This has to be a joke, Jason thought, leaning heavily against Sam as he shuffled through the front door of the upstairs apartment above the bar. He’d lived there for years, but like the tavern below, nothing but the floor plan was remotely recognizable to him. His hand-me-down furniture was gone, the metal-framed futon with faded black upholstery, the ugly standing chrome lamp that Sam had always teased about being “circa-1980s-chic.” The oversized wooden crates he’d used for a TV stand were gone, along with his bookshelves and stereo, his drafting table and computer, the faded and threadbare oriental rug that had covered the hardwood floor.
“Here,” Sam murmured, easing him down against a stack of cardboard boxes. These were everywhere, some opened, others sealed with tape, as if someone was in the process of either moving in or out. She went to one that had already been opened and dug around until she found what she was looking for, a large, dark blue wool blanket. She hurried back to his side and wrapped it around him.
The dog sat nearby, watching. It hadn’t tried to attack Jason again, but its lips would occasionally wrinkle back to reveal its teeth, and it would utter a little sound that would start off as a growl, then end in a short, rasping sort of whoof, more an expulsion of air than a bark, as if to say, I’ve got my eye on you, pal.
This has got to be a joke, Jason thought, looking helplessly around while Sam turned again, darting down the hallway toward the bathroom. They moved my stuff while I was out in the alley…Eddie and David and the rest of them…packed up all of the tables downstairs, shoved it all into the storeroom somehow, maybe the kitchen. Then they came up here and packed my furniture, everything. Just one big practical joke.
Except being stabbed wasn’t anyone’s idea of a joke, Jason realized, wincing as he eased the blanket back from his shoulder, trying to get a look at his wound. The electricity hadn’t been working downstairs, but was on in the apartment, and by the orange glow of a nearby lamp, he could see that he’d suffered one seriously gruesome injury. The fissure in his flesh was wide and ragged, the blood-crusted edges puckered like crude lips, the exposed meat beneath bright red and spongy. He was still bleeding heavily and when Sam returned, carrying a first aid kit in her hand, she gasped, her eyes flown wide.
“What happened?” She fell to her knees and threw open the kit, ransacking it until she found a large gauze dressing pad. Using her teeth, she bit into the paper wrapping and tore it open. “Oh, God, who did this to you?”
“A man…in the alley,” he murmured, jerking and sucking in a hurting breath as she pressed the pad against his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Sam whispered, close enough to feel her breath against his face, to her smell her perfume. This, at least, remained familiar and the same: Estee Lauder’s Pleasures. “Can you hold this here? I’ll go get some water. We need to stop the bleeding.”
He nodded, draping his hand against hers, holding the bandage in place. They stayed this way for a long moment, during which Sam’s rapid-fire, frantic breathing drew to a complete and silent stop. Then she stood again, pulling away from him.
“Just hold it,” she said, winding her way once more through the maze of boxes and ducking into the galley-sized kitchen. He heard more clanging, then the rush of water pouring full-blast from the tap. When she returned, carrying a large pot between her hands and leaving a sloshed, slopped trail of water in her wake, the dog rose to its feet, its tongue lolling out of the corner of its mouth, its tail wagging expectantly.
“No, Barton, this isn’t for you.” Sam knelt in front of Jason again, dunking a dishrag into the water.
“Whose dog is that?” he asked.
“Mine,” she replied, and he blinked in surprise. “I got him at the pound right after you…”
Her voice faded and she cut her gaze away. Right after I what? he wondered, bewildered. Then he shook his head. It didn’t matter, not the wound in his shoulder or the fact that his entire world had otherwise seemingly been turned upside down and inside out, then given a hard shake. Only one thing remained that truly mattered, the one thing he’d been neglecting for far too long.
“Marry me,” he said and she looked up at him, her eyes wide in surprise.
He leaned forward and kissed her, his lips settling lightly. Her breath caught and he felt her stiffen against him for a long, uncertain moment. When she relaxed, the tension draining in her body, palpably releasing from her mouth, their kiss deepened. The tip of his tongue brushed the seam of her lips and when she parted them, she uttered a soft, breathless sound, slipping her tongue gently, sweetly against his own. Her long, slim fingers, still wet and cold from the water, trailed against his face and caught in his hair as she lifted her chin and leaned into him. There was an unexpected and urgent passion in her mouth, as if she’d waited and wanted that moment, that kiss, for a long time.
Which, like everything else, made absolutely no sense whatsoever, since he’d only last kissed her surely no more than an hour ago.
When she drew away, her hands lingering in a caress, her eyes glistened in the lamplight with tears. When one spilled, he drew the thumb of his pad across her cheek to catch it.
