“Aunt More Real”
(part 2 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
The girl huddled in the back corner of the bus froze mid-glance when a boy watching her from a few rows forward suddenly stuck out his tongue and ran the tip across his lips. Her momentary urge to mirror his action turned to revulsion when she realized that he was mocking the black lip balm she wore. She quickly looked away, only to be reminded of it again by her hoodie-framed reflection in the window. By the time she could make out details in the darkened street again, they’d passed the road sign.
‘Stupid girl,’ she silently scolded herself. ‘If you get lost and have to call home, Dad’ll ground you forever.’
Lauren was thirteen, and it was well past her bedtime. She’d left her cell home so her parents couldn’t track her. Breathing harder, she peered into the darkness outside her window, trying to make out the numbers on the storefronts as they went by. She didn’t know this part of town, and not all of the signs were visible in the dark. Two boys, who she guessed were a grade ahead of her, had boarded a few blocks after she did. They sat opposite one another, with their backs up against the bus walls and their feet sticking into the aisle. She swallowed nervously, and imagined herself trying to get past them. As she reached their row, they both pushed out from the walls, trapping her between their legs. She watched herself, panicked, too frightened to scream. Then they started to kick her from both sides at once, laughing the whole time. The pummeling wasn’t real, she knew, but the fear was, and her heart raced. It was enough to make her twitch, and the rebound drove her deeper into the pit of anxiety she’d been hiding in ever since her Aunt Muriel died.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, goth girl,” he said.
She looked past him to the side door, one row further on, and steeled herself for when she had to make a run for it.
“Yeah,” his counterpart said, laughing darkly. “That’s our job.”
Lauren bit her lip and forced her gaze back out the window, heeding her father’s warning not to engage with such people. A reflected headlight flashed in her eyes, and she remembered that he’d also told her that Aunt Muriel was barred from heaven, even though her mom said she was with god. Lauren didn’t know what to think. That’s why she sneaked out tonight, to get some answers. All she knew for sure was that her aunt had died of a drug overdose, and that she’d done it at a hotel on this bus route. It was her quest. Nothing else mattered.
If they said anything else, from then until the moment she saw the hotel sign approaching, she didn’t notice. She pulled the signal cord as she rose, steadied herself against the back of the seat in front of her, and stepped into the aisle. Taking a deep breath, she turned and started towards the side door just as the bus was beginning to slow. She passed them without incident, reached for the handhold beside the steps, and waited for the doors to open. She rushed outside and onto the sidewalk, breathing shallowly, looking only in front of her, and then stopped. The hotel entrance was directly in front of her. She was home free.
And then they both took a step forward and turned around to face her. The two boys had quietly followed her off the bus. They stood there, menacingly, with their arms folded, and their faces looking grim, waiting for her to… what? Lauren raised the bag that hung from her shoulder, and crossed her arms over it, clutching it to her chest.
“There!” said the one that had shared her side of the bus, pointing at the bag, “just like I said. She’s a runaway. I’ll bet she’s got her daddy’s money or credit cards stashed in that thing.”
Lauren grimaced, breathing more quickly now, her heart loud in her ears.
“So what are we waiting for?” the other one said, sounding almost as nervous as Lauren felt.
She caught herself, took a deeper breath and looked straight ahead, at the double glass doors to the hotel. You can’t turn back now, she told herself, recalling the brief chat she’d had with her Aunt Muriel the day after her eleventh birthday party. ‘There are a lot of things you’ve got to learn on your own,’ her aunt had told her. ‘But the most important one is to trust yourself. When you know deep inside that you have to do something, don’t let anyone stop you. Anyone.’
Gathering her strength, she looked directly at the first boy, and took a step forward.
His confederate rushed to block her way like a pawn on a chessboard. “Oh, no you don’t.” he said, wiggling the fingers of his outstretched hand. “There’s nobody in there gonna save you. Give it here. The money. Now!”
