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Authors: Cate Tiernan

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BOOK: Immortal Beloved
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I’d come here for a reason. I’d left my friends and disappeared to a different continent. On the plane coming over, I’d realized that besides Incy crippling the cabbie, despite my disgust at my lack of action, despite my paranoia about Incy’s seeing my scar, it had been a hundred, a thousand
other things leading up to that, chipping away at my insides until I felt like a shell with nothing alive left in me. I hadn’t been going around killing people and setting villages on fire, but I’d been cutting a destructive path through my existence, and I’d realized, with nauseating honesty, that everything I touched was harmed. People were hurt, homes broken, cars wrecked, careers destroyed—the memories just kept trickling in like rivulets of fresh acid dripping into my brain until I wanted to scream.

It was in my blood, I knew. A darkness.
The
darkness. I had inherited it, along with my immortality and my black eyes. I had resisted it when I was younger. Had pretended it wasn’t there. But somewhere along the way, I’d stopped fighting, given in to it. For a long time, I’d run with it. But that last night, the darkness that had been following me for more than four hundred years had come crashing down on me with a suffocating weight, and now I hated the horrible thing I’d become.

If I were a regular person, I’d be tempted to kill myself. Being me, I had almost collapsed with hysterical laughter when I realized that even if I managed to cut off my own head, I wouldn’t be able to make sure it was far enough away from my body for long enough to actually kill me. And what was my other option? Throwing myself headfirst into a wood chipper? What if it jammed when only half my head was through? Can you imagine the regrowth process of
that
stunt? Jesus.

My life suddenly felt like I’d fallen off a cliff and would fall forever toward ever-increasing despair, never to be happy again. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt truly happy. Amused? Yes. Diverted? Yes. Happy? Not so much. Couldn’t even remember what it felt like.

The only person who had ever offered to help me, who had ever seemed to understand, was River. She had invited me here so many decades ago. And here I was.

I glanced around again, and this time I saw her, standing on the wide wooden steps of the house. She looked just the same as I remembered, which was unusual. We tend to alter our appearances frequently, drastically. I certainly had, probably twenty times since I’d met her. I didn’t see how she could possibly recognize me. But she was watching me, and it was clear that she intended for me to make the first move.

I let out a deep breath, hoping the house was toasty warm inside, that I could get some hot tea or a drink or take a hot bath. Would she even remember me? Was her offer still good? I knew how ridiculous it was to hold her to something she’d said more than eighty years ago. But what else could I do?

Well, I’d done more pathetic things. I got out of the car and hunched into my leather jacket—my old one, not the one I’d lost two nights ago. I scuffled across the fallen leaves on the ground, already making plans for what to do when she turned me away. Go hide someplace warm,
definitely. Fiji or something. Stay there till I felt better, felt like less of a waste. It was bound to happen sometime. Eventually Incy would probably seem less scary. Eventually I would forget all about the cabbie, as I’d forgotten about Imogen until yesterday.

“Hello,â€

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, 1967

 

C
ome on, I want a
picture of me and you,â€

 

 

 

A
t last dinner was over. I was about to sprint up to “myâ€

 

 

 

T
he one thing this place had going for it was tons of hot, hot water. I was dealing with the fact that this hot, hot water was in the women’s
communal
bathroom
halfway
down the hall
from my room. There was one deep, claw-footed tub in its own little compartment, and then separate stalls for toilets and a couple of showers. A boarding-school row of five sinks lined one wall, each with its own small mirror over it. No makeup lights, no full-length mirror—nothing to indulge vanity here!

Which is a good thing when you haven’t paid much attention to personal grooming in, say, several decades. I sank
into the deep bathtub, suddenly transported to another fabulous deep tub I’d once known, in a somewhat ramshackle but gracious house I’d lived in for a while in New Orleans. That tub could have held a polar bear. The real estate agent had told me it had been made for a judge back in the thirties—he’d had two regular tubs sawed in half and then welded together, creating one mammoth, claw-footed behemoth of a bathtub that I could lie down flat in.

But this tub was not bad, despite the inadequate fluorescent lightbulbs that cast a cold, cadaverous gleam on everything. The water was steaming hot, the soap was homemade and rough with dried lavender, and there was a small wooden box filled with dried herbs. What the hey—I grabbed a handful and sprinkled them under the water gushing from the faucet. Herb-scented steam filled my nose and throat as I lay back and closed my eyes.

The steam reminded me of being in Taiwan, back in 1890, one of the times it was being colonized by Japan. I’d had tuberculosis for a while, and the coughing was making me crazy. I’d tried any number of remedies, and finally someone recommended I take the healing waters in Taiwan, on the mountain Yangmingshan. On one side of the mountain, the air was full of egg-scented steam, wreathing the green mountain like a fine, fog-colored silk scarf. The rotten-egg smell was disgusting at first, but within just a couple of days I didn’t even notice it. Twice a day, every day, I would sit in an invalid chair at the edge of a natural hot spring and
breathe in the warm steam for an hour. Many other people were there for different health reasons—mostly lung- or skin-related. I watched as locals crouched at the shallow edge of the spring, where water bubbled up gently through the sandy bottom. They would take wooden chopsticks and make little fences out of them, sticking them into the sand in a circle. Then they would put a couple of eggs inside the circle, where they would be cooked by the hot geothermal spring. Eating eggs cooked like this was considered extra healthy. I stayed there two months, enjoying the lush beauty of Taiwan and breathing in sulfurous air. My TB was cured.

