Monday, June 16, 2008

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Poison Stones

Compass stared at the window for a long time, but the man Mark insisted was her father resolutely refused to reappear. Her pancakes grew cold, the syrup congealed on the plate, forming hieroglyphics of her disappointment. She stared until her eyes watered, but the street outside was as empty of fathers as her life to now had been.

“Compass,” Mark said gently. It wasn’t the first time he’d said her name in the last half hour, but it was just as gentle as the first. “He’s not coming back, Sweetie.”

He covered her hand with his own. Her fist was wrapped tight around the heavy metal fork which had long ago dripped the last of its butter and syrup on to the tabletop. Her knuckles were white with the effort of holding onto it—of holding onto something. She hadn’t breathed in a long time, it seemed. Hadn’t needed to or wanted to. Something inside her had just curled up and died, and finally she recognized it as hope. She knew it from its feathers.

She leaned her forehead against the cold of the window, let the fog of her breath cover the glass in front of her, closed her eyes. She let go of the fork.

“He wants the emerald,” she said, and turned to Mark. “He’ll have to find me to get it.”

“That’s right,” said Mark, startled. “I mean, unless you get rid of it before he does. Finds you, I mean. Before that.”

“No,” said Compass, picking up her napkin and wiping her dry lips, “I want him to find me.” She signaled imperially for the check which Mark had paid almost half an hour ago, and when it didn’t come right away, she forgot about it. She stood up, brushed at something sticky on her shirt, grabbed her backpack and walked out. “I’m going to the library,” she announced to no one in particular, and marched off in the wrong direction.

Mark was a minute or two behind her, having remembered to grab both his coat and hers from the backs of their chairs. He found Compass on the corner. The light indicated that she could walk across the street in the direction she was facing, should she decide to do so, but despite staring straight at the lit WALK sign, Compass seemed to be waiting patiently for something else to happen. Mark ran up behind her and wrapped her coat around her shoulders.

“What the heck is wrong with you? You were catatonic all over your breakfast, now you’re just not making any sense. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I have,” Compass turned to look at Mark. “Well, I almost did. Mark, my father’s been dead my whole life. Then you tell me he’s just on the other side of that window. I turn to look and poof! He’s already gone. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the behavior of ghosts?”

“He’s not a ghost, you know that.”

“He has been. He’s been trying to be a ghost, stay in the shadows, scare me like some low-rent bogeyman. I turn a corner, and he jumps out from behind and yells BOO! and disappears again. He’s all big, thumping boots and …” suddenly Compass was furious. She was so mad she was grabbing Mark by the front of his jacket and shouting in his face. “I fucking hate this! This is stupid! What the fuck!? What are we, children? Nine fucking years old playing hide-and-go-seek in the shadows on the playground? He’s a goddamn bully, Mark; he’s a stupid, fucking, ass-ignorant bully who missed out on a chance to know his daughter and now plans to make up for lost time by giving her eighteen separate heart attacks and then killing her. Well, FUCK. THAT. If he wants the goddamn emerald, he can COME FUCKING GET IT!” Compass held her backpack up to the sky and shouted for everyone in the street to hear: “COME FUCKING GET IT, OSWALD OR OSCAR OR OLIVER OR WHATEVER THE SCREAMING FUCK YOUR NAME IS. COME FIND ME! AND I WILL KICK YOUR SORRY BRITISH ARSE RIGHT BEFORE I SHOVE THIS STONE DOWN YOUR THROAT! OH, AND BY THE WAY, YOU IGNORANT SHITHEAD, I WAS UNDER THE DESK! HA!”

A few people in the street applauded Compass’s screaming rant, but this being Capitol Hill, most people ignored it. She wanted to shout more. She really really wanted to hit someone, but there was no one around who needed hitting. Instead, she shoved her arms into her backpack and took off at a sprint in the direction of the library. Unfortunately, the library was only a few blocks away, and she got there long before her rage was spent. Mark was just a few paces behind her.

“What the hell was that all about?” he shouted, as soon as he had breath enough.

“Don’t start,” said Compass. “I am so angry right now, I could probably rip out someone’s liver with my teeth. Don’t volunteer by pissing me off more.”

“What are you mad at me for?”

“I’m not. I’m mad at the world, and you’re standing the closest.”

“This is an angry morning for you.”

Compass took a deep breath, hissed it out between clenched teeth. “I will be sorry later. I will make the appropriate apologies later. I know I should make them now, but I don’t want to. Right now, I’m going to go in that library and read a lot of crap and probably tear out the pages of books I don’t like and doodle in the margins of shitty magazines. I will whisper too loudly and forget to put my phone on vibrate, and then I will call myself repeatedly from the pay phone. I will use the internet computers for 38 minutes instead of the allotted half-hour. I will steal the shitty little golf pencils and hold a séance where the card catalog used to be before laying waste to the entire Dewey decimal system. But first, I want you to go away before I make you hate me.”

“Compass, I don’t know if it’s safe.”

“Mark, go or I will probably rip your lips off. I’m in that kind of mood.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, please? Anger doesn’t make you invincible, no matter how you feel right now.”