“Marry me, Sam,” he whispered again, managing a weak smile. “I wanted to ask you last weekend at the waterfront, at Holiday Island, but I…”
More tears spilled, but to his surprise, when he reached for her, she jerked back. “How do you know about that?” she asked, rising to her feet. Twin patches of hot, angry color bloomed in her cheeks and she balled her hands into trembling fists. “Who the hell are you?”
“What?” He’d thought she was crying because she was upset about his attack, or happy about his proposal, or maybe even both, but when he realized she was more than upset, she was frightened of him, he tried to stand, but gritted his teeth against a spasm of pain and sank back to the boxes again. “Sam, it’s me. It’s Jason.”
“No, you’re not.” She shook her head. “I don’t know who you are, or…or how you know about that day at the park, but you…” Tears rolled down her cheeks and her voice grew hoarse and strained as she backpedaled. “You’re not Jason Sullivan. Jason is dead. He died five years ago.”
It felt strange to be in the apartment. As he looked around, in his mind, he could still easily picture the things that had once been there, things that he still expected to see.
“It’s not much,” he’d told Sam the first time he’d brought her there. It had been the night of their first date, the one she’d bartered in exchange for him letting her off the hook on her drink tab.
I kissed her for the first time that night.
She’d lived in a nice condo at the time, but he still hadn’t known it, a posh, contemporary penthouse overlooking the bay, with a doorman in the lobby and bellmen in the elevators. His bedroom had been approximately the size of her walk-in closet, and had he known this, he would have been too ashamed to ever let her set foot inside.
“It’s great!” She’d immediately gone to the windows. They all stood propped open, no screens, allowing the crisp, cool air outside to filter in. She’d leaned out fearlessly, recklessly, her hands braced against the sill, her eyes closed, her chocolate-colored hair fluttering in the breeze. “I love the view.”
“Yeah.” He’d leaned out with her, but his eyes had been on her, not the horizon. “It’s beautiful.” When she’d glanced at him, he’d felt embarrassed, and pointed to redirect her gaze. “When the fog lifts just right, you can see clear over to the Bayside Bridge.”
All at once, she’d climbed up onto the sill and wriggled out onto the rickety, rusted fire escape landing. “Let’s go up on the roof.”
“Sam,” he’d exclaimed in startled protest. He’d never stepped out on the fire escape before, never used it for much of anything except as a spot to set potted plants out to die. He hadn’t even known if it would bear Sam’s slight and insignificant weight, much less his own, and watched, wide-eyed and apprehensive, as she started up the ladder.
“Come on,” she called, looking down over her shoulder, her hair windswept in her face, her mouth still spread in that wide, infectious grin. “Quit checking out my ass and get up here.”
He’d laughed and followed, moving as gingerly as possible and grimacing at every unsettling creak and moan. When he’d reached the top, he’d found her standing treacherously close to the edge. The wind pushed her hair back from her face, molding her shirt against her torso, her nipples outlined in discernable bullet points through the thin fabric.
“Hey, no fair jumping,” he’d said. “I’m the one who’d have to clean up the sidewalk.”
“I’m not going to jump,” she’d replied with a laugh. “I have a really good sense of balance. And I’m not afraid of falling.”
She’d said this last with a pointed look in his direction that had let him know she didn’t necessarily mean taking a tumble off the edge of the roof. He’d kissed her because in that moment, he hadn’t been afraid of falling, either. It’s the landing you have to watch out for, his father had told him once, and Jason supposed he’d landed hard from the moment his mouth had touched hers. Her lips had been cold, dry from the wind, somewhat sweet with the lingering flavor of the wine she’d had with dinner, and it had been all over.
Sam didn’t talk to Jason at either the transit stop or once on board the streetcar. Standing deliberately and conspicuously apart from him, she refused to even look in his direction. As they bounced and jostled in the crowded trolley cab, he saw her reach into her pocket, pulling out her cell phone. She hooked her arm around a nearby pole to steady herself while holding the phone up to her head with one hand, hunching her shoulders and plugging her ear with her fingertip with the other.
From between tourists jockeying for window-side seats, he saw her shoot him a sudden glance. He had no accounting for her expression, a mixture of anger and bewilderment, and wished he knew who she was talking to and what they might be saying.
Probably Dean again, he thought, looking down at his feet, at the puddle of his shadow beneath him, merged and tangled with dozens of others surrounding him. Trying to convince her I’m nothing but a con artist out to sue the hospital. And once he finds out about the gun, he’ll try to tell her she’s in danger with me. Never mind the fact I’d never hurt her. Never in a million…
His thoughts trailed off and he watched in nearly mesmerized fascination as his shadow seemed to spread, stretching out in thin rivulets and slender, crooked seams, seeping into neighboring shadows and widening from there, devouring them, swallowing the distance between him and Sam across the cab.
