Conjured, Page 2Sarah Beth Durst
She dried herself and dressed. As the steam in the mirror faded, it tossed bits of her reflection back at her. Hair. Shoulder. Cheek. In a clear corner of the mirror, her eyes stared back at her, and she touched the image and then touched next to her eyes. “You should be green,” she said, suddenly certain. “Be green.”
She heard a rushing in her ears as black-brown drained out of the eyes in the mirror. Green infused the irises, spreading out from the pupils.
And then her legs folded underneath her.
I feel a brush in my hair.
“It always begins with ‘once upon a time,’ my dear. That is how it is, even if ‘once upon a time’ is now.” Gnarled hands separate the strands of my hair and wind them around knuckles. “A witch … for of course there was a witch. There always is, isn’t there? She had stars in her eyes and dust in her hair. She heard the sounds of the forest when she moved and the ocean when she spoke.” The Storyteller tilts my chin up. “Such pretty eyes. Such a pretty, pretty girl.”
The Storyteller is not pretty. Her face is shrunken in wrinkles, as if her skin were a squeezed dishrag. Her eyes are milky red, clouding out whatever their true color was. Her knuckles on the hand that holds my chin are knobs that curl her fingers. But she smiles at me, and it is like sunshine.
“There’s a girl too,” she says, “in a tower, and it doesn’t matter whether she wakes or sleeps, for she’s locked inside with a world laid out before her that she cannot touch.”
She threads a piece of yarn through a needle. It’s straw-yellow yarn.
“And so the girl sleeps and dreams wonderful dreams of horses in sea foam and birds that carry her to the tallest mountain. Lovely, lovely dreams of a pretty, pretty girl.”
Her fingers wrap around my wrist, and she smiles at me.
Then she plunges the sewing needle into my arm.
Footsteps echoed from outside in the hall. “Eve, is everything all right?” Aunt Nicki called through the door.
Splayed on the floor, Eve clutched the wet towel against her chest. She hugged it tight as she concentrated on breathing. In, out. In, out. In …
The doorknob twisted.
Eve tried to find her voice to answer. “F-fine.”
The doorknob stopped.
“Just … slipped. I slipped. I’m fine.” Eve rubbed her arms. Goose bumps prickled her skin. Everything ached. She winced as she touched her elbow. She must have hit it hard.
“Come to the kitchen when you’re done,” Aunt Nicki said. “We need to talk about what you’re going to do while you’re here.” Footsteps retreated from the door. Eve counted them—nine to the kitchen—and then pried herself off the floor. She used the sink to pull herself up and peered into the mirror.
Green eyes stared back at her.
“Such pretty eyes,” she whispered, touching her face. Shuddering, she backed away from the mirror. She staggered out of the bathroom. By the time she reached the kitchen (nine steps later), she felt steadier. Taking a deep breath, she entered.
Aunt Nicki stood in front of a toaster. She was dropping bread into the slots. “Orange juice is in the fridge,” she said without looking at Eve. “That’s a typical breakfast drink. You aren’t old enough for coffee.”
Eve nodded. She didn’t bother to question the statement, not without Malcolm here. She didn’t think Aunt Nicki would be so patient with explanations. Aunt Nicki hadn’t even turned around, not to greet her, not even to notice her eyes. I should have changed them back, she thought. But green … felt right.
The shade was up again, or still, in the kitchen, and she was drawn to the window. Outside was the same matte gray as yesterday. For an instant, she thought that maybe it was still yesterday and she’d imagined the dark, silent night with the sounds of cars and the cold streetlight outside her window. But no, she could feel the damp hair on her neck from her shower, and her elbow ached from the fall.
“Malcolm isn’t here,” Eve said. She knew as soon as the words left her mouth that it was true. She didn’t hear any other sounds in the house. It was just the two of them, squeezed into the cramped kitchen. She’d thought she would like it with fewer agents around, but she didn’t. It made the house feel tight around her, as if it had shrunk in the night.
