Lex Kent’s Reviews - I enjoyed it for sure. Redhawk writes really well, and it is easy to get immersed in the book…has created a really good base for a fantasy world. She could easily write many more books that take place in this world. While I would love to see more with these characters, I'd be happy to read any books that take place here.
One Year Ago
Aching pain was the first thing she noticed. The second thing was the nasty taste in her mouth as consciousness returned. Water would help wash that away. Is there any water?
With a grunt, Gillie rolled over on a hard surface. She cracked open one eye and winced as sharp photalgia stabbed into her head. Through the haze she saw her worn leather pack within easy reach. She pulled it close and blindly fumbled inside for her water bottle. With eager gulps she quickly drained half the contents. Her moisture-starved tissues sighed in relief. She capped the bottle and dropped it beside her.
Much improved, she squinted against the overhead lights. Her last memory was of being deep inside Langjökull Glacier in Iceland where she’d attended the annual Secret Solstice Festival. She’d danced with Sigyn, an excessively rich young woman who had picked Gillie up in a pub a few days earlier. Four days of music, unlimited Reyka Vodka and warm nights in Sigyn’s bed had made for quite the adventure, Gillie’s first since she’d left England two months ago.
Gillie staggered to her feet and scrubbed her face. Perhaps she’d had too much Reyka Vodka last night.
Where am I?
The room looked somewhat familiar in a utilitarian sort of way. She turned in a circle and noted gray-painted walls, metal floors and rivets. Large straps and thick rope nets held boxes and crates in place as the floor rocked gently beneath her. It didn’t take long for her to figure out her location. She was in the cargo hold of a freighter ship. If she ventured up the metal stairs and through the overhead door with its wheel-lock mechanism, she’d find cargo containers piled high on the deck. She’d stowed away aboard a similar ship to get to Iceland.
“How did I get here?” At her feet, her pack sat open with the now-half bottle of water. Beside it was her accordion case. Her tarp and sleeping bag were out and unfolded—she’d been laid atop them. If Sigyn had tired of Gillie, had wanted to get rid of her, why go to such extremes? A simple “bugger off” would have done the trick.
Still, this was a tad better than being run out of town on a proverbial rail.
Gillie squatted and inventoried her pack. Everything was there—all her camping supplies and personal hygiene items. Even the leather pouch that contained remembrances of home and family sat unmolested in its place. Someone had added food for several days, but not enough water. Gillie sat back on her haunches. Five one-gallon containers of water had been tucked close by behind a cargo net, her name written on the side of each one.
Well then. Enough food and water to get her through a few days. She could conceivably stay here until the ship docked at its destination. “I do so hope it’s not back to England,” she groused under her breath. Getting through security there hadn’t been easy. The Port of London Authority had hired fairies to watch their ships. Those little gits were as bent as a nine-bob note against any kind but their own. It had taken three days of sneaking and squatting to board a ship heading west.
Gillie blew out a breath, pushing recalcitrant locks of dark hair away from her face. A glance at her old pocket watch indicated it wasn’t quite evening. If she wanted to, she could go topside to see where she was headed. Of course, if this ship remained above the Arctic Circle, the sky wouldn’t darken at all. In any case, she could be on her way to Greenland or Norway. Her preference was westward—she’d wanted to see the new country as soon as she’d heard about it.
It was far too early to alert the crew that they had a stowaway. Best to remain hidden for another day. The farther from their port of origin when the crew discovered her, the better. There was still time for them to call seagoing authorities to pick her up and cart her back to Iceland. Besides, luck had always been with her. It didn’t matter when she decided to explore the ship; if she wasn’t supposed to be seen, she wouldn’t be. And if she was discovered, so be it.
Gillie folded her sleeping bag into a cushion and sat, leaning her back against a nearby crate. “Ow!” She searched for the splinter that had stabbed her in the shoulder and was unable to locate it. With a frown, she tugged her T-shirt aside and peered at the damage.
The thick, black lines of a tattoo met her gaze, a tattoo she knew she hadn’t had the day before. “What the—” She leaned farther away from the crate and exposed more of her shoulder. Yes, there was definitely a tattoo there, a big one. She explored what she could reach with her fingers, felt the faint lines of raised skin along shoulder and spine and down to her waist. The flesh was tender but not overly so.
She’d had experience with tattoos. Thick, blue woad lines circled her biceps and ankles, each representing life achievements and lost friends. They had all taken time to fully heal. This new one seemed a week old, not a tattoo acquired within the last twelve hours. Have I been unconscious for a week? She had no way to tell. Her pocket watch didn’t have a date function, and she’d yet to attain the funds to purchase any of the newfangled electronics everyone sported these days.
Why would a moneyed and gorgeous woman like Sigyn pick up a ragamuffin like Gillie, treat her to the best weekend ever and then slip her a mickey? What was the purpose of tattooing her and dumping her on a cargo ship heading gods knew where? Where had Gillie been this last week? Curiously, she didn’t feel like that much time had passed, which would indicate the tattoo was magical.
