Her bare feet were crusted with dirt and muck, and I didn't look much beyond that.
Making the cow disappear was easy, moving it just off the tracks to the lazy stretch of grass beyond.
by E. Catherine Tobler
|Jackson's Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade picked her up a day outside Denver. Jackson wouldn't stop for a cow on the tracks, but he stopped for this little thing, with her pale hair and paler eyes. Brought the entire train to a stop to scoop her from the tracks with his long arms.
She huddled against his chest, her small body nearly folded in on itself, and we all watched, in confusion and fascination both. The long hem of her dirty shift caught the cowcatcher and the remains of said beast.
She was none of my concern, but Jackson placed her in my car and made her just that. He laid her down in the corner, in my favorite chair, my only chair. She looked all the more pale against the blue and gold stripes. Their brilliance had long since faded, but looked new against her washed-out skin. Her bare feet were crusted with dirt and muck, and I didn't look much beyond that.
I was working with the quarters when she began to wail, rolling them across my fingers before trying to turn them into nickels. The steam whistle crowed as we crossed the state line, Colorado into New Mexico, and she came alive as though submerged in hot water.
The quarters tumbled off my fingers, onto the floor where they lay as she shrieked, curled her hands over her ears, and moaned. Her face was creased with pain; for a moment, she looked like she'd been raked with hot metal.
After listening to her, I wanted to do the same: curl into a ball and moan. Instead, I went to her. Crouched before the chair and tried to get her to lower her hands.
First thing I noticed was that her hands didn't feel like hands. She was soft, as though her bones hadn't yet firmed up. A baby in the guise of a ten-year-old. Second thing I noticed was the way she went quiet when I touched her.
I thought she would twist away, scream, holler, anything but what she did, which was melt into me, against my chest. Her soft hand curled its way into my shirtfront, her thumb working over the nearest dirty button.
Tried to push her out of my arms, I did, but she wouldn't go. She took to purring like a cat, like the big lions Jackson kept caged in the car behind mine. To keep me in line, he said, but I could make them vanish with a thought. Still, I didn't like the idea of where they might end up, so I left them alone, and they did the same for me.
The girl's purring took up residence inside my head, worked some kind of magic and made me tumble toward the mattress Opal had snickered at but had still come to. And where did that memory come from, I wondered as I drowned inside that rumbling sound. I was lost inside it as though it was a maze. Couldn't find my way out, so I just gave in and eventually it bled into a familiar dark quiet I recognized as sleep.
Woke to the train slowing again, and I wondered if Jackson was stopping for another sprite on the tracks. Stars painted the sky overhead and the air smelled like manure. We'd reached our destination then.
I untangled myself from the boneless girl. She lay as though dead, and I moved away as quick as I could. Before she could latch on again. Before she thought to hold me and purr and make me a lost thing.
The air outside was cool, smelled like snow would be on the ground come morning. I pulled my coat around me, rubbed my hands together, and approached the first of the weird sisters as they emerged from their own car. I offered up one hand; Gemma took it, but Sombra's hand was just as quickly there. It seemed one hand around mine, though I knew there to be two.
The sisters were two halves of the same thing, one light and one dark. Where one was concave, the other was convex. Where one was sharp rocks, the other was smooth water. Sombra's hair was the night sky, while Gemma's was the stars. And sometimes, they were exactly backward from that.
Why, I wondered, couldn't Jackson have placed the little girl in with them? They were women, they'd had children, countless children, or so they said. I'd had plenty of women, but no children. Never would. Didn't need or want them. Would be all too easy to wish them gone and have them vanish.
Sombra and Gemma moved like fog across the ground. Their feet never touched the ground as they drifted away. They wouldn't help with the unloading; they never did, and no one ever expected they would. They floated into the night and dissolved into fireflies against the blackness as they swept and blessed the campsite.
Five long and pale fingers wrapped around my half-warmed hand, and I started at the touch. Looked down and found the little girl clutching me, her fingers warmed, water barely contained by skin. She looked up at me, and her mouth curled in a crescent-moon smile.
I could see now that her pale hair was drawn into disorganized ropes, like the jumble you'd find on the dusty ground after the tents came down, messy on the ends like they hadn't been tended in a few years. Her mouth was as pale as her skin; her smile slipped away, but her grip tightened and she looked around as if to ask where and why we were.
"Performin' here," I said and tried to loose my hand from hers, but she was having none of it. I walked and she fell into easy step beside me, though her little legs shouldn't have been able to keep up.