“You heard him, goth girl,” the first one said, his voice low and ominous. “Hand it over and we won’t lay a finger on you. Refuse, and… well, I think you know what’ll happen.”
Lauren felt trapped. She didn’t have what they wanted to begin with, so she couldn’t take a chance on them keeping their word. She could turn and run into the street, or take off to the left, where the second boy had been earlier. But neither path would get her any closer to the hotel.
“I said,” the first one growled, “hand it over. We don’t have all day.”
“All night.” Her words burst out unbidden, and they had the force of a rebuke.
Unsure of where the thought had come from, she decided to play the hand as it lay. “All night,” she repeated, striving for confidence. “You don’t have all night.”
He flinched, and glanced uncertainly at his comrade. “Who are you anyway?”
This time the response was obvious. “I’m a goth girl, remember? Now get out of my way!”
The two boys looked at one another for a moment, then he straightened and eyed her suspiciously. “No you’re not,” he said, nodding slowly, “you’re some kind of witch, aren’t you.”
Sensing a change in her fortunes, Lauren narrowed her eyes, raised her left hand in a claw and reared back like she was going to throw a fireball at him.
“She’s something all right,” the first one said as he turned to run. “Psycho. Come on, let’s flash.”
Feeling giddy, she let it fly, and imagined the flames burning all the hate out of them. When she turned back towards the hotel entrance, there was a man in a uniform standing there, grinning.
“Well done,” he said.
“You saw that?”
He nodded. “I did. Actually, I could feel you looking for me. So when I saw what was happening, I touched in and bucked up your confidence a bit.”
Lauren peered at him curiously. “Did you make me say that? To correct him like that?”
“No, that was you. All I did was strengthen your resolve. Added some energy to your tank, in a manner of speaking.”
“Me? Who are you? How did you do that?” A second later, she added, “Do you know what really happened to my Aunt Muriel?”
“Muriel? Do you mean Dr. Green?”
She nodded vigorously. “Yeah. Dr. Muriel Green, or as she liked me to call her, ‘more real’.”
He mouthed her last two words and stifled a laugh.
“Hey, what’s so funny?” she said indignantly. “My aunt’s dead. Didn’t she kill herself in your hotel?”
“We’ll get to that later. What’s funny is I finally understand her joke. When your aunt called the hot line, she asked me to call her Leslie. It’s word magick. Muriel: more real. Leslie: less lie. Do you see?”
She made a face. “Not… really, but I do have some questions. If, um, you don’t mind.”
“Of course, of course. I’m Henri Bequerat, by the way, and I play night concierge here when I’m not learning wizardry.” He glanced around at the night. “Hmmm. Isn’t it a bit late for you to be out on the town, miss…?”
Lauren didn’t answer immediately. She’d flashed back to a scolding she gotten for texting someone about family business. She wanted to say more, but all she could get out was her first name.
Henri nodded, but didn’t say anything more.
As the awkward seconds dragged by, she caught the yellow glint of a passing car reflected in the glass of the hotel door. Candleflame was her aunt’s favorite color, and the sudden association focused her back on her quest, and to the moment. “Prendergast,” she blurted, “my last name is Prendergast. Aunt more real was my mother’s sister. You’re not going to call my parents, are you?”
“How could I? You’d have to give me their number first, wouldn’t you? Look, it’s awkward having a conversation out here. Would you mind if we went inside? I can’t hear the phone over this traffic noise.”
The phone was ringing when Henri opened the door for Lauren, so he rushed behind the counter to deal with it while she explored the lobby area, the bag still clutched tightly to her chest. It was an independent hotel, not one of the chains that her father stayed at while on business trips. There was a rack with copies of the local weekly, fliers about various area attractions, and some maps. In one corner, there was a machine for making hot drinks, and beside it, cartridges for all sorts of things: coffee, tea, broth and hot chocolate.