That was a scarier prospect than waking in the hold of a cargo ship with no idea about her destination.
Gillie gingerly leaned against the crate until she found a somewhat comfortable place. What was that song she’d once heard? Something about people being strange when you were the stranger? This world had grown older and the people in it more peculiar. She had a choice now. She could allow disquiet to blossom into terror or not.
Rather than become frightened by a situation that was fully out of her hands, she took the pragmatic road. This last week of experiences had been well worth the discomfort she currently endured. And hadn’t that been her reason for leaving home to begin with? To live life to the fullest? She only hoped that whatever tattoo Sigyn had gifted her with was at least decorative and suited to Gillie’s temperament.
She retrieved packets of feverfew and willow from her kit. First to doctor the headache and then perhaps take a nap. Afterward I’ll have a gander upstairs.
It was time to focus on her next great adventure.
I was late.
My skateboard skidded as I turned it sideways to halt my forward momentum. It was a close thing. I almost smashed into the Dumpster that shared space with the two recycling bins, but they barely brushed me with their grime and stench. The back door to the Homeless Youth Outreach Center stood open, blocked by a crude chunk of wood hastily employed as a doorstop. I heard the clash and clatter of a kitchen in full swing and the hum of industrial-sized fans. With practiced ease I stomped on the end of my deck. It leaped from horizontal to vertical, and I caught it by the truck and lifted it from the ground.
Stepping into the kitchen was like entering another world. Outside the alleyway smelled of garbage and beer cans, dust and maybe a slight hint of mold. Inside the aroma of cooked food permeated the steamy atmosphere. The fans barely touched the heat, but that was to be expected. Air-conditioning wasn’t in the budget this year. Or last. Or next.
“You’re late, Lindsay,” a deep voice called.
“I know!” I recognized the smell of mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables as I wended my way through the kitchen. One of the other volunteers grinned wry amusement as he carried a tray of food into the dining room. “I’m sorry. I was up all night.”
I reached a series of open cubbies the volunteers used to store their belongings while at work. One had my name taped inside—Lindsay Wells. I parked my skateboard in it and retrieved a T-shirt from my backpack. The pack hit the cubby and the shirt my back as I tossed it on over my camisole. It was too hot in the kitchen, but shirts were required when at work. Damned food-handler regulations.
“Yeah. Finals start in a couple of weeks.”
I turned toward the voice. Max Brona was the director and chief cook at the center. A large, burly man, he was respected by most of the street kids as much for his tough-guy appearance as for his gruff generosity. He wore the requisite kitchen whites proudly stained with the day’s work and a pair of black rubber clogs, the standard outfit of any professional cook. Tattoos covered his bare forearms, another common feature among Portland’s culinary experts. His long salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back into a frizzy ponytail.
He nodded his grizzled head and tossed me a disposable apron. “Well, lucky for you, a couple of the kids offered to fill in. Go wash up and get on the line.”
I tugged the plastic, full-frontal apron over my head and hustled to the deep basin sink. Once I had my apron on and hair tied back, I scrubbed my hands and arms. No one worked in the kitchen or on the serving line without a thorough wash. Max had little tolerance for people who didn’t follow food-service protocol, which was probably a good thing. Our clientele drew a lot of attention from the authorities—the last thing we needed was to be shut down on a health code violation. Clean and prepped, I exited the kitchen and out into controlled pandemonium.
The dining room ran along the front of the Old Town building. Large plate-glass windows looked out onto a street busy with traffic. The outreach center had been at this fortuitous location for fifteen years, far enough from the new and improved public transit corridor to have been left alone during the renovation and gentrification of the neighborhood, yet close enough to allow easy access for the homeless youth we served. A long row of folding tables held today’s offerings, each pot or pan manned by one or two volunteers with ladles and serving forks. Servers ranged in age from a teenager doing community service work to a seventy-year-old grandmother who hated sitting idle in her musty condominium two blocks away.
Beyond the serving line a mishmash of tables of assorted sizes and materials filled the rest of the room. Summer always drew large crowds of street kids to the center as many traveled north to beat the heat of the Southern states. Their ability to just hoist anchor and sail off to parts unknown by whatever means necessary both terrified and amazed me. Severe introversion coupled with a healthy yellow streak had meant that my time on the streets had been spent as a walking doormat; I couldn’t imagine what would have happened if I’d left the minuscule safety of my hometown. My heart quailed at the idea of thumbing rides with strangers to places I didn’t know. Even now the idea of leaving Portland for graduate school somewhere else frightened the hell out of me.
A line of raggedy teenagers passed my station. I smothered their mashed potatoes with thick hamburger gravy. I knew most of them well enough to engage in small talk. These were the regulars who remained in Portland year-round, as I had done years ago. Others came through on a habitual basis, most often in the summer as they passed through en route to concerts in the Gorge or music festivals in Washington and Canada. Contemporary homeless youth were travelers by nature, unable to sit in one place for too long. They took to the highways and railways with abandon, receiving firsthand experience of cultures all over the country.
