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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
The people around me dusted the little bits of paper off their shoulders with a grumble, but as the paper fell to the ground, each piece flickered into a butterfly. The swarm of color rose around us, quivering, and then flickered into the afternoon sky, spelling, “Welcome Lady Letitia, Fortune-Teller.”
The crowd laughed and clapped, and the people around me patted me on the back with gloved hands. Mrs. Cleavers gave me a push, propelling me toward Criminy, who gave me a hand up onto the pedestal. I smiled nervously.
“Friends,” he said, his voice booming. “Allow me to introduce Lady Letitia, glancer extraordinaire and world traveler.”
Technically, I suppose, it was the truth.
My eyes roamed the crowd, trying to take in all the strangeness. Everyone I had met so far was there, smiling in welcome. There were probably thirty of them, all told, and I had many people left to meet. Oddly, I didn’t have a bit of stage fright. Standing before them seemed natural, and I struck a pose, hands in the air, and flashed my most brilliant smile.
And then everything went black.
My eyelids fluttered, fighting to stay closed. So hard to wake up. Impossible.
The world faded to black. An awful, sulfury smell made my eyes water, and then Criminy’s concerned face swam up against the blue sky.
“Letitia, love, where are you?”
Then blackness descended again. I heard an annoying song like mad puppets playing the kazoo. I hadn’t asked Criminy—were there fairies or gnomes or other magic creatures roaming around Sang? And if so, did any of them play kazoos?
My body shook, and my teeth chattered together. I needed to find the gnomes with the kazoos and smash them.
Something dug into my chest and prickled before I could breathe again. It was a familiar feeling, and I realized that Mr. Surly had just jumped off of his favorite sleeping perch: me. And in the background, still the maddening music kept repeating.
I blinked again.
My cell phone. Nana’s special ring.
The familiar outlines of my bedroom materialized from the darkness. The foot of the bed, the lamp, the overly large numbers on the alarm clock. 2:21 a.m.
I rolled over and groped on the night table for my phone.
“Tish, are you OK, sugar?” came Nana’s worried voice.
Why was she worried about me, when she was the one calling at 2:21 in the morning?
“I’m fine, Nana,” I mumbled. “What’s wrong?”
“I had a nightmare,” she said. She sounded as if she was annoyed with herself. “And I woke up with heart palpitations. Do I need to worry about that, do you think?”
“It’s pretty normal to wake up from a bad nightmare feeling like your heart is hammering,” I said, trying to sound patient and not worried. When someone was as old as Nana and in such poor health, almost anything could be a bad sign. But I never wanted her to know that. I needed to take her mind off her heart, help her relax. “What was the dream about?”
“Oh, sugar, you were lost, somewhere far away,” she said. “And you were lying on a road in an old dress, and these big red rats were eating on you. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.”
A shiver crawled over my skin. I hadn’t asked Criminy what color bludrats were, but now I could guess. I had also never asked him if glancing—or other sorts of prognostication—ran in families.
“Well, Nana, I can give you a one-hundred-percent guarantee that I’m safe in my apartment, asleep with my cat,” I said. “I’m just fine. And you’ll be fine, too. Do you think you’ll be able to go back to sleep?”
“If I could only get up,” she said peevishly, “I’d go make me a cup of chamomile tea.”
“I’ll make you one first thing in the morning,” I said.
“Won’t need it then,” she grumbled, but I could already hear the sleep sneaking up on her. I didn’t tell her, but I always slipped a little Ambien in with her nightly meds to help her sleep. “Night, night, sugar,” she said, her voice fading.
“I love you, Nana,” I answered. “Sleep tight.”
As I closed my eyes and tossed the phone onto the comforter, I heard myself say, “And don’t let the bludrats bite.”
“She’s coming around,” someone said.
I opened my eyes. The glare was blinding, and I put up a hand to shield myself from the sun. I couldn’t breathe, and I clutched at my belly. My hand crashed against brocade, the stiff stays of my corset threatening to puncture me as I gasped.
“I forgot to hang up,” I said stupidly, trying to swim back into whichever reality seemed easier.
“Letitia, love, are you with us again?”
A shadow loomed over me. It was Criminy Stain, his stark face whiter than usual and his eyes frantic and fierce with concern.
“I think so,” I said. “What happened?”
“Give us space,” he barked, and the circle of curious faces hovering over me disappeared. “Go back to practice, you lazy lot.”
His eyes traveled up and down my body, checking for damage. I wiggled my toes for him before I realized that he couldn’t actually see my toes.
He stroked my face with a gloved finger, saying, “You scared me, pet. You fainted and fell.”
“That would explain why my arm is bruised,” I said, rubbing my elbow.
In hindsight, I think that was when I finally understood that I wasn’t dreaming. You don’t get bruises in dreams. You don’t ache. And you definitely don’t sit around talking about where you went when you wake up, afterward.
