Two pairs of dark-blue clad police officers slowly made the rounds of the brown brick two-story apartment complex with clipboards in their hands and black expressions on their faces. They worked from opposite ends of the two buildings that faced the cracked gray asphalt, gently informing the occupants of the murder and asking for information with the mildly interested tones of those people with government jobs who get paid by the hour and not the client. It didn't really matter what the witnesses said, and the officers knew it. They'd already been debriefed on the situation by a slim young man in a sharp silk suit.
It was their acquaintance with the effeminate suit that got them their jobs in the first place, in exchange for situations such as this. Officer Jackson remembered the day he'd met the slim black man at a small house near the train tracks after being laid off from his sporadic construction job. They'd been introduced by his wife's grandmother, Mrs. Agnes. It was Mrs. Agnes, in her bright old-fashioned head-wrap, that had given him a warm smile, and told him how a black man with no formal education could get a job at the police station and feed his daughter.
At the time, he didn't ask many questions. After all, you don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Well, not if you want to keep getting gift horses, anyways.
No one else did, either. Not the other two male officers of the one Spanish female officer. All four of the just kept on their blank masks, not talking about how strange it was all four of them were reassigned to a murder investigation unit on the same day without a single senior officer in sight. Mainly what they didn't talk about, though, were the short stacks of forged affidavits in their pockets, signed statements from imaginary witnesses that had mysteriously appeared after the most recent meeting with the silk suited man in gaudy alligator skin shoes.
Everyone's acting so normal, Jackson thought, reminded of the immaculate homes in the rich part of town that nevertheless managed to be red flagged for domestic disputes. It was the false normality of the assassin, the gray man that uses his mundanity to blend into a crowd in the street, stalking his victim in the open, pulling the trigger in full view before anyone notices he doesn't belong there.
They used phrases like "at this time" and "an investigation is proceeding," white noise, cop talk, nothing to see here. But the way the other officers didn't wisecrack and kept their noses in the job was enough to tell an experienced cop something was very, very wrong.
And an experienced cop was exactly what wasn't there.
Caroline followed the smooth gray aura into the back of the van with flashing light on it. Smooth, nice and smooth, she thought to herself. Not fuzzy or static-y, no flagellate tendrils extending from it, no dark black holes forming nearby, hungry to snatch the soul into oblivion. Just Thug, who cried like a baby when his grandmother died, who hid in the shadows to take a gut wound that would have killed her.
Soon the EMTs would make everything ok, stitch her poor boy shut and make everything ok again. The EMT, whose pale moon-shaped face looked eerily like...
"Oh, Caroline..." the stranger said, looking down at Thug's moaning body, blood still leaking from the nasty looking gash.
"How do you know my name?" Caroline said quietly, her dry mouth clicking after having been locked shut for so long.
"You're...you're Caroline. I saw you at the funeral. Mike said you were Mrs. Black's protégé. You're supposed to fix Thug like she used to do." The name "Thug" had a warm inflection on her lips. Her uncle? Cousin?
"No...no... I can't. I'm just a florist..." Caroline stammered, still in shock.
"But you HAVE to..." the girl said, a waver of desperation creeping into her voice, belying her true identity.
"Like Mrs. Black used to do, with a needle and a strand of her own hair." The girl said, pulling up a white medical scrub sleeve to reveal a razor thin scar on her forearm.
Caroline bit her lip, dreading the next precious few minutes as Thug lay bleeding on the gurney on her right side. NO. She would not back away, not from the promise she made. She wasn't that person anymore, who would let Thug bleed to death while she did nothing. She plucked a hair from her head, wincing.
"Hand me a needle." Caroline commanded, taking on a touch of Mrs. Black's serenity as the old part of herself drifted a little father from her heart, the trance forming a buffer between her and reality, the blind focus of it shielding her.
The girl sighed with relief. She recognized this face. This was the right Caroline.
"Of course." The girl reached into a bulkhead drawer that looked like a thousand other drawers inside the ambulance as the engine changed gears in the background, the sirens only dimly registering to them as they stared at their ailing kin. She pulled out a white sterilized paper packet and pulled it open with professional ease, at once revealing she was at least partially medically trained.
"Here." She said, handing the needle of to Caroline's unnaturally still palm.
Caroline entered her own little world, saw her own pink aura streaked with black, stained by recent events, the taint roiling through her ragged strand of hair. Of course, a tiny piece of her to replace a tiny piece of him; her new blood making any part of her body a powerful component.
She carefully threaded the needle, using a doubled length of hair as her thread as ancient physicians had done before the invention of surgical silk, let alone dissolving stitches or medical glue. As she worked, the girl that looked eerily like Lucille eased an epidural into Thug's vein with professional exactness.
Wasn't she supposed to flush the wound with iodine or something? The girl didn't seem to think so. She saw the white fat under the skin, and decided not to waste time asking.
Thug's skin was tougher than she expected, her fingertips turning white under the pressure of keeping the needle from slipping in her sweaty hands. Each hole was a chore, a struggle to punch through the thick skin. Too late, Caroline realized she should have shaved Thug's hairy belly. There was too much she didn't know, too much left to chance. She tightened her stitch, eerily reminded of Marcia M'buto's skull-less rictus as the overlap of skin folded up between the whipstitches. Had it really been Jr. High when she'd last used needle and thread?
