Charleston Twisted — Short Story
Located across the street, the Charleston Chihuahua pet shop’s orange neon light illuminated my approach to the home. Quietly I noted changes to the building’s front, some subtle and others outstanding: new flowers, faded graffiti, broken windows and older cracks.
I ignored the round glowing doorbell and the tarnished brass knocker. My gloved hand lifted and curled long fingers into a soft fist while its shadow stretched against the formidable old door. I barely heard the sound, the rap of my knuckles upon it, soft and dull against the massive wood.
Ineffective. I almost hoped this as my nerve began to slip.
We cannot return to the past, my mind warned me. It is altered. Never as we dreamt it.
It was a bit late, I reasoned, and turned to go, but the door cracked open then swung fully. The petite figure of a woman stood in silhouette behind the door. She stepped closer to reveal the level gaze of bright green eyes behind dark-rimmed spectacles perched on a freckled nose. My heart twisted in a mixture of relief and disappointment.
“I beg your pardon,” I spoke briskly while backing toward the stairs. “Forgive me. I thought I knew who–”
“Good evening, Mr. Forte,” the woman said. “I am Amanda, Miss Cora’s personal assistant.” She paused, her mind moving quickly behind those bright eyes which then widened as if remembering some instruction she’d forgotten. Amanda took a step back into the entranceway and bowed formally. “The mistress is expecting you.”
Barely making a sound on the expensive stone floor, the personal assistant–now playing some bit part in Cora’s planned theatrics–gracefully walked into the grand foyer which seemed impossibly large compared to the building’s modest exterior. The enchantment of such city designs was a lost art, I lamented.
Amanda stopped at the foot of the stairway and inclined her head toward me. Yes, of course. I understood. Pick up the pace for the mistress should not be kept waiting.
As I mounted the first step, the young woman turned and left the grand foyer by way of the dining hall. Beyond, the faint twittering of a cell phone was heard followed by the assistant’s muffled response.
I listened for a moment, reflecting on a time when girls like Amanda had fainted at my feet, their faces flushed and their lips parted from the sheer pleasure of my attention. I laughed to myself, admittedly a mite bitterly, for my roguish dalliances had ended long ago.
My gaze returned to the remaining stairs. I planted my foot firmly on the next, vowing this was doable, I could outwit her, I had in the past, and this only had to work once.
If Cora had thought I could find my way, well, she was right. I could. But I took my time feeling the texture of the Brazilian cherry wood banister and noting the pattern of Italian marble tiles below it. As I reached the top, I walked to the left and turned, enveloped in shadow for but a moment. Hidden, I took a deep breath and smelled the hint of the mistress’s perfume then continued on my journey, stepping into the subtle light of the long hallway.
I could not shake the feeling of walking backward in time with each step down the long, mahogany paneled corridor. With every click of my heel upon the marble floor, with every glance at the yellowed pictures displayed upon the walls–ah! I found me on safari on the right, another lower, of me in a sombrero, and to the left, one when last we had parted here in Charleston–and with every flicker of the walls’ pink tinged gaslights, I felt the strange sensation of invading an altered history. I quietly breathed relief as my feet stepped upon soft, modern carpet.
I found Cora in her parlor. I paused in the doorway. Even though she did not glance up at me, her presence always demanded fully aroused attention if not antiquated respect. Though not all of me could respond in such a manner, my heart and eyes fed upon her beauty with a familiar ache, and I almost forgot my purpose.
Her swanlike neck was curved downward as her eyes squinted to study the remote control she held in her hands. Her teeth chewed her full red lip. Then she smiled and lifted the device and pointed. The soft triple of a waltz came from the speakers perched on the lit fireplace’s mantel.
She looked to me then, her deep blue eyes bright. “Come in, love,” she said like an admonishment. “Make yourself at home.”
I entered the room as the waltz swelled but I hesitated, again with that off-kilter feeling of time, and my eyes took in the changes to her favorite room. It was still decorated in overly ornate Victorian fashion though she had covered the couch and chairs with afghans of garish rainbow colors straight from a 1970 issue of Happy Homemakers. My eyebrows arched as my gaze returned to her face.
She blushed and shrugged.
“Had to keep my fingers busy.”
My lips curved into a dry smile. She still had that wicked sense of humor. No decade had dulled it–no century ever could. It was as unchanged as the first time I had seen her, or the last time, in 1923, with her black dress beaded as now, draping over her slender boyish form and ending just above her knee, and her hair, cut in a bob, jet black, gleaming blue by the candlelight: she stood unchanged.
Whereas I had changed in some ways subtly and, unfortunately, in others outstandingly. Her gift–or should I say more accurately, my prize–had shielded me from the ravages of time up to a good decade ago. Now a frost had touched my sideburns and temples.