But what really piqued her curiosity was the small box that Henri kept fingering while he was on the phone. She kept glancing back at it as she circled the room, getting a look at it from various directions. It looked like it was made of wood, and it was painted a deep blue. She climbed on a chair to get a better look at the top, which had an odd design in fine white lines. It was hard to make out from that distance, but the curved line that ran through the patchwork of boxes and dotted lines reminded her of a spiral seashell that her aunt had given her. She was still craning to see the box when Henri hung up the phone and turned to look at her.
“Find something interesting?” he asked.
She pointed. “What’s that?”
Henri picked up the box and angled it so she could see the design on the cover. “I’ll make you a deal, Miss Prendergast. If you tell me what treasure you have in that bag, I’ll show you some magick. But didn’t you come here to ask about your aunt?”
For a moment, her curiosity fought with her fear of being found out, but then they both stepped back as the drive for the truth about her aunt walked between them and started frantically working her mouth. “I’ve got to know what really happened, Mr. Bequerat. What I know about my aunt and what my parents tell me about her can’t both be true, can they? I mean, she’s so kind. How could she be damned? How could she have killed herself? She wasn’t a drug addict. She couldn’t be!”
Henri put the box down and came around to the front of the counter. “I can tell you what I know, Lauren.” He spoke calmly, gently. “But she was a stranger to me until that night, until she called the hot line where I volunteered. I didn’t get to speak with her for very long, either. But I was there when she died. And I can tell you honestly that her room did not look like that of a drug addict. I’ve seen some here at the hotel. I know what that looks like.”
She frowned. “But that’s what they told me. They said she died of a drug overdose.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“Well, which is it? Did she or didn’t she?”
He glanced at the hot drink machine. “I think I can answer that better over some hot chocolate. Do you want the kind with marshmallows?” She just looked at him, so he popped a cartridge into the machine, and handed her a steaming cup of chocolate. Then he grabbed a second cartridge, but instead of putting it into the machine, he carefully peeled back the foil, emptied it into his cup, added a tiny bit of water, and stirred it until it was a thick, brown syrup. “All right then,” he said, showing her his cup, which of these is the right way to use the cartridges, yours, or mine?”
Lauren looked at him like he was crazy. “Well, mine, of course. It says right on the label that it’s for making hot chocolate.”
“Is it? What if what I wanted to do was to make syrup for my ice cream?” He raised the cup. “Is this still the wrong way to use it?”
“I guess not, but the label said to make it in the machine. You didn’t follow the instructions.”
Henri laughed approvingly. “You’re right. I didn’t follow the instructions on the package. But is that the only way it can be used?”
“How should I know?” she said, annoyed. “Besides, what does this have to do with my aunt?”
“We’re getting there. I did follow instructions — another set of instructions. They’re on the box that the cartridges came in. It’s just a different way to use the product. But does that make what I did wrong?”
She looked at her cup, and then at Henri’s. She took a sip, swallowed, and looked at the two empty cartridges. “Are you saying that Aunt more real used drugs, like my parents told me, but not the way they were talking about?”
The door opened and two people walked in before he’d had a chance to answer. As they approached, he rushed back around the counter and started to greet them.
“Look,” the man broke in hurriedly before Henri had finished naming the hotel, “there’s a woman on her way down here right now. Madeline Rice, or at least that’s the name she’s using this week. She called about ten minutes ago. Did you take the call?”
Henri shrugged. “Well, yeah. She asked if we had any doubles. Is there a problem?”
“You’re damn right there’s a problem. That shrew stole my phone. That’s how I know she called here.”
Lauren, who’d been watching the exchange from her spot beside the drinks machine, backed away along the wall, but kept her eyes on the woman he’d come in with. She was all too familiar with the accusatory tone in the man’s voice, and saw a bit of her mother in the wince she shook off when he mentioned the caller’s name.
“What is it that you want me to do?” Henri’s voice was calm, but the squeak of his fingers sliding across the counter put an edge to it.
“Albert, please,” the woman said tightly. “Not here. Not in front of the girl.”
He turned and glared at Lauren for a heated moment, and then looked at Henri. “Who’s the brat? Isn’t it past her bedtime?” A leer crossed his face. “Or is she here for you?”
