“How sad we won’t get to see the green snake cloud or breathe hallucinogenic smoke.” Wilma sighed. “It takes some of the charm out of the whole experience, don’t you think?”
“No.” Betty glared down a passing bum, making the man skitter out of their way.
“I suppose you are right, there is no point to complicate this affair further. Lucky is a handful even on a good day. I fancy he might be more agreeable today though, he’s always happy to see us.”
The two women walked briskly through the back alley. In the distance ahead of them the well-familiar man-shaped lucky charm stood looking around himself, like he was lost. They had followed him for a while in their car, but he had surprisingly kept to the main streets a lot of the time, leaving them little chance to intercept him without making a scene.
“It’s weird, isn’t it, how he seems to no longer fear walking among people?” Wilma pondered as they stalked after Luke. “But that only proves we need to take him off the streets and fast, before someone else does. It’s a miracle he’s still here, I mean, who doesn’t want a million bucks? We sure do.”
The alley they were following opened up into a courtyard between several tenement houses. In the middle of the courtyard grew a single tree. It must have been really old judging by the diameter of its trunk. Luke hesitantly headed towards it. He walked around the tree once. Twice. On the third round, they were waiting for him.
“Third time lucky, eh?”
They smirked at the dawning horror on Luke’s face.
“We’ve heard you’ve got a new home now, Lucky.” Wilma leaned against the trunk of the tree, blocking Luke from going past her. “Why, that is just lovely, but before you commit to it, you should know that group of concerned Citizens decided to make you a counter-proposal.”
“One you cannot refuse.”
“It’s very convenient, really. All about location — the most secluded spot, so those pesky private eyes and other such money-obsessed types don’t bother you. I’m sure you can appreciate that with a million dollars on your head. Wouldn’t want anyone putting themselves into unnecessary danger. And we won’t have to go looking for you anymore. Win-win! It’s also spacious.” Wilma grinned and spread her arms. “We’re talking hundreds, no, thousands of square feet. High ceilings!”
“It’s a warehouse,” Betty clarified.
“But it’s as cosy as a warehouse can be, isn’t it Betty?”
“Come with us now, we’ll show you around, throw a little house-warming party if you like.”
“Chain you to a radiator.”
“Right! Because there actually is one! It’s new as well. Very good for winter.”
Luke tried to back away, but Betty circled him, cutting off the escape route.
“Please, I am of no use to you,” Luke protested. “I don’t have my curse anymore, nothing special happens around me now. Just try and see if you don’t believe me! Please, leave me alone.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll find a way to fix it for you. Those things don’t just go away. Or even if they do, there’s always the million dollars for your whereabouts.” Wilma stepped closer. “Now be a good boy and come along nicely. Or we’ll have to hurt you, hurt some friends of yours, you know how it goes…”
Luke spun around and tried to bolt out of the courtyard, but Betty tripped him, and he landed in a heap on the ground.
“Wrong choice.” Betty bent down and gripped the front of his shirt with one hand, pulling Luke up to face her. She swung.
Luke shrunk, waiting for the blow to connect, but it never did. He looked at the woman through his fingers and saw her shudder. Then she let go of him and laughed. Luke froze in place even more terrified than before. Betty roared with laughter, like he was the most hilarious thing ever. She bent in half, shaking violently with unnatural barking laughs.
And then Luke saw Xenia standing behind her.
“Two chicks tormenting one guy? Try picking on someone your own sex, ha!” Xenia’s fingers moved unbelievably quickly until Betty was almost rolling on the ground. Xenia appeared to be… tickling her.
Wilma stared at the unfolding scene in sheer disbelief for a long moment.
Then she went for Luke.
Before she managed to grab him, though, Xenia was upon her. Wilma clenched her teeth and tried to fight back, but soon she was also howling with forced mirth.
Left alone, Betty breathed heavily a few times and jumped to her feet. She looked at Xenia with wide open eyes, pulled a gun from inside her jacket and pointed it at the wild-haired woman. Then she hesitated, watching in equal confusion as Wilma was subjected to the same treatment as she had been just a moment earlier. Betty glanced at Luke, but he hadn’t even moved.