Silas and Lawrence were already unloading the tents. I finally shook the girl's hand off of mine, swung up into the car, and helped Hunter roll another of the striped cylinders to the door. We maneuvered it around, gave it a swift kick down, and the boys carried it off.
There were twenty-four tents in all. The girl watched me the whole time, perched like an owl on the fence across from the door. Her eyes were almost blue, but as the last tent came down I decided the color was only from the nearest light. She would move away and her eyes would change, no doubt.
"Got a name?" I asked her as I came out of the car and headed back toward mine. She watched me as I took a rumpled cigarette from my coat and placed flame against its tip. Drew deep and exhaled once before she answered.
"Ladies first," I insisted. She was tiny and odd, but a lady nonetheless. Her colorless eyes skimmed over me, then met mine again.
"Rabi," she said and I choked on the smoke that rolled down my throat.
She snatched the cigarette from my hand, tossed it to the ground, and mashed it under her pale toes. I thought I might cough up my stomach, but she brushed her fingers down my arm and I calmed. Instantly, like my mother touching me after a nightmare. I looked at her through the fall of my hair.
"At's my name." My voice was hoarse. I turned and thumped the side of my car. Painted in silver by Gemma, trimmed in black by Sombra, was my name and my claim to fame. Rabi, Vanquisher and Vanisher Extraordinaire.
The little girl's mouth twisted and she looked around, searching for another name. Any would do, any name, any word. She looked like a snowflake standing there, eyes flitting from thing to thing, the dirty hem of her shift lifting in the cold breeze. Her skin should have been puckered from the cold, her toes burned from the cigarette, but she showed no discomfort.
Finally she shook her head.
I shrugged. Didn't matter. She wasn't mine to name. I'd be damned if I was going to do it.
Work continued through the night. The little girl didn't seem to tire; she helped where she thought she could, with small things, and took to following the weird sisters when they returned. She was the reverse of a shadow, but the very shadow Sombra should have had right then, as pale as she was dark. And when it was Gemma's turn to darken, the child could flutter in her wake.
I hauled a rope, helped pull a tent upright. The red and white striped fabric soared against the pre-dawn sky, snapped as the ropes pulled it taut. That cloth shuddered as inner supports were placed thus and so, ribs and organs and muscles to give the beast a chance of standing.
The marmalade stand was up before the sun, which wasn't saying much as snow had begun to fall. Too many clouds for there to be sun. I crossed the stubble grass, drawn by the scent of Beth's fresh rolls and marmalade. I bought a small jar of the orange and a bundle of rolls, kissed her cheek, and let her squeeze my backside before I walked back to my car.
Found the little girl there, wrapped in the blue blanket with its purple stars. She looked like a ghost and I told her as much.
"Not a ghost," she said, and I saw that she had one of my books. I didn't have many. It was the atlas she had spread in her lap, and she pointed to a small town. "We are here."
I nodded as I punched a hole in the bag of rolls. Drew one out, cracked open the jar of marmalade. I tore the roll open next and two fingers sufficed as knife to spread the marmalade. The girl's attention was drawn away from the book; she watched me spread the marmalade, lift, and eat the roll. Marmalade clung to my lips; I licked them clean and she mimicked the motion.
"Gemma says you make things vanish," she said as I finished the roll in three more bites. The rolls were so hot, they'd steamed the bag. I took another one out and tossed it to her. Her watery fingers caught it without hesitation. She broke it open, inhaled the fragrant steam, and stretched her hand toward the marmalade.
Her long fingers were better suited to working as knives. She spread the marmalade smooth and even and took a cautious bite, then another, then made the roll disappear in the cavern of her mouth. With a swallow it was gone.
"You make things vanish," she repeated.
And I knew she didn't mean the roll I'd just eaten. "That's what I do." I nodded and tore open my second roll. She came closer and took another from the bag. She went slower with her second, as I did with mine.
"Really vanish, not magic vanish."
I nodded again, and I never liked where this conversation was going. It was classic, as though she'd pressed her ear against the side of my car a few weeks ago and listened while Anne begged me to do it, to make him vanish and stop beating on her and how could I say no, why wouldn't I do it, couldn't I understand? She wailedwailed like the girl did when we crossed the state lineand I knew what was coming.
Except it didn't. Not yet.
We sat, in companionable calm, eating rolls and marmalade, while the snow fell silently beyond the open car door.
