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A note from Fox-Trot-9

Written on 2/6/20. Winter Season, February 2020 edition.


Warning(s): sexual content; traumatizing content (matricide); violent content.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!

—Sir Walter Scott,
Marmion,
Canto VI: "Stanza XVII"


1


All at once, a burst of light flooded the mirror sheen of Amelia’s watery expanse from the pier below their feet all the way to the horizon, so Amelia and Ramona and Leslie shielded their eyes. When the glare faded and their eyes readjusted to the gloom of their surroundings, they all cast their gazes into the watery sheen and beheld Lima taking out a 1923 hardback collection of stories, entitled,

Entering the Secret Room,

by Linda Kouri. In that reflection, as Lima Hearn flipped past the cover, they saw a dedication page and a table of contents showing thirteen titles, till Lima flipped to the first story in the book and read,

“Alice and the Mad Tryst,”

then turned to the next page of the story and began reading in whispers to herself under the lamplight of her room. Yet those very whispers from a curious teenaged girl resounded through the cavernous space within Amelia’s dream realm. As she read about the experiences of the story’s heroine, Alice, taking on an assumed name and obtaining a mask and cloak to infiltrate a masquerade ball, the reflective sheen manifested the scene before the three observers.

In that reflection, as they listened to Lima’s narration of the story, they saw a masked Alice with a cloak over her sky-blue Sunday dress entering past the threshold of the ballroom amidst a crowd of other masqueraders looking up to the mezzanine above the ballroom floor. Alice herself looked up and saw a masked man in a white suit over a black shirt and black gloves . . .

“That’s him!” Leslie and Ramona said, pointing to the man standing at the head of the mezzanine in the reflection.

“He’s the one who attacked us,” Leslie said.

“And shot us,” Ramona added.

“Aaron Rancaster?” Amelia said.

Both girls nodded their heads.

“I’ve been investigating him for the past week,” she said, just as the image dissipated from the watery sheen.

So Leslie said, “Do you know why he attacked us?”

“Or how he even entered our dreams?” Ramona added.

“I don’t,” Amelia said, “but I can help you find your friend,” and she reached out her hands for both girls to hold. “Come on, you two. The spell won’t work, if we don’t hold hands.”

Leslie and Ramona traded looks before giving their hands for Amelia to hold, Leslie her left hand and Ramona her right, which Amelia grasped in firm grips.

“Now walk with me, both of you,” Amelia said.

Both girls turned their heads to her and gulped.

"Now, now,” she said with a smile, coaxing them towards the edge of the deck boards. “You can trust me. You don't have to be afraid," she added, and proceeded (holding their hands) from the edge of the deck boards and over the water, where she stood on a few feet above its shimmering surface before them.

“How do you do that?” Ramona said.

“Faith,” Amelia said. “Come on.”

With that, Ramona took the first step, while Leslie followed amid a blustering draft emanating below Leslie’s feet and churning up the watery sheen into choppy waves, yet her footing kept sliding through the air currents as if she were slipping barefoot over ice. She yanked on Amelia’s grasp, trying to regain her footing and failing, till she looked at Ramona standing still with Amelia as if they were still on the pier.

“How are you even standing?” Leslie said.

“You should know,” Amelia said, grinning at the childish antics of a girl her own age and wondering if she had a fear of heights, “that wind-walking doesn’t work over a body of water.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Leslie said. “I need to go back.”

“Just stop what you’re doing,” she said.

“But I’ll fall into the water!”

“No, you won’t,” Amelia said. “I won’t let you fall. Look at your friend, if you don’t believe me. She’s already gotten the hang of it.”

That’s when Leslie stopped, and her winds died down below her, and another set of deck boards materialized above the choppy waters and steadied her wayward feet. She looked at Ramona and Amelia, both grinning like maniacs, and said, “Fuck you!”

That’s when Ramona broke into sniggers, while Amelia tried her best to repress her own and said, “We call it faith, Leslie, faith in things we cannot see, but depending on how we view our limits, our doubts and fears are not barriers but doors to infinite possibilities.”

“You sound like a philosopher,” she said.

“And I sometimes like to think I am, too,” Amelia said and winked at her, then: “Come on, you two. Follow me.”

And so they walked along the floating bridge of dreams, hand in hand, walked along the deck boards past the marble arches that stood on pillars across the water, now reflected upside down in the rippling mirror sheen and showing a Queen Anne style house up ahead near the horizon. And even as walked, Amelia thought she could see the outline of that house in the water, getting closer like a mirage in the mind's eye, and wondered if she was hallucinating the sight of her own house the way it was before she made her bodily dream dive across the space-time of several decades from 1966 to 1913. And in the mirror sheen, but absent from the night sky above their heads, was the moon tinged with blood casting her home in the reflection under a red tint like an impressionist's rendering of a haunted house.

As they walked, hand in hand, side by side, they talked about many things to keep themselves occupied, about their families and friends, about school rivals and bullies and innocent crushes, about everything and anything, save for their current predicament. So for the next several minutes, they walked and talked, until Ramona stopped in her tracks, making Amelia and Leslie stop with her along the bridge.

“Why did you stop?” Amelia said.

“I don’t know,” Ramona said and pulled away from Amelia's grasp and touched her fingers to her lips.

“What’s wrong?” Leslie added.

“I’m not sure,” Ramona said and licked her lips.

Amelia noticed and said, “Did someone kiss you?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I think . . . I think it’s Lima.”

“We must be close, then,” Amelia said and paused, wondering if she should take this next step with Rancaster’s warning floating through her mind like a phantom. She had felt no pressure to do this when she was with Nico and Kendra a week ago, for Celia Hearn was but a daughter twice removed (and thus twice protected) from her spell, yet this Lima Hearn, her daughter, was twice as close to her and twice as vulnerable.

“What’s going on?” Leslie said.

“Is something the matter?” Ramona added.

Amelia paused for a moment, thinking it through both sides of her brain, and said, “This is extremely important, so I need you two to follow my instructions to the letter,” and she took up Ramona’s right hand and Leslie’s left and had them join hands, taking care that she didn’t let go of Leslie’s hand in the process, and grabbed a hold of Ramona’s left hand with her right. Only then did she let go of Leslie’s hand, saying, “Don’t either of you let go, got it?”

Ramona and Leslie both nodded.

With that, Amelia grabbed Ramona’s left hand and put her palm flat against her chest, saying, “Keep it there, okay?”

“Okay,” she said.

With that, Amelia reached into her blouse and pulled out Ronald’s key with the silver chain in one hand, then took Ramona’s hand from her chest with the other and pressed the key flat against her palm.

“Close your eyes,” Amelia said, “and think about what you felt when your friend kissed you. You don’t have to say how you felt, but just tell me when you feel it.”

Amelia waited for Ramona’s cue.

“I feel it,” she said.

So Amelia kissed her lips and enacted the spell, heating the key into a blistering sting between their palms, till they jerked their hands apart and let it fall through the dream bridge into the watery sheen below them, where it rippled through the decades of space-time between 1913 and 1994—


2


And dinged like a bell reverberating through their ears, while Leslie and Ramona were teetering on their feet, their ears ringing and their heads full of vertigo and their bodies on the edge of toppling over, which they did. Both girls fell on their butts with a thud, thudding the wooden floorboards of another room that had just materialized out of the blur of their vertigo. When they regained their senses and got up on wobbly legs, they saw Amelia’s bodily reflection and reached out to her, but their hands passed through her like a ghost.

“I’m just a reflection here,” Amelia said, looking around the empty bedroom, making sure the older version of herself from 1994 was nowhere in sight, “and I shouldn’t stick around for long.”

“Wait a minute,” Ramona said, reaching out again for Amelia’s hand, yet her hand passed through hers, “do you know what’ll happen to you?”

“No, and I want to keep it that way,” she said, and raised a finger to her lips. “And, pray, don’t tell me what happened to my future self. I don’t want to risk any temporal shifts, got that?”

Both girls just stared at her for a few moments, then nodded, thinking about Doc Brown from Back to the Future warning Marty McFly of the dangers of knowing too much of future events.

So Leslie changed the subject and said, “Where’s the key?”

“One of you should have it,” she said.

Both girls dug their hands into their pockets, but Ramona came up with nothing.

Leslie felt something small and metallic in her left pants pocket, saying, “I have it!” And when she pulled it out, she had an image of Lima flashing through her mind’s eye and said, “Wait . . . What?” Leslie looked at the still-glowing object with the image of her friend still fresh in her mind before giving it to Ramona.

“What is it?” Ramona said, and when her hand touched it, she also had an image of Lima flashing through her mind. “Lima?”

“That key you’re holding,” Amelia said, “belonged to a dear friend of mine, whose acquaintance was cut short,” and she reached into her blouse and pulled out the original key she had used in her spell, the one attached to the silver chain, and added, “I made a copy of this to help you find your friend.”

But then they noticed her hand beginning to disappear, so Ramona said, “What’s happening?”

“I told you,” she said, “I can’t stay here for long.”

“But how are we gonna find her?” Leslie said.

Before dissipating completely, Amelia said, “I’ve transferred the essence of your friend into that key you’re holding, so you’ll have some idea of your friend’s location somewhere hereabouts.”

“What do you mean?” Leslie said. “How are we gonna find her with this thing?”

“Figure it out,” Amelia said, just as her bodily reflection dissipated fully from sight, leaving only her disembodied voice lingering after her. Your friend was reading a book in this room. If you can find that book, you might be able to find her. Oh, and when you find her, tell Lima I love . . .

And her words and her voice and her spirit drifted away into the void of forgotten memories, forgotten to all except Ramona and Leslie and God, the Keeper of dreams from then onward—


3


To this very day in the present year of 2018 when all was about to be revealed, all of it set to rights with the last link in the chain about to speak. With everyone in the family room looking to her for answers, Katherine found herself squeezing her sisters’ hands on the sofa as she felt the stares of Celia and Madison boring into her. At that moment, Katherine knew she had some explaining to do, since she had withheld her mother’s story from her sisters for a few months now, but she had to contend with Leslie’s question, first.

Katherine said, “My mom told me more than you know.”

Leslie paused for a spell, then said, “How much more?”

Katherine turned her gaze to the floor, her eyes swimming with the conjurings of her mother’s words, then breathed in and out, conscious of everyone’s eyes on her. So she shifted in her position on the sofa and looked away from Leslie and everyone else, and when she felt her sisters fingers squeezing her hands, Katherine pulled away and said, “After my mom told me everything, she also said to keep this information within the Hearn family.”

“Interesting,” Randal said and began pacing in a circle before the coffee table. “Why did she say that?”

“Because Amelia had told her to do the same thing,” Katherine said, keeping her eyes to the floor whereon Randal kept pacing in a circle in thought.

“Care to elaborate?” he said.

“Amelia infiltrated Alice’s room twice,” she said. “Once after a friend of hers was imprisoned, and once more after her friend was executed.”

