents would miss you much. Would you care to join me?”

Arthur stood as well, declining the helping hand Mr. Black offered him. He took a look

around the quiet grounds of the cemetery. No one rattled the chains on the gate or rustled the

bushes by the wall. He looked at his watch and saw it stood halfway between dusk and dawn. He

took another pull from his flask and found it empty. Mr. Black looked at him.

“Well, Mr. White?”

Arthur vacillated for a moment.. He waited the space of a heartbeat, and made up his mind.

He shrugged.

“Sure.”

They walked out of the cemetery together.


*


They strolled the street under hazy sodium lamps that pushed back the night in small globes

of yellow. Arthur found himself pleasantly surprised to discover Mr. Black was not the monster he

feared when the man was hidden in shadow. Instead, he resembled a kindly, aging man, with a shock

of white hair and a face dark and lined with age.

They walked in silence for a while when Mr. Black spoke up again.

“You know, what you do is of paramount importance, Mr. White.”

“Yeah?” Arthur shook himself. He had been thinking of a bar or a pub. Someplace he could

refill his flask. Someplace he could forget again for a while.

“Yes indeed. You watch over the dead. I’d daresay you’re a modern Cerberus, guarding them

as they’re ferried from this life to the next.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way before.”

“No offense, I don’t think many do. They view caretakers and gravediggers as the unskilled,

the low. Think about it though—you are the shepherds of eternity.”

Arthur’s chest swelled a little with pride. “That’s kind of you to say.”

“Not at all. Oh, here.” They came to an intersection. Mr. Black pointed out a bar that stood

catty-corner from them. Small and brown, with cedar shingles and bright lights in its windows, it

seemed to Arthur to be the most welcoming place in the world at the moment.

“Up for a pint?” Mr. Black asked.

Arthur nodded. Mr. Black seemed to be in his head, and he found himself grateful for the

reprieve the man offered. They headed across the street, cutting through the crosswalk lines, and

went inside.


*


Patrons filled the bar, but enough space remained that they felt it cozy instead of crowded.

Small, warm lights hung over the booths, casting warm pools of light among soft conversation.

Arthur and Mr. Black found a place in the corner where they had a view of the street from the tinted

window and a subtle command of the whole room. After a few minutes, a waitress came to their

booth and took their order—a Guinness for Mr. Black, and scotch, neat, for Arthur.

They watched the waitress disappear into the crowd, her backside swaying. Mr. Black turned

to Arthur.

“Exquisite creature,” he said.

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “How’s that?”

“Look at her. Every part working with every other part. Nothing wanted, nothing wasted.

Bone and tissue, sinew and ligaments and muscle together, art in motion.” He inhaled. “Even her

scent is art. Doesn’t it inspire something in you, Mr. White?” He looked at Arthur.

Arthur blushed, and Mr. Black smiled.

“Indeed,” Mr. Black said. “Feeling Eros’ bite? Can’t say I blame you. Were I a younger man,

maybe I’d feel the same way. But I can still appreciate, or what’s a hHeaven for, Mr. White?”

The waitress weaved her way between the tables back to their booth, and Mr. Black drew

quiet and winked at Arthur. She unloaded her tray, condensation trickling down the sides of the

glasses as they thunked against the wood. Mr. Black produced a couple of bills and laid them on the

table. The waitress, Helen—Helen, her name sewn into her dark top in white stitching—reached for

the money. When she did, Mr. Black grabbed her hand. She froze, her eyes a mixture of

apprehension and annoyance. Mr. Black smiled up at her, and Arthur saw the mask of a venerable

old man slip over his features. It made his flesh crawl with trepidation.

“One moment, miss. No, no, I won’t hurt you. I just want to ask you something.” He

released her hand, and she drew it back with the cash. She tucked the money into her apron and

found a smile that said I’m humoring you, though her eyes remained flat and full of suspicion.

“Okay, shoot, hun,” she said.

“When were you born?” Mr. Black asked.

Arthur could see the relief slide through her like a chill. Her smile grew a touch warmer.

“August 15,” she said.

“Ah, I see. What year?”

“00.”

He sat back in his bench seat and exhaled. “So young. So young. I envy you, my dear.” He

produced another bill and held it out to her. “For your trouble.”

“Thank you!” She smiled, though warmth still evaded her eyes. Arthur didn’t blame her.