· · · · ·
Ritual and tradition play a big part in Jackson's life, and so it was on the first evening that he gathered us performers together. A meal, not lavish but steaming and generous, had been spread atop the ancient wood table Jackson claimed to have carted from one side of Europe and back again before the war. And at this table we all took our places, under the softly flowing fabric of the big top.
Seeing as how the little girl didn't have a place, she made herself one. A round full moon resting in Sombra's lap, that's how she looked. She didn't help herself to much that night; she took a biscuit and some water, but little else, though Sombra tried to get her interested in the beans. Nope, she was determined not to have any.
I sat between Foster and Jackson, and Jackson seemed genuinely happy about the stay we would have in this little town. These folk were dying for some good entertainment. Kids had seen the posters, he said, and no matter the dirt and rips, they'd run home. Foster could picture them digging out cans of pennies. They'd be back and he'd be counting those pennies. Foster always smelled like money, like old paper and metal.
Denver had been good to us, but this little place would be better. New Mexico was a fine state, and the little girl turned her attention to us as Jackson and Foster talked about the buttes and scrub brush and the way storms seemed to roll right down the mountains and explode on the plains. The little girl shook at that.
Her whole body trembled. Sombra tried to comfort her, but the girl rolled out of her lap, under the table. Soon enough I felt her curled against my boots. I resisted the urge to reach down and touch her hair. Jackson and Foster changed the subjectback to moneyand she calmed.
Almost forgot she was there. As I made to get up, I felt her weight against me. My movement woke her and sleepily she emerged from the table, covered here and there with crumbs and dirt. They didn't seem to bother her none. She lifted her hand and I took it in mine and together we walked back to my train car.
"Going to be here long?" she asked as she climbed under the blue blanket.
"Seven days at the most." Jackson had never stayed in a place longer than that. This town was a speck, a speck that didn't have a name anyone knew, and while the people might be hungry for what we could give, they wouldn't have much money. Santa Fe would be better, but Jackson had his mind set on heading farther west, toward the coast if possible.
She was restless in her sleep, kept kicking and shoving me. Finally I moved away from her, sat in my chair and smoked a cigarette. It was cold, but the snow had stopped for the moment.
Where had she come from? What had she been doing out on that track? Most things we saw on the tracks were either there by mistake or looking to end their lives. Two years ago, Jackson obliged a young man by the name of Coleman Bean. After that, Jackson didn't stop his train for anyone. Till a few days ago.
She twisted and turned and finally sat up, her hair in a big clump on the left side.
"Could sleep better if the clouds would stop."
I crumpled my cigarette in the tin tray and stood. Above the mattress, there was a cargo door, and I unlatched the squeaky hook and rolled it open. Above the mattress now, the sky was that soft pink that comes before a snow. The girl shivered, but not from the cold.
Making things disappear is easy if you think about it, but most folks don't think. I couldn't make the clouds disappear; I hadn't fully mastered clouds or water or flowers. But I could move them along, so I did. Willed them to move on toward Texas. The little girl stopped shivering once the pink sky turned black and the stars made themselves known. She relaxed back into the blankets, and I got under with her.
"There's Jupiter," she whispered and extended a long arm beyond the covers. I swear she almost touched that planet with her pointer finger. She sure did blot it out for a moment or two.
"And Mars, but you know, I think I like Saturn the best."
Her little voice broke apart as she ended that sentence, and she began to tremble again, like she'd done at the dinner table. I reached for her forehead, thinking to soothe her fear away, but she slapped my hand away, scooted to the other side of the mattress.
"Don't take it away," she said. "It's all I have left."
I did not question her, for it made sense to me. Fear could be a good friend. Lord knows fear had kept me alive during some pretty long nights. It was keeping me awake right now, wondering what the thing beside me was, for though it looked like a young girl, I knew it was not. It was something else, but I still had no name for it.
She slept then, and I left the mattress, tossing the warmed blanket over her before I walked away. I went to my table and picked up the quarters and made them dance over my fingers before making them vanish entirely. They didn't slide up my sleeves and they didn't go through the cracks in the table.
Without the clouds, the air outside was bitter. I turned up the collar of my coat and buttoned it. The ground crunched under my feet and laughter carried to me in the frosty night.
The Doshenkos were practicing in the main tent, flying through the air with the greatest of intentions. They never seemed to get it quite right. Pasha slipped from Oleg's hands and plummeted to the netting, where she somersaulted. Oleg laughed and so did Pasha. Perhaps one day, he said, and she echoed it while climbing back up to try again.