Compass couldn’t look at him. She was afraid her eyes would shoot laser beams and lightening bolts that would hollow out his eye sockets and perforate his torso. She was afraid they wouldn’t. “Go. Please.”

He went. Without even a backward glance.

Compass watched him go for a minute, watched the still early-ish light of morning shine on his bald head, weakened with affection for just a second and thought about calling him back. But she couldn’t. Not right now. She turned and walked into the library.

“Curses, removal of,” was oddly not a recognized heading under the Library of Congress system. There was plenty under “curses,” but they seemed to be mostly about the art of cursing. Compass reckoned she had recently proved that she was as adept at that as the proverbial sailor, so she kept on searching. She scribbled down numbers on bits of paper so smooth the graphite seemed to slide across them—why, she wondered, did libraries insist on having wax paper to write on and finger-crampingly small, eraser-less pencils to write with? Why was this place of learning so insistent on making actual learning so difficult? Still, the books piled up around her, and the table she sat on started to look more like a nest than an area of scientific study.

The removal of curses varied as much as the curses themselves. There were some universal constants, though, nearly all of them unpleasant. Many seemed to involve some variety of nudity and animal sacrifice, which Compass, a shy, animal-rights activist and vegetarian was unlikely to indulge in. There was chanting—always in Latin. Why Latin? Compass hoped that pig Latin would suffice. It was all she had.

Hours passed. Compass finally gave up and went to the desk to request paper that didn’t fight with her and writing implements that left an actual imprint behind them. The librarian, sour as a stereotype, peevishly squeezed out six sheets of yellow notebook paper and a pen with an actual layer of crust around the tip. Compass didn’t thank her and took some satisfaction in that.

Lunchtime came and went, as did dinnertime. Her phone was turned off, not because she didn’t want to disturb the academic hush of the library—she secretly did, of course—but because she didn’t want to be interrupted. The emerald had been quiet all day, rocking as if in a cradle in the backpack slung by one strap over the back of Compass’s chair.

Stones were particularly good for cursing, Compass discovered. There was a notion that this had to do with their multiple facets, multiplicity making for highly flexible curses or something. History was full of cursed diamonds, rubies, opals. There was even a supposedly cursed turquoise belt buckle in Texas that appeared sometime in the 1820s, though that particular legend seemed even more apocryphal than most. Gold, being softer, held a curse longer than silver did, though the curse softened along with the metal as it was worked from one form into another. Opal curses nearly always involved fire, and rubies were good for curses that had to do with blood. Obsidian curses had to be invoked at night and generally lifted during daylight hours.

The history of curses was so engrossing, Compass nearly forgot her original mission. However, a chapter in the book Poison Stones: A History of Cursed Jewels brought her up short.

"Surely the deadliest cursed stone of all was the Hines emerald. Big as a baby’s fist but rather more dangerous, the trapiche emerald was cursed by the witch who’d worn it—and burned for it. No man would ever own the stone and live to enjoy it, Amelia Hines swore before succumbing to the flames. And as far as anyone knows, for the stone disappeared from the British Museum in 1966, no man ever has."

The book went on to tell the story that Compass had already heard from Ethan, plus a few gruesome deaths she hadn’t. The book estimated that the stone was responsible for nearly a hundred deaths before it disappeared, leaving a trail of twisted, burned, bloodied and very very dead men and women behind it.

Women weren’t immune to the stone, according to the book. Their deaths simply took longer. Men died violently but quickly, women slowly and of lingering, wasting diseases.

But mom didn’t have the stone, Compass thought. I’ve had the key to the emerald all along.

Her mother’s cancer wasn’t Amelia Hines’s fault, apparently. The hope that had arisen at the thought that it could be, and therefore perhaps would simply disappear when the matter of the emerald was resolved, faded, then dissolved completely. The book said nothing on how to reverse the curse, of course, and Compass was not at all pleased that the book took the curse as genuine instead of dismissing it as an amusing superstition.

Compass didn’t notice her stomach growling, didn’t notice the irritation of the librarian who wanted her library cleared well in advance of closing time. She certainly didn’t notice the man across the table from her.

“I’m terribly sorry,” she heard. Compass looked up. She was knee-deep in ancient Egypt and had to shake off the history that was sticking to her fingertips and the ends of her hair. Her eyes gradually cleared, the mists of old stories wisping away as she blinked her way back to the muted light of the research section.

“Closing time?” she asked, smiling at the oddly familiar face.

“Nearly,” he answered. The librarian came by to flap nervous hands at them and gesture mutely at the clock.

“Out in a tic, love,” the man at the table said to the librarian, who flapped away. Compass finally registered the British accent.

“You're Mina’s garbage man,” she said.

“Well, just that once,” her father said, and smiled.


Ash said...

OMG - First comment! :) All I can say is: Thank you, thank you thank you! What a nice surprise to check and find a chapter! Yay! :) More soon please!

NuclearToast said...

Oliver's timing, as always, is impeccable. Damn you and your cliffhangers!