Betty hid the gun and ran towards Wilma and Xenia. She tried to grab Xenia’s strawberry blond mane, but the woman saw her coming and threw a lightning-quick kick, sending Betty off balance. Betty regained her footing and aimed a punch at Xenia’s face, but before it could connect the wild-haired woman was already behind her. This time she grabbed Betty’s black hair and pulled. It came off. Xenia looked at the wig in her hands fascinated.
“Fake… hair? A hair hat? Huh.” She put the wig on top of her wild tangle of hair and turned to Luke with a bright smile. “How do I look?”
“Look out!” Luke pointed at Betty who was now short-haired and with her gun drawn again.
Given a break, Wilma lunged forwards and tried to kick the legs from under Xenia, but Xenia leaped up like a frog, landing a good six feet back. Wilma dusted off the dirt. “Give the wig back or she’ll shoot you.”
Xenia pointed at her. “Nice neckerchief you’ve got there.”
She ran towards them, and this time Betty did not hesitate. She shot at Xenia once, twice, thrice. Then lowered her gun, accepting its ineffectiveness, as Xenia rammed herself into her and Wilma, alive and kicking, having somehow dodged the bullets.
Xenia looked up at Luke. Her hands were moving so fast they almost blurred, and Wilma and Betty were writhing on the ground again. “Run, Luke. I’ll catch up with you.”
Luke nodded and scrambled to his feet. He ran clutching onto the talisman under his shirt, hoping Xenia really knew what she was doing.
He ran until he was breathless, and when he finally slowed down, she was already waiting for him. She was wearing Wilma’s neckerchief and what looked like Betty’s jacket. The wig hung out of one of her pockets like a black cascade of Spanish moss.
“Well, that was fun, no? Anyway, we gotta keep moving, I feel those ladies had such a good time, they’ll want to seek me out for some more.” She snorted and pulled Luke into a trot.
“Thank you.” He huffed and puffed, following her as best he could. “Thank you so much. Are you hurt?”
“Of course not, silly. But we should keep moving.”
They sped through alleys and streets, and then Xenia pulled him into a bus that opened its door on the stop they just reached. Luke never went on the buses, both because of his curse and because he could not afford the tickets. He couldn’t afford one now either, but before he managed to voice that concern, Xenia exchanged a few sweet words with the driver, and just like that they were sitting at the back. A few stops later, they switched to another bus where once again tickets were not an issue. Xenia said they were going to stay on this one for a longer while. Once they took their seats again, she fished a bottle of water out of a small colorful backpack, opened it, chugged some down and then offered the bottle to Luke. He politely refused, and watched bewildered as she poured the remaining water into her hair. Luke was convinced it would drench the seat and drip on the floor. But somehow it never even got to the seat. Perhaps Xenia’s lush hair and multiple layers of clothing were enough of a sponge to absorb it all.
The buildings grew less and less dense, and were finally replaced by trees as the bus took them out of the city. Before long they were the only passengers left. They got out on an empty bus stop in the middle of a rural road. There were no cars in sight, so Wilma and Betty had not managed to follow. Relieved to be free of those two for a while, Luke didn’t protest when Xenia pulled him towards Graystone river sparkling in the distance.
Unlike in the city proper, the banks of the river were wild and untamed here. The far bank was overgrown with vegetation, but the one they were on had a clear little beach. Xenia led him along the water’s edge and Luke let himself relax and enjoy the view. It was nice to be in the countryside for a change. They walked along the bank for what seemed like an hour before Luke began to wonder where they were even going. He’d assumed they had been escaping as far as they could, but this seemed more like a hike than an attempt to hide.
“Um, excuse me, Xenia, but shouldn’t we return to El? I had some more deliveries to make. And he or the others might need me for something else later too.”
“They will live without you for one afternoon.” Xenia rolled her eyes. “And if someone has a problem, then it’s on me.”
Luke decided not to argue. Wilma and Betty were likely still looking for them. It was wise to lay low here for the time being. They kept walking. Sometimes Xenia left his side and went to wade through the water. She even dove in a few times, clothes, backpack and all. Luke felt mortified at first, seeing how strong the current appeared further in, but after she emerged as carefree as ever, Luke resigned himself to passively observing. Xenia seemed to enjoy being completely drenched, even though it wasn’t nearly hot enough to warrant such drastic measures.