Away from their circle of laughter it seemed colder, and I hurried my steps to the weird sisters' tent with purple and gold stripes. I kneeled before the flap and listened, listened so hard that I could hear them breathing inside. The air was spiced with incense here, sandalwood and lavender, and I took a deep breath.
It merged with their own, and for a moment we breathed together. It felt as though I were inside the tent, snuggled between ample breast and small, and then as abruptly as I'd been there, I was here again, kneeling in dirt.
I didn't have to dig deep; the quarters were not buried far. All six of them were right where I'd sent them, and this time none of them had melted. They weren't a lost thing to me. Not this time. I gripped them hard, till their edges pressed into my fingers.
Things were easy to lose; hanging on to them took talent. Making things vanish was easy, if you knew where to send them. Knew the exact place as well as you know your own hands.
And I knew this place, this dark and spicy doorway, for many men had kneeled and gone throughthis one includedbut not tonight. I took my quarters and whispered good-bye to the sisters before taking my leave.
The little girl was sitting in the doorway to my car when I returned. Her thin legs swung restlessly. She wanted to run, but didn't know where to go. Wanted to vanish, but didn't know where to put herself.
"We go west from here?" she asked. Her hands plucked at her shift. "I heard the man, Jackson, say west. We can't go west."
I pocketed my quarters and looked at her, wondering exactly how she meant to stop this train and its people from going west. I waited for an answer, and she only grew more agitated. The shift was shredding under her fingers; she was plucking hard enough to tear the thin fabric.
"I can't go west." And she was firm about that. "Not even if there's more hot rolls and marmalade. East," she said finally, giving me a clue. "And a little south. Would that be so hard? Won't Jackson reconsider?"
"There's nothing that way. Jackson goes where the people are, where the money is. Has his mind fixed on San Francisco eventually. I think he's got family there." Did she notice the way my voice caught on that word, family? Her sharp eyes didn't miss much; they were narrow now, as though she meant to study me the way I'd been studying her. Don't do that, little girl, I thought, and she sat straighter.
She turned her face up to the stars, but Saturn didn't lie in the east, so I didn't figure it was a star she was following. "What's east?" I asked, and she didn't look at me. Didn't turn away from the stars. Didn't even answer me.
And before long, it was too cold to just stand there, so I had to go inside. I started a fire in the small grate, warmed my hands and my feet, and made sure the smoke wouldn't roll back on us during the night.
It didn't roll back on us, just on me, for when I woke she was still out there looking at the stars. I saw her point to one and heard her say, "I am there."
But she wasn't thereshe was hereand that was her entire problem.
· · · · ·
She hadn't meant to come to Earth, she told me. It was all one big mistake. She'd been running from her family, had to get away, and this is where she ended up. She had to stop running because her ship stopped. Caught something in the engine, and when she was about to get it right a New Mexican storm slapped her down. Two years, that's how long she'd been here, trying to figure a way back home.
Two years ago, Jackson had stopped the train for a young man named Coleman Bean. A lot could happen in two years.
Couldn't find any of her own kind. Seemed she was the only one, and that thought filled her with an agony that tasted like metal in the back of her throat. She'd climbed onto the tracks to kill herself, but damn Jackson had to go and stop. Had to find that shred of soul within himself and put it to use that night.
"You was glowing like some firefly," I said. "I think that might have caught his attention. Maybe he thought you was a diamond." I grinned, and she shoved me. She didn't look like a diamond or a firefly.
I didn't mean to come to this place, either, I finally told her, though it wasn't Earth I was meaning. This circus train. But I'd been running too, and yes, away from family. Sombra and Gemma spotted me in a trackside bar, performing card and coin tricks for a little cash. They told me they had a better deal, both in and out of their tent. They were right, so I came to the tracks and watched the train slow as they said it would. Anything was better than going back.
"Going back is the only thing," she countered as she stuck her bare feet toward the flames. "Until you do, you're in limbo. Fancy Earth word. Why'd you run?"
"Why did you?"
She didn't answer me and I didn't answer her and the night blurred into morning as we warmed our feet beside the darkened grate.
· · · · ·
The first night of the show is perhaps the best. Mistakes happen, but that's part of the fun. Like Manny and his lions; surely he didn't mean for the male to eat his red coat, but it happened. Buttons and all, down the hatch and the audience applauded while the big cat licked his lips.
We didn't have many animals in the show. The monkeys seemed to be the favorites, but Miss Victoria Solace didn't appreciate the way they stole her hat and wore it around the ring. They pranced and chattered, and the men roared and pointed. I made the hat vanish from the monkey's paws and reappear on her head, much to her delight.
