An excerpt from Death Is a Star
Death had rendered him flawless. Stretched out on the picnic table where he’d met his final reward, Hugo’s hunch dissolved, his legs straightened, and his fierce scowl relaxed into an expression of bliss. All signs of his deformity vanished along with his soul. Theda swept wisps of fine blond hair from his forehead and curled them behind his ear. He was beautiful now. It pissed her off.
Hugo had been stuck between worlds. Nothing about his twisted body proved glamorous enough to enter him into the ranks of full-fledged freaks, and yet he was too ugly and misshapen for a normal life. He worked for the circus, toting heavy things and carting away animal debris. Longing at one moment for webbed fingers or the ability to swallow fire, and the next, for a smooth spine and strong jaw. He’d achieved none of those things while alive.
Theda hoped the gods were happy. She hoped Hugo was happy, and that he’d taken his newfound perfection with him into the nether world. The blood seeping through his white dress shirt marred the effect. She took a deep breath and raised her eyes to her sister.
Irene stood entranced, the dagger in her hand still dripping. Theda repressed a surge of revulsion as Irene raised her arms above her head and entreated Assur to accept their sacrifice and forgive them their trespasses.
Sacrifice. Human sacrifice. Even back in Assyria it had become uncommon. Here in America, in this strange world, it was against the laws of the land. People seemed to think it evil. But then, these people found many things evil that were only sound policy in the king’s court. This, however, did not feel sound.
Something was wrong. Theda sensed it in the cold glare of the stars, in the hushed quiet of the riverside park, deep in her bones. She swallowed her mounting fear and returned her attention to Hugo. He’d loved her. Had that misguided love contributed to his willingness, even eagerness to offer himself up to their god? Had they wrongly taken advantage of a broken soul? Too late, she told herself, much too late to think of that now.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” she asked her sister. Irene lowered her arms, and then her chin, hissing like a deflating balloon.
“We’re still here,” she said, voice hoarse. Her pupils expanded as she turned from the radiance of the moon, eyes filled with the passion of ritual and magic. Anyone, upon seeing her like this, would flee for their life. Theda held Hugo’s hand as the words sank in. Still here.
The sounds of the park crept slowly back into her consciousness. A nighthawk screeched, crickets chirped, and lions grumbled. Beyond the line of trees, the river burbled. The stars in the sky did not welcome them. The earth didn’t open up to receive them.
“Maybe our request is being processed,” she said, hope fading.
“You should have killed him! Why did you hesitate?” Irene plunged the dagger into the wooden table, trembling with anger and disappointment. Anger surged through Theda as well. While it was true she’d hesitated, she thought Irene had overreacted when she’d snatched the dagger from her and completed the sacrifice with undignified haste.
“Having never killed anyone on purpose, I was surprised by my emotions,” she snapped. “I know you’re not bothered by any such—”
“Enough! Bickering will not impress the gods.” She breathed heavily. “We must dispose of the corpse.”
“It’s Hugo, not the corpse.”
“Don’t act like a wilting flower now, dear sister.” Irene grabbed Hugo’s arm and dragged his upper body from the table. Theda hurried to grasp his ankles to keep him from flopping to the ground.
“Have we really failed?” she asked.
Irene shook her head. “The stars misled me.”
“Anyone could make a mistake. These stars are so different from ours.”
“It was not a mistake.” Irene glared at her across Hugo’s body. “Everything was right. The comet. The moon. The dreams.”
“It is my fault then. Again.” She noticed that Hugo’s skin had turned waxy and pale. The glamour was fading. She felt queasy and gripped him tighter.
Irene softened slightly. “It’s no easy thing, this death.” She looked at her victim’s face for the first time, but instead of remarking on his transformation, she visibly hardened, muscles taught, skin like flint, her angles sparking with star shine and sweat. “Help me lug the guts to the cart.”
Theda clenched her teeth, but complied. There was nothing to gain by opposing Irene when the magic coursed through her. She was an impossible know-it-all in ordinary times. Now she was a self-appointed queen of the dark arts.
Together, they hoisted Hugo’s perfect body onto the big-wheeled cart they’d borrowed from the circus rigging crew. They’d used it to wheel the drunken roustabout down the winding bike path to his doom. He’d insisted on one last bender before facing eternity. How could they deny him? Theda glanced at the empty whisky bottle in the grass with regret. They should have wheeled him to rehab instead.
Irene retrieved her dagger, wrapping it in a velvet cloth and returning it to the picnic basket along with the snuffed candles, a brass bell, and a notebook of carefully inscribed incantations she’d compiled for the occasion.