“This ‘friend of hers,’” Randal said and stopped his pacing and stared at a trembling Katherine on the divan. “When your mother told you about this, did she mention his name?”

“I don’t remember it exactly,” she said, “but I think it’s Ron Something or Ronald Something.”

“Ronald Hamilton?” Randal said.

Katherine looked up at the young man, saying, “You know him?”

“Only as an acquaintance,” he said. “He’s part of the Phantom Office and works for my brother, but I’ve only met him on a few sporadic cases.” He then continued his pacing for a time, going around in circles again before stopping. “You never really answered my question. Why did your mother want this incident kept in your family?”

At this, Katherine avoided Randal’s gaze for a time, thinking of her sisters on either side of her, and said, “Because she wanted us to live a normal life. She tried everything she could to let us live as ordinary humans.”

“Wait,” Madison said, looking at her with a fixed stare. “Are you saying we’re not just a family of witches.”

“Yes,” she said, shifting her gaze to the top of the coffee table, “because we’re not.”

“Then what are we?” Celia said.

Katherine took a deep breath and exhaled and said, “We’re half vampire and half human.”

At this, everyone in the family room gasped and stared at Katherine and her sisters on the sofa.

So Katherine raised her gaze and looked at the faces of her peers from Randal and Leslie and Colbie to Roy and Connie, then grabbed her sisters’ hands and said, “We’re what you’d call dhampirs, but we’re just like other humans. We go out in sunlight, we don’t drink blood, our hearts beat just like any other human’s, and we’re not nocturnal,” and she then looked at Celia. “At least most of the time.”

“Hey!” Celia said.

“I’ve already seen your browser history,” Katherine said, “so no use denying it.”

“Kathy, stop changing the subject,” Madison said, never shifting her gaze away from her. “What exactly did Mom tell you?”

“Everything Grandma told her,” she said.

“Which is . . . what?” Madison said.

“More than you know,” Katherine said.

“God, not this again!” Madison said and glared at Katherine. “Damn it, it took you almost getting killed just for you to drop your high-and-mighty bullshit!”

“Hey!”

“And it took Colbie and Leslie just to get you to this point,” Madison added, “yet here you are still keeping secrets!”

“Damn it, can’t you be patient?”

“No! I’m tired of waiting,” Madison said, getting up from the couch and glowering down at her. “You either tell us right now, or I’ll call Mom directly and—”

“Damn it, Maddy!” Katherine said, standing up and confronting her belligerent sister on equal footing. “You can’t have everything your way, you know!”

“Whoa, ladies, calm down,” Randal said.

And Leslie got up and walked over, getting between the feeding sisters, and said to Madison, “Maddy, seriously. You can’t just bully her!”

“I know, but she’s been—”

Leslie said, “Maddy, look at me. Look at me!” And when Madison faced her with wide eyes and halted breath, Leslie looked into those eyes. “Do you really think it’s easy for her? Because I guarantee you it’s not.”

“Look, I’m not saying that,” Madison said, “but she talked to you and Colbie about it and not us, and that really hurts. It feels like she doesn’t even trust her own sisters.”

At her words, Katherine sat back down and keeled over and buried her face in her hands, saying, “Is that really what you think?”

“Kathy,” Madison said, sitting down beside her and putting her arm around her shoulders. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I don’t blame you,” she said and sat back up, wiping tears from her eyes. “That’s exactly how I felt when I kept badgering Mom about it.”

“Are you okay?” Celia said.

Katherine shook her head and wiped more tears from her eyes, because she began to realize that keeping silent on the truth, no matter how painful, was now splitting her family apart. It had happened between Amelia and Amelia’s parents and between Amelia and Amelia’s husband, whose name had not come down to Katherine’s knowledge. And it happened between her own parents, as well, when her mother filed for a legal separation after their marriage fell apart in the months before her mother told Katherine everything. And it was happening again between herself and Madison with Celia caught in the middle, because Katherine was too scared to tell her sisters the history of pain the female heirs of the Hearn family had to bear on their minds.

“Will you be okay?” Leslie said.

Katherine nodded.

So Leslie went back to her divan beside Colbie.

“Was it really that bad?” Madison said.

Katherine nodded her head.

“We can postpone this if you need more time,” Randal said.

“It’s okay. I’ll tell what I can,” Katherine said.

“All right,” he said.

With everyone waiting for her to begin, Katherine took a few deep breaths and said, “All of this comes from what Amelia told our mom, and it’s a lot. I’ll just tell you the important stuff. We’re descended from the Styrian countess, Mircalla Karnstein, the matriarch of this branch of the Hearn family. She became a vampire after she killed herself in the late 17th century.”

“Wait,” Randal said, “why did she kill herself?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but she changed her name to Millarca to escape the vampire hunters at the time, and she later changed her name to Carmilla to escape the Inquisition in the 18th and early 19th centuries. She then secretly married into the Hearn family and emigrated to America after the Civil War.”

“Those names are anagrams,” Roy said.

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “That was the first thing I noticed when Mom told me about her.”

“You said she emigrated to America,” Randal said, “but exactly where in America?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Mom never told me.”

“What about where she’s buried?”

“Same thing,” she said. “I don’t know.”

“What else did your mother say?” Randal said.

“She said we’re an unrecognized branch of the Hearn family because of the clandestine marriage,” Katherine said. “Apparently, witches and vampires didn’t mix at the time, which is why Mom’s been away for so long.”

“Wait a minute,” Leslie said. “Your mom’s not at a dig site?”

“She never told me where she was going when she left,” she said, “but she said she was going to contact the rest of the Hearn family. I don’t know when she’s coming back, and she hasn’t told me when she’ll return whenever I call her.”

“Did you tell her what happened to Celia and her friends?”

“I left her a message yesterday,” she said, “but she hasn’t responded yet.”

“What about your father?” Leslie said. “Have you told him about this yet?”

“I can’t reach him,” Katherine said.

“That’s strange,” Leslie said.

“I know,” she said.

“What about Amelia, your grandmother?” Randal said. “What did your mom say about her?”

“She said she was continuing where Grandma left off,” Katherine said, “because Grandma was the one who went back to 1913 and dug up all this information about our family. That’s how Grandma encountered Rancaster, first in her research and then in person, and that’s how Mom got mixed up in all of this.”

“But that’s not all of it?” Randal said.

“Nope,” she said.

“So will you tell us how it all went down?”

“Nope,” Katherine said.

“Why not?” Madison said.

“Words can only say so much,” Katherine said and stood up from the sofa, then paused for a spell as she beckoned her sisters to stand with her (which they did) and grasped their hands in her own. “I’ll show you. I’ll show all of you what happened to my mom and Grandma.”

“Are you sure?” he said.

Katherine nodded.

So Randal said, “Go ahead.”

Katherine gulped down her qualms and gripped onto her sisters’ hands, remembering the vision her mother shared with her, and said, “I want you all to stand up and link hands. It doesn’t have to be a perfect circle or anything. As long as two of you link hands with my sisters, you’ll all see what I saw.”

“What about Kendra?” Roy said.

“Just leave her be,” she said.

With that, everyone in the room (except for Kendra) joined hands with each other. With Katherine linking hands with her sisters on either side of her, Celia linked hands with Randal, who linked hands with Leslie, who linked hands with Colbie, who linked hands with Roy, who linked hands with Connie, who linked hands with Madison, forming a ring of people around the coffee table like a . . .

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

“Now I want you all to close your eyes,” Katherine added, “and concentrate on my voice, got it?” When she saw them nodding and closing their eyes, Katherine closed hers and repeated her mother’s words in her mind, then initiated Lima’s version of her grandmother’s spell, saying, “My mind is the mirror, and my voice is the stream. Let them see what I have seen, and let them know what I have known. Just as it was for my mother, and just as it was for me, so too will it be for those here from now to eternity.”

Thereby, Katherine enacted the same rite of passage for her peers that her mother and grandmother had done months and years ago, slowing down time to within a heartbeat’s momentary pulse. Thus, in that quivering span between heartbeats, she passed on to them what her mother had passed on from Amelia’s original version across the space-time of decades and let them hang on her mother’s added vision across the space-time of years, thereby letting the truth speak for itself in two versions like two sides of a coin—

(with 59 seconds left)


4


In which Amelia reappeared back across decades of space-time to 1913 on the deck boards of her floating bridge, whereon she collapsed onto her knees and cried for a time, crying for her daughter who had everything to lose if Amelia failed to act. She had lied to Leslie and Ramona, knowing what was about to befall her older self the moment she crossed the threshold of that future timeline. Amelia had omitted the details of her daughter’s act, for in that moment of crossing the astral threshold of decades, she witnessed her own death flooding her mind during the transition, and it was all she could do to keep herself from divulging too much.

She then put her hand to her chest, feeling the pain pulsing there as the mixture of her blood became more and more tainted with a corrupting influence.

Once the pain subsided again, she picked herself up from the deck boards and cast her gaze over the reservoir of water in her dream realm. From the shimmering surface beneath her out towards the horizon, she saw proof of a corrupting influence turning the waters red, becoming redder and darker the longer she gazed at it. Her thoughts drifted onto Alice’s complicity, yet she found no seal anywhere on Alice’s body during last night’s romp.

Her thoughts then shifted onto Rancaster, his warning about continuing on her current path and wielding fate in her hands now ringing through her mind, and she gritted her teeth and balled her hands into fists.

“Rancaster, you bastard!” Amelia yelled.

“You’ve figured it out, haven’t you, darling?” Rancaster said, appearing behind her on the deck boards.

She spun around and lunged at the man, swinging her fist at his face, yet her hand passed through.

“Fuck you!” Amelia said.

“Bad manners for a lady,” he said, extending his hand with his palm open to her. “Take it, darling. From one kith to another.”

“Get the fuck away from me, you bastard!” she said.

So Rancaster clenched his hand, and Amelia fell to her knees, pressing her palm against her chest, trying to alleviate the pain spiking through her like a stake through the heart.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” Rancaster said. “Getting stabbed there is nothing to sneeze at, I assure you.”

Amelia’s head snapped up, meeting his cold basilisk gaze, and she said, “Who are you?”

“I am who I am,” he said, “and I’m not the only one. Alice is one of us and is the eldest amongst us, the first born of Lilith herself, the mother of us all. We have lived for centuries, living many lives amongst you and taking various names, and we will live for centuries more long after you and your traitorous blood-tainted kind die off.”

And his words caught inside Amelia’s mind, for she remembered that girl in her mirror, who didn’t know her own name, and said, “What do you mean by ‘various names’?”

“Just as I say, darling,” he said.

“What’s her name?” she said.

“Who’s name?”

“Don’t bullshit me!” Amelia said, getting up on tenuous feet. “What’s Alice’s real name?”

“That doesn’t concern you, darling,” he said and raised his hand and snapped his fingers, summoning a door onto the deck boards of Amelia’s dream realm beside himself and Amelia. “What should concern you is your daughter.”