Mrs. Isabel Tompkins had the kind of mind I liked, clear and warm like a summer pond. I could see everything that lay under the surface, and when she handed me her handkerchief and bade me "vanish it!" it was easy enough to do so. In her mind I could see her orderly kitchen, though her husband Harry was always fussing with the bread box and tinkering under the sink and she wished he would stop.
I couldn't make him stop, but I took her handkerchief and folded it in half. In half again, and once more. I folded until I couldn't fold anymore, until the fabric had no more to give. And then I pinched the fabric between my fingers and it vanished. Isabel's eyes flew wide and the entire audience applauded and roared.
She expected me to pull the fabric from my sleeve. They always do. But I could only lift my hands and tumble away toward the next thing to vanish. She would find her handkerchief, folded between the kitchen table leg and the golden but scarred wood flooring. The table would have stopped its rocking, but it wouldn't occur to her to look for two months.
The little girl watched the entire show through the legs of an enormously fat man. She was pressed under the bleachers, and though she could have had a much better seat, she didn't seem to want one. I could understand the need to hide; coming to Jackson's had been a way of hiding. Couldn't live with Sherri Lynn anymore. Just couldn't.
Her mind was like Mrs. Tompkins', so clear I could see every thought and know them as if they were my own. I could see Sherri Lynn's past, could know how she felt about her daddy and how she wished he would vanish. And it was all too easy after knowing that darkness.
All too easy to pluck him from the hardware store where he worked and bury him in the worm-rich mud beneath the shed of a house he had lived in twenty years before. Sherri Lynn hated that shed, but knew every corner of it. I took that memory, made it my own, and sent him there. The disappearance of Ralph Moody was never explained, though no one seemed to mourn him.
Still, it was that kind of thing that bothered me. I pictured that man, slowly suffocating in that dirt, and just couldn't live with the fact that I'd done it. Didn't matter that he'd touched Sherri Lynn wrong. Didn't matter that he hit his wife and called her names you wouldn't call a dog.
I couldn't pull him back out of the ground; once he was gone, he was gone. I tried, but couldn't budge him. Once a thing vanished, it was gone to me. Someone else could come upon him. He could be a found thing then, but to me he was a lost thing. Vanished. Except the quarters, I reminded myself. I was getting better. Maybe in time, things wouldn't have to be so lost.
"Rabi," the little girl said after the show. She slipped her long fingers into mine and handed me a stone. She had picked it from beneath the bleachers; I could feel the very depression it had made in the ground. Shallow and as cool as the night air.
In her mind, she showed me where she wanted the rock to go. The desert plain was lit by only starlight; the brush and cactus made strange shadows over the ground. In the ground, buried beneath rock and mud, was a piece of a lost thing. Metallic and not something I could fully understand. I tried to, but I felt the same murk I did when I tried to look into the little girl. She was giving me this, allowing me to see, but I couldn't understand.
The rock vanished from my palm and the breath went out of her. It was like wind moving through trees, that soft whooshing sound the leaves make. She made this sound, her hand relaxed in mine, and we continued on toward my train car, without another word spoken between us.
Come morning, Jackson was more excited than I'd seen him in days. He interrupted everyone's practice and called us all to the main tent. Pasha Doshenko stayed on her trapeze, swaying above us as Jackson talked.
"It's a good deal," he kept saying while he rubbed his hands together and paced before the crowd of us. It's like he was trying to convince us, something he'd never done. He'd always told us where we were going and those who wanted to follow did. A few had been lost along the way, but what better show was there than Jackson and his unreal circus and marmalade?
"There's a man, you see," he said, and I did see, a round man with round glasses and thick hands, and this man offered Jackson more money than he'd ever been offered for a performance. "Food and real shelters included," Jackson continued and I saw in his mind a hotel with a swimming pool and everything. I saw warm baths and soft beds. "We'd stay for the winter, till things get warm again."
That part of the deal was important, I realized, and I felt the pain in Jackson's hands as though it was my own. He was young, but his bones had already started to rub together, causing him pain no matter how he moved. Jackson wanted to bed down somewhere warm for a few weeks and move on when spring came.
"Dallas," he finally said. Which was backward from where we were going. It would delay San Francisco, he said, and I got a flash of a beautiful young girl in his mind. Not his lover, but his mother as he remembered her from his childhood. Jackson wanted to get home, wanted it badly, but didn't know if he could stand the winter ride to get there.
This was agreeable for the little girl, who began to purr against my side. I'd forgotten she was there, but traveling east was fine with her, and when Jackson took his vote, her long pale arm was one of the first to rise.