She shouldn’t miss him. Just because he’d chosen shirts in her favorite colors. Just because he explained seat belts and cameras and pizza and television. Just because she knew him better than anyone else she could remember …
“He’ll be here for you any minute,” Aunt Nicki said. With a butter knife, she gestured at a stack of papers on the table. “Read those. You need to choose one.”
Eve sat down in one of the chairs. It swayed under her, and she planted her feet on the ground, though she wasn’t sure how that would help her from falling if the chair decided to break. She picked up the papers and read “Job Description” at the top and “Duties and Requirements” underneath. Each sheet followed the same format. “A job?”
“Yes, a job,” Aunt Nicki said. “A summer job. Work for money. It’s what ordinary teenagers like you do in the summer.” Eve noticed that Aunt Nicki hadn’t looked at her yet. She fixed her eyes everywhere but at Eve—the table, the papers, the sink, the counter, the toaster. Yesterday’s friendly hug must have been for Malcolm’s benefit. Eve bet that popcorn and movie night wasn’t about to happen.
Eve flipped through the papers: pet shop clerk, hostess, library assistant …
“You can’t sit in the house by yourself all day,” Aunt Nicki said. “And I can’t be here to babysit you all the time. I have other responsibilities too.”
As Aunt Nicki fetched the margarine from the fridge, Eve scanned through the pet shop clerk description. Cleaning cages, feeding animals … She imagined cage after cage of birds and rodents, all watching her. She set that job aside. Next one was a hostess at a restaurant called the Firehouse Café. She didn’t remember ever having eaten in a restaurant. Malcolm had described one once, but that hardly qualified her.
“You need structure to your day,” Aunt Nicki said. “You need interaction and experiences. It will help.” The toaster popped, and she spread margarine on the browned bread. “Do you understand me? God, who knows if you do? It’s like talking to a brick.”
Eve had no idea what to say to that. She considered asking if Aunt Nicki normally talked to bricks. But the agent didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, at least not where Eve was concerned.
Choosing not to respond, Eve picked up the next job description. Library assistant. She ran her fingers over the words as she read. Shelving books, assisting the librarians with patrons, reading at children’s story hour. “Libraries … they’re the places with stories,” Eve said. Closing her eyes, she tried to summon up a memory of a library. Shelves of books. Sunlight falling across a table. She saw spiral stairs. It could have been a real place, or Malcolm could have shown her a picture at some point. It felt like a real place. She poked at the memory, but her mind didn’t yield anything but that image.
She opened her eyes to see Aunt Nicki watching her. Eve glanced down quickly at the job description—she didn’t know how the agent would react to her changed eye color. Aunt Nicki laid a plate of toast in front of Eve. “Good choice. You won’t disturb many people there.” Narrowing her eyes, she continued to study Eve as if she were cataloging her faults. “Fidget more. You hold yourself too still.”
Eve didn’t move. Heaving a sigh, Aunt Nicki grabbed the orange juice and poured a glass. She set it down hard on the table. Juice sloshed over the edges, and drops spattered the papers. “Serve yourself from here on in,” Aunt Nicki said. “I’m not here to wait on you. Just to watch you and guard you. Understood?”
Eve took a sip of the orange juice. It stung her tongue and tasted sweet at the same time. She set it back down. Aunt Nicki seemed to be waiting for a response. Again, Eve didn’t give her one.
The doorbell rang.
Aunt Nicki slapped a napkin on the table next to Eve’s untou
ched toast. “About damn time.” She marched out of the kitchen, and Eve listened as Malcolm entered the house.
Their voices drifted into the kitchen. “How is she?” Malcolm asked. Hearing his voice, Eve felt lighter. The muscles in her shoulders and neck loosened.
“Unreadable. Unreachable. Unchanged.”
“You need to give her time.”
“It’s been seven months already.”
Eve frowned. She knew she’d had memory losses while she’d been in the agency. Her mind had erased chunks of time here and there—hours, days—but still, she didn’t think the lost time added up to months. Weeks maybe. Of course, she had also lost additional weeks in the hospital before that. Days and nights had blurred together inside the hospital room while she’d recovered from the procedures, the surgeries that gave her this new body and face. But seven months? Her hands strayed to her face, near her eyes.