A little girl appeared before me with a plate and a wide grin. “Love the blue hair, pet.”
It took a moment for me to register the comment, almost as if I needed to translate it. While my mind worked the problem, I had to concede that she had to be the youngest person I’d ever seen here. After several seconds, I realized she wasn’t a child. Her tiny stature, barely five feet tall, had confused me. Upon closer examination, she appeared to be in her late teens. “Thanks.”
Her dark, shaggy hair framed a creamy complexion, and her deep brown eyes sparkled as if to indicate she fully understood my immediate incorrect assumptions about her age. She came up on her tiptoes to peer into the pan from which I served. “And what would that be, then? It smells absolutely delightful!”
And now I realized why I hadn’t instantly understood her first words. An English accent! A smile teased the corner of my lips as I recognized the lilt. It was rare to find foreigners among the homeless population. I’d once met an Australian while on the streets but no others. “It’s hamburger gravy.” I carefully deposited a serving onto the Englishwoman’s mashed potatoes.
“You’re welcome.” I gestured down the line. “Be sure to grab an apple for dessert.”
She studied me with hooded eyes that promised more than friendship. “And are you the snake in the garden to tempt me with forbidden fruit?”
Heat of a different kind caressed my cheeks. I struggled with the urge to duck beneath the table or back into the kitchen. Cute, English and a flirt—a winning combination. I glanced at my serving mates, but no one paid us any attention. You’re not twelve anymore, Wells! Grow a spine! It took effort to overcome my initial inclination in all social situations—to flee—but my mouth opened of its own accord. “That depends…is it working?”
With a coquettish wink, she sauntered down the serving line.
Aghast and elated that I’d said anything at all, I focused on my task. My hand trembled from the short burst of adrenaline that had shot through me at her come-on and my audacity. While I inwardly patted myself on the back for stretching beyond my rigid boundaries, my attention drifted to the Englishwoman. I watched as she received a spoon of vegetables from another server, a dinner roll and a set of plastic utensils.
She studied the bowls of mixed fruit—apples, bananas and pears—with care before she finally selected an apple. Just before she left the line, her eyes met mine and she wiggled her eyebrows at me.
Oh yes. Definitely a flirt!
* * *
Other than the English flirt, the rest of lunch passed in a blur of dirty faces, irreverent language and constant ladling. Heat from the kitchen radiated against my back, and the warmth of an overcrowded room permeated the air. Cleanliness wasn’t a priority to our clients, and the dining room was soupy with sweat, dust, body odor and food despite the open front door and two fans that battled to move the air. I’d worked here for so long, I barely noticed the discomfort anymore.
Eventually the last of them had eaten their fill, the empty pans had been returned to the kitchen for a soak, and the rest of us enjoyed a quick meal of leftovers. My eyes were continually drawn to the tiny woman as I ate, but she seemed oblivious to my interest. I tried not to let her lack of attention depress me. To be honest, it was just as well. The last thing I needed was to invite homeless-kid-drama into my life. It had taken years to get where I was now, and I was too close to graduation to be sidetracked. Besides, she exhibited a confidence that indicated she knew she was cute. With my luck she was an airheaded narcissist. I wasn’t the type of person interested in one-night stands, and she’d be gone with the next train or truck driver anyway.
With reluctance I tossed my empty plate into the trash and returned to the kitchen. There Max directed the two homeless kids who had helped earlier to wash dishes. I joined them while the other volunteers put things away and scrubbed down tables, counters and floors.
I knew my assistants, Growler and Teena. They were a young couple that annually hitchhiked up from Florida to visit family in Seattle. The last time I’d seen them was in September as they headed south. At the time they’d acquired a pit bull pup. I scraped and rinsed the pans before passing them to Growler. “How’s Baby? Is he still with you?”
“Yeah, he’s fine.” Growler scrubbed at a recalcitrant spot. His arms were dark from constant exposure to the sun, and they glistened in the soapy water. “Still growing.”
Teena stood beyond him, using the spray nozzle to rinse newly cleaned serving utensils. “He’s tied up outside. Max won’t let us bring him in. Says it’s ‘unhygienic.’” She rolled expressive green eyes. “Like the rest of us are hygienic to begin with. That dog is cleaner than most crusties!”
I snorted laughter at her reference. Keeping clean on the road wasn’t easy, but there were a subset of homeless kids who eschewed bathing even when the service was available. “I’ll see if I can find him a little something before you leave. He’s probably hungry too.”
“That’d be awesome, dawg.” Growler finished his pot and handed it off to his girlfriend. “Did you hear what happened last night in Old Town?”
“No.” I passed him a pan and started on another. “I stayed in last night, up to my armpits in textbooks.”