“If you hurt her, I’ll kill you!” she screamed.

“Kill me?” Rancaster said. “You can’t even touch me!”

So Amelia clawed her fingers, ready to put a blood seal on the bastard before her, yet the man closed his fingers slowly, making her feel the pressure and pain build up in her chest like an oncoming heart attack. Amelia doubled over, hyperventilating and pressing her hand to her chest and gritting against the pain, saying, “Stop it!”

The man let go, and Amelia staggered for a moment before saying, “God, who he hell are you?”

“We come from the same family, darling,” he said. “Don’t believe in Stoker’s propaganda. We still exist. I still exist.”

Amelia sucked in breath and stared at the man before her as if he was an apparition, a nightmare from the pages of fiction, and said, “Dracula?”

“I never liked that moniker,” he said, “for I’m not the son of a dragon or the Devil, but just between you and me, call me Vlad,” and he smiled, revealing the canines of his incisors. “Fiction is the truth inside the lie, for in every story lies a grain of truth hidden under many masks and many names,” he added, then fisted both of his hands and said, “Pick one, darling.”

“What are you playing at?” she said.

“Just pick one,” he said.

“The left one,” she said.

Yet when he opened his left hand, revealing nothing there, he said, “Wrong one.” He then opened his right hand, revealing the key Ronald Hamilton had given to Amelia in the jail cell, and added, “Looking for this?”

Amelia dug her hand beneath her blouse and pulled out the silver chain, yet the key was no longer there. She reached out to grab the key from Rancaster’s hand, but she felt the pain tightening around her chest, taking her back down to her knees on the deck boards.

When the pain subsided, she yelled, “Give it back!”

“It doesn’t belong to you, darling,” he said. “I was wondering where this went. I didn’t think Mr. Hamilton would pull the wool over my eyes, but alas! I’m not God, nor do I want to be,” and put the key in the door lock of room no. 99 and unlocked it, then put it back in his jacket pocket. He then turned the knob and opened the door leading into another dream realm of shifting colors and shapes, then stepped aside for her to enter.

Amelia got up to her feet, but stayed where she was and said, “And if I don’t?”

“Your daughter dies if you don’t,” he said, “but it’s up to you, darling. I was serious when I asked you whether or not you believe in fate. The lives of many depend on your decision, though you won’t live to see the consequences play out,” and he stood there like a statue beside the door showing her the way.

She looked at the man called Aaron Rancaster, a.k.a. Dracula, a.k.a. Vlad, a.k.a. whatever other pseudonyms he went by, and approached the door and stepped—

(with 55 seconds left)


5


Past the threshold into another realm, a realm of Rancaster’s making, wherein she reeled for some moments in the hazy kaleidoscope of shifting colors making her head spin. She closed her eyes, willing the shifting colors out of her mind while keeping her balance on tenuous feet.

When she regained herself, she turned and found the door Rancaster had opened missing. So she turned her attention to her surroundings and found herself in the crossing of a cathedral, in the middle of a crossroads between the north and south transepts on either side of her and the pews of the nave behind her and the choir stalls in front of her. Yet here in the crossing, where four massive pillars rose up into a vaulted ceiling above her head, she saw the throne atop a raised platform before her over a checkerboard floor and realized where she was.

“This is Chess Cathedral,” Amelia said.

Yet even as this realization flashed through her mind, she saw other things she hadn’t seen in her first entrance into Chess Cathedral: she saw a large looking-glass mirror affixed to each of the pillars around her. Looking at each mirror and turning clockwise as she looked, she saw that each bore a suit from a card deck emblazoned on the crown molding of their frames: the Spades mirror behind her to her left, the Diamonds mirror before her to her left, the Clubs mirror before her to her right, and the Hearts mirror behind her to her right. And as she approached each mirror, going clockwise as she went, she saw a girl standing inside three of the reflections, each of whom had her back turned to her, while the reflection of the Hearts mirror was empty.

For three of those mirrors, she tapped the surface of each, saying, “Hey, can you hear me?”

None of the girls responded or moved in any way whatsoever, as if they were statues or photographs.

Yet when she recognized two of the girls, even with their backs turned to her, she tapped the surface of the Diamonds mirror and said, “Kendra, can you hear me?”

Again, she got no response from Kendra.

So she moved to the mirror of Clubs and tapped it, saying, “Nico, can you hear me?”

And again, she got no response.

She then approached the Spades mirror, looking at the back of a girl she didn’t recognize, and put her hand up to the reflection on the small of her back and closed her eyes, thinking of Leslie and Ramona’s friend and remembering Rancaster’s words before she had entered this place.

“Are you my daughter?” she said, trying to remember the name Leslie and Ramona had mentioned. “Are you Lima Hearn? Please, turn around. Nod your head. Do something. Say anything, please! I’m begging you!”

But like the other two, she got no response from her.

“She’s asleep,” a voice said. “They’re all asleep.”

“Lima?” Amelia said, raising her hand up between the girl’s shoulder blades in the reflection. “Is that you?”

“Over here,” the voice said.

Amelia turned her head and looked at the fourth mirror she had neglected, which was the Hearts mirror showing a girl waving at her in the reflection, the same one she had seen inside her dressing mirror in the loft above her shop. So she walked up to it and said, “Do you know what’s going on, Alice?”

“That’s not my name,” the girl in the mirror said. “Why do you keep calling me that?”

“I’m sorry,” Amelia said, thinking about her love-making with Alice in her loft the night before, then: “I can’t help it. I keep thinking of you as Alice whenever I see you, but tell me something. Do you know what’s going on?”

“I can’t directly say what’s on my mind,” the girl in the mirror said, “lest my shadow self know my intentions and foil me, but I can give you a hint,” and she turned around and reached for an unseen shelf past the mirror’s frame and pulled out a book, entitled,

Entering the Secret Room,

by Linda Kouri, and held it up for Amelia to see. “Does this book seem familiar to you?”

“How did you get that book?” Amelia said.

“Do you recognize this?” the girl said.

“Yeah,” Amelia said, putting her fingers to the surface of the mirror where the girl held the book. “My daughter’s friends are looking for that book.”

So the girl in the mirror passed the volume through the reflection, holding it there for Amelia to take.

Taking it in her hands, Amelia turned the cover and flipped through the pages, only to discover—

“It’s blank,” she said, putting her thumb against the edge of the pages and flipping through it like a flip book. “Why are all the pages blank?”

“Because it hasn’t been written yet,” the girl said.

Amelia then looked at the girl in the mirror for several seconds, pausing at her words, wondering why this girl would give her a blank book instead of something useful, and said, “Do you know who wrote this book?”

“Only as an acquaintance, and barely even that,” she said, “but this very meeting is the third time I’ve met the author of that volume you’re holding.”

“Wait a minute,” Amelia said, looking at the book in her hand and then at the girl in the mirror. “What are you saying?”

“Take a guess,” she said. “You might be right.”

Amelia guessed, flipping through the empty pages again before turning back to the cover with the name, Linda Kouri, and said, “You’re saying that I wrote this book?”

“That’s correct,” the girl said.

“Why would I use a pseudonym?” Amelia said.

“I don’t know,” the girl said. “Only you can know that.”

“But how can I know something I haven’t even done yet?” Amelia said, snapping the book shut and waving it in front of the reflection. “Can you be more specific about this thing? I still don’t understand.”

“I can’t,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because I’m not you,” the girl said. “I can’t glean the thoughts of others without a direct connection to them, first, and I have to be careful about who I make connections with.”

“When you say ‘connection,’” Amelia said, connecting the logic of the girl’s prior statement about Alice in her mind, “do you mean like you and Alice?”

The girl nodded her head and said, “Words are swords, Amelia, which can be wielded for good and for ill, to protect those you love and cut down your monsters. When you understand what that means, you’ll know what to do with that book. Peace be with you,” and she was about to fade away—

“Wait a minute,” Amelia said, slipping the book in the inner pocket of her jacket, and placed her hand up against the surface of the girl’s reflection and tapped it. “Don’t go yet. I need to ask you something.”

The girl rematerialized and said, “What is it?”

“Do you have a name?” Amelia said.

The girl shook her head.

“Well, since your name isn’t Alice,” Amelia said, “do you want me to give you another name?”

At her words, the girl in the mirror stared back at Amelia, eyes wide and wondering, before covering her gaping mouth with her hand and said, “You’d do that for me?”

“Of course I would,” she said. “Everyone deserves a name.”

“Tell me,” the girl said.

“Auna,” Amelia said. “Your name is Auna,” and for the first time since she found the girl inside her own mirror, Amelia saw her breaking her deadpan expression with a smile and tears welling up in her eyes. “Do you like it?”

The girl nodded and said, “It’s beautiful.”

“Thanks,” Amelia said. “It’s my mom’s name.”

“Then tell her she has a beautiful name for me,” Auna said.

Yet now Amelia averted her eyes, thinking of her mother and the last bitter words she said to her before running away from home, and said, “I can’t.”

“Why?” Auna said.

“Because I can’t,” Amelia said and leaned her hand against the surface of the mirror and kept her eyes to the floor, remembering the way she had cursed her parents before running from her house and down the street, while her parents got in their car and followed her along the street trying to convince her to come back to them. That’s when she used her powers against them, shattering the windshield and the side mirrors and the rear view mirror with her psychokinesis. “I said some hurtful things to my mom and dad before I came here,” she added, wiping away the tears welling up in her eyes, “and I did some things I can never take back.”

“Are you afraid to go home?” Auna said.

“Yeah,” Amelia said. “As long as I’m the way I am, they don’t want me back. I’m dead to them after what I did.”

“What did you do?” Auna said, then: “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, though.”

“It’s okay,” Amelia said. “I’ve been wanting to get this off my chest since I came here.”

And she confessed the depths of her soul to Auna as if she were her own confessor and pressed her hand up against the reflection of the mirror during the most difficult part of her story, as if the mirror itself were a conduit relieving at least some of the guilt she had stored up in her soul. And so she talked and talked and talked in this way, while Auna listened in silence on the other side of the mirror and pressed her hand up against the reflection where Amelia’s rested, and for a time, both girls found solace in each other’s company—

(with 51 seconds left)


6


When Leslie finished looking throughout Lima’s room for the book she had seen her reading in the reflection of Amelia’s dream realm, while Ramona was still looking for Lima herself somewhere in the rest of the house. Leslie then spotted the open box on the nightstand she had seen Lima opening with a key, so she fitted her own copy of Amelia’s key into the keyhole. Based on this, she surmised that Lima had used Amelia’s original key to open this box that had once held a book inside it.

Where was this book now?

And why was it there to begin with?

Leslie hadn’t a clue, but she took up the box and shook it to see if there was anything else inside it, and sure enough, she heard a faint rattling inside.