Lauren exchanged a breathless glance with Henri, and tightened her grip around her bag.
“She’s not your business, sir. Now if you’d please tell me what all of this is about, maybe we can prevent a—.”
A squeal of truck brakes from the street stayed his words just long enough for the door to swing open, followed by a desperate-looking woman with a backpack slung over her shoulder.
“You’re not sneaking out again like last time,” Albert said angrily as he headed towards the door, reaching out to grab her wrist.
Lauren glanced from Madeline to Albert, and then fixed Henri with a fearful wordless question. He’d used whatever magic he did to help her out against those two boys. This looked a whole lot nastier. What was he going to do now? As she watched, Madeline deftly changed direction, but in backing away from Albert’s outstretched arm, she came closer to where Lauren stood. She had no idea what the argument was about, but she had the fleeting feeling that she shared some sort of kinship with Madeline, and that made her curious about the backpack.
“It’s mine, Lola,” Madeline said sharply, and punctuated the assertion by slapping her right hand on the strap over her left shoulder. “Call off that Doberman of yours.”
“All right, all of you,” Henri said from behind the counter, “I get that you’re in the midst of a family squabble, but I really can’t allow you to have it out in my lobby.”
Albert crossed his arms. “What are you going to do, call the cops? Look, that woman stole something of ours, and we intend to get it back, one way or the other. I don’t want to get the police involved, but if that’s your game, so be it.”
Lauren took a few steps into the room so she could get a better look at Madeline. She looked like she’d been crying. What was all this about, anyway? Who was in the right, here?
“As a matter of fact,” Henri said, “I was going to offer you all a room on the second floor. Have it out up there. It’s neutral ground. Private. But there’s one rule: you all have to be civil with one another. I hear any yelling, and I’ll lock you all in and call the police. Have we got a deal?”
Albert made a face. “What are you, nuts?”
“Do it here?” Madeline asked incredulously at almost the same time.
“I’m serious. Hear me out. There’s obviously a lot of history in whatever situation you three are trapped in. I’d wager that this isn’t the first time you’ve tried to resolve it, either. That much is obvious from the little you’ve said to one another since you got here. It’s a pattern, a choreographed set of rituals that you haven’t been able to complete, because it’s all too painful.”
Lauren perked up at the mention of rituals, because that fit with what he’d said earlier about learning to be a wizard. She eyed the blue box again, curious about its secret.
“But there’s a reason for it,” he went on, and let the thought linger for a beat. “Something you all need to experience before you can put this drama behind you and move on with your lives. That’s why you ended up here. The three of you needed something that none of you could bring to the table: a neutral place to have it out. Well, I’m offering you just that. You can either go up to room 243 and talk this through, or you can all get out of my hotel right now, knowing that you passed up the chance to finally put this thing to rest. That’s your choice. So, what’s it to be?”
The three of them stood in stunned silence for a long moment. Lauren carefully crossed the room and joined Henri behind the counter. She didn’t know much about him, but one thing was abundantly clear: he was anything but just a hotel desk clerk.
“I don’t know,” Madeline said to Henri while making eye contact with Lauren, “there’s two of them, and only one of me. How do you figure they’re not just going to steamroll me like last time? You’re right about that, at least. We’ve been down this road before.”
“Now you just stop it right there,” Lola said, taking a wary step closer. “You’re in the wrong here, and you know it! You stole from us. We have every right to be hard on you!”
“That’s enough from both of you,” Henri said, his voice calmly quiet. “Last chance. Room 243, or the street; pick.”
Albert raised a finger at Madeline. “This is your last chance, too, young woman. If we do this, you have to promise to stop this quest you’re on. We either resolve it somehow in that room, or we go our separate ways. Period. Can you live with that?”
Quest? Lauren mouthed the word that hid whatever it was that she had in common with this stranger, and it reminded her again of her aunt’s advice.