“Magic,” Teena supplied, her voice lowered in awe. “A lot of it!”
My ears perked. “Really?” Magic wasn’t heard of in these parts very often, of which I was eternally grateful.
Since Joram Darkstone opened the door between dimensions two years ago, a flood of strange creatures had returned to their homes of old all over the world. The only known mythological being that had taken up residence in the Pacific Northwest was a tribe of Bigfoot in the Cascades. The same Darkstone event meant magic was also available to anyone with the ability and willingness to study. Fortunately it wasn’t a skill easily learned; the only human being who had the training at this point was Joram Darkstone herself. It would be several years before today’s current thaumaturgical students would become sorcerers. Right now we lived in a transformative age between the old ways and the new. The children born this year were even being called Gen M.
Anyhow, for a noticeable amount of magic to be seen in public, there had to be a corresponding supernatural creature in the vicinity since no human was yet capable. And the only magic Bigfoot employed was that of stealth.
The thought of something or someone able to cast spells and hurt or control others creeped me out.
Growler leaned soapy hands against the edge of the sink. “It ripped the hell out of the tail end of an incoming train at Union Station. Bright lights and explosions!”
Lindsay stared at him. “Whoa! You saw it?”
“Not much of it.” Teena pushed dark dreadlocks away from her face. “We were camped across the river.”
“Yeah. We thought it was illegal fireworks.” Growler returned his attention to the pan. “But we ran into somebody this morning who saw more than we did.”
“And there’s scorch marks all over the ground out there too,” Teena supplied. “We went and checked this morning.”
“Wow.” I collected the last of the dirty utensils, rinsed them and dumped them into Growler’s sink. Scorch marks and explosions in Old Town Portland. Union Station was only a few blocks away from here. My skin crawled at the thought.
“Right?” He handed the clean pan to Teena. “Ain’t heard of a human sorcerer besides Darkstone, you know? And I doubt she’d be hanging outside a train yard in Oregon at night.”
Teena nodded. “Yeah, we think it was maybe a traveling creature. There’s so many of them all over the world…”
“Too true.” I wetted a cloth and wiped down my end of the sink. As intriguing as it would be to figure out what exactly had happened and what had caused the disturbance, I felt a stronger pull toward self-preservation. The Internet was full of real-life horror stories where humans had poked their noses into the lives of the newly returned mystical beings and had paid the ultimate price for their curiosity. Life was hard enough without those sorts of complications. I could only hope that whatever it was would continue on its way with a minimum of fuss.
But the questions remained: Why would something attack a train? Why here?
A pit bull sat outside the outreach center, tied to a parking sign. Gillie fished a bottle of water out of her pack and poured it into the bowl at its feet as she scanned her environment for anyone who took offense. Homeless teenagers tended to be somewhat territorial when it came to their animal familiars. No one balked at her presumption nor did anyone burst from the center to take her to task. Pleased with her success, she gave the dog a pat on the head, hoisted her accordion case and walked away.
She strolled along a brick-laid sidewalk as an electric train trundled past. Portland was pretty for a large city. The air was cleaner than that in most metropolises she’d experienced. Everywhere there were trees and planters with flowers and greens. Since she’d arrived in America last year, she’d explored multiple large cities. Each one had both its pleasant and deplorable points. So far she’d yet to see a downside to Portland. The atmosphere was mostly uncontaminated, and the people were friendly, especially that beautiful woman with the blue hair in the soup kitchen. Gillie almost wanted to settle in the area for a few weeks.
Well, except for that…whatever it was at the train station.
Despite the warmth of the day, she shivered. Whatever had dogged her heels over the last several months had gotten nearer. Had she remained on that train car a few minutes longer last night, she’d have been burned to a crisp. She’d managed to jump mere minutes before the explosion. A number of odd accidents and outright attacks had occurred over the course of her travels this year, but they’d all happened far away or were too weak to do her harm. Last night her luck had taken a severe turn for the worse, one that had almost cost Gillie her life.
But why? Who would target her—a know-nothing from Devon, England? She certainly hadn’t stolen anything from anyone of substance since leaving home. And try as she might, she couldn’t think of anyone she’d met in her travels who would mean her harm on such an expansive level. That meant she must have ticked off something of a metaphysical nature. She pondered the magical quality of the attacks as she walked along, trying to decide what kind of creature she’d crossed.
In her native land, fairies had made a reappearance since the doors had opened. Had one followed her? What? All the way from Devon? All this time? Is that even possible? Fairies were a cold and cruel people, more than willing to kidnap children, kill interlopers or generally cheat and murder people for the slightest of transgressions. They were stuck-up, pompous and murderous, able to destroy whole families who encroached on their territory without the slightest qualm.
Or perhaps Queen Joan the Wad had sent these attacks. Would Gillie’s family have sicced the pixie queen on her in an effort to drive her back home? Her family were simple folk, preferring to stay at home and garden. They weren’t terribly pleased with her desire to see the world. The image of her father supplicating Queen Joan for the return of his runaway daughter was ludicrous. No. Da wouldn’t have done this.