He let the woman frolic in the water and instead watched the birds, trees and wildflowers on his bank of the river. The further they went the less often he saw houses between the trees and after a while they seemed to be completely away from civilization. The air was fresh and almost sweet, free of the pollution and the dust of the road.
After a while the land seemed so wild that Luke was surprised to make out silhouettes of people further away on his bank of the river. At first he felt alarmed, but as they got closer it became apparent that there was no ambush up ahead. It looked like preparations for some sort of folk festival. A couple dozen people in loose white and red clothes were gathering firewood and building bonfires, picking flowers and collecting other plants. A few teenage girls sat on the grass making wreaths out of twigs and flowers that lay stacked before them.
Luke watched a man toss more brushwood onto one of the unlit bonfires. When he looked at Xenia again, she was already holding half an armful of flowers.
“Well, it’s a bit early,” she mused, “But the rumor has it that you’re the helpful kind, so I guess we’ll help with the preparations.”
He looked at his companion confused. “Preparations? For what?”
“For the midsummer night, silly! I know it’s not the time for the Eastern one yet, but we will celebrate that one too, in early July!”
Luke stared at her cluelessly.
“Really? You’ve never heard about the midsummer?” Xenia gave him an incredulous look. “Come on, everyone always wants in on this one, even the Catholic church tried to make the holiday theirs. How about Nativity of Saint John the Baptist? Does that ring any bells? Uhh, I should probably hate that guy, but he did spend a lot of time in rivers, so I’m a little biased.”
“I know Saint John the Baptist, but I have never heard of such a holiday…”
Xenia chuckled. “Well, looks like you’re in for some education then. Now shoo, go find something to help with.”
Wilma and Betty entered the pimp’s office. If a visitor wasn’t tipped off by the location, one could have thought this neatly decorated little room was indeed just the office of the massage parlor’s owner, who in turn also looked completely inconspicuous and presentable.
The lithe black man in a pristinely white shirt tossed a cursory glance at them from behind a clean, well-organized desk. He arched one greying brow over his thick-rimmed glasses and turned back to his papers.
“I’m afraid I have no work for you. I have enough white chicks already, white chicks are now passé.” He flipped through the file in his hands, not sparing them another look. “Ta-ta.”
Wilma and Betty exchanged glances and did not move from place, Wilma grinned and crossed her arms. “Oh, Romeo, is this really the way to talk to old friends?”
The man at the desk grew ashen. He closed the file and sprung to his feet, hurrying around the table towards them in a most subservient manner. “My most heartfelt apologies! Wilma, Betty, you two look so young, I thought you were a couple of college dropouts, given up on scientific pursuits and looking for something more down-to-Earth.”
“So we look stupid?” Betty asked humorlessly.
“Heavens no! You look young is what I meant!” Romeo clapped his hands, smiling sheepishly. “Coffee? I know how you like your coffee, it’s with two drops of milk for Wilma and plain black for Betty.” Without waiting for a confirmation, Romeo hurried to the coffeemaker and set to work. “Whatever anyone told you is lies, blatant lies, I am as clean as a mint vinyl record, and if my dues don’t come through right, it must be that guy Clark, or someone above him, cause you can see my books, and you know how well I keep my books-”
“Romeo, relax,” Wilma drawled. “We’re not here for you. We just want information.”
The weight of the world seemed to fall off of Romeo’s shoulders. “Why didn’t you say so? Oh, but please, do take your seats, I’ll have the coffee for you in just a minute.”
The women sat down in the armchairs in front of the desk. Wilma studied the desk, while Betty stared unblinkingly at Romeo and every little movement involved in preparing their coffees. Noticing her look the man shifted uncomfortably and, offering an apologetic smile, stood so that she had a clear view as he got their cups off of a shelf and took milk out of a small fridge in anticipation of the brewing coffee.
Wilma grabbed a picture frame off Romeo’s desk and looked at the photo of Romeo and another black man, this one taller and with dreadlocks, embracing each other by the shoulders and grinning at the camera. “How’s the old ball and chain?” Wilma asked.
“We’re doing well, thank you for asking. What about yourselves? Either of you tied the knot? Perhaps looking to retire?”