Watching the exchange unsettled him in a way he couldn’t pin down.

“Thank you, ah, Helen.”

“Anything else?” she asked.

Mr. Black shook his head. “No, thank you. Mr. White?”

Arthur lowered his eyes and shook his head. He thought the girl pretty but put upon

enough. Besides, his parents had taught him to keep his hands and unwanted attention to himself.

“Okay. Well, if you need anything else, just holler.” She sauntered away. When she had gone,

Mr. Black turned to Arthur.

“Fortuitous!” he said.

“What is?” Arthur felt much better now that his scotch had arrived and begun its journey to

his blood. He took a sip and relished the warmth sliding down his throat.

“Her year, her age. She’s perfect.” He eyed Arthur for a moment as though deciding on

something.

“Do you feel up to a bit of adventure, Mr. White?” he asked.

Arthur felt the effects of the scotch. Warm and fuzzy. As far as feelings went, he

recommended slightly fuzzy. It was a pleasant blanket that smothered unpleasant thoughts and

warmed the heart in an obtuse way, as the heat from a fire’s embers. He supposed he did feel like

doing something different, something that didn’t involve his small apartment and his small TV and

his small bed and his black dreams. He nodded.

“Reckon I will after I fill this up.” He produced his flask.

Mr. Black smiled. “Certainly. If you’ll excuse me, I need to freshen up.” He patted Arthur’s

hand and left the booth. Arthur watched him go, the old man disappearing into the crowd and down

a hallway to the restroom.

Arthur waited, thinking of his empty flask, and when Helen and Mr. Black did not reappear,

he flagged down another waiter and slipped him a few dollars extra to run and fetch his drink. While

he waited on his refill, he thought about his new friend. The man certainly carried himself in an

intriguing way, he thought, and maybe that would prove to be good for him. He could stand to get

out more, to have more conversations, to make more friends. To take time out from his memories

and the dead.

While he sat alone in the booth with the crowd milling around him and no one paying

attention, he felt a pang in his chest, loneliness that liked to creep in when vulnerable, and a

whispering voice that told him his only worth remained to the dead. Screams echoed in his brain,

shaking his thoughts like mortar fire. He shook himself and waited just a little longer. When he felt

both Mr. Black and the waiter had forgotten him, and he thought he would have to trudge home

alone, both approached the table. The waiter handed him the flask, Arthur murmuring his thanks.

Mr. Black waited until the man left and turned to Arthur.

“Are you ready, Mr. White?” he asked.

Arthur nodded and tucked his flask back into his pocket. They stood and left together, the

morning chill enveloping them and making their breath steam as they left the warm closeness of the

bar.

“Where are we going?” Arthur asked.

“On an adventure, my boy.” Mr. Black clapped him on the shoulder, and they walked on.


*


“Do you know the etymology of the word adventure, Mr. White?” Mr. Black asked after they

had been walking for some time.

Arthur shook his head. Even the meaning of the word etymology eluded him.

“It comes from Latin and Old French. A thing about to happen, or a novel or exciting incident.”

They came to an old building in the center of town, a brownstone forgotten and ignored

amid new growth in the city. Mr. Black produced a key ring and led them inside. They walked

together down an old hallway that still had hardwood floors shining with a deep polish and sconces

that let off a warm glow on the walls.

At the end of the hall stood an iron grate which Mr. Black lifted. He waited for Arthur to

pass through and followed him into a small elevator that bounced a little when they stepped in. The

gate slammed shut behind them, and Mr. Black pressed a button on the wall. With a whir and a

lurch, the elevator started upward.

Arthur pulled out his cigarettes and flask. He held them up. “Mind?” he asked.

Mr. Black smiled. “Not at all, chum.”

With a look of gratitude, Arthur lit a cigarette and took a pull from his flask. They rode in

silence, and after a couple of quiet minutes, the elevator ground to a stop. Mr. Black lifted the gate

again, and they filed out into a hallway similar to the one on the ground floor, except for the

presence of a deep burgundy carpet. Their footfalls whispered as they walked, and Arthur

remembered sand beneath his feet, bones beneath the sand. They came to the end of the hall where

a solid steel door stood. Mr. Black unlocked and opened it. The old man motioned for Arthur to go

first, following him inside. Once in, he flicked a switch, and the room flooded with light.

