The following is an excerpt from Death’s Goddaughter, a work in progress by Rachel Burkholder.
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It was hot. I lay on my bed, moving as little as I could. Movement caused heat and any more heat and I would not be able to contain myself. Dawn had not even awakened and I lay perfectly still, sweating. The curtains were lank and the steely predawn light gave the world a very dead feeling. One of my cats rubbed up against me. Fur stuck to my damp skin; I still didn’t move. Moving would make it worse. The cat purred in my ear and then flopped down on my pillow. She was hot. I watched the sun rise as lazily as a buzzard circles nearly dead roadkill. It was hot too. Everything about this day was hot.
When I heard the others in the Home rustling, I pulled myself up and sauntered to the bathroom. The door was closed and I could hear at least two–no three voices–talking over each other. I knocked. There was a brief moment of silence and then the door was flung open. I had enough presence of mind to step back, avoiding a collision. A twelve-year-old with murky eyes and freckles on her nose and cheeks stared at me. She threw her shoulders back in a haughty gesture.
Two other girls, nine and seven, glowered at me from behind her. They were the Lynch girls. They all had freckles and stringy reddish hair. Mabel was the eldest and the coldest. She knew I was strange; she knew that one day she was not going to have to play with her sisters; she knew how her parents really died. Until then she was and would be better than the rest of us.
Mabel and I glared at one another. Sweat dripped off my chin and it trickled down my back. A cat brushed my leg more fur stuck to me. The freckled girl tilted her nose higher and rolled her shoulders back farther. With a flick of her ponytail she stalked out the doorway. Her sisters followed, scrambling to gather their belongings.
I latched the door behind me. The bathroom reeked of sweat, mildew, and cheap perfume. I turned the rusty facet on and let the water run for a moment hoping it would clear. The water went from rust to pale yellow to milky back to rust. Rust was as good as it was going to get. I splashed the lukewarm water onto my face and neck. I considered the crusty bar of soap and figured none was better. I let my eyes linger for a moment on the corroding mirror. There was nothing to be done for my plan pale face and mud colored eyes. My frizzy hair was sticky and a tangled riot. I fingered through it gingerly before merely pulling it back. My gray tank top was already clammy, either from perspiration or from the rusty water. I shook my head. There was nothing to be done for it either.
Thunder purred in the distance and I restlessly peeked out the window. There was only a dust cloud coming down the road, preceded by a black motorbike. No doubt the thunder came from it. There were several impatient knocks on the door. I pushed away from the window and opened the door. Calvin was there as moody and as dark as ever. Deep circles were forever under his eyes, he looked like death’s cousin. I gave way to him and scuffled down the rickety stairs.
Mrs. K—whose real name was to difficult to pronounce and was therefore quickly forgotten and shortened—bustled about the kitchen pretending to be useful. She had a cigarette in her hand, which she was perpetually trying to smoke but always somehow failing since she either had something in that hand or was in the midst of doing something else. The Lynch girls were sitting at the table eating the last of the cereal. Four other kids were eating what could have been a science fair project but were really scrambled eggs. A toddler, in his highchair, threw his bowl of mush against the wall. Mrs. K cursed and took a filthy cloth to wipe up the mess but only smeared it. I grabbed an apple and walked outside.
The thunder rolled louder as the cloud of dust came up the drive. It stopped at the rusty rather useless gate in which a grungy sign read “St. Lewz Home for Kidz”. It should have read “St. Leibowitz Home for Children” but every three years or so one of the kids would make a new sign and every year the name of the Home got smaller. The dust cloud settled just enough for the figure to read the sign before the cloud moved forwards and parked in front of the porch. I took the first bite of my apple and plopped down on the step. I hollered in to Mrs. K letting her know there was company.
The figure swung off the bike. He was tall, lean, and completely in black.
Everything was black, even the dust that settled on the leather jacket and bike seemed to turn black. He could have radiated the color (or lack thereof). In a fluid movement, he took off his gloves and helmet. It was white underneath.
He had pale hands and a pale drawn face and white hair. He looked right at me and I felt something quiver within me. I was looking into eyes the color of icy crystals.
Mrs. K stomped out onto the porch. The toddler screamed behind her and several of the kids started to yell as the screen door clapped shut. She took a drag of her cigarette and narrowed her eyes at the biker.
“What you want?” She demanded, leaning on the porch post. She coughed and took another smoke.
“Smoking kills.” The biker said. He put his helmet and gloves on the seat and took a step forward. Mrs. K straightened becoming defensive.
“You didn’t answer my question. What you want?”
“Well, I am not here for you.” He paused as she inhaled another puff of smoke. “Not today, anyway.” Mrs. K almost made another retort but the biker silenced her by putting his foot on the first step. He leaned in a bit. I got a strange feeling no one ever defied him. “Does a Beatrice Wynn live here?”
I could not contain the spasm that coursed through me at the sound of my name.
Mrs. K looked skeptically at the biker. “What’s she done?”
“Nothing, why is she supposed to have done something?”
“Good, may I speak with her?” But the biker was no longer looking at Mrs. K; he had his gaze fixed on me. I swallowed hard and tried to think of some thing witty or clever to say.