Wilma laughed. “We just came, in and you would like to be rid of us that badly already?”
“No, no, no,” Romeo protested. “I’m myself just dreaming of retirement. And we’ve been in this business a similar amount of time, haven’t we?”
“We love our work,” Betty said coldly.
“Mhm.” Wilma set the photo frame back down. “Wouldn’t retire if they asked us to. Well, maybe if they asked real nicely.” She rubbed her fingers together, indicating money.
Romeo poured their coffee to their tastes and set the cups on tidy little coasters in front of the women and one in front of himself. “Now, how may I help you?”
“We want to know everything about that Mexican leprechaun and his freakshow on the other side of the Trap. Short guy, big hat. Has some scarecrow hippie gymnast chick working for him.”
“Oh, and that’s not the worst of them either.” Romeo waved a hand. “A freakshow is a good descriptor. El’s got all sorts there. But they’re hardly any trouble, if anything they’re good neighbors. Never causing any problems.”
“Yes, El, the Mexican you’re talking about. I hardly met him, but he does occasionally borrow my girls. It’s not sex work, though, more like improv theater, at least from what they’ve told me. They don’t seem to mind, and they get paid well for their time.”
“What does the Mexican do exactly? Drug trade? Smuggling? Or is he also just a pimp?”
Romeo frowned. “I am not sure he’s either of those things. He’s not one of you, or you wouldn’t have come to me, so I don’t think he’s doing anything criminal. I mean you would have known, I’m sure…”
“That’s what we thought too,” Wilma said. “But he’s been off the radar, just some homeless peddler of no financial or other interest, and now he’s suddenly getting in our way.”
“The hippie.” Betty chugged down her steaming black coffee in one go. “What about her?”
Romeo winced at the empty cup she lowered down on the table. He cradled his own coffee. “The hippie… You mean the chick with the wild hair and mismatched clothes? I don’t know much about her. I see her around sometimes. She’s part of El’s… entourage or something.”
“Is she mental?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?” Romeo shrugged. Then he looked aside and frowned, his hand rose to his face, and he tapped his lips with his index finger. “Now that you mention it, I think she did harass some of my girls a few times. Usually over clothes. They’d toss the item she wanted at her and she’d leave them alone. Yeah, kind of a nutjob that one. She never hurt them though, just…”
“Yes…” Romeo looked at Betty with one eyebrow raised, but her emotionless glare made the question die on his lips. “Eh, anyway, it seems you might know more on her account than I do.”
“What about the rest of the freakshow, any other weirdos you’ve heard about? Anything particularly odd?” Wilma leaned forward.
“Well, there’s this old woman. I heard she beat up a would-be robber.”
Wilma looked unimpressed.
“She, uh, broke both of his arms.”
The women looked at each other.
They left Romeo’s office some ten minutes later and walked out of the massage parlor onto the litter strewn streets of the Trap. At this early hour the place seemed almost dead, most of the inhabitants asleep, as nocturnal fauna should be. Betty adjusted her backup wig and gave Wilma a grim look.
“They’re using Lucky’s power. That nutter especially.”
“Yes, it would appear so.” Wilma led the way back to their car. It was parked outside the borders of the seedy little district. No one would consciously steal something from them, but judging by Romeo’s reaction they’d got too good at this whole disguise business. “But nothing happened when she did. No explosions, not even a fallen branch from that damn tree. Maybe Lucky’s power did change.”
“He can control it now?”
“Well, that would explain what happened. That makes him even more valuable if anything. Or if it really went away, and that crazy ho was just some kung fu master, well, then Lucky’s still worth a fortune. We can always cash his location in…” Wilma caught Betty’s doubtful look. “I meant the location of his body of course. He knows too much.”
Betty nodded with approval, her expression went back to vacant.
“So maybe those green smoke snakes weren’t as much baloney as we’d thought. Either they are using Lucky or well…” Wilma paused. “After all one of ours had informed the boss about Lucky and his uses. It’s not something a normal person would bring to him. And as ridiculous as it had sounded in theory, it proved to be a goldmine.”
“I still can’t believe it.”
“Me neither. But the boss does. And it does work.” Wilma shrugged, indifferent. “Lucky’s real. And it looks like there might be other unnatural weirdos around town. Pity they don’t know how to pick sides.” She shook her head in mock pity.