Gillie paused on a street corner and set her thoughts aside. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Portland. Wisps of clouds drifted across a cerulean sky. Her stomach was full and it was time to locate someplace to sleep for the night. Once she had a bolt-hole, she could spend the afternoon exploring until nightfall.
She wanted to avoid Old Town and the train station and so turned west. The aroma of trees and grass and hills drew her onward, up into the hills. Somewhere there was a place she could curl up and sleep for a bit, someplace safe from marauding spirits and magical attacks. She just had to find it.
With a smile she dug the apple out of her pocket and took a large, crispy bite. She had better things to occupy her mind, such as that beauty with the blue hair who’d tempted her with an apple. Gillie walked along with an infectious grin.
Minus the time spent at the outreach center, I spent my entire weekend studying for finals and completing papers. But even Atlas needed a rest now and then, and, unlike Atlas, I didn’t need someone to shoulder the world while I stretched my legs. Guilt still nibbled at my mind as I left my apartment, but I refused to be balked. My assignments were complete and, according to the class syllabi, nothing else was due. I had one last week of review before finals week. It didn’t matter that my inner scaredy-cat insisted I must be forgetting something.
Summer didn’t begin in Portland until after the Fourth of July, and today was the perfect example of that maxim. The day was overcast, and the breeze cooler than yesterday without enough humidity to feel chilly. It felt good against my skin. The potential for rain didn’t deter the natives, but then it rarely did. “Liquid sunshine” was a fact of life here, and plenty of people were out and about. Too bad we hadn’t had this weather yesterday at the center. Every year at budget time, we asked for air-conditioning, and every year it was shot down due to lack of funds.
My feet took me to Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland’s Living Room. I was a day too early for the weekly noontime concert, and the lower level of the small amphitheater held tourists, hacky sack players and a class of toddlers from a nearby daycare center. I passed the upper-level food carts, and the aroma of roast lamb and gyros trailed after me. My stomach panged a reminder that I hadn’t had anything since breakfast. Five bucks would net me a burrito as large as my head, one that would last two or three meals. I calmed my abdomen with a few pats and promised it a burrito on the way home.
I followed the eastbound MAX tracks on SW Yamhill past the Pioneer Courthouse for which the square was named. Like the square, this block was always busy. The courthouse was positioned between all four light-rail tracks, making the area a public transit mecca. It was late afternoon, the time when commuters clocked out and stopped to pick up last-minute items before continuing homeward, and the streets were crowded with riders, shoppers and the homeless.
It wasn’t the accordion that grabbed my attention so much as the singer.
I reached the corner intent on continuing east toward Waterfront Park but heard a bluesy type of tune to my left. The accordion was accompanied by a voice that ferociously belted out lyrics. No mousy singing here, no sweet harmony, the voice bellowed and howled its sorrow at being left behind by its one true love.
Live music fascinated me. I couldn’t play an instrument or sing for shit, but watching a musician play entertained me for hours. Intrigued, I followed the music in search of the singer.
On the opposite corner of the courthouse, I found a small brunette, her head thrown back as she sang, her voice a growl of pain and loss. As I drew closer, delight filled me as I recognized her. She was the woman I’d mistaken for a child at the outreach center yesterday, the flirty one with the English accent. Awed by her irresistible voice, I joined the audience around her.
The English accent wasn’t noticeable now as she crowed the lyrics of her song. She expertly manipulated the keys on a small cherry-red squeezebox that vaguely resembled an accordion. The instrument sounded like one despite not having any piano-style keys on it. It was smaller than I expected with a single row of buttons on either side. The woman finished her song with a flourish and gave the crowd an impish grin and a bow.
“Woo! That song will certainly blow the cobwebs out of your lungs!” She took a long drink from a water bottle.
The audience laughed in appreciation and several dropped money into the open accordion case at her feet. She thanked them, raising her voice to be heard over the approaching MAX train. Seconds later, the majority of the crowd dashed off to make their transit connections.
As the area around her cleared, she prepared to play another song. She scanned the remainder of her audience, her gaze an almost physical thing that caressed the area until it landed on me. I swear I saw sparks, a flash of blue-white in her dark brown irises when we locked eyes. The flash lit a fire in my heart and on my cheeks.
I laughed, half in pleasure and half in terror that she’d discovered me, that I hadn’t gotten away before her personality cast a net over my soul. What? Where the hell did that come from? “How are you?”
“Much better with you here.” She closed the distance between us and reached out a hand to tug me toward her impromptu stage.
I’d thought her eyes were the most electrifying thing about her. I was wrong. Her touch was exquisite, and my heart literally spasmed with sharp pain.
“Here. Best seat in the house.”
She urged me to perch on the low stone wall that surrounded the courthouse and released me. I was bereft in her absence.