Now I breathed in unsulfurous steam, more than a hundred years later. I was jolted back to the present. Was it just two days ago that I’d been in London? Yesterday? Unexpectedly, tears stung my eyes beneath my closed lids as, once again, the cabdriver’s face loomed before me. Was he still alive? What was his family thinking, feeling, doing?

I sat up, guilt sticking to me like soapy film, and grabbed the shampoo. I hadn’t done it—it had been Incy. All I’d done was… walk away.

I washed my hair and dunked underwater to rinse it. The water was starting to cool a bit, and I took a sea sponge off a hook, soaped it up, and scrubbed all over my body, feeling as if I were taking off the top layer of skin. Everywhere I scrubbed turned pink and tingly, and I felt weirdly clearheaded, breathing clearly, seeing the water start to swirl down the drain. I felt clean and smooth-skinned and alive.

Stupid, huh?

Luckily, I got back to my room without seeing anyone else. I found my bed turned down and a cup of hot tea on the small table beside it.

“No chocolate?â€

 

 

 

A
t breakfast several people smiled or said hello, and the ones who didn’t just seemed like they weren’t morning people, not like they totally hated my guts already. I didn’t eat much, felt uncomfortably full really fast, but the toasted bread with butter was surprisingly satisfying, and the bacon had much more flavor than bacon usually did—salty and chewy and crisp with fried fat.

After I’d dutifully carried my empty plate into the kitchen, River said, “Come with me.â€

 

 

 

C
ould not find the effing map. Could not remember how the hell to get back to the highway to Boston. My breakfast now sat like acid-laced lead in my stomach as I pulled too fast into the parking lot in front of MacIntyre’s Drugs on the main street of this town. Literally, on Main Street. There was one main street, and this was it. God, get me out of here.

To add to my jangled nerves, my feeling of unease, almost panic, for lack of a better word, was seeming to increase the farther I got from River’s Edge. What was going on? What was hanging over me? For the past twenty-four hours, my
nervous breakdown had seemed to tamp down a little. It was back in full force now—a howling in my brain that told me to hide. My fingers brushed the back of my neck, made sure my scarf was there.

A couple of local kids, dressed in goth black and smoking cigarettes, sat with their backs against the building in a wide alley between the drugstore and the next store over, Early’s Feed and Farmware. One of the kids, a girl with green-streaked hair and a silver hoop in her nose, decided to mess with an outsider. She called, “You can’t park there. Handicapped spot.â€

 

 

 

T
hat night the dreams came again.

I left Clancy’s right after Kim’s spell. I was the only one who’d minded it, the only one whose drinks curdled in her stomach at the thought of the tarred roof upstairs littered with bright bits of dead fluff. Plus, what with the shocking headache and the usual nausea, I’d begged off, leaving Beatrice, Kim, and the others looking at me with bemused expressions. It had been about midnight, and I’d gone back to my hotel, feeling unclean.

I’d worried about not being able to sleep, but exhaustion and worry hammered me into a deep unconsciousness that
sucked me down, down into the black horror of my childhood, back to the night my life first changed.

 

 

A big shaking feeling woke me,
and I glanced across at my older sister, Eydís, asleep in the bed we shared. Had it been a peal of thunder? I loved storms. I looked at the narrow window, sealed with small, thick panes of real glass. Light flickered outside. Lightning? More like fire?

The sound came again, a huge, hollow boom that shook our bed. I saw Eydís blink sleepily, and in the next moment, the door to our room flung open. Our mother stood there, her eyes wide, long golden hair flowing down her back from beneath the small linen cap she slept in.

“Móðir?â€

 

 

 

O
h, Nastasya,
help
!â€

 

 

 

A
re you going to stay?â€

 

 

 

I
had landed on a different plane of existence: the River dimension. I had to relearn so many habits and patterns—to pick up after myself because there was no maid, to clear my plate after a meal, to leave my shoes by the door so I didn’t track in mud or worse.

My new clothes survived the laundry much better than my Jean Paul Gaultier jumpsuit and cashmere sweater, which I had thrown through the washer and dryer. The sweater had come out small enough to fit Jasper, who now
wore it proudly, flouncing around in hot pink Chanel. I hoped he wouldn’t skunk it up.

There was no cable TV, only a handful of fuzzy local stations. River did have a computer in her office, and one could sign up on a sheet to use it. I didn’t need it for anything. We got the local paper every day, and out of extreme boredom I found myself poring over the latest crop reports, reading about whose cow got loose, whose barn got struck by lightning, and what grade-school teacher was going to run for city council. The
London Times
had been full of wars, government scandals, celebrity arrests, society weddings, race reports. It had all seemed like a blur—prime ministers came and went, the people rose up in protest and then settled back down. Here, the smallest inconsequential blip on the screen was treated like stunning breaking news.

BOOK: Immortal Beloved
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