“Too bad for them,” Betty said.
They smirked at each other.
Luke tossed his own share of firewood on the bonfire and headed back towards the edge of the forest to get more. As he helped with the preparations, he noticed not all of the people at the festival were dressed in the peculiar white shirts with stripes of red patterns. Some, like him, wore everyday clothes. But they were in the minority. He felt additionally excluded, because most of the people seemed to be talking in an unfamiliar language, or even a few similar languages. Xenia mingled with the celebrants, showing no sign of a language barrier. After a while, she settled down to help the girls making the wreaths with expert advice.
Luke did not mind being left to his own devices. The people were friendly enough, and one of the other men collecting firewood even talked with him in English for a little while. He wanted to know about Xenia, if she was Luke’s wife or girlfriend. He was quite glad to hear she was neither.
As if on cue, another man chatted him up, and then another. These were older men and they didn’t want to know about Xenia, but were interested in Luke himself. They exchanged a few trivialities before one of the men, Fyodor, squinted and rubbed his stubbled chin, studying Luke.
“You know, I could have sworn I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
Luke almost dropped his bundle of sticks but tried to act casual. “I’m sure you are mistaken. I, eh, I just have one of those faces.”
“No, no, wait, I think I got it. It’s at the tip of my tongue. Ah! You look just like the million dollar guy from TV, the one that ran away from his family!”
“Like I said, I have one of those faces…” Luke avoided looking at the man and pretended he was trying hard to find a stick among some tall weeds. But he could feel Fyodor and the other man staring intently at his back. He felt his heart begin to race, preparing for a new disaster. This time one that had no supernatural cause.
“Oh? You think my cousin looks similar enough that I could send him in and collect that reward?” Xenia appeared out of nowhere, eyes ablaze. She pulled Luke out of the bushes and made him stand straight and face the two men. “He does look a lot like the guy from TV, oh, he can pretend to be amnesiac, we could be rich!”
“That would be awfully mean of you,” Fyodor’s companion said. He shook his head with disapproval. “The lost guy’s wife was so desperate, how could you think to take advantage of her? And Luke here hardly looks like the guy from TV. He’s all skin and bones.”
Fyodor shrugged. “Ah, I guess, he does have one of them faces. Well, if you decided to go for it, I wouldn’t blame you, there’s more where that came from. That missing guy won what, fifteen million in the lottery?”
“I thought it was ten,” the other man said.
“I’m pretty sure it was fifteen…”
Xenia and Luke stepped aside, letting the two men argue.
“Thanks for helping me out again,” Luke said.
“No problem. But you know how you could thank me…” Xenia looked conspiratory. “When the young men, including you, go down to the river bank to catch the wreaths, do try to get mine.”
“Uh, sure, but how will I know?”
“Trust me.” Xenia chuckled. “You’ll know.”
Wyatt found himself once more at the dinner table with the Viteris. His visits to their household were growing uncannily frequent. It had already been frightening when Hector wanted to see him once a week and now it was twice a week already, and Ocher feared it could escalate to thrice a week before long. Luckily Hector seemed too busy for that. Even with a secretary to take his calls, a public relations department to answer to the media for him, and an army of lawyers headed by that blond snake with the spelling bee surname, running several legitimate businesses and a vast criminal empire kept Hector occupied and invaded his private time. Ocher was grateful for that. It was probably partially thanks to this state of affairs that so far he hadn’t been invited to stay the night in the Viteri mansion. So far.
The dinner consisted of salads, salmon steak and french fries. The latter seemed to be there mostly for Hector Jr., who piled a large portion of them on his plate, covering the slopes of that mountain with a long winding trail of ketchup. He picked the individual fries with his fingers and stuffed them into his mouth in a way that made one wonder how he managed to stay so lanky with that appetite. The salmon steak on his plate was dwindling only because he was feeding pieces of it to Phobos and Deimos that were lying under his side of the table.
Wyatt poked the fish in front of him with a fork, trying to ignore the dogs. He actually learnt to come here so hungry that in most situations he was able to pretend he had a healthy, normal appetite. It was just one of many such things he was learning. He thought, maybe if this was finally over one day, and he’d still be around to see it, he might become an actor instead of a geologist.