She flipped the open box onto its side and touched its velvet interior, whereon she felt a false velvet panel wiggling beneath her tapping fingers and said, “It’s a false bottom!”

She rattled it again, but the false panel inside wouldn’t dislodge, so she placed the box onto the nightstand once again and considered her options. Puzzles had never been her strong suit, but she knew that Ramona had a better mind for these kinds of things and called out, “Ramona, I need your help!”

Moments passed, and footsteps came stomping up the stairs and down the hall towards Lima’s room, and Ramona herself pushed the door into the room.

“Any luck finding her?” Leslie said.

“No luck,” she said.

“What about the book she was reading?”

“No luck there, either,” Ramona said, then spied the box in Leslie’s hands. “You called me here. What is it?”

“This is the box that held the book we saw Lima reading,” she said and gave it to Ramona. “That box has a false bottom to it, but I don’t know how to get it to open.”

At this, Ramona put her hand inside it and tapped on the velvet panel, saying, “This one?”

“Yeah,” she said.

Then Ramona held the box in different positions while shaking it from all six of its sides, trying to dislodge the false panel from the inside from various orientations, but when she couldn’t do it, she stretched out her hand for the key and said, “Do you have the key with you?”

Leslie gave it and said, “You have any idea how to open it?”

“Maybe,” Ramona said, and she placed the key and the open box beneath the lighted lamp on the nightstand and looked at both for a time, then felt around the outside of the box with her fingers and tried twisting and pushing it to make it do something.

“What are you looking for?” Leslie said.

“Any indication of it being able to open without a key,” she said, “which I don’t think will do it. And it doesn’t seem to have any hidden slots for any additional keyhole, so I’m guessing that the existing keyhole can be used in a different way.”

“What do you mean?” Leslie said, marveling at Ramona’s proficiency at deducing such information from a mere object.

Ramona just winked at Leslie and said, “It’s elementary, my dear Watson,” and put the box back on the nightstand and looked at it.

Leslie deadpanned, saying, “Whatever you say, Sherlock. What’s so ‘elementary’ about it?”

“Well,” she said, “we have a box that we can open and close,” and she closed the lid of the box and locked it with the key. “Like so.”

“Okay, Captain Obvious,” Leslie said. “Anything else?”

“All right, Lestrade,” she said, smiling one of her all-knowing smiles. “I’ll make it as simple as I can for your simple little brain to understand, so here’s my reasoning,” and she put her finger on the closed lid of the box. “Since neither of us could open the false bottom while the box was open, maybe we could open it while the lid is closed and locked. Now do you understand?”

At her words, Leslie closed her eyes and cursed, grimacing at the sheer simplicity of her logical deductions.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” she said, and put her hypothesis to the test, picking up the now-closed box and shaking it on all six sides the way she had done before, till both girls heard a soft clunk on the inside of the closed box.

Both girls looked at each other, and Ramona smiled again, while Leslie gritted her teeth and said, “Don’t rub it in. I’m not a dumbass!”

“I didn’t say you were, silly girl,” Ramona said and stuck her tongue out at a fuming Leslie, then placed the box back onto the nightstand in the same orientation in which she heard the clunk of the false panel dislodging from the inside. “Here,” she added, giving Leslie the key. “You open it.”

After swallowing her pride, Leslie grabbed the key and put it in the keyhole and opened it, while Ramona lifted the box straight from the nightstand.

The lid fell open, and out of it fell the false velvet panel and a folded sheet of paper onto the floor.

Leslie crouched down and picked up the velvet false panel and the piece of paper and set both next to the box on the nightstand, whereon she unfolded the piece of paper beneath the light of the lamp.

“What does it say?” Ramona said.

“It says,” Leslie said, reciting it, verbatim:

“Dear Leslie and Ramona,

“I can’t stick around any longer, since it seems I’m intruding into a future I’m not meant to see yet. Just know that the journey you both took along with me on my bridge is more than just a pleasant stroll. I've only been with you for a few scant hours, but I must say that your lives are now intertwined in a way that even fate cannot break.

“My parting words are these: Love each other as you love yourselves. Just as those who love you can give you strength, those you love can give you courage.

“I wish both of you luck on your endeavor,

“AMELIA HEARN.”

“Is there anything written on the back?” Ramona said.

So Leslie turned it over and found a lengthy postscript, which she read verbatim, saying,

“P.S.: If you’ve found this paper and read this letter and postscript, then congratulations! You’re on your way to figuring out why my daughter did what she did. Don’t look to me for answers to questions I cannot ask. This is a mystery only you can solve, for you know what those questions are.

“—A. H.”

“What the hell is this?” Leslie said, putting the paper down in frustration at Amelia’s cryptic wording. “What questions is she talking—”

She stopped, mid-question, with her mind replaying the event of Ramona and Leslie asking a tongue-tied Lima various questions inside this very bedroom. Those questions were about a visiting girl named ‘Alice’ on that night when Lima took her in and made love to her before taking her to see her mother.

“We both know what she’s talking about,” Ramona said. “We saw what happened with our own eyes in this room.”

“Yeah,” Leslie said, “but why?”

“I don’t know,” she said—

(with 46 seconds left)


7


When Amelia finished her story and asked Auna for her thoughts on the matter and waited for her response. And waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Tired of waiting, she looked up and found Auna missing from the Hearts mirror, and in her place was Nico from the Clubs mirror and Kendra from the Diamonds mirror, both girls now facing Amelia in the reflection with their eyes closed. She then went to the Clubs mirror and the Diamonds mirror and found Nico and Kendra missing from them, respectively.

“I’m over here,” Auna said.

Amelia turned around and saw the girl in the Spades mirror, waving her over.

“Hey! What gives?” Amelia said, heading straight for that very mirror. “I just bore out my soul to you, and you just—”

“Don’t mind me,” Auna said, while dragging Lima Hearn from the reflection as though she were an actual statue. “I was listening to the last part you said as I’m doing this.”

“What are you doing?” Amelia said.

“I’m moving them to a safer spot,” Auna said from the Hearts mirror, causing Amelia to head back to that very mirror, where Auna appeared with Lima and positioned her next to Kendra. “I can’t be too careful.”

“Why?”

For a moment, the girl in the mirror paused before responding, then said, “You said you time-traveled back to 1913, but there were three others who did the same thing against their will.”

“Wait,” Amelia said. “What do you mean by ‘against their will’?”

“Just what I say,” Auna said, then pointed to two of the girls with her in the reflection. “These two. You called them ‘Kendra’ and ’Nico,’ correct?”

“Yeah,” she said. “They showed up at my shop a week ago asking about a missing sister. How did they end up in this place?”

“First of all,” Auna said, “this one you call ’Nico’ is actually Mara. Does that name ring any bells?”

It did. Amelia said, “That’s the girl they were looking for!”

“I see,” Auna said, looking from Mara to Kendra to Lima before facing Amelia through the reflection. “Believe it or not, Mara appeared here last week, and Kendra appeared shortly after that. And this girl you call ‘Lima Hearn,’ your daughter,” she added, pointing her out between Nico and Kendra, “she appeared last night before you entered this cathedral, and she had in her possession the book I had given you. Something about her made me think of you when I checked up on her, which inexorably led me to you.”

Amelia then thought about her mirror in Alice’s bedroom prison inside Rancaster’s mansion and the body-length mirror in her bedroom loft above her shop and said, “Is that why you appeared in my mirrors earlier?”

“Correct,” Auna said, “but that’s not the weird part.”

“You’re kidding,” she said. “What’s the weird part?”

“This ’Nico’ you mentioned,” Auna said, pointing out Mara in the reflection, “appeared inside of here twice: once two weeks ago, and again just before Mara appeared in this place. And on both occasions,” she added, “Nico appeared kneeling before this very mirror holding her Vorpal sword sheathed by her side. The first time Nico appeared, she said she needed to meet Kendra and another girl named ‘Celia.’ Does this ring any bells?”

“Yeah,” Amelia said. “Nico and Kendra mentioned Celia when I took them to their destination last week.”

“I see,” Auna said. “The second time Nico appeared, she said she needed to wake up her sister.”

“You mean Mara?” she said.

Auna nodded her head and said, “That second time was a little over a week ago, shortly before her sister Mara appeared here. For two weeks now, I’ve been trying to figure out why all of these people keep appearing in this cathedral, when it was originally built to house me here. To be honest, I was baffled for the whole of those two weeks, till I saw you with Alice last night, and it all came together for me. It’s all because of you.”

“What are you saying?” Amelia said. “That it’s my fault?”

“Not your fault,” she said. “You’re not the catalyst. For every shot fired from a gun, there must be a shooter to pull the trigger. Alice is the bullet, you are the gun, and—”

“Rancaster’s the shooter,” Amelia said.

“Correct,” Auna said. “Now do you understand?”

She did, and Amelia gritted her teeth and closed her hands into tight knuckle-white fists at the thought of that cold-blooded bastard pulling the strings, manipulating everyone like a puppet master across three generations of friends and families, three generations of pain and struggle and crisis brought to a purpose she has yet to figure out.

“Why?” Amelia said. “Why would he do this?”

“I don’t know,” Auna said and stared at Amelia, “but whatever you do, don’t think of him. Forget about Rancaster or Alice or anyone else you’ve met on your journey. Forget about all the pain you’ve seen in your life and all the things you’re running from. Just think of one thing, just one thought. Don’t overthink it. Just let it come to you.”

So Amelia cleared her bitter thoughts on her parents and on Rancaster, in particular, and focused on Lima Hearn in the reflection behind Auna’s back.

“Do you have it in your mind?” she said.

“Yes,” Amelia said.

“Good,” she said, “With that thought in your mind, I need you to put your hands up against this mirror. It’s important.”

So she did as she was bidden, placing both of her hands flat against the reflection, and said, “Like this?”

Auna then placed her own hands up against the mirror where Amelia had placed hers, lacing her fingers with Amelia’s and joining hands with her across the reflection, and said, “Repeat after me. Widdershins, widdershins, look at my life.”

“Widdershins, widdershins, look at my life,” Amelia said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, take me away,” Auna said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, take me away,” Amelia said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, take me to Hell,” Auna said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, take me to Hell,” Amelia said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, where Lima dwells,” Auna said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, where Lima dwells,” Amelia said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, find her today,” Auna said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, find her today,” Amelia said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, help end the strife,” Auna said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, help end the strife,” Amelia said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, help me to find,” Auna said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, help me to find,” Amelia said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, my peace of mind,” Auna said.

“Widdershins, widdershins, my peace of mind,” Amelia said.

“Now let’s say it together,” Auna said, and the interior of the cathedral began turning counterclockwise around the axis of their joined hands like two sides of a coin, like the flip of a coin with Auna as ‘heads’ and Aemlia as ’tails.’ And as one, as two sides of the same coin flipping in suspension like fate, both girls said, “Widdershins, widdershins, look at my life. Widdershins, widdershins, take me away. Widdershins, widdershins, take me to Hell. Widdershins, widdershins, where Lima dwells. Widdershins, widdershins, find her today. Widdershins, widdershins, help end the strife. Widdershins, widdershins, help me to find. Widdershins, widdershins, my peace of mind. Widdershins, widdershins . . .”