“Come on then,” she said, grabbing the long wooden handles. Theda helped to guide the front of the cart as it jounced and swayed across the rough grass. So different and yet one, the sisters moved together in natural unison. Performing a murder in a public park called for efficiency and ruthlessness most wouldn’t believe possible of regal Irene and mild-mannered Theda. Would their father even recognize them? Irene had grown taller and leaner, and she used foul chemicals to turn her black hair gold. Worry had already painted faint shadows beneath her violet eyes. Theda, tall also, had filled out her soft shape. She’d stopped plaiting her red tresses, and they spilled in a tangled mass around her shoulders. She was a far cry from the slip of a sixteen-year-old girl she’d been when they were banished from Assyria.
Four years! Four years wasted on this misadventure. Four years shoveling elephant excrement in a circus! A twinge of guilt pricked at her as she struggled with Hugo’s flopping legs, her long dress, and the cart. She didn’t mind the elephants. She didn’t even mind the circus. But she was homesick and she fervently hoped she’d see her father and Nineveh again before she became an old shriveled maid.
And now, on top of having to figure out how to travel through time and space, they had to avoid being locked up for the murder of Hugo Pike. Maybe there was still a chance they’d be gone before anyone found out. Surely, this extreme act of devotion would do the trick. She’d almost worked herself up to asking Irene if the local river gods might lend a hand when they reached the river itself. Irene nearly lost control of the cart as it gained momentum on the downward slope of the concrete boat ramp.
“Move those branches!” she shouted, and Theda scurried in front of her to obey. The ramp was lightly used, its pavement broken and strewn with debris. She pulled aside the drooping limbs of a rotted oak, trampling the hem of her gown in the muck. Sleeping ducks awoke and honked angrily before flapping away in a blur of wings and water. Irene trotted the last few feet, dragged by the weight of the cart, and ended by unceremoniously dumping Hugo into a shallow swirl of the river. She let the cart fall to its side and sank into tall weeds.
“I can’t stand this place a moment longer!” She sprawled on the cracked pavement like the wilting flower she’d accused Theda of becoming, one arm thrown over her eyes. Her red lips trembled beneath her pale white forearm, and Theda’s stomach knotted. The sight of Hugo face down in the reeds, blond hair and red blood fanning out in the water like a fading corona, was indeed grim, but Irene was the strong one, the one who never doubted their ability to return home. This melodramatic collapse was quite unnerving.
“We won’t have to wait much longer. With this act, the wheels of our fate have been set in motion.” Theda surprised herself by speaking with conviction. She had to believe what she said, or succumb to despair. Somewhere between the bloodied planks of the picnic table and the mud blood mix of the river, she’d determined that Hugo’s death must not be in vain. A light breeze of anticipation blew across her shoulders. Yes, the universe was gearing up to answer them.
“I’m sorry I failed you,” she said, and her skin prickled. She stood ankle deep in water, feet growing numb. A rush of adrenaline coursed through her, much like when she watched Irene swing free of the trapeze, spin in the air, and fall into the arms of Luke, her catcher. This attempt to return home was like doing aerial ballet without a net. They had no idea if return was possible, but they couldn’t remain here. They did not belong, and all the divine currents that lapped at this backwater reality knew it, pushing them to right their wrong.
Irene removed her arm from her eyes and stared at the body. “We’re doomed. Doomed if the guts won’t float out to sea!”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll just give him a push.” Usually, Theda was the one being chastised for silliness. She stepped gingerly into the pool where Hugo floated, high-centered on a flat rock. She lifted her skirts, realized the futility of it, and dropped them again. The red fabric splayed out in the inky water before being sucked beneath the ripples. At her feet, stars bounced on the curves and dips of the river, and further out, the high ridges of the current tore at the reflected moon, swirling and stretching it like melted wax.
She waded out and grabbed Hugo’s hand. She tugged gently, then yanked, and finally fell backwards into the frigid water as her wet hand slipped free.
Irene chuckled from the bank.
“You could help,” Theda snapped, standing up with difficulty. The weight of her dress dragged on her and the warm night air did little to stave off the cold of the mountain-fed river. She latched onto Hugo’s sleeve as Irene joined her in the river to push against his body. He’d worn his only suit for the ceremony. The thick wool was waterlogged and dense. Theda’s fingers pinched into it, squeezing flesh. She tried not to think of the blood stilled beneath his skin as she inched him out into deeper water. Irene hunched over and shoved against his ribs, then stood straight and kicked at him, splashing water in Theda’s face.
“Float, damn you. Be gone!”
“Oh, calm down. Hugo is long gone. This is only the shell. The troublesome, heavy—”
Just then, the body started to drift downstream, only to be caught in the branches of a collapsed willow. Theda sighed. She was already knee-deep, and now she moved out until the black waters encircled her waist. Fighting to retain her balance against the current, she untangled Hugo’s silk cravat from the snag.
“Be careful,” Irene warned as the body broke free and spun out. Theda plunged below the surface to allow Hugo to pass over her, but some bit of her gown tangled with his arm. As her head broke the surface, she found herself being towed down river. She pulled at the fabric, trying to uncoil lengths of red silk from around dark wool as she and Hugo bobbed further into the river.