The room lay decorated in red velvet and cherry hardwood with brass trimmings. Arthur

thought it looked like something out of a Jules Verne book, or those old Victorian houses in the old

money section of the city. Against one wall, a long workbench stood, decorated with vices and a

small lathe and several magnifying lenses and lights. Just the other side of the bench, in the center of

the room, stood a steel table.

Mr. Black wandered to the workbench and pulled something from his pocket. Arthur

followed, peering over his shoulder. A plastic bag lay on the bench, the inside smeared with visceral

red. Mr. Black seemed to be working on a large white object, cleaning utensils lay scattered around

it. After a moment, Arthur recognized it for bone. A fresh one, at that. He took a step back.

Mr. Black turned and smiled.

“Told you Helen was perfect.” He moved toward Arthur, who felt light-headed and

confused, the sensation flushing into him like a tide. He looked at the flask in his hand.

“How?” Arthur asked. He’d meant for more to follow but found his thoughts swaddled in

cotton.

Mr. Black smiled at him. “Oh, this. This is just a finger, my dear man. No, Helen will be

quite all right. A little headache, a little less dextrous.” He shook his head. “One can only do so

much in a bar bathroom, given space, time, and tools available.” He sighed, an almost pensive

sound. “If only. The art I would have made from her…. But, no matter. We’ve what we need here.”

“Bastard,” Arthur snarled.

A look of sadness passed Mr. Black’s features. If it was not just pantomime, the appearance

of the emotion threatened to confuse Arthur further.

“Regrettable,” Mr. Black said. “I had hoped you’d be more agreeable but feared you might

balk. So, I made the decision for you, with the help of an avaricious waiter.” He mimed tipping the

flask up. “An unfortunate failing, that.”

Arthur turned to run and tripped over his own feet. He hit the floor hard and tasted blood.

“No, no. Just relax. You’re going on an adventure.”

He felt himself lifted and carried across the room and had only a few seconds to marvel at

the old man’s strength before being set on something cold and hard. He realized he lay atop the steel

table, where Mr. Black tied straps around his wrists and ankles. After a moment, Mr. Black hovered

back into view, a kindly smile on his face.

“It’s okay, Mr. White. Just relax. We’ll have you right in no time.”

Darkness closed in on him, the encroaching black like a curtain pulled across his vision. He

thought of past lives lived in blackened forests where the crunch of leaf and twig could cause a man

to swing his rifle in desperate fear toward the black between boles. He took a breath, and it came

slow and heavy, like a weight on his chest. The black became complete, and for a time, he found

himself thinking of nothing at all.


*


The room faded back into view. Mr. Black stood with his back to Arthur, hunched over his

worktable. He straightened and turned, holding an indsistinct object that caught and reflected the

light. As he drew closer, it resolved into a container. Black stopped in front of him, and Arthur

looked at the jar in the man’s hands, the light throwing a myriad of colors across the room. A light

blue fluid filled the jar Mr. Black held. A mechanical heart made of glass and shiny brass pumped

inside it. The transparency of the heart allowed Arthur to see its cogs and gears. He thought it

beautiful, present situation notwithstanding.

Mr. Black put the jar down on a tray next to the table. Several instruments rested there,

catching the light, wicked silver edges glinting. Arthur felt his own heart speed up and his stomach

clench. The room spun, and he shut his eyes.

“Nothing wanted, nothing wasted,” Mr. Black said.

He held up a key, stark white in the light, and Arthur thought it resembled the bone he’d

seen earlier. It looked like the type of key used to wind a grandfather clock, reminding Arthur of the

gears and cogs in the mechanical heart. He suddenly and fervently wished he had his flask at hand.

“Do you know what I’ve needed, Mr. White?” Mr. Black paused for a moment, and when

Arthur didn’t answer, he went on. “A companion. Someone to share the long hours and days with.

Someone who understands and knows, as I do, just when he is.” He reached out and tapped Arthur’s

chest,, just over his heart,, with the key.

“You were born April 25. A perfect date, by my estimations. Oh.” He smiled sheepishly.

“Yes, I borrowed your wallet earlier. I do have a knack for sorting possessions when the need arises.

But that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is you’re young, strong, and you listen.”

He stepped back and picked a needle from the tray beside the table. Arthur’s pulse fluttered,

a bird trapped in the flesh of his ribs, and though he wanted to struggle, to cry out, something in

him—maybe the drugs—stopped him from doing so. He watched the needle slip into his vein with

growing detachment. A part of him hoped it meant he no longer had to be alone. He heard Mr.