And both girls cycled through the incantation once again—

(with 40 seconds left)


8


As Leslie waited for Ramona to say something else to clear up the conundrum running through her own head, in which Amelia’s postscript directed their thoughts onto questions only they could understand without knowing the context of Amelia’s insights. Her postscript was a riddle inside of another riddle that was just out of sight, just beyond Leslie’s ability to correlate with any sense of comprehension.

After waiting, Leslie said, “Do you have any idea what’s going on right now?” No answer from Ramona, as she was looking around at the surroundings of Lima’s room. “Hey, are you listening to me?”

“Leslie,” Ramona said, pointing at the open door, “do you remember if that door was closed when Amelia brought us here?”

Leslie was tongue-tied, searching through the rolodex of her mind, trying to remember if the door to this room was open or closed at the time, but she said, “I’m not sure. Why do you ask?”

“Okay,” she said, and pointed to that box on the nightstand. “What about that box? Was it open when you found it?”

“Yeah,” Leslie said. “I found it open just as Lima left it.”

“When Lima took us to her room,” Ramona continued, “did you notice that box on the nightstand?”

“No,” Leslie said. “Did you?”

“I should have,” she said, “but no.”

“I can tell you’re thinking of something,” Leslie said, eyeing the girls before her who was now looking from the box to the door to the bed. “What are you thinking?”

“I might have . . . figured it out, but I have to check up on something,” Ramona said, and ran from the room and down the hall, while Leslie followed in tow.

“What’s going on?” Leslie said.

Ramona stopped at the door to Amelia’s room, with a good chunk of its paneling destroyed by Rancaster’s shotgun blasts, and grabbed the knob and twisted it, but when it stayed locked, she said, “Go get the key from the box.”

So Leslie ran back down the hallway and into Lima’s room, wherein she took the key from the box’s keyhole, then ran back through the hallway and gave it Ramona, saying, “Do you think Lima’s inside?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Ramona said, and Ramona fitted the key into the keyhole (“It fits!”) and unlocked it and turned the knob, but the knob wouldn’t turn. “Fuck!” Then, after a few moments of thought, thinking of things Leslie could barely connect in any way to the current conundrum she was stuck on, Ramona looked in through the broken panel and said, “Oh my God, why didn’t I see it before?”

Leslie gaped, wondering what the hell was going through that cryptic Sherlock brain of hers, and said, “You figured it out?”

“Yeah,” she said, taking the key out of the keyhole of the door. “It opened before, but it won’t open now. Get the box, and I’ll show you.”

So Leslie ran back down the hallway and into Lima’s room, wherein she retrieved the box from the nightstand, and ran back through the hallway and held it out for Ramona, saying, “Here.”

She took the box, but when she opened the lid, she said, “Where’s the false bottom?”

Again Leslie ran back down the hallway and into Lima’s room, wherein she retrieved the false bottom panel from the nightstand, and ran back through the hallway and held it out for Ramona.

Ramona took it and placed it in the box, fitting the false panel against the bottom till it clicked in place, then closed the lid and locked it with the key again and said, “I’ll demonstrate it again,” and she shook the box, till she dislodged the false panel inside. “Do you remember opening this box before I dislodged the false bottom inside it?” she said.

“It was already opened when I found it,” Leslie said.

“Well, try opening it now,” she said, giving Leslie the key, “and see what happens.”

So Leslie grabbed the key and fitted it into the keyhole of the box Ramona held and turned it, then tried lifting the lid, but it wouldn’t budge. Leslie looked up from the box back at Ramona, the connection between the box and Amelia’s room becoming apparent the longer she fiddled with the box. To make sure, she took the box herself and tried to dig her fingers under the lip of the lid and pulled, but the fact that it wouldn’t budge told her everything she needed to know.

“Now do you understand?” Ramona said. “Flip it upside down, and see what happens.”

So Leslie flipped the box upside down, and the lid swung open, letting the false bottom panel clatter to the floor at her feet. She looked at her friend and said, “Seriously?”

“Yep,” Ramona said. “Since this key fits the locks in Amelia’s room and this box, then that means that the room and this box both operate on the same mechanism.”

“Okay, I see what you mean,” Leslie said, “but we barricaded this door, remember?”

“Forget about that,” she said.

“You can’t be serious,” Leslie said. “What are we gonna do? Flip this entire house upside down just to open that door?” And she pointed to Amelia’s door bearing the holes of Rancaster’s shotgun blasts. “It’s ridiculous!”

Yet even that observation couldn’t take the smile off of Ramona’s face, when she put her finger to Leslie’s mouth and said, “Do you notice anything strange with what I’m doing?”

“Is this a trick question?” Leslie said, grabbing Ramona’s left hand.

“Look at what you’re doing,” Ramona said. “Which hand are you using right now?”

“Well, duh,” she said. “I’m using my right ha—” That’s when Leslie paused and took a closer look at which hand she was actually using, which hand was her dominant one, and said, “No way! No fucking way is this even possible!”

“Oh, but it is,” Ramona said. “I’m left-handed, but I’m using my right, and you’re right-handed, but you’re using your left. Don’t you see? Everything’s reversed in this world, almost like—”

“The Looking-Glass world,” Leslie said, catching on to her friend’s drift.

“Exactly,” she said.

“But how?” Leslie said.

“Beats me,” Ramona said, “but look in through there,” and she pointed at the broken paneling in Aemlia’s door, “and you’ll see what I mean.”

So Leslie looked through the shot-out door panel into the room, in which both girls had seen Alice and Lima enter, and found the interior oriented upside down with the trap door in a vertical position, held in place. All the other furnishings, including the ottomans, the candelabra, the four-poster bed, the armoire, and vanity table, were nowhere in sight.

“Where’s the furniture?” Leslie said.

“Probably on the ceiling below our feet,” Ramona said. “This room is exactly like the box, but flipped upside down. And that open trap door in the middle of the room corresponds to the false bottom panel dislodged inside the box, but there’s a problem.”

“What’s that?”

“There’s a window inside the room,” Ramona said, “but this box has no window.”

“Shit!” Leslie said. “We can’t get inside!”

“You can’t,” she said, “but I can. We’ll do the same thing we did last time, but we’ll have to close all the other doors and windows in this house to make this work.”

“Why’s that?” Leslie said.

“Because this house is a box in itself, just like this room and just like that box you’re holding,” Ramona said. “When that lid is closed, there are no other openings in it whatsoever. It’ll be the same thing with this house with all the windows and door closed, and it’ll be the same thing with this room. Got it?”

Leslie nodded her head, acknowledging the precedent set by the box, so she put the box by the door of Amelia’s room and said, “You do this floor, and I’ll do the first floor,” and she ran down the stairs into the first floor—

(with 36 seconds left)


9


As the blurry kaleidoscope of shapes and colors and familiar and unfamiliar faces and places whirling past Amelia’s vision like a merry-go-round. So she squinted her eyes for a time through the shift from 1913 to 1994, till the spinning in her head subsided, and she regained her footing on tenuous feet. When she opened her eyes again, she noticed her hands pressed flat against the reflection of the Heats mirror hanging from the wall and saw Lima’s face reflected there.

“What’s going on?” Amelia said, pressing her hand up to her new face, and looked down on herself wearing pajamas with long locks of red hair flowing past her shoulders. “Why am I—”

You’re possessing your daughter’s body, Auna said in her mind.

“You’re kidding me,” she said.

I’m not, Auna said.

“Where are you?” she said and inspected her surroundings from right to left—the credenza along the first wall, the bed and side drawer with the lamp turned on along the second wall, the desk and chair overlooking the window with the curtain pulled over along the third wall, and the low bookshelf along the fourth wall right next to her bedroom door. “How are you even doing this?”

We’re combined, you and I, and I’m not the one doing it, Auna said in her mind. You are, for you are the living link between Chess cathedral and this place. Check your pocket, if you don’t believe me.

And so Amelia did just that, fishing for the book inside the inner pocket of her jacket, and said, “It’s gone.”

Then the book must be here somewhere, Auna said.

“How do you know that?” Amelia said.

Because we’re here, Auna said. Do you recognize this place?

At her words, Amelia looked around the lighted bedroom and noticed the same unassuming key in the lamplight on the same night stand she had seen with Leslie and Ramona back in her dream realm. And all at once, her mind replayed Lima’s actions in the mirror sheen of her watery reflection spell as she (playing Lima’s role) went through the motions of an incomprehensible play.

She picked up the key and placed it in the box and opened it and peered inside, wherein she found the same book, Entering the Secret Room, by Linda Kouri. She took it out and flipped passed the cover and the dedication page to a table of contents showing thirteen titles, whereon the first story in the book, a novella entitled,

"Alice and the Mad Tryst,"

caught her eye. Amelia then turned the page to the story itself and said, “Should I read it?”

Auna nodded her head and said, It will become clearer to you once you read it.

So she read, saying, “‘Yes, we’ve all heard of that famous Alice who fell down the rabbit hole and entered the looking-glass and the real Alice Liddell—’” She broke off and said, “Wait, is this the same one I met last night?”

Yes, Auna said, but there’s a difference.

“What difference is that?”

This difference is you, Auna said, for you are the writer of this story.

“What are you talking about?” Amelia said. “You’re speaking in riddles here.”

Auna just stared at her through the reflection of the mirror and said, The woman you are right now is different from the woman you’ll become when you decide to write this story, for there’s something weighing on you right now. I’m sure you know what it is.

Amelia gave her observations some thought and said, “Rancaster asked me if I believed in fate.”

Do you? Auna asked.

For a time, Amelia paused at her question before saying, “I don’t know. Maybe he was just bluffing or something.”

Or maybe he’s telling the truth, Auna said.

“You’re kidding.”

I’m not, Auna said. Your friends may tell you what you want to hear, but it’s your enemies that tell you what you need to hear.

And for the life of her, even though she begged to differ, Amelia knew that she was right, knew it with every pulse of it stabbing through her chest.

Now do you understand? Auna said.

She nodded and read the story again, saying, “‘Yes, we’ve all heard of that famous Alice who fell down the rabbit hole and entered the looking-glass and the real Alice Liddell who inspired the books and crossed the Atlantic to visit America and lived to a ripe old age. . . .’”

And as she continued to read the story of this heroine, she visualized a masked Alice, who looked like Auna, wearing a cloak over her sky-blue Sunday dress—

(with 33 seconds left)


10


And passing the threshold of the ballroom amidst a crowd of other masqueraders looking up to the mezzanine above the ballroom floor. And in her mind’s eye, Amelia saw Alice gazing up at a masked man in a white suit over a black shirt with black gloves covering his hands, resembling Rancaster in appearance and mannerism as he greeted his guests from above. And all around her arose the salutations of another name that neither Alice or Amelia heard before, and she wondered if the name was an alias.