“Theda, stop it! You can’t swim!” Irene yelled from the shallows.
“I’m stuck!” she shouted back, bare heels dragging along the bottom. She stubbed her toe on a large rock and hissed a Babylonian expletive. With a final tug, her trailing skirt unfurled from Hugo’s limbs.
“Farewell, friend,” she said, reaching out to give him a final shove and to leverage herself toward the river’s edge. Her wrist caught on something. Or rather, something caught her wrist, jerking it downwards. She threw her free arm across Hugo’s chest, using him as a life raft. With effort, she lifted her arm out of the water. His long fingers wrapped around her wrist. Her feet left the river bottom and she free-floated, moving rapidly away from the bank. The weight of Hugo rolled over her, pushing her under again. The last thing she saw was the slim shape of Irene, diving head first into the river.
Theda kicked and thrashed, blind and breathless in a swirl of water, blood and silk. She clawed at Hugo’s fingers, striking him with all her strength. It seemed as if he held her down on purpose. Her lungs ready to explode, she surfaced and gasped for air. Above the deep rumble of the river, sharp laughter filled her head. With horror, she beheld the face of Hugo, his eyes open, his mouth open, white teeth sparkling, more alive than he’d ever been. Why, he really was beautiful. In that moment, Theda thought that perhaps it was the gods’ will that they both be taken by the river, that an additional sacrifice was required.
Two pale white arms rose glistening from the dark water and wrapped around Hugo’s neck. Irene bobbed like an otter onto his back.
“Let her go, fiend!”
He rolled over, pushing Irene under, and Theda knew that he was alive. And he was not Hugo. The eyes, even in the dark, were different.
The new Hugo sputtered and spat river water at her, grinning. “What’s the matter? Not ready to die?”
Irene popped up again and grasped his soggy lapels. Together the three of them drifted in the swirling current.
“Be gone!” Irene shouted over the roar of the river. She put a hand on his head and tried to force him under water, but he was the stronger swimmer. He released Theda and kicked out for the shore. Irene took off after him.
“Irene!” Theda called, thrashing wildly, her heavy gown dragging her down. Water shot up her nose and she choked as waves lapped over her face. Hard arms wrapped around her, crushing her ribs, flattening her breasts until they ached.
“Stop flailing! Relax!” Irene gurgled in her ear. Theda did as she was told and leaned back into Irene’s strong body, letting herself float. The river clawed at her skirt and her hair. It wanted her. Something in the depths wanted her.
“You don’t have to be a complete dead weight. Kick your legs.”
Fabric cocooned her legs, but she moved them as best as she could, and soon the soles of her feet touched rocky ground again. The two of them coughed, crawled and staggered to the shallows. Here, thick blackberry vines guarded the bank. Irene stood, slicked her wet hair back with both palms and cursed the vines, the river, the stars and the gods who’d rejected Hugo’s body. Theda stood beside her, knees shaking. Her dress clung to her icy skin. Dizzy, she gazed upstream and spotted Hugo’s body crashing through the underbrush, heading back toward the park.
“Wait!” she cried. She was responsible for that bag of bones, the dead flesh, the strange eyes. Hugo had entrusted them to her. His rogue body stopped, waved, and continued on its journey, vanishing into the shadows of the oaks.
“Damn,” Irene cursed, sloshing upstream.
Theda followed, mind reeling. “What just happened?” she demanded of her sister’s rigid back. Irene’s white dress was mud-caked and torn.
“We’ve unleashed a demon.” Irene stopped. With her hair and dress plastered to her white skin, she looked like a statue made of moonlight, a stalk of star shine, terrible and beautiful. Theda straightened her spine, salvaging some dignity of her own. Her dress was nearly ruined too. She recalled Hugo’s wicked new smile as Irene’s words sank in.
“May the Goddess be merciful,” she said, grabbing the limestone figurine that hung around her neck for protection. Irene took her free hand and guided her out of the water. She hung back, the shock of what they’d done threatening to paralyze her.
“You said Hugo’s death would appease Assur! You said nothing about conjuring evil spirits.”
“Magic isn’t like science, you know. Or maybe you don’t.” She sniffed in a disdainful manner. “Demons are notoriously hard to predict.”
“So now what?”
“That demon is here for a reason. I must find out why.” She dropped Theda’s hand and forced a way through the brambles without her. Theda stood on the bank, grabbed her hem and twisted out the excess water.
“Where did he come from? What does it mean?”
“It means we’re screwed.” Irene spat onto the grass and waited for her to emerge from the thickets. When she did, she saw that they’d ended up at the far end of the park, near the baseball diamonds. She knew that not far beyond this park lay the small town of Medford, Oregon. She imagined a demon marauding through the unsuspecting town, breathing fire, tearing apart houses with great claws, rending with blood soaked teeth—
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