Black’s voice as if from down a long hallway.

“Your adventure, Mr. White, begins now. In all of the human experience, there has never

been—nor will there ever be—a man like you. You’re a pioneer, a positive anomaly. When you

wake, you will be something more.”

For the second time that night, blackness took Arthur.


*


A peculiar clicking sound and a strange feeling in his chest woke him. He felt his arms and

legs unbound and found that he no longer lay on the table. Tightness around his torso made him

open his eyes and look down. Bandages covered his chest and ribs, with a small opening over his

heart. Mr. Black straightened up, standing over him. He held something out, attached to a chain.

Arthur took it and saw a key, the tip still rounded as though the finger it once belonged to meant to

point at his heart. Mr. Black sat down in the chair across from him and poured from a teapot into

two cups. He offered one to Arthur.

“Tea, Mr. White?”

Arthur took the offered cup with hands that shook only a little. Surprise at finding he craved

neither his flask nor a cigarette shook him. Neither panic nor rage invaded his thoughts.

“Thanks,” he said, taking the cup.

“Not at all.” Quiet rippled between them as they sipped at the hot tea.

“Once a year, every year,” Mr. Black said.

“Eh?” said Arthur.

“Your heart. You need to wind it.”

“Oh, that’s fine, then,” Arthur answered numbly. He knew he should feel something, but it

seemed small, unimportant, as if emotion was a distant country he could imagine, but not touch.

Mr. Black pulled out his pocket watch, flipped it open, and looked at it.

“Well, Mr. White, w. We’ve some time until our first true adventure.”

Arthur tried to feel something, anything. He tried to be angry at what Mr. Black had done to

him, upset with fate, or even sad that his life had come to this. Instead, he only felt calm, patient. He

sipped at his tea.

“What would that be?”

Mr. Black waved a hand. “Whatever we feel up to, Mr. White.” He set his tea down.“Now, what

would you like to talk about?”


Chapter Two


Mr. Black believed in two things: ambition and love. Ambition could move mountains,

shiver seas from their beds, shatter moons. And love—: love could do those things and splinter you

like glass. But what a sweet pain it was. He thought of Lenore, of the things he’d sacrificed and the

things he would. Her absence cut like a knife in his guts. And there, ambition entered. Sometimes a

man needed to not just move a mountain, but crack it down the center and build it into something

new—something unheard of, something spectacular. He took a sip of his cooling tea and closed his

eyes, remembering her.

A girl with an ornate tattoo, and a fire burning on a beach. The long reach of years dimmed

the memories only a little, but the blaze still warmed him despite being ash on the wind. The tattoo,

a wisteria in bloom. It covered her back, the blossoms cascading down her ribs, the branches

arching onto her shoulders, the roots disappearing just under her panty line. The fire burned red and

orange and white like hot coals at its center and made Aldous sweat even in the cool night.

They’d set the blaze at the edge of town, where the water met the earth, the sand soft

beneath their bare feet. She’d leaned in close and whispered something in his ear, and he didn’t hear

over the sounds of wood cracking and fire snapping and the smell of her, like smoke and vanilla and

sweat. She wrapped an arm around him and laid her head on his shoulder, and the stars burned in

their sockets above.

His mind wandered even further, the path of years, back to their first encounter. He’d seen

her in the rain. A summer storm, the kind that blacks out the sun and snatches the warmth from the

air with fat, cold fat drops the size of quarters. She’d stood sheltered under a thick oak, despite the

hammer of thunder and the threat of lightning. Something about her drew him—her pale

vulnerability, maybe. Or perhaps it was the way she stood, arms wrapped around her to keep the

chill off, but unafraid, staring up at the clouds as they played their violent symphony. He’d

approached, the storm forgotten in his infatuation, and, soaked and shivering, stood beneath the tree

beside her.

“Beautiful, don’t you think?” she’d asked.

“Yes,” he’d replied, not looking at the clouds.

He walked his mind back to that beautiful night by the sea. They didn’t make love. Some

might ask how—with the sand and the sea and the stars and the fire, and Aldous could only answer

this way: You don’t piss in a baptismal fount when you visit a church, do you? But the truth of it was, he couldn’t . His heart stood paralyzed in the face of her beauty, the way she stared down the sea as it

approached the rocks and the sand in wracking waves. Her courage was fierce, her spirit shone with

the brightness of a burning star, and in the face of that, anything a simple mortal might do would

count only as base defilement.