She walked to me as if following my thoughts and lifted a thin long finger up to the side of my face. “Me likes,” she breathed. “I’ve had your bed made. You’ll be staying the night, I gather?”
I spread out my hands to either side of me. “If you’ll have me.”
Her smile lengthened and she leaned in closer, a sly look in her eyes. Then she closed those pretty lids with their fans of long, black false lashes and opened her mouth, offering a kiss, offering everything, and yet offering nothing I hadn’t already known.
Unexpectedly more intimate memories flooded over me. Inwardly, I berated myself as my heart shuddered with unbidden longing that could jeopardize my years of scheming. To feel her, as a woman again, her soft black hair against my chest. The humanity I forsook for her and the travels that led me away faded briefly while looking upon those lips.
I could have crushed her. Yet my courage shriveled.
I took several steps back.
She noticed the movement. One eye opened. Those red lips pouted. Then she turned away to retrieve her cloves. I lit one for her. She breathed in and blew out the sweet smoke through her nostrils like an irritated bull. Throaty laughter followed.
As I sat down upon one of the garish chair covers, Amanda entered with a silver tray. It carried a petite glass water kettle decorated with etched flowers, a tea candle burner, a silver strainer spoon, and several small white squares.
Sugar cubes. That meant absinthe, the drink of poets and artists. Cora saw my expression of surprised delight and she giggled, infected by my pleasure. She fairly hopped over to her cabinet and retrieved the bottle, displaying it proudly, then bringing it to her chest.
“I’ve saved this for such an occasion–thank God, with you–for I swear, Rau, you’re the only man I know who has ever truly appreciated both absinthe and women. Come. Let’s talk of the noble days, and of today, and those years in between.”
Over drinks we chatted and played the card game we called Cobwebs, our favorite pass time. The music changed from waltz to big band. As always, I never lost a hand and so the bets were silly: a real like-they-do-on-the-docks Charleston, a song, a secret. A peek. I was kind and modest in my requests for payment.
As the night progressed, the music moved from basso nova to war folk tunes, country ballads to British underground, and from Indy punk to grunge and then pop. The night was slowing down as we settled into jazz fusion.
We were both now seated on the floor, our elbows against the edge of the coffee table. The room was moving in beautiful ways, the firelight stretching against the patterns on the wall. A dragon’s shadow whipped within the cracking logs, as the wall‘s Victorian vines grew out toward the ceiling and sprouted red blossoms.
Cora’s palm cradled her cheek as she played with her glass. The Cobweb game had been momentarily forgotten as we looked at each other and listened to the music, our voices having become silent many moments ago. Her eyes glittered behind heavy eyelids. A long thoughtful smile pulled her lips. She sighed.
“What is it?” I asked. The music dipped and echoed behind me.
“It’s nothing,” she shrugged and lifted her head. She stretched her arms upward behind her and suddenly seemed to have wings, but they faded. After so many sins, there were no wings for either of us, truly.
She bit her lip and looked down, fingering the cards idly. “You shouldn’t have let yourself age,” she reasoned softly. “It was thoughtless. You should have come to me sooner.”
I shifted my weight onto my other side and leaned my back against the chair legs. “I don’t know why I didn’t,” I confessed to her.
“I think–” she hesitated. “I think you are tired now. Perhaps we should go to bed?” She lifted to her feet and offered me a hand up, but I grasped her wrist tightly instead.
“I am always tired,” I told her, half-accusingly, my gaze stabbing into her lively orbs.
Her eyes widened in shock. She hadn’t expected that confession, did not fathom it at first, but she pulled her hand away from mine and straightened out her flapper dress. She breathed in through her delicate nose.
“I see,” she said coldly. “Very well then. One more game?”
She sat down at the coffee table and pulled out its thin drawer. She retrieved a blue vial and placed it upon the table before me. “Always this now,” she fairly spat, most unhappy. “The elixir. For a moment I thought–. I’m such a fool.”
Like an addict, I did not hear her, my eyes on that vial as blue as her timeless eyes, and my mind was both horrified and entranced, thinking on how many innocent lives had been squeezed into that tiny decanter, and what that meant to me. Seventy more years of hope and loneliness? Eighty of sin and longing.
“Same stakes?” she asked tersely while dealing the cards. I nodded and took them, leaned back and went over the plans I had made, the combinations I had envisioned over the past decade for this perfect moment.
I breathed in deeply and etched every bit of it I could into my mind. This I remember: my beautiful angry mistress, absinthe, fire, and talk of noble days. I sighed softly and played the final round.
When the game was over, Cora’s face was pale. Her lower lip trembled. Long false eyelashes blinked rapidly, squeezed tightly shut, then opened to reveal deep blue pools of shocked dismay.