Madeline nodded her agreement. Henri stepped around the counter and handed her the keycard to the room. When he did, he told her something, but it was too faint for Lauren to make out. She handed him her backpack, and started towards the stairs. Albert and Lola followed.
When he returned to where Lauren was standing and laid the pack on a shelf, she eyed it curiously, and asked, “What did you just say to her?”
“Nothing important. Just that she held the key to the situation in more ways than one.”
“What’s that mean?”
Henri straightened and thought for a while. “Well, remember I told you I was studying wizardry?”
“Part of it has to do with recognizing the magic in everyday life.”
“Magic? That wasn’t magic, it was an argument.”
“It was. But it was also a lot more than that. We all participate in stories that extend well beyond our waking lives.”
Lauren gave him a quizzical look. “You mean dreams?”
“Dreams, sure, but more than that. You came here to ask about your aunt, but in order to understand why she did what she did, you had to watch that argument with me. Our lives are intertwined, and not just with the people we meet, like those boys on the bus, but with the people we’re each connected to beyond this life.”
“Tell me something. Have you ever woken up inside a dream?”
“Well, sure. They’re a lot more fun that way.”
“And are you yourself or someone else in those dreams?”
“I’m me, of course, except I don’t usually look like me. Why?”
Henri looked at her for a moment before answering. “Your aunt showed me something I’d never seen before. I knew about it, but I’d never seen it. By the time she called the hot line that night, she’d been diagnosed with something that was going to kill her within six months, something that would cause her to lose control of her body and her mind first.”
Lauren nodded, and put the bag she’d been cradling on the floor beside her. “They didn’t tell me. My parents didn’t tell me. What was it?”
“I don’t know. But she discussed it with her doctor, and together they agreed that she could make an end to her life on her own terms. In this state, it’s called physician assisted suicide, and it’s perfectly legal.”
“So what they told me was true, sort of. That’s what the drugs were for?”
He nodded. “That’s right. Just like the chocolate syrup I made, it’s another way to use those drugs. But according to the law, she had to take them herself. That’s why she came here. She couldn’t do it at home for some reason, and I guess the two of us had worked out some sort of arrangement outside of this life for me to look after her at the end, to make sure she wouldn’t be interrupted.”
Lauren pulled a sketchbook out of her bag. “What did she show you?”
“I’d spoken to her on the phone at the crisis center, but I didn’t realize that she’d called from right here. She checked in during the day, so I didn’t meet her in person until after she’d taken the drugs. She was already unconscious by the time I finally entered her room, and I wouldn’t have even done that if she hadn’t been smoking pot as well.” He grinned, and chuckled to himself. “It was a non-smoking room, so naturally the smoke bothered another guest on the second floor, and I went to find out what was going on. Care to guess which room she was in?”
She glanced at Madeline’s backpack. “234?”
He nodded. “It’s funny. The numbers add up to nine, which signifies completion. It was a fitting place for your aunt to complete her time here on Earth, and unless I miss my guess, those three people up there are going to reach the end of that hurtful dance of theirs as well. But getting back to your aunt, just before the end, while I was in the room with her, I closed my eyes and let her final dream seep into my imagination.”
“You can do that?”
“So could you, if you practice. But what I saw. It was amazing. While your aunt was releasing her grip on this world, she dreamed of traveling through a place where those connections to other people were visible. Imagine flying through space, and each of the stars was the light of someone’s reality, seeping into the dreamtime. The ones she was connected to glowed brighter as she passed, and the whole thing seemed to dance and flicker like a cosmic candle flame.”
Lauren opened her sketchbook and showed him a drawing. Taken as a whole, it was a close-up of the top of a candle, with a vaguely smudged wick, and a flame made of thousands of tiny dots. “I drew this the night she died. Only I didn’t know that until her funeral.”
Henri closed his eyes and smiled happily. “That’s exactly the kind of magic I was talking about. You told me earlier that getting answers about your aunt was your quest. Well, setting out on a quest means stepping into a story.”
She nodded quickly. “That’s what she told me: to make my life more real, I had to practice being fictional.”