Thus, in the lamplight of Lima’s bedroom, Amelia’s recitation of the story filled the room with a gray mist flooding the floor around her, yet in the trance of the moment, she was oblivious to it as she manifested images of Alice standing in the crowd of masqueraders. The man descended the grand staircase and entered amongst the crowd of masqueraders, who backed away in deference to his presence.

Alice moved with the crowd of masqueraders but noticed some of them turning their masked faces towards her, glancing at her as if she was a blemish on flawless skin.

“Ah,” the man said, spying her out amongst the crowd, “it seems we have an uninvited guest in our midst,” and where his gaze fell, the masqueraders parted away from Alice, who stood alone before him, the observed of the observers amidst many whispers amongst the crowd of onlookers. “What’s your name, darling?”

“Why should I tell you?” Alice said.

So the man turned to his audience in the ballroom and said, “Comrades, what do you think I should do with this intruder?”

And the crowd responded with “Off with her head!” and “Death by a thousand cuts!” and even “Feed her to the dogs!” and other suggestions of a similar bent, but none of these suggestions seemed to interest the man.

Thus, the man raised his hand, and the whole ballroom went silent. Afterwards, he stretched forth his hand and manifested a long dagger and approached Alice, who backed away from him, so he said, “Stand where you are, darling, for you have nothing to fear from me.”

“Are you sure?” she said, still backing away. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Then I’ll prove it to you with my name,” he said and held the dagger with his palms up as if he were presenting a trophy to her. “My name is Prince Prospero, and I have been waiting for you to come here for longer than you can imagine. Take it. It’s yours.”

Alice paused on his offer, looking at the man’s intent gaze on her before grasping the dagger in her hand.

Then he manifested a sword-cane and drew out the blade and said, “Kneel, darling.”

Again, Alice paused for a moment, looking into his intent gaze as if trying to decipher the meaning it held, and submitted herself to his whims and kneeled.

He placed the blade of his cane-sword atop both of her shoulders, knighting her with his actions, and said, “I dub you, stranger, the honor of killing these cowards around you,” and he turned his attention back to his audience of masqueraders amidst several horrified gasps. “Now that I have your attention, everyone, you shall all submit yourselves to her blade to prove your loyalty to me!”

A flurry of supplications and complaints and explanations erupted from the crowd, begging him for mercy, asking him what they could do to redeem themselves.

“This is your redemption,” he said, “but redemption requires sacrifice unto death, for death claims us all. Just as Christ died for you to save your miserable selves from going to Hell, so too must you all shake off your mortal coils to allow your souls to float towards Heaven,” and he turned to Alice and said, “Have at it, darling. They’re all yours.”

So Alice gripped the dagger in her hand and took off her mask in front of everyone in the room, who all scattered away from her when they all saw her basilisk glare and the slasher’s smile on her face.

The next several moments were filled with the screams of running masquerades fleeing towards the double doors, shut against the crowd crush of wave after wave of them clawing at the handles and banging the paneling at one end of the ballroom. She sprinted through the crowd, slashing through blurs of flesh in bloody sprays like death on two legs, then wheeled on her feet with her dagger arcing across stomachs and flailing forearms and screaming throats, scattering the crowd away from the double doors towards the grand staircase and the mezzanine. She repeated the process, diving through masses of regrouping masqueraders and wheeling on her feet and swinging her blade through flesh, scattering them anew and depleting their numbers from the ballroom floor and up the stairs and into the mezzanine. And one by one, as their collective screams began to ebb beneath the flickering light of the chandeliers above the ballroom, the parquet floor and the staircase and the mezzanine ran slick with the blood of the slain. And when she finally dispatched the last crying snot-nosed specimens of humanity at the base of the stairs, Alice was huffing and puffing and winded, barely able to hold onto the dagger.

The dagger fell from her grip, clanging to the floor and spattering more blood.

“Come here, darling,” Prince Prospero said atop the mezzanine. “I want to show you something up here.”

So Alice walked up the grand staircase on worn feet, trudging like a battle-weary soldier through mud, and when she reached the top landing and entered the mezzanine, she saw Prince Prospero standing beside the Hearts mirror against the wall.

“A mirror?” she said.

“Not just any mirror,” Prince Prospero said, “but a mirror that reveals the truth. See for yourself.”

She peered at the mirror and saw her own reflection, yet her cloak and sky-blue Sunday dress were not splattered with blood. She looked down at herself and saw the evidence of her crime imprinted on her clothes and smelled the reek of it in her nostrils, but on looking into the mirror, she saw herself without the stain of her crime on her.

“What is this?” Alice said. “Why am I not bloody?”

“Because this mirror reveals the truth,” he said. “So I’ll ask you again. What is your name?”

“Alice,” she said.

“Oh no, darling,” he said. “Give me your real name, the name you were first born with, the name your mother gave you.”

She turned and faced him, saying, “Why should I tell you?”

“Because I know what it’s like to wander this godless world in search of a family to call your own,” he said. “I know what it’s like, because I have been searching for a new family after my old family had abandoned me. And lo and behold! After years of searching and pining, I finally have the honor of your presence gracing this abode, daughter of Lilith, daughter of Night, daughter of Adam’s first wife.”

“Tell me yours first,” she said.

He then grasped her hand and kneeled as if he were proposing to her and said, “Some people call me Prince Prospero or Mr. Prospero, but everybody else calls me Dracula, son of the Dragon, son of the Devil, Vlad the Impaler, and many more besides, but I go by the name of Vlad III,” and he kissed her knuckles like a suitor.

Now it was her turn, so Alice looked at the mirror once more that showed her unstained self in the reflection, then turned back to him and said, “My name is ——————.”

A grin stretched across the man’s face, and he said, “Ah, but to me, my child, you will always be my Bambina.”

And all at once, she grimaced at something spasming in her breast, squinting her eyes shut and gritting her teeth against the pain and saying, “Arrrrrgh! Damn you, what did you do to me?”

“I’ve only set you free, Bambina, free from the pain of countless lifetimes of searching,” Prince Prospero said and pulled her into a familial embrace. “I’ve been searching for you for centuries, and now that you’re here, I have someone to call my own, and you’ve finally found a home. The search is over, darling. No more running, no more loneliness. The only tears you’ll shed from now on are tears of joy, I promise you.”

And for the first time since her primordial mother had abandoned her countless lifetimes ago, she clung to her prince and cried her first genuine tears since birth. And in that embrace, she felt a cleaving in her soul, as if the pain of her guilt and sorrow and loneliness had been cut away and cast into the fire, and she felt lighter and more carefree and gay.

Yet when she looked up at the mirror’s reflection, she saw her doppelgänger wearing her bloodstained cloak and Sunday dress and banging her fist against the reflection on the other side of the mirror. She was trying to tell her something, trying to remind her of something she had just given away with her own breath as if she had somehow condemned herself when she fell for Prince Prospero’s promise to be free.

Who is she? Alice thought—

(with 21 seconds left)


11


When Amelia realized that the doppelgänger Alice saw was Auna, the nameless girl who had visited her teleportation mirror inside Alice’s bedroom prison and her body-length mirror in her loft above her shop. And just as she realized this, Amelia blinked the images of Auna’s memories from her mind and put her hand to her throat and gulped, trying to quell the thunderous beating of her heart.

She placed the book back into the box upon the night stand, eyeing the cover title and her pseudonymous by-line beneath it, and said, “Oh my God, Auna . . . I . . . I . . . I don’t know what to say.”

Then don’t say anything, Auna said in her mind and manifested again in the reflection of her Hearts mirror before Amelia’s eyes, then materialized in front of the woman and cupped her hands over her cheeks and looked into her eyes. “Just you knowing the truth is enough for me, but there’s a difference between knowing the truth and making it known to the world at large. Even when you’ve seen the truth inside his lie, Vlad III still has everyone else fooled with his own false name and his lying tongue.”

“Because he erased your real name?” Amelia said.

“Not erased, for only God can erase names,” Auna said. “He only hid it from view.”

“And he did it by calling you ‘Bambina,’” she said, connecting the dots in her mind, “which means ‘Child.’”

Auna nodded and said, “He took my true name and substituted it with his own spell-word, which you have broken by giving me another name. As of now, I am Alice to him and Auna to you, his ‘Bambina’ and your ‘bambina.’” And before Amelia said anything else, Auna kissed both of her eyes and added, “With this kiss upon your eyes shall you see the truth behind the lie of false names and lying tongues.” She then kissed her lips and said, “And with this kiss upon your lips shall you speak the truth behind the lie of false names and lying tongues.” She then hugged Amelia close to her and said, “Remember me as you see me now, for when you see me again, I will no longer be as I am.”

Amelia pulled away and said, “What do you mean?”

“The next time you see me,” she said, wiping her tears that have welled up in her eyes, “I’ll be under Rancaster’s influence as Alice, and I’ll corrupt your daughter just to get to you, and when I do . . .” And she let her words drift off and took Amelia’s hand and pulled her towards Lima’s bed and said, “I need you to do something for me.”

“What do you want me to do?” she said.

“Make love to me,” Auna said, “like you did with Alice.”

“But—”

“Please,” Auna said, climbing into the sheets and pulling Amelia towards her. “I don’t have much time left, so I want to know what it feels like to love someone while I can. Please.”

And yet, despite her resolve to resist her advances, Amelia felt her words fill the empty jar that was her soul with mercy, a mercy she had shared with Alice with her warmth and kisses, even if she had to play along, for . . .

. . . [was] there no play,
To ease the anguish of a torturing hour?

And at that hour, at this moment of all moments, she chose to play along with her part and got into bed with Auna, shifting into position below her and wrapped her arms over her shoulders. Amelia allowed Auna to rest her head over the swell of her bosom and cradle her forearms behind her shoulder blades, while she felt the swell of Auna’s bosom over her stomach.

Amelia entwined her legs around Auna’s like those of a lover and said, “I’m here, Auna. Open your eyes.”

She tried propping herself up on her elbows, struggling beneath the added weight, but for some reason the movement proved too much for her. She plopped back down on her bed, sinking back into the padding, which stirred Auna into motion.

“I’m here, Auna,” Amelia said.

As Auna stirred from her slumber and pushed herself up from her body, Amelia noticed her blank eyes seeming to phase in and out of unconscious slow-wave sleep (as Rancaster’s spell began to overtake her before Amelia realized what was happening).

"Hey, what happened to you?" Amelia asked. "Are you all right?"

Auna remained silent, unblinking, possibly unaware of her surroundings as far as Amelia could tell, but something about her demeanor felt off. Propping herself up with her hands as Auna raised herself into a kneeling position, Amelia found herself in a compromising position with the same woman in bed with her, now straddling Amelia’s left thigh, her crotch uncomfortably warm and moist above her knee cap.