“I’m Gillie, by the way, but most people call me Pixie.”
Gillie. The name suited her, suited me. I imagined the sound of it tripping from my tongue. Pixie, then, was her street name, the one by which most people knew her. It seemed just as appropriate. Street names were important. They freed a person to re-create themselves in their own image rather than the one forced upon them by family and society. I hadn’t chosen one for myself when I’d been homeless. Perhaps my experience was poorer because of the lack; I didn’t know. I did know it was an honor that Gillie introduced herself with her real name rather than her street one. “It’s nice to meet you, Pixie. I’m Lindsay.”
“The pleasure is all mine.” Gillie bent low in a formal bow.
She kissed my hand!
“Do you have a favorite song?”
The unexpected intimacy followed by the change of topic left me at a momentary loss. I fumbled for words, some way to prove I wasn’t a stuttering idiot. “I don’t know any songs for…is that an accordion?”
Gillie hoisted the instrument for a better view. “It is indeed. It’s a…” and she paused to cultivate a stately tone, “diatonic button accordion.” She abandoned the stuffy manner with a wink. “But most call it a Cajun accordion.”
Not sure what to say, I opted for a simple “Oh.” Smooth, Wells. Really smooth.
“Which doesn’t mean it only plays Cajun music, doncha know. Who’s your favorite musician?”
I blinked and named the first thing that came to mind. “Well, Darkstone is—”
“Darkstone! I love that band!” Gillie played a riff from one of their recent releases. Her feet moved in a quick little jig.
It was difficult not to share her exuberant glee, yet I forced myself to pause, to search her face for any indication of mental instability. Such scrutiny had become second nature, a survival mechanism when dealing with strangers. I’d learned the statistical analyses of the homeless population and knew that a large percentage of them were on the streets because of their mental illnesses rather than by choice. I was relieved to find nothing but simple childlike delight in Gillie’s manner. She seemed oblivious to my examination, for which I silently thanked whoever watched over me.
“I have just the song, then.” Gillie turned back to her dissipated audience and started her next tune, the one Joram Darkstone had sung to calm the crowd and open the doors between the dimensions. It was the love song she’d written to her European girlfriend, Naomi, the song that had ushered in irenic communication with the fey forces that had been invited to return.
This time Gillie’s voice was less in-your-face and more melodic as she picked out the tune on her accordion. Without the benefit of synthesizers and electronic instruments, the song had a much different feel, though the power of it swelled about Gillie.
The song was a magical spell, created for a certain purpose. I’d read the magazine and newspaper articles. Every time it aired or was performed, it strengthened the connection between the worlds. Even people with rudimentary magical skills could sing Darkstone songs and achieve a modicum of control. A number of musician sorcerers in training did just that by covering Darkstone songs. That sucked in my opinion, because the music itself appealed to me. Despite my distaste for magic, I couldn’t help but fall thrall to the music, and, in this case, to Gillie’s performance.
Another small audience gathered as she performed, all as enamored as myself. They remained quiet as she sang the last lyrics and the sound of the squeezebox faded.
“My heart has turned to stone.
“Take my hand,
“Please help me to understand.
“Soften the steel, reforge my heart
“I need you.
“I wish I didn’t.”
I joined the others with a round of applause. I wanted to add some money to Gillie’s accordion case but couldn’t afford it. After a moment I wondered if that desire was my own or a reaction to the magical nature of the song. Others dropped change and bills into her case as another train came to a stop.
“Well, what did you think?”
“I thought it was awesome.” A blush crossed her fair skin, and I preened a little. Perhaps she wasn’t as confident as she portrayed herself. I suddenly didn’t want our time together to end. “How long are you planning on staying here?”
“Here? At this corner?” Gillie looked up into the sky, then scanned the sidewalk. “Probably another hour or so. I’m doing well. I expect it’ll be that long before pedestrian traffic dies down.”
How to explain how I felt? My entire body hummed with agitation, and I felt a rush of blood rise from my chest to color my face. What I was about to do defied sensibility. I have finals in two weeks! My voice cracked a little as I asked, “Would you mind some company?”
Gillie looked aghast, and her expression crushed my hopes. Of course she didn’t want to be seen with me. Who was I but some schlep who volunteered at a soup kitchen? We were galaxies apart in backgrounds and experiences with no point of reference between.
“Me? Mind the company of a beautiful American woman with blue hair? What do you take me for? An idiot?”
Wait…what? My self-castigation stumbled as her words sank into my despair. Sweet relief cascaded through me, and I think I swayed a little. Thank goodness I was seated; I’d probably have fallen over from the shock of her acceptance.
I snorted laughter. “No. Never that. I just thought…” Words failed me. I thought you were doing what everyone eventually does. “Never mind what I thought. I overanalyze things.” I reminded myself this wasn’t a date; we were just hanging out. I wanted to spend more time with this intriguing young woman before real life called me back home and her to parts unknown. Just because I hadn’t been out with anybody in a while didn’t mean a thing. There was still far too much for me to complete in my life to be distracted now.