His tempo rose as well. “And when you do, you also accept the challenges that are an essential part of pursuing that quest. You can’t have one without the other. Those two boys were part of your story as well. That they were on that bus wasn’t an accident. They weren’t evil.”
Lauren closed her eyes and savored the moment. The energy she felt was familiar, comforting. It was as if her aunt was nearby, watching, and happy with what she saw.
“Those boys weren’t consciously aware of it,” Henri went on, “but I think they were on that bus to help you, to make the story of your quest more real by creating a challenge for you to overcome. They were playing out roles that they’d agreed to outside of this life. That’s why they flanked you on the sidewalk. It was just as much a ritual as those three people upstairs played out when they faced off across the lobby. You’re in the story of a quest. They’re in some other kind of story. And your aunt, well, now that she’s finished the role she was playing here, she’s free to spend time in some other story, in some other life. It can be in the past or the future. It can be here on Earth, or in some other kind of place. And it doesn’t have to be as a person. If she wants, she can spend some time being a furry companion to someone who desperately needs one. Who knows, maybe even you?”
The door opened, and Lauren looked around. It was her mother.
“Lauren,” she said, her free hand tightly clutching a cell phone, “thank God you’re safe. I don’t know whether to be furious or relieved, but I’m glad I found you. I was worried sick that you’d gotten into trouble.”
Unsure how to react, Lauren said, “How did you find me? I left my cell home.”
“Maybe so, but you didn’t silence it. There was a flurry of messages, so I went upstairs to ask you to put it away and go to sleep. When I picked it up, I saw this.”
Lauren peered at the little screen. It was a dark picture, so she couldn’t tell what it was. When she approached, her mother handed it to her. The picture was of her, taken when she just about to throw that imaginary fireball at the two boys.
“Whoever took this posted it for their friends to see. Someone ID’d you from it, and passed the word. Whatever were you doing?”
She glanced at Henri, and said, “Scaring off two boys who were threatening me.”
“But why did you leave? What are you doing here?”
“This is where Aunt Muriel died. He was there. I came to ask what happened.”
“To ask? But, Lauren, we told you what happened. Your aunt died from a drug overdose. You heard your father. She was a drug addict. It was an accident, a horrible accident.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Prendergast, but you’re wrong about that. She may have died from a drug overdose, but she was no addict. Believe me, I know a druggie’s room when I see it.”
“Oh, do you?” she said, looking askance at him. “So does that mean this dump of your is a magnet for such people?”
Lauren was indignant. “It is not a dump, mom.”
“Oh?” she answered haughtily, and then focused on Henri. “Have you had her in one of your rooms, then? Is that how she knows this? Just who are you, anyway?”
“My name’s Henri Bequerat, ma’am. I spoke to your sister on the suicide prevention hot line earlier that evening. I didn’t know it at the time, but she’d called from one of the rooms here. By the time I found her, it was already too late to do anything.”
She pointed an accusatory finger at him. “The hot line? You spoke with her on the hot line? Then why the hell didn’t you talk her out of it?”
“That’s not what she called for,” he said calmly. “It’s not what she needed.”
“Don’t give me that!” she said, the heat rising in her voice. “I’m her sister. I ought to know her a damn sight better than you ever could.”
He nodded in serene agreement. “That’s right, Mrs. Prendergast, you should. But I don’t think you do. Lauren told me that she—.”
She cut him off. “Lauren’s 13 years old. She’s just a child. What does she know about—.”
“I know what was important to her, mom,” Lauren said, the fierceness of her encounter with the boys once again in her voice. “She taught me a lot; things that you and daddy make fun of behind her back, but they’re real. They’re true. She told me secrets she never even told you about, because I trust her, I believe in her. If Mr. Bequerat says she wasn’t a drug addict, then she wasn’t.” She ran back to her bag, closed her sketchbook and slipped it inside, then picked it up and stood beside Henri, hoping that he’d use some of whatever magic he knew against her. “I came here for answers; for the truth. Aunt more real said that if there’s something really important to me, I shouldn’t let anyone stop me from getting it.”