"What's going on?" Amelia said, reaching out and grasping her hand, feeling her palm slicked over and cold with sweat. "Auna, can you hear me? What's wrong?"

Auna remained silent, her expression blank, her eyes unblinking, as if she were looking into a different scene with those eyes, till she grasped both of Amelia’s hands and pinned them above her head into the cushions.

“Stop it!” she said, struggling beneath an invisible force keeping her down on the bed, yet when she looked closer, Amelia noticed that she had the roving predatory eyes of a she-wolf. Those eyes lit up with mischief, hinting at forbidden desires coming to the surface like hellfire from unfathomable depths, for in those eyes was a cesspool of bodily urges that only wanted more, more of Amelia’s body, more of her heart, more of her soul. “What’s happened to you?”

“Who’s this ‘Auna’?” she said, then raised herself up and manifested a knife in her hand and pointed it at her face. “Have you grown tired of me already?”

“It’s not like that, Alice,” she said, trying to buck her hips to throw her off, while keeping her eyes on the knife Alice held to her face.

“Have you been cavorting with that good-for-nothing girl-character?” Alice said and slid herself down to Amelia’s thighs. “How naughty of you!”

“Stop it!” Amelia said, trying to break free of whatever was holding her down. “It’s not what you’re thinking!”

“And how do you know what I’m thinking?” Alice said and ran her knife down her pajamas, just grazing the fabric and tickling Amelia’s skin beneath it. “Unless it’s true!” And she raised her knife and slammed it into the pillow cushion beside her head. “Since this isn’t your body, I won’t be able to do anything to you, but I can deal your daughter a lot of pain—”

“Don’t!” Amelia said.

“—if you don’t play along,” Alice said, “and that goes for her friends over there, as well,” and she glanced at the side of the wall near the bedroom door.

Amelia followed her glance, where she saw Leslie and Ramona observing the scene with sightless eyes, still as statues on either side of the door in the time-trap of Lima’s enclosed bedroom.

“Play along,” Alice said, “and none of them have to die.”

She nodded her head, tears trailing from her eyes, then felt Alice rubbing herself against her thigh and fondling her breasts and kissing her lips against her will, then moaned when she felt Alice biting down on her neck. Yet through it all, Amelia let Alice do these things to her and returned Alice's insistent rubbing and fondling and kissing and biting and pinching, resigning herself to the madness and praying that her daughter, Lima, won't resent her for doing this.

Wishing to get it over with, Amelia helped Alice strip off her dress and let Alice take off her bed clothes. She wanted to scream herself hoarse, but she moaned to Alice’s caresses on the skin of her stomach, the kneading of bare breasts, and the rubbing of practiced fingers on her pussy lips. She moaned till it became too much to bear, and she bucked her hips and grabbed Alice’s forearms and turned her over on the bed.

No sooner had she done that when Amelia collapsed over Alice’s body, her head cradled against Alice’s heaving bosom, her ear cupped against the thumping drumbeats of her rising and falling chest, their bodies heaving together in mutual exhaustion.

“Take me to your mother, love,” Alice said.

Or, at least, that’s what Amelia thought she said, but she wasn’t sure if she heard her right. She just looked up at Alice’s face and peered into eyes that now seemed clear and lucid, wondering why Alice wanted to see Amelia’s mother.

“Take me to your bedroom, love,” Alice repeated.

“Why?” Amelia said, playing along like a marionette. “Don’t you want to make love to me?”

“We can do more of that later, if you want,” she said, “but take me there, first.” With that, Alice turned Amelia over on the bed and kissed her once again (in which Amelia distinctly felt the sharp points of her teeth against her lips) and said, “There’s more where that came from, my love,” then she pushed herself off and pulled Amelia up onto shaky knees and draped her arm over her shoulder, supporting her. “Lead me there, and I’ll make love to both of you like you won’t believe.”

Both? Amelia thought, and her heart skipped a beat at those words, and icy knives dug through her stomach, but just as her physical movements kept striving with Alice in their love-making, so too did her words.

“It’s at the end of the hall,” Amelia said—

(with 13 seconds left)


12


And led Alice past the threshold of her bedroom door and into the upper hallway. Together they passed the sewing room, her mother's study, and the guest room, till they reached her mother's bedroom at the end of the hall, where Lima raised her fist to the door and knocked and said, “Mom, let us in.”

Nobody stirred.

“Mom?” she said, and waited for her mother's reply.

Nobody stirred.

Lima grabbed the knob and turned it, but it stayed locked—something her mother never did before whenever she slept.

“Mom,” she said, “why did you—”

Alice put her hand over Lima’s on the knob and said, “Let’s open it together, shall we?”

With both of their hands, as if that did the trick, the knob of her mother’s door turned all the way, and the door to her bedroom opened into the next iteration of Lima’s nightmare. The moment they passed the threshold of Amelia’s door, a black rose manifested in their hands as both girls approached Amelia’s four-poster bed.

Alice drew the curtain aside.

An ailing 40-year-old Amelia Hearn lay in a fitful sleep over a bed of black roses that have manifested there in her sleep, her face and forehead glistening in sweat. Her breathing was shallow and rapid and hoarse, and blue veins had appeared on the pale skin of her hands and neck as if the blood running through them were struggling to pump oxygen through her system.

Lima and Alice placed their roses over Amelia’s heaving chest, her breaths hitching in shallow gulps of air as if she were suffocating. Lima reached over and felt Amelia’s sweaty forehead and noted the rising heat, indicating that her mother’s fever had gone up since she last checked on her.

“She’s burning up,” Lima said, as if she were reciting the dialogue of another player’s lines—

(with 11 seconds left)


13


For those lines belonged to Amelia in Lima’s body as she lingered over this older sickly version of herself, lingering over her as she had over Alice lying on a similar bed of roses, yet the act of touching this doppelgänger raised no goosebumps on her flesh from the skin of her forehead. In fact, the effect took on a spiritual nature, like an icy premonition filling her bosom with something felt but unseen, something present but unacknowledged in word or thought. What had so unnerved her were the years of suffering and care etched onto her face, years of carrying an untold burden on her shoulders.

It was this feeling, this uncanny mixture of familiarity and uncertainty, that made her shake her head and say, “Why are we here?”

“Don’t you recognize her?” Alice said. “She’s you, my love.”

Amelia turned but found the door already shut without even hearing it shut, then turned back around and saw Alice sitting on the edge of the bed, on which lay her older self, and said, “Why are we here?”

“That’s the wrong question, love,” Alice said, and caressed her fingers down the jaw and neck of Amelia’s older self and through the parting of her breasts over the fabric of the shroud. “Ask again.”

“I don’t understand,” Amelia said, reaching out to Alice, but her hand passed through her. “What’s going on?”

“Again, wrong question,” Alice said, and she swung her legs over the bedside and straddled Amelia’s older sleeping form and said, “Ask again.”

“Alice, why are you doing this?” she said.

“You’re not very good with questions, are you?” Alice said, and she lowered herself over the lying Amelia’s face and planted a lingering kiss, parting her mouth.

Amelia averted her eyes, yet try as she might, she couldn’t keep herself from beholding the sensuous scene, so she gritted her teeth and balled her hands into fists.

“Getting jealous, are you?” Alice said. “Ask again.”

“And what if I don’t?” she said.

“Then I’ll just keep doing naughty things to your older self, till you ask the right question,” Alice said, and she pulled off the blood-colored shroud from the body of Amelia’s older self, revealing Alice’s bite marks on her neck and between her breasts and on her stomach. “It’s been decades since our first encounter, but the marks don’t lie. Ask again. I dare you.”

Amelia’s hand rose to the collar of her neck, where Alice had first sunk her canines into her during their one-night stand, and said, “Please, don’t do this to someone else.”

“I’ll give you a hint, love,” Alice said, and manifested a knife in her hand again and put the blade’s edge against the neck.

“Don’t!” Amelia said, reaching out for the knife, yet Alice twirled away and pointed the blade at her face. “I’m begging you, Alice. Don’t do this!”

“You understand, love,” Alice said, twirling the knife like a toy in her hand, and flicked the tip across her palm and drew blood—

Just as something burning hot seared across Amelia’s palm, and she gritted her teeth against the pain, shutting her eyes and seeing a momentary flash of Lima in her mind.

Alice then ran the flat of her blade along her tongue, lapping up blood, and said, “Ask again, love.”

Amelia then noticed the iron taste of blood in her mouth and said, “What did you do to my daughter?”

“Close, but not quite,” Alice said. “Ask again.”

Amelia paused before answering and looked down at her older self, pale and sickly with wrinkles in her eyes and her brows and her cheeks. Alice was teasing her, goading her on with indecencies on her older self, yet through it all, she divined the dreaded question arising through her thoughts and beating through her heart and said, “Am I . . . ?”

“Yes, yes,” Alice said. “Go on.”

“No!” she said. “I won’t do it!”

“Finally, you got it!” Alice said and dissipated the knife from her hand. “It took you long enough to figure it out.”

“I won’t do it!” Amelia said.

“It’s already in your mind,” she said, “and you already have it in your hand.”

That’s when she noticed the knife in her hand, and when she looked back on her older self on the bed, she saw a man in a white suit leaning against the four-poster bed and reaching out his hand to touch Amelia’s wan cheek.

“Rancaster!” Amelia said.

The man smiled and said, “Didn’t I tell you that you held fate in your hand?”

“You bastard!” And she lunged with the knife, swinging it across his face, yet before she struck, her momentum stopped in mid-air just inches from his face. That’s when she started yanking and pulling on her hand, trying to release it from Rancaster’s influence. “Stop this madness!”

Yet the man paid her no heed and said, “Rules are simple. I will give you to the count of ten to kill yourself with that knife. Since you’re occupying your daughter’s body, it’ll be double jeopardy for you, darling. You can either kill yourself on this bed, or kill your daughter, instead. Either way, one of you dies. Whether you go to Heaven or Hell, it matters not to me. In the end, I'm only a mortal judge. I'll let God judge for Himself.”

“That’s rather harsh of you,” Alice said, “even for me.”

Rancaster gave Alice a rueful smile, then raised his hand in the air and snapped his fingers, and now the game began.

A psychic force flooded through Amelia’s body, taking control of her bodily movements, despite her struggles to resist.

"One!" Rancaster said.

“Fuck you,” she screamed, struggling against the movement of her hand edging the knife up to her throat (Lima’s throat), contorting her face in agony, trying to restrain herself.

"Two!"

She struggled and struggled, renewing her efforts to take control of her arms and hands, straining against Rancaster’s psychic force.

"Three!"

She continued her helpless struggle against her movements, doubling her efforts as she now began to sweat, squinting and contorting her expressions into a ghastly portrait of terror, struggling as she raised she edged to her throat.

"Four!"