Gillie waited patiently, unquestioning, as I worked through my intentions. I couldn’t tell whether kindness or amusement held her. Tongue-tied and awkward, I shook myself and said, “I thought we could catch a bite to eat. There’s a great burrito cart a block away from here, but they’ll close soon.”
A slow smile grew on Gillie’s face. “I’d love to have a sup with you.”
My heart pounded at her suggestive tone. Heat suffused my skin for an entirely different reason, and I counted myself lucky I didn’t have quite as pale a complexion as Gillie. This is not a date. I’m not sure where that thought came from. “Do you have any food allergies? I could go get them now before they close.”
“No. No allergies. I’m not keen on meat. Do they have a vegetarian option?”
“They do. I’ll get you one.”
Gillie turned to her accordion case. “How much are they?”
“Oh no!” I jumped forward from my seat and waved my hands at arm’s length to deter her. “No, no. I’ve got it. You keep your money.”
“Are you certain?” Gillie raised a dark eyebrow. She brushed long bangs from her forehead. “I don’t want to put you out. I’ve plenty here.”
Both pleased at her acceptance and embarrassed by my social ineptitude, I backed away. And bumped into someone like an idiot. I caught myself from a fall and sent an apologetic look at the poor woman I’d almost trampled. When I looked back, Gillie had a smile on her face that made my head swim. “No, my treat. I’ll be right back.”
She cocked her head, eyes narrowed. “Fine, but I’ll buy us coffee afterward. All right?”
“Sounds like a plan!” I gave Gillie a short, jerky good-bye wave and hustled away.
As soon as I was out of sight around the corner, I groaned and slumped against a No Parking sign. “What is wrong with me?” I usually wasn’t the sort of person to take such interpersonal leaps. I examined my inner unrest in an attempt to pinpoint where I’d lost my composure.
It had been when our eyes had met, the flash of light in Gillie’s eyes. I couldn’t recall it happening at the outreach center yesterday. Was that because I’d been distracted by my tardiness, by her unfamiliar accent? Was it because of the different environment, the two of us meeting more as equals today than client/volunteer? I felt as raw and untested as my first night on the streets, shaky and scared and secretly awed at my audacity.
Audacity. I laughed and pushed away from the sign. It wasn’t often I acted this boldly. Best to enjoy it before reality and introversion once more took hold of my common sense.
As I backtracked to the burrito cart, I received smiles from several people I passed. It took a bit before I realized that they were answering the one planted on my face. My cheeks warmed and I laughed again. It had been far too long since a woman had shown me any interest. Of course the sensation would overwhelm me when it happened. That the diversion came from an adorable and personable young woman with an English accent didn’t hurt.
I fairly flew up the brick steps to the burrito cart. Despite the overcast sky, the evening seemed full of promise as I gave my order. Tomorrow I’d return to my classes and studies. Tonight I’d let that life go. Gillie wouldn’t remain in Portland long. I wanted to enjoy our new friendship no matter how fleeting.
* * *
Gillie waved one hand in front of her, palm toward Lindsay, who sat on the other side of the restaurant booth. “Honest truth! I was there and saw the entire thing!”
Lindsay gurgled laughter, the sound of it a pleasure to Gillie’s ears. “The bassist from King of the Rats jumped from a house roof into a swimming pool?”
“Brian Krell.” Gillie drank from her coffee mug. “The band has a very toff…I dunno. Groupie I think is the term you use. Em Williams. She threw a huge party after the concert and the band showed up. Dave Harriman and Dr. Q stood at the side of the pool and egged him on.” She sailed her hand from above her head and down to the table with a whistle. “Arse over tit, all the way down. The numpty was lucky he hit the pool and not the tile.”
Lindsay slumped back in her seat, a mixture of awe and disbelief on her face. She had dark eyes that twinkled when she laughed, and Gillie had made it her night’s goal to elicit such humor from her. Regaling Lindsay with tales from the road served to both entertain her and keep Gillie’s fears at bay.
Once Gillie had finished busking and packed up her accordion, they’d eaten their burritos in the lower South Park Blocks. They’d remained there until the sun had begun to set. Gillie hadn’t wanted the evening to end. She’d asked about local all-night restaurants and invited Lindsay to accompany her to this one, a pancake house that served breakfast all day, every day. They’d drunk copious amounts of coffee in the intervening hours. The establishment’s corned beef hash was even quite passable to Gillie’s British tastes.
The sun had disappeared long ago. A wall clock hung over the kitchen pass-through indicated it was well beyond four in the morning. Bus service had stopped three hours ago and wouldn’t start again until about five thirty. Gillie didn’t feel the slightest bit tired; Lindsay’s presence sapped her weariness away. Besides, there was safety in numbers. Whatever had attacked Gillie upon her arrival might still be in town. She doubted it would make another attempt while she was in a public place. I hope.