“You tell her, kid!” It was Madeline, back down from the second floor.
Mrs. Prendergast glared at her. “And who are you supposed to be? Her fairy godmother?”
“After what just happened upstairs, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Henry raised his palm for pause, and turned towards Madeline. “Something happened? I hope you weren’t harmed.”
She laughed. “Hardly. But tell me something. What is it about that room, anyway?”
“I don’t understand. Did something happen?”
“It did alright. Those two sourpusses started in again the moment the door closed behind us. I could hardly get in a word edgewise. It got pretty loud, too. And then, out of the blue, there was this smell.”
“Yeah, pot smoke. Unmistakably. It was so strong the shock shut them both up long enough for me to tell them— well, it’s not important for you to know. Thing was, after I told them, they started talking to one another. I don’t think they’ve done that for a long time. I guess it must have been something they needed a crisis to get past, because a few minutes later they told me I could go. The thing in my pack had been a sore point between them for years.”
“I knew it,” Lauren said, looking towards the stairs. “She’s still here. My aunt’s been waiting for me to get here so she could say goodbye.”
“Lauren Prendergast,” her mother said sternly, “your aunt is dead. And the sooner you get that through your head, the better off you’ll be.”
“Does it make you feel better to believe that?” asked Henri. “This is what your daughter needs to believe right now. If it makes her feel better, what’s the harm?”
“But it’s a lie!”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Madeline said as she collected her backpack and started towards the door, “but suit yourself.”
Once Madeline was safely outside, Mrs. Prendergast turned her ire against Henri. “I don’t know what your game is, mister, but if you know what’s good for you, you’ll just drop this whole farce right now. My daughter may have sneaked out after bedtime to come here, but I’ll tell the cops you lured her in somehow. I’ll ruin you. I’ll make sure never get work in this city again. And as far as I’m concerned, good riddance!”
Lauren stood her ground. “No you won’t, mom. You can’t. Mr. Bequerat’s a wizard. He used his magic to help me chase those boys away, and he’ll use it against you if I ask him to.” She turned to look at him. “Won’t you?”
Henri took a deep breath. “All right. Let’s everyone calm down here. Lauren, being fictional has its uses, but there’s no call for making up stories just to get your way. Mrs. Prendergast, I’m sorry that I kept your daughter up so late, but I also kept her out of trouble until you could find her. It’s true that your sister spent her last night here, but as I said, she was no druggie. What she did was morally ambiguous. I won’t argue that. Whether what she did was right or wrong depends entirely on what you believe. I chose to honor her beliefs by supporting her decision to end her life on her own terms. That was my choice, and I stand by it. As to your daughter, at some point, you’ll have to start honoring her choices. Right now, what she wants is to honor her aunt. She came here to find a truth, and I’ve told her. You’re in the unenviable position of having to balance two truths. What you choose to do is your own business. I just provide a place for playing out dramas like this.”
Lauren’s mother laughed humorlessly. “You rent rooms. Nothing more.” She extended her hand towards her daughter. “Lauren?”
“I also observe the people who come here. Including you.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just this: you came here because you care for your daughter. She came here because she was afraid of you. She doesn’t trust you because you’ve demonized your own sister, someone that she looks up to, in front of her. Why did you do that?”
She looked away. “That’s none of your business.”
“Maybe so, but it is Lauren’s business. Tell her.”
Lauren looked at Henri, and then at her mother. “Mom? Why?”
“It’s your father, all right? I did it because of him.”
She took a step closer. “What about dad?”
“Laszlo…” She frowned. “Laszlo’s pastor said she was a witch. He never questioned it, just took it as gospel, and threatened to leave us if I let her get too close to you.”
“But why, mom? What did she do? Who did she hurt?”
“I don’t think she ever hurt anyone, dear. But she was different. To hear your father tell it, she worshipped the devil. And when we saw you wearing black all the time… that pentagram poster you put on your door. We were afraid you’d be like her.”