Didn't matter to me where we went, really, but Dallas was a little too close for my comfort. Close to Sherri Lynn, close to the little house that had been ours. She was still there; she wouldn't leave her roses nor her turtles for anything in the world. She liked her teaching, liked being far from her family.
"Limbo," the little girl whispered, and I wondered then if my mind was clear to her like Sherri Lynn's had been to me. "Goin' east, goin' east." She couldn't contain her excitement.
"What is it you want me to make vanish?" I asked, wanting this over. Once I did the trick, she would go. Wouldn't she?
But she shook her head, and her pale hair rubbed her shoulders and then my coat as she nuzzled up to me. I froze under her touch. I didn't need this, didn't need her telling me I was in limbo. I wasn't. I'd moved on with my life, did what was best for me and Sherri Lynn both.
The little girl didn't answer, and I found out later that night that Gemma, now as dark as Sombra, and Sombra, now as light as Gemma, had named her Vara. Vara curled herself up at my grate once more and slept through the show, while I danced and performed until exhaustion claimed me and I made a man's vanished coin appear in a woman's all-too-visible cleavage. He chuckled, she shrieked, but the play went on.
· · · · ·
The train moved at a steady pace through the New Mexico desert. It was strange to see snow across cactus and scrub brush, over the red and taupe earth, but there it was and it looked pretty.
Vara didn't move from the small window much. She stayed huddled in the blanket and her breath made small puffs of fog on the pane. Every now and then she pressed her fingers against the glass, as if trying to measure distance. Once, she got excited about a landmark, but we passed it and she realized it wasn't the mountain she'd been thinking about.
She started wailing the next day, as the train drew closer to the state line. She woke me with her crying and there was nothing I could do to calm her. Her cries rose until the window shattered and the train ground to a sudden halt. Froze up on the tracks, as though it was caught in ice. Vara wrenched herself from my arms, scrambled out of the car, and across the frozen desert.
I watched her go, the tail of her shift flipping up and down like an antelope tail. She'd refused all offer of other clothing: didn't want anything that made her look human, she told Gemma. There was no danger of that, I thought, but kept my opinion to myself. She was too small and too pale to be human, but running away
she had that down pat.
With the train stuck on the tracks, we weren't going anywhere for a while. Jackson's hot cursing should have melted the frozen wheels, but they remained wedged against the track, unmoving.
Gemma, back to her stardust self, shoved me, and I stumbled into the brush. "Go after her," she demanded, and Gemma never demanded. Those hands coaxed and that voice tempted, but now they demanded and I went, following the trail Vara had left in the snow.
It was a wide trail, clumsy and crooked. Her feet must be frozen, I thought, but told myself they weren't human feet at all and maybe she didn't even feel the cold. The cloudy sky above me began to darken, though it couldn't be much past midday. My own feet were cold, legs stiff, and I didn't want to go much farther.
Vara was sprawled on the ground ahead of me, one hand stretching toward the eastern horizon. I touched my hand to her back and found her like a block of ice. No matter that she wasn't human, she was cold and I picked her up and cuddled her into my coat. She was passive against me, maybe too cold to react, but when I turned away and headed back toward the train, she whimpered.
In my mind I saw a picture of what "east" meant to her, and I fell to my knees. They cracked against stone, but I couldn't feel any pain as I went down. Could only see and feel what Vara showed me then and there.
The metal was curved, the smooth edge of a ship meant for the stars. Her ship once upon a time, but now it was broken, most of it carried away. She couldn't get home, couldn't find her people, but wanted to get back to that one remaining piece of ship. And if she couldn't get there, she wanted to disappear.
It would be easy, I found myself thinking. Easy to make her vanish into that bit of ground, nestled against the metal of her ship. But no, no, God, I just wouldn't do it. She was living and breathing and I wouldn't end that.
She felt my refusal, but was too cold and weak to move away from me. She pushed against my chest, made me feel all that she was missingthe touch of her mother's hand, the nuzzle of her lover, the familiar dirt of her homeworldbut still I refused.
Vara reached up and grabbed a handful of my hair. She yanked, tried to make me feel pain, any pain that would equal her own, but she couldn't and that only made hers more keen. She touched me again, this time deeper, and unlocked my own pain. Made me touch Sherri Lynn and the desolation she had known after I vanished. I had closed that off long ago, but Vara opened it as easy as she might a door.