As was the usual custom, Hector Jr. was glaring at him when Hector Sr. wasn’t looking. Wyatt didn’t exactly dare to glare back, but this time he did not have a fake smile for the heir of the criminal empire either. He still couldn’t bring himself to forgive Hector’s son for walking out on him right before their first geography lesson that was supposed to happen last time he’d been here, and leaving him alone with his father. The make-out session that followed and which Wyatt had never wanted to happen had only been interrupted by one of Hector’s men calling his boss up on the walkie-talkie to ask what to do with a body in the basement.
Hector looked up from his plate to smile at Wyatt, which Wyatt skillfully reciprocated. It was becoming an automatic reflex for him. One necessary for survival.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir. An urgent phone call from Mr. Shaazgai.” A short brunette with gold-rimmed glasses peeked into the room. Her face, while pretty, was completely devoid of emotions. The Man’s secretary fit in perfectly with the rest of his inhumane crime lord image.
“Excuse me,” Hector said. He left the table and followed his secretary out of the room.
With his father no longer at the table, Hector Jr. glared at Wyatt twice as hard. At first Wyatt had thought that he would die by Hector’s hand, but at this point, he started to be more afraid that instead this kid would one day stab him on his way out of one of his rendezvous with his dad. He had to do something about it.
About a minute passed like that, with them chewing in hateful silence, until Wyatt mustered up the nerve to say something. He put his fork and knife down, and looked at Hector Jr. seriously, “Listen, I can see that you don’t like me, but maybe we could-”
“No, you listen!” The teen hissed. “You may suck my dad’s dick, but that won’t make us friends. Or family. I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Your faggy grin makes me sick. I don’t know why dad feels he needs a groupie all of a sudden, but I don’t approve. And I won’t. Don’t try to win me over.”
Wyatt looked at the teen at a loss for words. Because he mostly agreed. He actually felt a spiritual connection with what Hector Jr. just said. He wished he could tell this young man that he did not suck his dad’s dick, and he really hoped he wouldn’t ever have to, and that the ‘faggy grin’ was probably the only thing that had kept him alive this long.
Instead, he just put his hands up, nodded and said some rubbish. “Alright, alright, no need to get angry. I’m not asking you to like me, I just thought that given the circumstances we could maybe learn to… co-exist?”
“I don’t wanna learn shit for your sake!” Hector Jr. pointed an accusing finger at Wyatt. “I love my dad, no matter what he does, ‘cause he’s my dad! You’re no one to me, and you’ll stay no one! Some fucked up faggot, who gets off on the messed up things my dad does. You’re even worse than him for all I care,” the young man barked and began stuffing himself with fries in a rage.
Wyatt stared at him slightly wide-eyed, but before he managed to come up with a reply or even properly analyze that response, Hector Sr. was back and so was the protective faggy grin.
The sun was setting. Circles of men and women danced around the bonfires, running and jumping, round and round. The air smelled of wood smoke and the burnt fragrant herbs.
Luke sat under a tree watching the revellers peacefully. Songs were sung, wild dances were danced, and then the young women and men split apart from the main group and hurried in opposite directions. The women carried the wreaths with lit candles away with them, and Luke realized it was his cue. He hurried with the young men further downstream. Most of them were in their late teens or twenties and most of them wore only trousers. Almost thirty and fully dressed, Luke felt a little out of place. He wondered briefly about their state of undress when he saw the lit wreaths float slowly down the river towards them.
The young men began to enter the water. Some of them charged right in, not afraid to get wet, others waded more carefully, shivering or cursing as they went. It looked like the river was shallow there and that spot had been chosen specifically because one had to get into the water to reach the incoming wreaths.
Luke began to quickly remove his shoes and roll up his trousers. He tossed his jacket, shoes and socks on the grass and managed to get into the water as the first young men snatched up wreaths with cries of triumph. The water felt freezing, but Luke barely noticed, trying hard to make out the details of the floating wreaths in the light of the thin candles affixed on them. He was completely lost. More and more wreaths left the water to triumphant cries of their catchers. Luke walked through the water, trying to get to a group of wreaths floating further away from the shore.