When it slipped and slithered its way beneath people’s feet and between their legs, at last reaching Sam, he could suddenly hear her. More than this, he could hear the other side of her phone conversation, too, as if he was taking part in it.
“…never seen anything like this in my life,” Bear was telling her. “There’s no crossover point, no bifurcation, no typelines, deltas, nothing.”
“Speak English, Bear. I don’t understand,” Sam said, practically yelling into the phone because it was that noisy on the streetcar. Which made it equally that impossible that Jason could hear her. “Is it Jason’s fingerprint or not?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Bear said as the streetcar came to a jolting stop at the next depot, knocking Jason forward into the people jammed in front of him. The doors screeched as they folded open at both the rear and aft of the car, and Jason was banged and jostled again as people struggled to either board or disembark at the stop.
“It’s no one’s fingerprint,” Bear continued. “I know it was dark in the room when I took them, but I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years. I know the routine. I took his prints, but there’s nothing there. Nothing, Sammi. Now maybe he’s been burned or something, or had them surgically altered somehow, but even then, I don’t…”
Bear’s voice faded into garble as Jason was distracted by a sudden, strange feeling, an icy, prickling stealing down his spine. He’d felt it before, just that morning in fact, when the priest, Gabriel Darrow, had come to visit Sam at the bar. He glanced toward the front of the streetcar, lifting his head and straining to look over the crowd of hats and heads just as a man stepped into view, boarding the cab.
With a black durag wrapped around his head and a long black trench coat enveloping his lean frame, he towered over the rest of the riders. His skin was pale, a cadaverous hue accentuated by his dark clothes, sharp features, thin mouth and dark eyes ringed in thickly applied black liner. Just above the bridge of his nose, half-hidden beneath the hem of the scarf around his head, was a mark like a smutch of soot or a burn, a wide-mouthed V, a black chevron etched into his skin.
He might have been just another Goth hoodlum. The city was full of them, along with a wide variety of other derelicts, society’s lost or forgotten underbelly from every far-flung corner of the country, drawn to the city by its year-round mild temperatures and the promise of certain fellowship. Mostly teens or young adults as well as drug addicts or drunks, they’d panhandle in the street by day and prostitute or party at night. Jason had undoubtedly seen thousands of them in his lifetime.
The guy getting onto the streetcar might have just been another, but he wasn’t. Jason knew it, because he’d seen him before in what he’d thought was only a dream.
You belong to me, Sitri had told Jason after the Eidolon had attacked him, overpowered him, overtaken him.
Oh, Jesus, Jason thought in sudden, blind panic. He rushed forward, shoving his way against the throng to reach Sam.
“Maybe you’re looking at it wrong,” she said to her uncle, her finger plugged in her ear as she spoke. As she said this, Sitri looked over her head to meet Jason’s gaze, and as he did, the corner of his thin mouth lifted slightly in a crooked smile. “People don’t just not have—”
She yelped, her phone tumbling to the floor as Jason reached out, grabbing her by the sleeve, yanking her toward him. “Hey!” She frowned, trying to pull away as he dragged her toward the rear exit of the streetcar, knocking past people. “Jason, let go. I dropped my phone. Let go, I said!”
The door began to fold closed once more and Jason’s heart seized in bright panic. Throwing himself forward, he shoved his arm out and caught the door against the inner crook of his elbow. For a moment, it pressed against him, then with a shudder, it receded, folding open again in accordion-like fashion. Still hauling Sam behind him, not pausing to check on Sitri’s progress through the crowd, Jason lunged forward, scrambling down the steps and all but spilling out onto the depot platform below. He heard Sam’s shoes skitter against the pavement behind him and she staggered against him. Less than five seconds later, the streetcar door closed again and it was off, rattling down the track and on its way once more.
“What’s wrong with you?” Sam planted both hands against his back and shoved him hard enough to nearly knock him over. “My phone’s on that train. Damn it!”
She ran down the platform even as the streetcar pulled further and further away. When she reached the iron railing, she stopped, staring after the car with her fists balled. “Damn it,” she yelled again. Turning around, she marched smartly back to Jason, shoving her way past other patrons waiting for the next train.
“My life was on that phone,” she cried, giving him another hearty push. “All of my contractors’ contact information, my email, calendar, address book, everything.” She looked around wildly, red-faced and furious. “This isn’t our stop. I don’t even know where the hell we are! Jason, what were you thinking? Why did you pull me off the train?”