The nameless girl stared at her as she worked, like an electric guitar player might stare at a concert violinist. Nameless except for the tag on her scrub shirt, Caroline noticed for the first time. Madeline Mayweather. It was easier to focus on the girl than the wound, easier to let her hands fall into the blind, mechanical repetition of sliding each stitch through a fine thickness of skin and meat.
"So Madeline, how often does this happen?"
Madeline snapped out of her mystified reverie. "There's always someone in the family breaking an arm or getting in a car wreck. It happens every few weeks or so, but normally just fevers and colds. Maybe once a year for stuff this bad." She answered, the content of her words never touching her face as she stared at Caroline's sloppy stitch work.
Self-consciously, Caroline stared too, surprised to see her earlier stitches had disappeared, leaving a razor thin scar just like Madeline's without even a scab. She focused on the trance and watched the traces of her aura dissolve and be absorbed by Thug's, transfused as indecipherably as a pint of blood into an anemic.
Caroline plucked another hair from her head, having used all of the last one. Already, the wound was half closed.
"Wow..." Madeline drawled. "I forgot what it looked like."
"It's my first time seeing it." Caroline mumbled under her breath, catching the flow of the stitching, finding her rhythm and accelerating as she gained confidence.
Even as the wound closed, Thug's eye began to darken and swell from the concussion with Todd's devilishly strong fist. Caroline flashed back to Raz, how she'd entered his body and felt out his damage, squeezing the bullet out of his head as though nothing had happened. She tied off the last stitch, not bothering to marvel at the may it dissolved into the skin, leaving it whole and healed.
The trance, the trance was key. She formed the umbilical, pushing a piece of herself out towards Thug and into him. She roared through his blood, drunk on the power of his strong heartbeat, for once strengthened by her connection to another soul. The damaged blood vessels seemed so minor compared to what she'd done to Raz, shocking her that she'd been successful so easily with him.
She smoothed the ragged blood vessels like the fur of a wind-ruffled kitten, pushing the draining blood back inside where it belonged. Now only the epidural kept Thug incapacitated.
Madeline wrapped her arms around Caroline in the back of the ambulance, holding her close and tight.
"Thank you. Thank you for being who we didn't want to be..."
Straight Mike and Starburst passed a joint across the living room table in Starburst's high ceilinged historic home, each of them barking tersely into their phones.
"...it's a legally valid document. It's not my fault it's old..."
"...that job. You wanna keep..."
"...you six weeks ago..."
"...can't back out now. Too..."
"...wanna let him catch it? You're..."
"...right. All signed and legit..."
"...good money. Like last time..."
"...busy. But she'll be there..."
Finally, Mike snapped his phone shut with a resounding click, taking a long drag off the smooth rolled joint. Seconds later, Starburst joined him, taking the joint in one hand while putting his phone into its holster with the other.
"You done too?" Mike drawled, the sweet smoke making his voice sound thick and deep.
"Yeah... it was touch and go for a second. Jackson wanted to back out."
"Really?" Mike said in conversational surprise.
"Yeah. I had to explain to him he'd screw everyone if he backed out, even if he didn't squeal."
"You need to use the rose garden?" Mike prompted icily.
"No. He knows where his bread is buttered." Starburst answered, his lisp becoming a little more pronounced now that he was off the phone.
"Well, fuck it. You wanna hit The Card?"
"Hellz yeah. Let me put on my face..."
Lucille dropped the dusty portfolio on Mr. Jeff Jones desk, creating a small puffball cloud.
Mr. Jones looked the yellowed paper over with a professional eye, surprised to see such a document after years of grand fathered stipend checks.
"You mean you found Mrs. Parker?" He said, still officious in his astonishment.
"Yes. Her name and birth date match exactly."
"And you're sure you don't want it? Legally you have just cause as next of kin." He counseled her.
"No. It was written this way for a reason, and frankly, I already have a house."
"But she was born seventy years after this was written. Don't you want to keep it in the family?" he asked, owing her the question even as he itched to finally have the will executed and out of his hair.
"Oh, it stays in the family this way."
"Sorry. I had to ask."
Mr. Jones pulled a much fresher, crisper sheet of paper from his huge black walnut desk in his richly ornamented law office.
"Alright then. Just sign this release form, and have her sent up here."
Madeline waved from the back of the ambulance as Caroline walked away towards the downtown skyscraper.
15th floor, room 78, 6:00 PM, late for a lawyer's office, but then again these were special circumstances. Madeline said it was a special surprise, but something in her head rang false when she'd said it.
Lucille met her in the lobby, her newborn in the care of her husband for a change. Caroline didn't know how she knew this, only that it was true. Lucille gave her a warm hug.
"Thanks for everything, Caroline. You have no idea how much this means to us."
"Madeline told me Mike was handling the police. Why are we going into a lawyer's office?" Caroline asked suspiciously, prodding at the inconsistency.