The night wore on, the fire burned down, and the tide rose, until the waves lapped at the

blackened timbers. Embers hissed and smoldered in the brackish wake, but not them. Their auras

burned bright.


*


She came to Aldous a week later, red hair, plump lips, and pale skin shining in the

moonlight. She asked to come in and stood on the stoop looking hopeful and frail, and he stared too

long before he moved to the side and invited her in. She accepted and stepped inside, kicking off her

shoes while he poured wine. They eventually settled on the couch. They talked, and Aldous watched

the way the light played on her green eyes or the whiteness of her smile. In the small hours, he

traced her tattoo with his fingertips.


*


They lay in bed, the moon full and beaming through a window, and she asked Aldous if he

loved her. He thought about it. Love is a heavy word. It has its own weight, its own taste, and its own

texture. Love is a four-letter word that smolders on the tongue after you say it. The silence stretched

between them, and in the end, she got up and pulled him from the bed.

They dressed, and she led him into the city. They walked down streets and alleys, past empty

parks and cold bright neon. Men pressed in close around bright fires burning in barrels, and women

huddled with their children under sheets of newspaper, shivering in the night. They passed other

men and other women, clean and fresh and shiny and standing outside clubs or dining in safe

restaurants, oblivious. They passed tall buildings of glass and steel and short buildings of stone.

They came to the beach where a small group sat around a fire dug in the sand, young and

strong and beautiful. They smiled easy and laughed loud, and when she came into their midst, they

welcomed her with drink and laughter. She smiled back, and Aldous and Lenore sat on the edge of

the fire while they talked and something played on a stereo in the background. She laid her head on

his shoulder and took his hand, and he felt the cold in her skin.

The moon sank over the horizon, lighting the water in white waves, and as the conversation

quieted, she leaned in and kissed a young man—tan skin, white teeth, bright eyes. Aldous thought

about whether he loved her and watched the stranger sink into her kiss, watched him struggle with

her strength. Something rose in him, and even as the scene played out before him, he parceled out a

portion of his mind to examine it, turn it over as an entomologist might inspect the jeweled wings of

a dragonfly.

Was it jealousy? He thought not. What they felt for one another was to him ironclad. This

dalliance was for her amusement. Horror, as he realized something in her pulled the life from their

bodies? No. Something about it, this power, this dominance over those who would risk their health

and livelihood for the simple brush of lips from a stranger, no matter how beautiful, sent a thrill

through him. And with that, he realized what he was feeling, the realization sending ripples of heat

coruscating through muscle and thought. He was excited. They might yearn, they might share only a

moment with her, but he was not troubled, because she had blessed him with the one thing they

were not offered. Life. Hers, theirs together. And with that excitement came a sense of pride. Of

those who she could have chosen, of those she could have drained and left limp on the stones and

the sand, it was Aldous with whom she chose to live.

When it ended, she turned to the next, and the next, and he watched them, as though

enthralled with her, fallen to her embrace. Young, pale bodies in repose lay on the sand. They

littered the beach, cold and still, and the fire burnt down to ash and ember. He added wood, stoked

the fire, and held her hand as the bodies burned. As if in response, that internal heat came again, a

tide of warmth that made it difficult to keep a grin of satisfactory glee from his lips.

There are those who believe in soul mates and those who don’t. Until that moment, with the

fire blazing and the warmth of her flesh against his, he hadn’t. Now, though, it was as if someone

had held a mirror up to his own soul, reflecting every facet of that dark jewel back to him, and in its

darkling shine, he found comfort.



*



Her mouth tasted like poison. Her mouth tasted like wine. Aldous felt the stones of her love

weighing him down, and still, he sifted through the gravel to find the gold. He found it in the glint

of green in her eyes or the plush red of her lips. He found it in the smile she flashed like royalty

throwing a penny to the poor, or the soft touch of her hand on his arm.


*


Aldous shook the memory off like stray ash from a fire. He stared into the middle distance,

remembering blood and misery, Lenore’s cries echoing off the cold stone valleys of the city. That

too he shook off after a time and breathed a deep sigh.

Not long, he thought. Not long at all.

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