Months. Days. Years. Did it matter how much time she’d lost if she couldn’t remember anyway? It didn’t. She filled her lungs with air and then exhaled, as if she were flushing it all away. Postprocedure, one of the nurses at the hospital had showed her how to use the toilet and shower. Later, Eve had taken off the toilet tank cover and watched the chain mechanism raise the cap in the tank, and she’d waited while the float rose up until the water stilled. She liked the idea of sending what you didn’t want away from you and then waiting to be filled with clean water.
“You were fine with this yesterday,” Malcolm said. “What happened?”
“I hate being alone with her,” Aunt Nicki said. “She freaks me out.”
“Keep your gun on you, and stay alert.”
Eve picked up the piece of toast and nibbled at the edges. It felt as if she were swallowing sandstone. Crumbs scraped her throat, and her tongue felt slick from the margarine. But at least she could eat it. Bread always seemed to stay down. Her name was Eve, and she liked bread. That’s enough for now, she thought.
Malcolm and Aunt Nicki entered the kitchen, and the room felt crowded again. Eve shrank into her chair and put down the toast. “Did she select a job?” he asked Aunt Nicki.
“You can ask me directly,” Eve said.
Malcolm smiled as if he were proud of her, and Aunt Nicki looked at her as if the family dog had spoken.
Without meeting their eyes, Eve handed Malcolm the library assistant job description. “I like stories.”
“Good. That’s … good.” Malcolm accepted the description. “All right then, let’s go. I’ll tell you about libraries on the way. Unless …” He looked at Aunt Nicki.
Aunt Nicki shook her head. “We talked about orange juice.”
Eve took another sip of the acidic juice. At least she hadn’t had to explain why her eyes were green. Eyes down, she picked at her bread.
“Are you sure about this?” Aunt Nicki asked Malcolm.
“A routine will help her,” Malcolm said. “More stimulation.”
Since this was exactly what Aunt Nicki had proclaimed earlier, Eve wasn’t surprised when she nodded. “Again, you could talk directly to me,” Eve said.
“Will you say anything interesting back?” Aunt Nicki said. “Because you haven’t so far. This could all be a colossal waste of valuable time and resources.”
Eve studied her for a moment. “I don’t think I like you.”
Aunt Nicki raised her coffee cup as if toasting her. “Mutual.”
“Because I freak you out.”
“You eavesdropped,” Aunt Nicki said. “How industrious of you.”
“Drink your coffee, Nicki,” Malcolm said, sounding amused. “Eve, grab your coat. The library opens soon, and I’ll need to talk with the director before you can begin. We have an arrangement with her to place someone there as needed, but we’ll have to settle on the specifics. Nicki, let her know to expect us.”
Outside was yet another black car. This one lacked the tinted windows and hulked low to the ground. Malcolm checked up and down the street and also inside the car before he allowed Eve into the passenger seat. She fastened the seat belt as she’d been shown and looked back at the house. Aunt Nicki had locked the door behind them. It occurred to Eve that she didn’t have a key.
“Your address is 62 Hall Avenue,” Malcolm said as he climbed into the driver’s seat. He locked the door and then checked the rearview mirror as he pulled out of the parking spot. “You should memorize that. Also, I requisitioned a cell phone for you. It’s in the glove compartment.” He pointed. “If you need help, call. If you feel unsafe, call. If you even feel uncomfortable, call. I’ll come.”
Eve opened the glove compartment. A gun lay there. Next to it was a rectangular black box. She took the box out and closed the glove compartment. Inside the box was a sleek black phone, like the ones she’d seen the agents use.
“Keep it in your pocket at all times,” he said. “I’ve already programmed in my number and Nicki’s. But don’t use it to call anyone else. We monitor the call record.”
She had no one to call, or at least no numbers she remembered. She slid the phone into her jeans pocket. It dug into her hip.
“It also has a special tracking device,” Malcolm said. “In other words, it lets us find you at all times. Even if you don’t think we’re there, we’ll be there. You will be safe.”