Lucille broke down. "It's not about that. Mrs. Black named you in her will."
"WHAT?!" Caroline hissed.
"Look, we'll go see the executor Mr. Jones, sign off on some paper work, and be done."
"You know how. You know how probably better than any of us. She wrote the thing before you were born."
Caroline bit her lip, trying not to curse.
"Hello Lucille, and this must be Caroline Parker?" Mr. Jones greeted the two women.
A nod from Lucille proved his presumption correct.
"According to the will, you inherit..." he looked down at the yellowed paper, "646 Cottage Church Lane. Also, you receive a modest stipend for upkeep: Five hundred dollars a month. Sign here."
"What if I say 'no'?" Caroline whispered to Lucille.
"Then we forge your signature. Back out again, and we release the real way Todd died. Right now the official story is that he fell down the steps onto Thug."
This time, Caroline bit her lip until she tasted blood.
Then she signed.
There had been an awkward housewarming party, although Caroline had been minimally involved. Thug brought a grill and cooked smoked sausage and burgers for what seemed like an endless sea of elementary aged children and a smattering of smiling adults, glad to sit back and enjoy a few beers while their children made messes for someone else to clean up for a change.
Twilight came and the children left, Thug staying behind to pick up the paper plates and red plastic cups scattered throughout rose bushes so immense they could have passed for young Maple trees. A powder blue Impala showed up, with Mama Agnes's familiar head-wrap cresting the passenger seat like the prow of a battleship. Starburst exited the car, opened Mama Agnes's door, and sidled off to make small talk with Thug.
Mama Agnes sailed proudly up to the front door, knocking, then patiently waiting for Caroline. The door opened slowly, and she stepped inside.
"It's been speaking. You know that?" Caroline said abruptly, her voice sounding robotic.
"What's speaking? I don't hear anything." Mama Agnes answered, her eyes cutting warily.
"It won't shut up. It's speaking right now." Caroline continued, still entranced.
"Where is it? I can't hear it." Agnes said, her brow furrowing.
"Oh, wait... It's quiet now." Caroline's face and neck relaxed noticeably.
"I just dropped by to see how you were doing in the new place." Mama Agnes started, trying to refocus Caroline's mind. She'd slipped since the incident, still tortured by dreams, new dreams that were all her own creation.
"What? Oh... I'm sorry. It's been a busy day. Welcome to my home, Mama." Caroline said, her mind wrenching back onto track.
"Hm..." Agnes droned, worried, "I know this has been a big change, dear, but you have to be strong for the people who depend on you now. Imagine what it would feel like for one of the children, if they were to see you space out like that."
"I know," Caroline apologized, "I'm just so paranoid. I have to keep one in the trance, just in case."
"Hm... I guess he was right, then. But you're young, and it IS traditional. I have a solution, but I think I'll let Starburst handle it."
"A solution for what? All this slowly driving me crazy?" Caroline asked , exasperated at herself.
"Girl, you were crazy to start with. Never forget that. This will just help you cope."
"And this is what, a magic powder? A black cat bone? A bat's wing?" Caroline spurted, her irritation at herself showing by redirecting towards Mama Agnes.
"Nothing so hoodoo." Mama Agnes replied, chuckling. Caroline's hard head would hurt her more than any admonition. "I think I'll let Starburst handle it."
"Handle what?" Caroline asked sheepishly, suddenly guilty for her insolence, insolence Agnes had so graciously ignored.
"I'll let him tell you that."
Or maybe hadn't ignored at all...
Caroline beat herself up for running Mama Agnes off like that. She was only trying to help, and she'd acted like a spoiled brat. Luckily, it wasn't long before Starburst appeared, the smell of sweet skunky hydroponics entering with him.
"Mama was just messing with you; she doesn't smoke. You have to lighten up sometimes. 'You have to laugh to keep from crying' you know."
"Jesus, that stuff reeks. Todd's pot was..." Caroline trailed off, Todd's name driving a dagger into her heart.
"Todd's pot was one fourth the price of this stuff." Starburst joked. "And The Glass killed Todd. Not you. Get used to it; that's the reality you're going to be living in for the rest of your life."
Caroline took the thin joint, dragging deeply off of it.
"You don't understand. I became a monster. I didn't CARE who it was, I just wanted them dead. I'm some vicious... THING now, and I don't want to be vicious. I don't want to be anything at all..."
"And you think I'd be who I am if I had a choice? None of us do. You either change yourself, or you change the world, but as long as you live, nothing can stay the same. It's only when you stop growing that you die inside."
Caroline thought back to what Mrs. Black had said, about how people were flowers, and when they had finally bloomed, they were snipped and taken away. A person wants to stay alive, to wither on the vine, but how much better it is for those clipped in full bloom, to be a part of an other worldly bouquet?
From the perspective of the flower, it seems so cruel. But from the perspective of the gardener, it's only right that those who choose to grow the flowers get to choose when they are clipped.
Caroline giggled to herself as the sweet smoke killed the voices in her head, her own voice full of self-doubt, the voices of the dead with their remembered advice, and the voices of the living.