“Damn you, Rancaster!” she said, but then a miracle happened. With all her strength of will, she managed to stop the advance, halting the tip of the knife from pointing directly at her daughter’s throat, making Alice gape in shock.

"Five!"

Amelia continued her struggle, straining against the psychic force that threatened to end her daughter’s life.

"Six!"

Gritting her teeth and digging in deep, Amelia awakened her latent vampiric strength, and waves of psychic energy flooded the bedroom beneath her feet, rousing Alice into amazement at seeing her pulling the knife away from her throat.

"Seven!"

And little by little, inch by agonizing inch, blade of the knife lowered and lowered and lowered, as tears now trailed her eyes at the thought of sealing her fate with her own will.

"Eight!"

With tears welling up in her eyes, Amelia said through gritted teeth, “I’m sorry, Lima, but I have to do this. None of this is your fault!”

"Nine!"

And with her strength growing little by little, she aimed the blade pointed down over her own chest and said, “So please forgive me for what I’m about to do!”

"Ten!"

And Amelia plunged the blade home—

(with 3 seconds left)


14


And sent herself down the rabbit hole of slow-wave sleep across decades of space-time from 1994 back to 1913, till she ended up inside the Hearts mirror against one of the four pillars forming the crossing of Chess Cathedral, where she replaced Lima Hearn in the reflection and broke Rancaster’s spell over her daughter. Now inside that mirror, Amelia slept for a time alongside the motionless bodies of Kendra and Mara in the reflection—

(with 2 seconds left)


15


As Leslie closed the last few shutters in the dining room that looked through the veranda in the backyard. After that, she doubled back through the kitchen and passed the guest bathroom door to the entrance hall when a stab thundered through her chest. She crouched to the floor in agony and pressed her palm over the ache, grimacing and gritting her teeth and squinting her eyes shut, till Amelia’s face flashed through her mind’s eye.

Then a scream ripped through the night, shaking the house to its foundations and rumbling the floorboards.

“Leslie, get over here!” Ramona yelled from upstairs, followed by the twisting of the door knob and several bangs on the door itself. “Lima, open up!”

Leslie cursed and sprinted down the entrance hall and hooked her hand around the stair post, swerving around and then slipping and skidding her knee on the landing.

“Leslie, what happened?” Ramona said.

“I’m fine,” she said, but as the bangs against the door became louder, Leslie ignored the stinging on her knee and sprinted up the stairs, saying, “What’s going on up there?”

Ramona said, “I can’t open the door! Damn it, Lima, open up!” And more bangs pounded against the door.

When Leslie cleared the top step, she found Ramona tugging on the door knob, yanking it and twisting it, trying to get it to turn and open the door, yet it wouldn’t budge.

“God damn it!” Ramona said, then banged on the door again, saying, “Lima, what’s going on in there?”

“Is she in there?” Leslie said.

“Yeah, but the door’s shut, and she’s not opening up,” she said, motioning Leslie towards the door, and then banged on the door again. “Lima, what’s wrong? Are you okay? Lima!”

“Let me try,” Leslie said, standing away from the door as Ramona backed several feet away, so that Leslie had enough room for her incantation. First, she imagined herself as a pitcher on the pitcher’s mound and clawed her fingers around an imaginary base ball made of wind. And as the swirling air currents manifested in her hand and fluttered her hair and her clothes, gathering strength like a budding tornado, she said, “Oh North Wind, lend me your strength!”

And she flung a fastball pitch at the door, blowing out the upper paneling into splinters and ripping the door from its hinges just enough for the door lock to dislodge from the slip plate. Afterwards Leslie doubled over, clamping on her knees to keep herself standing, taking massive gulps of air.

Ramona then ran up and kicked the door in, dislodging it completely from the rest of its hinges, and both girls entered as it landed with a thud on the carpet, like the thud of the casket over the dearly departed Amelia Hearn, who was now lying motionless in bed with blood pooling over the bedsheets from a wound in her chest. And as the sour coagulation of blood wafted up their nostrils and stung their eyes, both girls coughed and gagged at the stench in the air, both girls transfixed at the sight of Amelia’s corpse . . .

Till they saw Lima herself in a corner of the bedroom, a pitiful specimen of humanity, a tormented soul standing there on shaky legs, her tear-drenched face scrunched up in an agony of horror and revulsion, and her hands holding the bloodstained knife and getting ready to—

They sprinted towards Lima and tackled her to the floor, grabbing at the knife in Lima’s hands. Ramona grabbed the knife first, wincing as the blade drew blood against her palm, while Leslie pried Lima’s fingers from the handle, allowing her friend to twist the knife from Lima’s grasp and fling it away.

Then Lima flooded the room in a torrential scream, churning up the space with dark emotions: fear, disgust, anger, hatred, guilt, self-loathing, masochism, sadism, sadness, grief, sorrow, disappointment, disempowerment, and more besides—all of these emotions differing shades of the same agony, all of these expressed in the void of no happiness, no hope, no love, no life, and even no soul— . . . All of these emotions expressed in the scream of a girl who had lost her mother by her own hand, a scream that shook the house to its foundations, rumbling the door on the floor and cracking the floorboards beneath the carpet, blowing out the window and scattering shards into the bedroom from the epicenter of her scream as she struggled against her friends keeping her down.

Yet through it all, Leslie and Ramona held onto their friend, squinting their eyes as they endured the squall of her agony, till the screaming abated and the sniffling and mewling aftermath reached their ears. Yet they still held onto their friend, their arms still around Lima’s waist, and cried into her shirt because of what she had tried to do to herself.

Then, when both girls got off of Lima, Leslie raised Lima’s shirt up and checked for any gash on her stomach, while Ramona grabbed her hands and checked for any cuts on her fingers.

“You’re bleeding,” Lima said.

Leslie turned to Ramona and saw the spider’s web of blood stemming from a diagonal cut on the top part of her palm.

“Yeah, no shit, Sherlock!” Ramona said, wiping her palm against her own shirt, and grabbed Lima by her shoulders and pulled her up. “Don’t you EVER do that again, you hear me? God, you scared the shit out of me!” Yet her anger relapsed into another bout of tears as Ramona hugged Lima close to her, as if she were making sure Lima was still with her.

Yet for a moment, Leslie just stared at her friends in what felt like autopilot. The gravity of the situation had yet to fully sink in, till the thought of Amelia’s body on the bed drove it home for her. For all she knew, since Lima’s mother was divorced, Leslie had premonitions of her friend moving away to live with faraway relatives or moving away for whatever reason.

Only then did tears begin trailing her cheeks, as she joined her friends and hugged Lima close to her as if that was going to be the last time she was ever going to see her friend again.

With a cascade of tears now trailing down their faces, a spreading pool began expanding beneath them like the Pool of Tears, spreading along the carpeted floor and flooding it into a shimmering mirror. And over that shimmering mirror appeared the shimmering ghost of Amelia’s older self standing over the trio.

Amelia then dropped to her knees, reaching out to the girls with compassionate hands, only for them to pass through their faces. With tears welling in her eyes, she said, "I wish I could wipe your tears, but I can't."

All three girls looked up at her through bleary eyes, red from crying over the dead.

Lima said, “Mom, is that you?”

“I’m sorry, girls,” Amelia said, her face scrunched up over the agony in her daughter’s face (over the tears and the sniffling and the hitches catching in Lima’s throat) in losing the main pillar of her strength and fortitude. “I wish I never involved you girls in my problems. I never meant for you to carry this burden, because all of this is my fault. It’s mine and mine alone, so please don’t let my mistake keep you from living your lives! I want you girls to grow up and have families of your own! I don't want you to be like me, so promise me you’ll be okay!”

At those words, all three girls renewed their tears with Leslie and Ramona saying, “I promise.”

Yet Lima, remaining silent for a few moments, merely nodded her head, blinking back more tears that now trailed her cheeks, so Amelia reached out her hand to wipe away the tears, as Amelia herself began dissolving away into nothing.

And her spirit drifted away into the void of forgotten memories, forgotten to all except Ramona and Lima and Leslie and God, the Keeper of dreams from now till the end of all dreams—

(with 0 seconds left)


16


When Amelia Hearn roused from her slumber inside the Hearts mirror and manifested in front of it within the crossing of Chess Cathedral. For a moment, she just stood there and blinked, wondering if she was still alive after her harrowing encounter with her older self from 1994, and put her hands to her chest where she had plunged the knife home on her future self.

“I’m okay,” she said under her breath, then looked into the Hearts mirror at the reflection of her teenage self and put her hand up against it. And when the motionless bodies of Kendra and Mara appeared in the reflection, she stepped away, till the reflections of the two girls faded from view.

She stretched forth her hand and summoned a mirror of her own and touched its surface, thinking back to her older self from 1994, sickly and careworn with an undisclosed burden weighing her down in her final moments of life, and materialized her within the reflection of her mirror. She gazed upon a future etched onto her face with crows feet around her eyes and creases between her brows and in the smile of her cheeks, all of these features framed in a peaceful expression of sleep. Whatever she knew in her final moments she had shouldered her entire life, and Amelia found herself wondering if she could bear such a burden as long as her future self had. But the longer she mused on her struggles, the more she wondered with a dangerous curiosity burning inside her, hoping her older self knew something about Alice, anything that could shed light on her involvement with Rancaster—

Till her image grabbed Amelia’s hand through the reflection and said, “Don’t be scared now! It’s me.”

Amelia was breathing hard at this point but said, “How did you . . .”

“I’m no longer alive, child,” her older self said, “but death has its own blessings, for the dead can reveal things that the living are doomed to keep secret.”

“Why are you here?” Amelia said.

“Because I know what your heart asks your head,” her older self said. “Do you know what I’m talking about?”

Amelia stood there for a time, thinking of Rancaster refusing to tell her Alice’s true name, and said, “I do.”

Her older self smiled.

“Do you really know her true name?” Amelia said.

Her older self nodded but said, “To know it is to carry it with you to your grave, for it would only bring pain to your loved ones, should you tell them what I am about to say. Can you carry that burden alone, child?”

Amelia paused for a spell, on the edge of declining, but she nodded her head, anyway, and said, “I can.”

So her older self beckoned her closer to the mirror’s surface and said, “Do you really want to know, child?” And when Amelia nodded and approached, her older self leaned further out of the reflection and came closer to her ear and whispered, “Her name is Li———— . . .”


つづく

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About the author

Fox-Trot-9

Bio: From Las Vegas, NV, welcome to my profile, RoyalRoadsters! I'm Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber! I'm weird, introverted, impatient, cheerful (half the time), and friendly. I'm a Catholic, a former college student, a dream diarist, an amateur poet and short story writer and novelist, and a chronic perfectionist, ugh!

Genres I write include dark fantasy, gothic, magical girl, occult detective, action, thriller, horror, genre mashups, LGBT, and a dash of ecchi.

Genres I read include whatever catches my fancy. Who knows? It might be one of yours!

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