“You let me win.”
“I will never tell,” I said teasingly.
“Do not joke about this,” she cried then and stood on her knees, grabbing the cards to her. “We’ll–We’ll play another round, best two out of–”
I grasped her hand gently and she dropped the cards. They fell like leaves of ash.
“Cora,” I told her sincerely. “I am tired.”
She walked on her knees around the table and hugged me. “Then sleep, Love. We will play again.”
“I’m not the man I was,” I told her, “nor will I ever be again. My passion is gone.”
“Listen to me. That is why I am here. I thought I had another chance after Charleston. But the past decades have been as before. No different. If anything, more a torment.”
“I’ve made my decision. You have to accept it.”
“Stop now!” she shrieked and struggled away from me. “Accept it? I have to accept it? Who are you to say what I can and cannot accept?!”
“I am the one who has never stopped loving you, not after London or Saint Petersburg or even after Charleston. I am the man who lives in a world which he has despised for four hundred years. No potion you have given me has changed that fact, except that now there is one thing–one person–”
“Creature,” she whispered. “You mean creature.”
“Soul,” I countered. “One soul I‘ve found to love but can no longer have…as man should. Cora.” I looked into her eyes then, and she turned from me.
“You’ve never disappointed me–” her voice choked and she sobbed, “until now. You would have m–me kill you.”
“There was a time in the beginning when it was not so distasteful to you,” I reasoned to her back as it rippled with tremors of anger and grief. “Please, Cora…let’s end this as it began, as it should have finished long ago.”
She made no response. After much time watching her, I silently went to retrieve my coat beside the couch.
“All right. I’ve made my decision,” she said finally.
With relief, I was about to turn when I heard a soft hiss like metal against flesh and felt a sharp pin prick at the base of my skull. I could not speak. Yet, Cora was suddenly behind me, and her strong, thin arms supported my weight.
“I will acknowledge your loss,” she whispered in my ear. I could yet feel her hot breath and smell her perfume, though little else, as my vision darkened. “But acknowledged with the fact that you should have won had you played faithfully. And so the reward will be as I so choose.”
I felt her fingers pry open my mouth, and the sweet blue liquid of the elixir poured down my throat. I tried to protest but my tongue and throat gave in to the potion’s allure. My head fell forward against my chest, and I eased into unconsciousness.
When I regained consciousness I realized her decision.
Spinning fibers as fine as flaxen hair, Cora wove me into my bed. From neck to chest to sternum, I felt her nimble fingers moving. My body sagged as she reached lower, to those impotent places that no longer mattered, as I had confessed to her. Indeed, the numbness now spread from those parts outward to my legs and arms, feet and hands.
She hummed a melody, mournful and soft. Sleepily, I fought against the lulling magic of her gentle tones. I wished not to miss a moment of what was left of us. Yet, as the weaving reached my toes, and she returned to my shoulders and chest for a final pass, the dawn was creeping through the windows and cast an enchanted dew on the fibers now glistening like morning snow.
I entertained that the sparkling wetness might be from her tears, but I knew she had given in to her task hours ago, and sad thoughts of me had been replaced by her instinctual hunger. She no longer knew me but the flesh, the parts of me which had left me shackled, burdened, and sinful.
Suddenly, the world tilted. I did not feel it but my eyes took in the movement and discovered she was pulling me onto my side. With eyes frosted like the glaze of death, her gaze fleetingly passed over me, inspecting her work.
My shallow breath stopped as she lifted her fingers up. When the fibers retracted into her palms, her fingers grew long, thin and sharp. I swallowed and looked away.
The sensitivity of my neck became keen. A moment of fear passed over me as I imagined she would choose this location, but after a few minutes, I felt my torso begin swaying back and forth; the motion, slight and quick.
I lowered my eyes; she had sawed her fingers knuckle-deep into my body, below my navel. Flecks of blood sprayed against the white purity of her weaving. As it had been for too many years, I felt nothing there, nothing at first, until a stirring, ever so slight. My heart began to flutter and my cheeks to flush as the sensation grew. I closed my eyes and let it be so.
I am yours.
copyright 2014, Kara Ashley Dey. All rights reserved. Concept / Line editor: Tania Cardenas. Stock Images used in cover: depositphotos, katalinks
I’d like to thank my concept and line editor, Tania Cardenas. You are the best! And I would like to thank my beta readers, Mary Hall Knapp and Leslie Dow. I appreciate your time and feedback so much. I’d also like to thank my husband, Miguel, for all his love and support.
If you enjoyed this short story, look for my books, “Stealing Sky” (sci-fi) and “Vampire’s Fortune, Fortune Teller’s Curse” (urban fantasy) at Books2Read and Amazon.