A yell came from behind him, and the guy who asked him about Xenia before rushed splashing through, headed for the wreaths. Luke watched him go, feeling he could never catch up, when he saw the black wig on top of the wreath floating the furthest away. Luke sped up, but the other guy was far ahead, rushing with no concern for how wet he got and how much he drenched the others. Luke saw him lunge forward, trying to snatch Xenia’s wreath, and disappear underwater in a splash. Either it was the man’s very violent movement or some underwater current, but the wreath floated a good several feet away from him. And the guy didn’t instantly reappear. Luke almost made it to him, when gasping and coughing the man reemerged and splashed about before regaining his bearing. It appeared the shallow part of the riverbed ended there.
Luke stopped. He couldn’t swim. The other guy seemed to be able to, but even he couldn’t catch up to the wreath as the river swiftly carried it further and further away. Luke stood in the cold water a moment longer, then got out on the bank. He wondered if he should try chasing the wreath on foot along the bank, but it had grown quite dark, and he was concerned about losing his way. He had been too careful. He should have rushed through the water like the other young men had done. He owed Xenia that much. At least the other guy didn’t get her wreath either. If it was any consolation for her. Luke sat on the grass, watching his rival climb onto the bank completely drenched, another girl’s wreath on his head. He looked a bit displeased, but seeing Luke’s forlorn expression he stopped and patted him on the shoulder.
“Good sport. Maybe next time. Wreath that floats far brings luck.” He smiled.
Luke tried to smile back, but it came out rather faint.
The young men hurried to find the girls whose wreaths they had picked, and soon Luke was left alone on the bank. He felt too guilty to face Xenia. Instead he put his shoes and jacket back on and just sat in place combing his fingers through the hair on the back of his head and watching the reflections of the distant bonfire in the dark water of the river.
A brighter set of lights caught his eye and, mesmerized, Luke watched Xenia’s wreath float slowly upstream, against the current, until it was mere feet away from the shore. Luke looked around in disbelief, but everyone else had returned to the bonfires. No one else was there to see it. He moved closer to the water on all fours, but before he could get himself wet again the wreath rose out of the water, and under it was Xenia.
She stood before him, water streaming down her copper hair, her mismatched clothes and her pale, shimmering skin. There was a look of mild disappointment in her eyes, but she tried to hide it behind a smile. “This will have to do.”
“I’m sorry,” Luke muttered. “I-”
She touched a finger to his lips. It was as cold as the river. Or even colder.
“Sh, do not worry. Now come, let’s look for the fern flower.”
Luke almost asked about the fern flower, he didn’t know fern had flowers. But he had just disappointed Xenia, the least he could do was play along. So he just nodded and let her lead him by the hand away from the river and into the forest. It appeared the other young couples also headed there.
They walked in almost complete darkness. The light of the bonfires did not reach here and unlike the other couples they took no extra candles but the ones in Xenia’s wreath. That appeared to be enough for her, as she confidently led Luke through the darkness, not once losing her footing and warning him about roots and bigger rocks to watch out for.
“What is the fern flower?” Luke asked. Xenia would probably appreciate the interest.
“The fern flower is magical. It blooms only once a year, this very night. It grants wisdom and wealth to whoever finds it. But it’s not easy to locate it or keep it, as the forest spirits don’t like to share. I would know.” Xenia chuckled.
Luke looked around them, noticing as the lights carried by the others grew smaller and smaller and vanished between the trees and shrubs. Now the only source of light were the candles on Xenia’s wreath.
“How can we find this flower in such darkness?”
“Ha, don’t worry, the fern flower is bright like a flame, it shines like a little sun, a fallen star-”
Luke froze. He thought he could see a pulsing glimmer of light ahead somewhere over Xenia’s head. It seemed to bounce up and down, shining through the branches. Luke’s blood grew cold.
Xenia tugged on his sleeve, but he didn’t notice.
All he saw was a ball of light rushing through the night sky, growing bigger and bigger, sputtering light as it hurled towards him. He ran. He ran as he had run through the fields that night, no longer curious, no longer eager to see the mysterious falling star up close, wanting nothing more than to get away, to get home. He had looked back that night. And all he saw was light, and then nothing. Nothing until the next day when he brought death and misfortune onto his village.