“It’s my birthday.” I said lamely. The biker nodded. His ice-water eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
“Yes, this would be your sixteenth birthday Bea.”
Something about his voice chilled my bones. Mrs. K shifted nervously. I swallowed but a piece of apple caught in the back of my throat. I gave a guttural sputtering cough and threw the rest of my apple away. I tried to duck behind my hand as I coughed but I could feel his eyes on me measuring my every movement.
He reached out as if to touch me but hesitated. He withdrew himself from my space straightening. He did not seem as tall as before, though decisively lean, then as bone lean. Like a dancer every movement was made with precise grace, he took the steps and offered Mrs. K his hand.
“I am Mr. White.” Mrs. K fumbled with her cigarette and attempted to shake his hand. White dropped his hand into his pocket. “No matter, Mrs. K.” There was a slight ironic expression on his face or was it disappointment. “I am here to relieve you of one of your children.” There was complete shock on her face, the kind that is only reserved for the best and worse surprises. She did not know which one this was. “That one really.” White pointed a long pale finger at me and punctuated his movement with nodding his head slowly.
I cleared my throat still suffering from the lingering affects of the apple. It was one of those moments that did not make sense. Sweat dipped down my face I wiped it away with a dusty arm. I wish I had not eaten the apple. Part of me was thinking this was a bad western, the other part of me was thinking creepy horror show. I did not know who the bad guy was as Mrs. K and White faced off.
“You want that one?”
“Why?” She stubbed out the remains of her cigarette.
White glanced at me. “She belongs to me.”
I did not belong to anybody. I would have said as much in the most defiant tone I could muster had he not been staring at me with those indefinable eyes.
Mrs. K snorted. “She don’t have anybody to belong to. I’ve looked for years.”
“Everyone belongs to somebody or thing and this one is mine. She’s my goddaughter.”
Mrs. K raised an eyebrow. “First I have ever heard about that. You got paper work or proof.”
White in his fluid motion produced several papers all rather official in capacity. A crow circled above and settled on the power line as Mrs. K looked over the forms. She handed them back stiffly and fumbled for another smoke. The youngest Lynch girl ran up to the screen and sneered at Mrs. K.
“Adam’s biting Jo and Mabel is cursing and Cal is lighting things on fire.” She stopped talking when she saw Mr. White. Her eyes got round, he inclined his head as if to say yes. She turned very pale and dashed away from the screen.
Mrs. K swore and dropped her lighter. She stormed into the Home yelling.
“Would you like to leave?”
That is something every child dreams of, leaving going were the others cannot follow. He was offering escape. I shrugged getting to my feet. I rubbed my clammy hands together, thinking but coming up with nothing. “Let me get my stuff,” I finally muffled and darted for the door. It clapped loud behind me.
I took the stairs two at a time and was panting once I reached my attic room. Yellow sunlight streamed through the grimy windows; dust motes hung in the stiff air. Now that I was here I did not know what I had come up for. I stared dumbly at the messy room. The bed was a rumpled mess with dirty clothes haphazardly draped over the end board. Three cats were stretched out idly on a rather furry rug. The dresser was broken, had been for years. A drawer was missing a cat crawled out of it. It stretched and yawned then settled next to his siblings.
There was nothing here for me. What stuff I had was not worth even taking. I hastily filled a book bag with the clothes on the bed and grabbed the only thing I had from my parents, a well hugged teddy. I scratched each cat under its chin and scurried down the stairs.
White was still standing on the porch. I had half expected him not to be there. Someone had gotten him a glass of water. He sipped at it lazily scanning the horizon. The kids crowded by the door watching him through the screen. The Lynch girls were in the kitchen, avoiding even the sight of him. I cannot think of anyone those girls had ever been afraid of. I decided I like Mr. White for that simple fact. Mrs. K stopped me with a firm grip on my shoulder. She wagged a tobacco stained finger at me. Her voice was craggy and low. “You don’t hafta go.” There was a manic look in her eye, like a spooked cow. I shrugged her off. If I didn’t like it, I would just leave.
I waded through the hot sticky bodies and pushed my way out the door. One little girl tugged on my pants. “You go away?” Her eyes brimmed and sweat made a muddy streak down her cheek. I nodded and ruffled her matted hair. Calvin looked exceedingly dark at me, envy protruded from his every pore. If he had been inclined to talk he would have said something like “you damn well better enjoy it ‘cause no one else will get to.” I think if I thought about it hard enough, Calvin and I were friends and he would miss me and maybe I’d miss him too.
Mrs. K and I walked out. White gave Mrs. K the glass back. She avoided his eyes as best she could. “You be good to that one.” She croaked to no one in particular. White inclined his head and sauntered gracefully down the steps. I followed timorously: there was no going back. He offered me his helmet and slid his pale hands into the jet gloves. He pulled black shades out of nowhere and set them on his sharp, straight nose.
Once on the bike he revved the engine and waited for me. I was waiting for me too. Though I was sweating profusely were my bag hung, my insides were frozen with deep fear. The dry air clung in the back of my throat. I willed myself to move swing my leg over the back of the bike and go on the ride of my life. I clutched fiercely onto White as he accelerated away from everything I had known. I was going to miss my cats.
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