The waitress came by to refresh their cups, and Lindsay thanked her. Gillie studied her new friend’s profile, drawn to the way Lindsay tucked her blue hair delicately behind one ear. Two earrings sparkled there, a hoop and a stud. She wore no other jewelry, but then she didn’t really need the adornment. Lindsay was beautiful all on her own, endearing with a hint of sarcasm that occasionally peeked out when she spoke.
Their eyes met for the briefest of moments, and a shock of attraction raced through Gillie’s abdomen. It had been a while since she’d had the opportunity to do more than flirt with a woman. Regretfully, she couldn’t take the time now, what with whatever seemed to be after her. Oh, but if I could, darlin’.
“Did you attend the concert?”
Gillie blinked, returning to the conversation. “That I did. They even played my favorite song—‘Beef Smoke.’”
Lindsay made a face and threw a balled-up napkin at Gillie. “Boo! ‘Rose Petal Turndown’ is better.”
“Are you on the piss?” Gillie demanded with mock disgust, playing up her accent and native slang. “I’m gobsmacked! That’s the worst song ever!” She laughed when Lindsay stuck out her tongue. “Oh, now you’re just leading me on.” Gillie’s reward was a deep blush, though Lindsay’s smile didn’t alter. Gillie cursed the bad timing of her circumstances.
Their conversation paused as they each doctored their coffee cups with cream and sugar. Gillie’s hesitance formed a faint pall over her enjoyment.
Lindsay spoke first. “Where would you be right now if we hadn’t met this afternoon?”
“I found a nice little squat in your north hills, a building near 23rd that’s being renovated. There wasn’t a lot of activity there, so perhaps the money ran out and they’re collecting more before continuing work.” Gillie stirred her coffee. “You?”
“I have an apartment near Safeway downtown.” Lindsay shrugged. “More like a basement studio, I guess. It’s tiny, and I have to share the bathroom, but it’s home.”
“Beats being on the streets, eh?”
Lindsay reddened. “For me, yes.”
Gillie smiled to ease Lindsay’s discomfort. “To each their own, as they say. I’m quite pleased to have left home when I did. The world is so much bigger than I had ever imagined. I doubt I’ll ever see all of it.”
“Was home so bad?”
“No, not really.” Gillie allowed the fondness for her family to come to the fore. “My da and mum love to putter about in their garden. I’ve siblings and cousins running from my ears, and they all live in the same little area.”
Lindsay raised the cup to her lips, perching her elbows on the table. “It sounds peaceful.”
“It is. Too much so for me.” Gillie sat up with a mock shiver. “Digging and weeding and watering, bleh. My da was always on the hunt to drag me home after an adventure.”
“But not this time?”
Gillie grimaced. “I must have worn him down. Besides, I waited until the last possible moment and hitched a ride with some chaps heading to Teignmouth. Stowed away aboard a freighter and left the country. That’d surely put a crimp in his search.”
Lindsay studied the contents of her cup with a slight frown. “Do you miss them? Your family?”
For a wonder, Gillie felt a measure of wistfulness. “I guess I do.” She explored the sensation. It had been so long since she’d thought of her family, she hadn’t noticed the homesickness before. “I’ll return someday.”
“Are you in contact with any of them?”
The thought of her Luddite family members fully experiencing the twenty-first century was laughable. “No. They aren’t much for reading and writing.” An odd expression crossed Lindsay’s face, but she didn’t say anything. To distract her from further query, Gillie asked, “What about you? Any family to speak of?”
The chill from Lindsay was palpable as she straightened her spine. She sat back from the table edge and set her cup down. She looked away from Gillie. “My mother lives in North Portland, but we’re not close.”
“Not close.” The frigid air at the table gave Gillie pause. There’s bad blood there for certain. “Any brothers or sisters? Cousins?”
The sharp response stabbed Gillie. She had the irrational urge to gather Lindsay into her arms and protect her from the witless ninny who had birthed her. Mama Wells had done much to destroy her relationship with her child, and the damage had left scars upon Lindsay’s heart. Gillie reached across the table and took Lindsay’s hand. “Care to add a kissing cousin to your family?” She wiggled her eyebrows.
The words triggered a snort of laughter from Lindsay. She squeezed Gillie’s hand. “I’d be honored.”
“Honored? My! How pretentious.” Gillie reveled in Lindsay’s giggle. She barely knew this woman but Gillie’s interest was aroused. She wished she had time to learn more about Lindsay, to peel away the sarcastic exterior and caress the vulnerable woman beneath.
Her mind flashed to the attack at the train station, though the urgency of it had faded over the last two days. Maybe it was a fluke. It could be something else entirely, something not meant for me. The dark of night beckoned to her with dreadful anticipation. Chilled, she put the fear from her mind and concentrated on the beautiful woman across from her. There are much better things to be thinking of than that, josser.
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