Left that morning and didn't tell Sherri Lynn, couldn't tell her, and she woke alone in the bed. My things were neat in the closets and drawers, but I was gone. Gone like the fairies came and took me in the night.
Sherri Lynn was broken, like Vara's ship. Submerged in cold ground, buried so no one could find her. She was dying there, cold and alone, and here I was, playing in the circus without a care in the world. Accepting Beth's warm smile, finding comfort in Gemma and Sombra's bed. Taking time with ladies like Anne who came to visit and wanted something to vanish in exchange for a little roll and tumble. Pretending Sherri Lynn didn't exist.
It was easier than going back, but going back we were, and if I wouldn't press Vara into her ground, she would press me into mine.
· · · · ·
When Vara was ready to go, she released the train from its slumber. The wheels slowly turned and steam rolled back over the cars. "Merrily we roll along," Jackson whispered and refused to look at Vara.
"Shouldn't have ever stopped for her," he said.
"She'd be dead then."
"Blown to bits like that cow," Jackson agreed, and I knew he meant it.
The cow had been a spectacular thing, standing there one minute, flying in a thousand pieces the next. The train only slowed briefly. I could have moved it before we hit. But I hadn't. Why? Sometimes the simplest answers are the truth. I didn't want to. I wanted to see what happened. That was why any of us did anything. Just wanted to see what happened.
Making the cow disappear was easy, moving it just off the tracks to the lazy stretch of grass beyond. It would chew grass for a few more years, but it was stupid and would wander onto the tracks again sooner or later.
To Jackson, Vara was a stupid thing. A thing that would wander onto another track sooner or later.
She didn't move when I laid her down on the mattress. Her knees were still drawn to her chest. I covered her with the blanket and watched her, and wondered if I was wrong.
"You could find a life here," I finally said. "It could be a good one."
She roused at that. Sat up and turned toward me, stretching toes toward the fire I'd made. Vara shook her head. "I don't want to be something unreal, something people pay money to see. I just want to go home. And can't."
She picked up the thing nearest her hand, a discarded shoe, and threw it at me. I was so startled I didn't react and the shoe hit me in my chest. It fell to the floor as she yelled at me.
"And you can. Your home is there and you don't go."
"My home is here."
"This is no home." She pounded the mattress and gestured around her. There was little here that would make this a home; the room itself never existed in one place for more than a few nights. There was no yard, no flowers, no real bed with sheets and pillows. No photographs on the wall and no mail in a mailbox. No Sherri Lynn.
"I had to come here," I said as I reached for the shoe Vara had thrown. I picked it up, held it in my hands, used it as a focal point. Anything so I wouldn't have to look into Vara's eyes. "I did it to a man once, made him vanish, and it's too easy to do it again. I can't do it again, I won't. Not even for the best of reasons, don't you see?"
I think she did see, because she turned away from me. I dropped the shoe and crouched behind her, wrapped my arms around her small shoulders and pressed a hand over her heart. Or whatever it was that fluttered inside of her like a caught fish.
"Right here and now you are alive. It don't matter that you're different. It don't matter where you came from. No one is goin' to care about those things."
"But I care." Her voice was small, so small I could have held it in my palm and had room for a bird, a shoe, and maybe a jar of marmalade. "I am those things. And you, you have this wonderful gift and all you do is make coins roll down women's dresses. You could help meI've shown you the place."
There would be no arguing. I'd known that all along.
"Then let's go, you and me. Let's go now." She turned in my arms and her eyes brightened. Her watery fingers squeezed my arms. She was ready now. She had nothing to pack.
And neither did I really, so when the train stopped for the night, we stole into the car of horses and took One Eye, who Jackson was always threatening to shoot. Grabbed some rolls and marmalade, and vanished into the night.
We weren't alone right away; Sombra and Gemma followed us, in shadows and bits of starlight, but they didn't talk, so we didn't acknowledge them. When eventually they left us, the air grew cool and damp. Vara looked back, as though she felt them go.
We rode that whole long night through and through the next day. We stopped only long enough to eat. Vara was too excited about getting to the place she'd shown me in her mind. Her mind was more clear now; she was showing me more things. Things I didn't really want to see, but couldn't help but noticing.
She had one thing on her world that she missed as much as she missed familiar faces. Smashed berries was all she could think to call it in her head. Like the marmalade, I thought as her pale finger slid into the jar to scrape the final sweet bits from the bottom.
Next twilight brought us to the place Vara had shown me in her mind. It wasn't a pretty place, barren and deeply scarred. Vara slipped out of my loose hold and ran across the snowy ground, light as a fleck of lint. She went over a small ridge, and I rode One Eye down after her.
