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Renee Chen

United States

15. Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror

Message to Readers

Say anything! I need all the advice I can get.

Cross

June 15, 2015

The whole place reeks of iron and sulfur – the scent of an illusion spell, scents I want to torch and burn.

May isn’t in this dimension, but cards are.

I sweep my gaze across them, and the pictures are living, breathing. The three of spades are two jewel-colored snakes winding around a horde of diamonds, ruby melding with emerald. Seven of hearts are seventeen arrows, standing to attention, stabbed in the back of a boy.

When I finally focus on them, the first card I see is May, printed on a queen of clubs. I see her in a way May has never been: her black hair, the same shade as mine, fanning out in sea-foam waves; she stares from her little two-dimension world with sea-glass eyes.

Her gaze is filled with untamed, unadulterated hate.

The word “choose” echoes across the fanned crescent of cards – unsaid, but heard. Father’s voice is still as unsettling as I remember.

May usually looks at me with a guarded indifference, annoyance: but never this kind of manufactured loathing, as if she wants to tear my throat out. That’s reserved for clients.

“Choose” – it's insistent now, anxious. It sounds like shadow-stained childhoods, like fire-streaked palms.

“Choose, or I make the choice for you.”

Just a picture. I am stone, unable to move. It's just a picture.

She looks nothing like herself, but the words “May, Maybelle,” still collapse in my throat, and I choke on them. The voice pauses, sighs. It seems to stick a dam into the current of time, and everything hovers in paralysis.

“Fine, then. Moving on.”

A silver dagger materializes in front of me, and in a sudden frenzy, it stabs into the card with my twin’s face printed on it, pinning May directly in the iris. Black fluid, like the essence of night, spurts torrentially from May’s impaled eye, and I can taste the obsidian liquid, and it tastes of blood and rust and – and of May, bleeding out in front of me.

I scream. I scream. I –

“Matt?” There’s a hand on my shoulder. “Matt.”

I hear the whisper of long hair against silk. May’s in this one, then. I reach my hands out blindly for her, wrapping them loosely around her wrists.

When I open my eyes, May’s standing in front of me, hair curling around her temples, eyes glaring into mine, hands clasped on my shoulders. I blink, and the world around me sharpens.

There are a thousand doors: glass-white and gold, keyholes blooming along the walls. The room sweeps up, doming like a Gothic cathedral, and the floor is cubed into marble sections. The doors never stay the same: they are forever shifting, an unsolvable puzzle.

It’s not actually her. It’s a projection, but I’ll take comfort in the form of anything.

“Wake up, Matthew. If you get stuck here in merry-go-hell for eternity, I’ve convinced Dad to give you a chance for nothing. I’ll find you, and I’ll skin you alive.”

I can feel the actual me: my chest caving in from the car crash; I can hear the beeping of heart monitors and the cold drip-drip-drip of fluid, slipping into my veins. I can feel the actual May, can almost feel the sleek silk of her uniform, staring at me a from few feet away – trying her best to guide me – but it isn’t her place to help, not now.  

May’s fading already, leaving me in the puzzle-room alone.

“Get it together, Matt –“

I hate her – hate her for making this choice for me, but I know it’s not her fault. I’ll have to push through and get out of this mess, or I stay in this eternal stage of suspended nothingness. There isn't even another option, really.

I’ll have to repay Father for this, with soul and blood and lashes of fire. 

**

“Why the labyrinth?” I hiss.

I know I sound whiny, petty – I-trained-you-out-of-complaining-three-centuries-ago, Maybelle – but the maze of trap rooms is the cruelest of the tests. “Have him stab a cow or something. He’s my twin, he’s your son. Isn’t that enough?”

My father shrugs. He leans against the wall, blending seamlessly with the shadows, the glimmer of hellfire still glowing where he cast the illusion. “He left us. He wants to come back and join demonic royalty immediately? It’s not that easy, May. You only come back through that particular trial – you know that.”

His voice reeks of disappointment.

“He was a kid. He just wanted to go to high school.” He wanted to be human, for once. You would have killed the both of us if I left with him.

My father leans back, his fingers easily adjusting the cuffs of his suit. He's skeletally thin, shadows smeared under his eyes. “We run the crossroads. It’s an important job, signing souls away.”

(But when he says those words, I can picture it, the things I’ve done a thousand times – standing in a busy intersection, cars squealing around me, my hand burning as I promise someone ten years to live and enough glory to match that lifespan.

I never feel the searing rush I’m supposed to get. I feel dead.)

“What does that have to do with anything?”

My father looks up. His eyes are soulless, glittering with obsidian – I am nearly his carbon copy.

“I thought we were just listing facts.”

Matt twitches in his bed. He half-shrieks, saliva gurgling in his throat.

Can’t help you now, Matt. I go in one more time, it’s over.

“If Matthew lives, he’ll surprise me,” my father drawls. “He panicked when I stabbed a picture of you. That’s pathetic.”

He cares, I want to retort, but my father might burn my tongue out for a decade. The way none of us ever did – ever could.

When he comes out alive,” I answer, quietly, “Matt and I – we deal together.”

My father looks at me, one eyebrow raised. He doesn’t reply – didn’t expect him to, really – and we stare at Matt together.

Matt’s fingers convulse into pale hospital sheets, and he screams like hellhounds are ripping into him, as if his time were up.

 

 

 

 

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