“There was a man,” Jason said. “A man got on the train, Sam.” His eyes traveled over the top of her head and across the street. “Oh, Jesus.”
“Well, fancy meeting you here,” Sitri said as he stepped down from the curb and began to cross the street toward them, his hands tucked in his coat pockets, his pace slow and leisurely, his mouth still curled in that thin, enigmatic smile.
Sam yelped in surprise as Jason jerked her behind him, then sidestepped to stand protectively in front of her. “Jason, what—?” she began, her voice a hiccup and then she uttered another soft, startled cry as he reached behind him, pulling out the gun.
“Stay away from us,” he said, his voice hoarse and shaking as he leveled the business end of the Beretta squarely at Sitri’s nose.
“Jason, what are you doing?” Sam gasped, frightened, pawing at the back of his sweater. “Oh, my God, are you crazy? Put that away.”
“Is that any way to treat an old friend?” Sitri asked, pretending to look wounded. “What, are you going to shoot me? In front of all of these people? And after everything we’ve been through together?”
“Put the gun away,” Sam exclaimed, tugging at Jason more fervently now. “Jason, what are you—”
Her voice cut off sharply in a scream as a speeding streetcar plowed into Sitri. The sound of the impact was a horrific, heavy thing, a loud thunk that was quickly drowned out by the screech of brakes screeching, metal grinding against metal, wheels locking against the iron bars of the tracks. Sitri bounced and rolled away from the train, and Sam screamed when he came to a stop nearly at her feet, his face a battered, bloody mess cleaved by a tremendous, gaping fissure running from his brow nearly to his chin. His arms and legs rested at unnatural, broken angles, like a rag doll tossed haphazardly into a corner.
Sam shrieked, staggering back, her pallor ashen with shock, her eyes round and haunted and stunned. “Oh, my God!”
“Come on.” Jason caught her by the hand and dragged her through the crowd, abandoning the platform. He didn’t know where they were going and at the moment, didn’t give a shit.
Someplace where Sitri can’t find me, he thought. Someplace safe, if there’s anything like that left.
He dreamed of stepping outside of his body, of being weightless and airy, like an untethered balloon and floating above the bed, looking down at himself. He felt no alarm at this admittedly bizarre sensation, no fear or unease. What was happening felt natural to him, as inexplicably reflexive as holding the pistol had been, folding his finger against its smooth trigger, firing it.
Earlier in the day, he’d thought it was getting stronger, but now he understood the truth. It’s becoming a part of me.
In this shadow-like state, he continued to rise, floating up until he passed through the ceiling of the motel room like a wisp of smoke. He passed through insulation, wiring, vent shafts and pipes until he seeped out through cracks in the roof. Now he drifted on a cool night breeze, sailing over the cityscape below, looking down at a dizzying network of lights and shadows.
The Eidolon was a primitive creature, of that much, Jason had grown certain. Driven by impulse, reflex and instinct, it reacted with no aforethought, and seemed incapable of any sort of cognizant action. The Wyrm had controlled it, Jason thought. I gave it a body and the Wyrm gave it a brain. And the poor, stupid son of a bitch didn’t know anything different. Only now…
The Wyrm was gone. However it had happened, Nemamiah’s sword strike had killed it. And though it had apparently taken a couple of days for both Jason and the Eidolon to adjust to this new arrangement, to get their proverbial shit together, it seemed to be happening bit by bit, day by day.
It’s a part of me.
Now instead of the Wyrm’s will to guide it, the Eidolon relied on Jason, his mind, his emotions. My memories, he thought. That’s why it keeps bringing me here.
Here was Sully’s. Jason had lighted along the top floor, eventually settling against the weathered frame of the old fire escape. The lights were on in the apartment beyond, the blinds turned so that the wooden slats were all open. The window had been left open, and he could look inside. He could see her.
She’d just emerged from the shower and walked across the bedroom, a towel wrapped around her body, falling to just beneath the apex of her thighs. With another, she dried her dark tumble of loose, wet curls.
His heart ached. He wanted to go to her, crawl through the window, rip the towel away and pull her fiercely against him. He wanted to kiss her, make love to her again, plead with her to help him, believe him, take him back and love him again. But when he moved to press his hand against the glass, a helpless, longing gesture, he realized he had no hands with which to touch anything, let alone the window—or her. He saw nothing but the rudimentary outline of his arm, his hand. Through his reflection in the glass, he saw nothing but a dim silhouette.
I really am a ghost now, he thought in dismay. I’m nothing but a shadow, the Eidolon.