Vara kneeled in the dirt, took up handfuls of it and scrubbed it over her skin. This was the place; she'd lived here for a month before she'd found the courage to leave and look for her own kind. But there were none, only tall, dark strangers who didn't speak her language, and so she'd had to learn.
"I want to go. Will you make me vanish?"
I got off One Eye, slow because I could feel the ground vibrating with her excitement. Came to her side and kneeled down there, touching the dirt that covered her and then the ground itself.
That metallic thing was under there, the piece of her ship, and I could feel the small remains of another of her kind. Not much left, maybe a finger or toe. Whatever else had been taken away with shovels. I could still feel the deep grooves they'd made that day in the dirt.
"You didn't show me the other before."
She showed me now, this other being, her lover, her Sherri Lynn. Color blinded me, while a sensation like hair being brushed backward made my skin go bumpy. I wanted to throw up and I wanted to cry, because this feeling was familiar. I tasted Vara's longingbitter. She wanted to be taken away in shovels as this one had been.
Her dirty fingers curled into my shirt sleeve and I shook my head. "Can't put you in this ground," I whispered. "You'll die."
She knew exactly what she was asking here. There was no hesitation in her eyes or her mind. Her hand tightened in my sleeve and she bent to her knees, as if they'd grown too watery to hold her.
"Not going home is already like death."
The truth in that hit me hard, so hard that I saw it thena clean green orb hanging in the heavens. The cool of an alien wind brushed over my arms, made my hair stand at attention. An alien sun sank into a topaz sea, and all around me birds that were not birds whirled and cried. I tried to breathe, but could not. Couldn't take breath until Vara stopped touching me.
I breathed, but the image of the place did not leave me. I could see the flowers and the pollen on the flowers and the small bugs embedded in the stems. I could see a structure, not like any house I knew, but it smelled friendly and tasted like love. I opened my mouth and took it whole, and as I swallowed, Vara's excitement rippled over me and tasted like smashed berries.
I focused on that small house and its taste. With Vara's small hand in mine, I could nearly feel the door, and it seemed to move under my fingers. Swinging inward, it revealed to me a room with a fire and a tall, tall figure, and I knew this was Vara's family. Felt it as though it were my own.
When I looked at Vara, her face was smooth, like someone had pulled a sheet of pale plastic from chin to forehead, sticking a finger in to leave a mouth hole. Vara's hand wasn't a hand, either: no hand like I knew. Under her vaguely human cloak, she was nothing I understood, nothing I could understand without a hundred lifetimes to do so.
But I could understand the things in my head. Family and warmth and water and bright skies lit by a shining star. I thought about those things, about those things through Vara. I thought about Vara, about her under that bright sky, pale toes in the golden water. I pictured her there, and she giggled as though she already were.
She began to melt in my hands, pale sugar water running into the red dirt. Her mouth was still open in a dark O, her eyes wide with surprisewas it surprise or fear? Oh, it was fear. It stabbed me hard in the chest, and I tried right then, tried so hard, to stop her from vanishing. Was it going wrong? I didn't know. Couldn't know.
"Vara," I whispered, but that had never been her name, and her alien mind did not recognize it.
Once a thing goes, it goes. She was becoming a lost thing to me, and no matter how I tried to hold her together, she still slipped through my fingers. She was going somewhere I could no longer find her, a place I could not even imagine without her guidance. She was cold and wet and then nothing at all. I felt an indistinct, lingering sense of her, a shimmer of warmth wrapped up in smashed berries. Then nothing at all.
The cold began to seep through my trousers and I became aware of the light across the horizon. It had stopped snowing and the sun was coming up.
I guided One Eye out of the small depression, and we kept moving east. Would have been easy to ride back to the train, but I couldn't go back, not now. Not going home is already like death.
Sherri Lynn was shoveling snow from her walk when I saw her two days later, her nose reddened from the cold, a green hat mashed over her pale hair. She looked up at the sound of horse hooves on the cold ground, stiffened when she saw it was me. I got down, but didn't come any nearer.
She extended her hand, slow and shaking, and I placed my own within it. Sherri Lynn's mind was now dark and cloudy. It was a blessed darkness, and I loved the things I could not see.
"Coleman," she whispered, disbelieving.
That voice was familiar, warm with an uneven edge. I squeezed her hand, and she whispered once more. I vanished into her voice, into the memories that flooded her, that flooded me. Familiar, haunting places that tasted like love and marmalade.