“We?” Henri asked quietly. “I thought it was just your husband that was afraid of Muriel.”
She flinched, as if she’d tasted something bitter. “It was, at first.” She spoke slowly, as if she was dredging up old memories. “But after a while, I started to be afraid of her as well.”
“Mom!” Lauren said, scandalized. “Your own sister? How could you?”
“I don’t know, it just… happened.”
Mrs. Prendergast went a bit pale, so Henri crossed to the drinks machine and popped in a cartridge of tea. When it was ready, he handed it to her. “I think you should drink this. It’ll make you feel better.”
She took the cup, and looked at it for a moment. “Thanks. It’s Rita. You can call me Rita.”
Henri led her over to the conversation area, and they sat down to talk.
Lauren stood athwart the chairs, so she could keep an eye on the stairs, waiting for Albert and Lola to leave so she could go up to room 423. While they were busy, she casually returned to the counter and picked up the blue box. Without opening it, she set it down on the coffee table between them, and waited.
During a lull in the conversation, he reached over and picked it up. “Still curious?”
Lauren nodded enthusiastically. “You promised.”
“This,” he said, lifting the top off, “is my Anything Box.”
“An Anything Box?” Rita asked, perplexed. “Like in the Zenna Henderson story? I thought it was supposed to be invisible.”
Henri smiled. “You’ve read it?”
“Actually, Muriel read it to me. Before…” she hesitated, “well, before I got married.”
“It’s actually more like the Messiah’s Handbook from Richard Bach’s book, Illusions. Here, I’ll show you. Ask it a question, like you’d ask a seer or a sage.”
Rita thought for a long moment, and then she brightened and sat up. “Okay. What’s Lauren going to do when she grows up?”
Henri turned the box over on his hand, and lifted it off a pile of cards. He carefully cut them and shuffled several times while watching Lauren squirm. Finally, he cut the deck one last time and handed the top card to her. “Go ahead,” he said, “read it. Tell us your fortune.”
She slowly ran her finger along the edge of the card, and then read it aloud. “You teach best what you most need to learn.”
“Okay,” Henri said. “Now here’s the magic part. Divination. What does that mean to you.”
“Who, me?” Lauren asked, laughing. “You’re the one studying to be a wizard.”
“I’m serious. What is it that you most need to learn?”
“Come on,” her mother added. “I followed you this far. Tell me. What is it you most need to learn?”
“Okay,” Henri said. “It’s okay to ask for help. Imagine that your aunt is standing beside you, that she’s your spirit guide. What would she say?”
“That’s easy,” Lauren said, laughing, “to trust myself. She said there are a lot of things that you have to learn on your own, but the most important one is to trust yourself.”
“Hold on,” Rita said, clearly at a loss for something. “It’s good advice and all, but how does it answer my question? How could that be what Lauren’s going to do when she grows up? Where’s the magic in that?”
He picked up the box and showed her the design on the top, an arrangement of diminishing-size squares with a line curled through it like a nautilus shell. “Does this mean anything to you?”
“Muriel had a thing for it, but I have no idea why.”
“This is the golden ratio. It’s a mathematical pattern that’s repeated endlessly in the world around us, but it also hides some other secrets.”
Lauren reached out and carefully traced along the spiral on the box cover. “Like what?”
“It’s fractal — the same pattern repeats at different sizes and in different places. Lives can be fractal, too. We live patterns that repeat from one generation to the next, from dream to waking reality, from one lifetime to another. You asked what Lauren would do when she grows up. The card said that you teach best what you most need to learn — passing on what you learned to others. Well, for her, that’s learning to trust herself. She learned it from her aunt, and she’ll teach it to others. It’s a cycle, just like this design. The magic is that your daughter is going to follow in your sister’s footsteps.
Henri reached for a pen. “Do you mind if I add that quote to my box, Lauren? It’ll make the magic a bit… more real.”
[to be continued…]
Copyright 2014 by P. Orin Zack