Eve shrugged. She already knew they watched her at all times. It was what they did. They watched. So she watched them. She knew the muscles in Malcolm’s cheek twitched every time he concentrated. His forehead pinched when he was about to speak. He smiled with only half of his mouth. She knew his face better than she knew her own. If that freaked out Aunt Nicki, then so be it.
“You said you’d tell me about libraries,” Eve said.
He brightened. “Yes! Of course. Libraries are public buildings …” He launched into a full explanation—their history, their structure, their purpose. She watched his mouth move as he talked. It was always soothing to listen to him. Like the hum of a refrigerator.
Interrupting, she asked, “Why are you so kind to me?”
Startled, he shot her a look, but then he fixed his eyes back on the road, switching lanes to avoid a parked car. “You’re my case.”
“I’m Aunt Nicki’s too.”
“You were mine first.” He pulled into the parking lot of the East Somerville Public Library. More softly, he said, “Besides, you need someone to be kind to you. I don’t think anyone ever has been.”
She stared at him. For all the explaining he did, he never hinted about her past. Doctor’s orders, he’d claimed.
He parked, then turned to face her. “Remember, you’ll be in public. It’s imperative you follow the rules. Stay inconspicuous—Your eyes. They’re different.” His own eyes bugged, the whites startlingly white against his dark skin.
“I changed them,” Eve said. She looked down at her hands, twisted tight into a knot in her lap. She should have changed them back before he saw.
“You changed them,” Malcolm repeated. “Did you know you could do that?”
Eve thought about it. “I didn’t know I couldn’t.”
She watched him wipe his expression to carefully neutral. “It’s a good discovery. From now on, though, please limit your discoveries to when you are safe inside the agency. You can’t do that in public.” He held up his hand as if to forestall her reaction, though she hadn’t intended to respond. His voice was soft and gentle. “You can’t do any magic here. There is no magic in this world—that’s why this place is safe for you.”
She held her face still. Another hint about her past. He had told her so much in those few sentences, more than he’d ever told her before. There is no magic in this world, she thought. I’m from another world?
He clasped her hands in his. “Eve, I am serious. If you aren’t capable of this, if you don’t feel ready, let me know and we drive away right now. You don’t have to work here. You don’t have to stay in that house. We can return to the agency and wait until you’re ready.”
indness was back, filling his eyes, and for an instant she wanted to cling to his hands and say, Yes, take me back. Keep me safe. Stay with me. But she thought of the girl in the tower with a world laid out before her that she could not touch. “I want to be here.”
Eve liked the library at once. She and Malcolm walked into the lobby, and she inhaled the smell of paper and dust—it reminded her of Malcolm’s office at the agency. Books lined the shelves behind the circulation desk, and a bank of plants filled the windowsills.
A woman bustled up to them as they stood in the lobby. “Mr. Harrington? I’m Patti Langley, the library director. I’m afraid there’s been a bit of a mix-up regarding your request.”
Malcolm scowled, which on him was a formidable expression. His bushy eyebrows lowered to shade his eyes so they looked like dark craters.
Patti smiled so brightly that her eyes crinkled up until they nearly disappeared. “As I attempted to explain to your associate on the phone before she disconnected me—I’m sure accidentally—I know we told your office we had an assistant position available, but I’m afraid it’s been filled. We simply don’t have the funding for two assistants. Believe me when I say that our budget is out of my hands. I’m so terribly sorry for the inconvenience this may cause you.”
Eve looked at each of them, their expressions so exaggerated that they might have been dolls mimicking real expressions. She thought about telling Malcolm never mind. They could just leave. She could pick another job. But Malcolm didn’t so much as glance at Eve.
“This position doesn’t require funding, ma’am,” Malcolm said. “Surely the office told you that? Budget constraints aren’t a concern. We will handle the financial aspect.”
Patti’s face turned pink. “Oh!” She sounded like a mouse that had been squeezed. “Still, we only have work enough for one assistant.”
“Surely there are things to shelve.” Malcolm continued to scowl. “Eve will be an asset. She follows direction well. Never makes trouble. She’s the quiet type.”