Luke sprinted through the forest, branches tearing at his clothes and skin. He tripped and fell and scrambled back up only to keep running straight, outside, away towards the fire.
Towards the fire of his parents’ farm.
The agonized bellows of cows, the shrieking of the pigs, the screams of his siblings – all rang out from the darkness around him, enveloping him. All of it was his fault. He had ventured out at night to see the mysterious flickering dot in the sky. He brought death and ruin on all of them.
“Luke! Luke, stop!”
Xenia was in front of him. She grabbed him by the shoulders with unexpected strength, then wrestled him down into a sitting position. Luke shook violently.
“It’s the forest spirits, Luke, they are trying to intimidate you so you can’t find the flower…”
Luke looked up at her, still half-lost in the terrible memory, the bonfire to their side transformed in his tear-filled eyes into the blazing husk of an Amish barn. “I don’t want to look for it, Xenia! I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can’t go back in there. I am so sorry!” Luke wept.
Xenia held him for a moment longer, then pulled him closer into an awkward hug. Luke held onto her wet clothes and wept into Wilma’s neckerchief around her neck.
“Sh, it’s alright now, you don’t have to go back there if you don’t want to.” Xenia patted his back a little too strongly, like she didn’t really know how. “We’re out of the forest. It’s all good now.”
Luke cried for a while, and she held him, letting his hot tears mix with the cold river water on her clothes. When he stopped sobbing, she pulled away and stood up. She gave the forest and the bonfires a cursory look. “I don’t imagine you want to jump over a bonfire with me,” she stated rather than asked.
Luke tried to muster the courage to protest and say he would do it for her, but in the end he just shook his head and began muttering apologies.
“Thought so. Nevermind. Let’s get you next to a fire regardless, you’re almost as wet as I am.”
She easily pulled him to his feet and then guided him towards the older revellers who sat chatting by the bonfires. Seeing the scratched up state he was in one of the women hurried to get a first aid kit from a car that Luke only now noticed was parked under one of the trees. Not far from it, right at the edge of the forest was a large signpost. It read ‘Private property. No trespassing.’
Luke noticed the way everyone was staring at him and touched a hand to his stinging cheek, it came off bloody. This was what he got for breaking the rules. It could have been so much worse, though. Luke clutched the talisman under his shirt with his other hand. Yes. It could have been much, much worse.
* * *
Splish. Splush. Splash.
Went Xenia’s wet feet across the stones as she descended deeper into the cenote.
El sat with his back to her and smoked a cigar at the water’s edge. She turned around and fell back over the edge and into the clear water, lilies opening up around her. She caught his attention.
“I’m exhausted,” she said, lying on the water as if it was the most comfortable bed. Her hair drifted everywhere around her. “Your little star is a piece of work. I don’t know if I can make him what you need after all.”
“Oh? And you were already able to determine that?”
“Yes, I tried and tried, and I could not get him interested. Each time I want him to look at me, he looks away instead. Who even does that?”
El smiled. “Don’t you think it was a bit too early to fall back on your female charms?”
“It’s never too early for that! But it’s not working.” She puckered her lips, staring in frustration at the rock formations above them.
“When Penny brought me your message, you had more faith in yourself. And I’d like you to keep that attitude.” El let out a puff of smoke, and serpentine wisps slithered their way above the water surface, meandering between the lilies. “I always have faith in you, Xenia.”
She rolled her eyes, and sighed, looking back at the man. “Sure, for you I’ll keep trying. It’s not like I don’t want to, he’s rather cute all in all, he just… thinks too much, but not in a smart way.”
El smiled. “And maybe you can change his mind. It would be great if he learned to show initiative, we could really use that. But in the end nothing happens if you fail. It’s just me trying to optimize things, as always, you know how I am. Still, even if nothing comes out of this, I’d like you to keep an eye on him.”
“Oh that I will, there’s two other women out to get him, can you believe it? Over my dead body!”
They both laughed.
Xenia turned over in the water and swam towards El, resting her elbows on the stone before him, looking up. “Tell me one thing, though, why do you always have Penny climb, when you could just see him down here?”
“That’s simple. He’s too used to going down.” El smiled a crooked smile at her. “Besides, you and I both know that he could use the exercise.”