“We thought you were asleep, but we couldn’t wake you,” he went on. “You came back for a moment with Mrs. Cleavers’s smelling salts, but your eyes rolled back, and you were gone again.”
“I think I remember that,” I said. “But it’s all fuzzy. Something stank.”
He smiled tenderly and said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. But you’ve cemented your flair for the dramatic. The nosy buggers think you went into a glancing trance and will wake up with tidings of doom.” Then he whispered, “Where did you go?”
“Help me stand,” I said. “I need air.”
He scooped me up as if I weighed nothing and placed me on my feet. I wobbled a bit. We attempted a dignified stroll toward his trailer. He was mostly carrying me, actually.
“No,” I said. “Put me down. I need to walk. My feet are all pins and needles.”
He set me down and waited for me to stop swaying, then offered his arm. We set off for the open field in the opposite direction of the wagon tracks. My skirt tangled around my legs, and I had to kick it to make a trail through the grass.
When we were well away from the caravan, I said, “I was back home.”
“Back in your original world, you mean?” he asked.
“Yes, in my own bed, in my pajamas, with a big fat cat on my chest, waking from a dream at two twenty-one in the morning. As if this was a dream.”
“What woke you?”
“My phone was ringing.”
“Phone. It’s a machine for communicating. My grandmother thought she was sick. It was hard to open my eyes, though, and it felt like this world was trying to tug me back. I saw you here, for just a second, but then I was there again.”
“So the salts worked,” he said to himself. “What did you do?”
I laughed. “I did what I had to. Assessed the situation as a professional, made Nana feel better, and promised to make her tea in the morning. And then I was here.”
We walked for a while, each lost in thought, a light breeze stirring the ringlets that had fallen from my hairdo when I collapsed. At one point, he stopped to remove his sequined coat, revealing the black one I had worn earlier underneath. With a coy smile, he folded the sequined cloth again and again until it was the size of a handkerchief, and then he stuffed it into one of the inside pockets of the black coat. I grinned, as delighted as a child, knowing that his magic would never seem quotidian to me, no matter how accustomed I became to his strange world.
“So the real question is, why did you go back?” he finally said.
“No, the real question is, how do I get back to stay?”
“Do you think that’s possible?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that both worlds are real. If every time I sleep here, I’m awake there, and every time I sleep there, I’m awake here, I’m going to go crazy. If there are no real dreams, if my brain can’t rest, it’ll be torture.”
I kicked a rabbit that was sniffing at my boot. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I hugged myself and turned away from him.
“It’s not so bad, love. We’ll find a way,” he said gently, moving close to draw me into a hug. With my back against his body and his arms around me, I relaxed a little. Whether it was his smell or just the closeness of another person, I couldn’t stop the words from tumbling out, couldn’t help unburdening myself of what I was feeling.
“I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m just so relieved. If it’s back and forth, that means I’ll still see my grandmother. I was so scared that I would be trapped here forever, and my grandmother would worry about me and mourn me and die alone. But it looks like I get to live both lives, even though it makes no sense and will probably make me completely insane.”
“Insanity isn’t too bad.” He chuckled. “I know plenty of mad people, and they get on fine.”
“But there are so many questions,” I said, sobbing. “If I die in this world, do I die in that world? What if I go unconscious while driving? What if I’m asleep there, and a patient dies because I’m here?”
“I don’t know, pet. But I’ll try to find out. I’ve got some old books I can check,” he said. “Perhaps this has happened before.”
“There’s no magic in my world,” I said. “But there’s a disease called narcolepsy. People just fall asleep standing up wherever they are for no good reason. Maybe this is where they go. Maybe I’m a narcoleptic.”
“One might think it’s the best of both worlds, no pun intended,” he said carefully.
“But I want a choice,” I said.
I jerked away from him and stumbled, and when he tried to steady me, I swatted him away.
“Look, I have commitment issues, OK? I had a fiancé, and he almost destroyed me. He treated me like a child, or a doll. He hit me. I was barely a person. And then I decided to fight back, never to be controlled again. And now here I am, trapped.”
He watched my outburst with concern, hands in pockets and mouth drawn down. I kept expecting him to interrupt and tell me how to fix my problems, the way Jeff would have. Instead, he just listened.
“What if I like it here better? Nothing’s ever equal. What if I spend all my time there longing for Sang and every moment in Sang feeling guilty for not wanting to go back to Earth? What if I start to care about someone, what if I start to care about you? I could never make the choice to stay here. My grandmother needs me. Without me, she’ll quit fighting, just give up and die. It would rip me in half!”
I plunked to the ground, the skirt of my dress billowing out around me like a burgundy mushroom.
“It’s not fair.” I sniffled. “I can’t win.”
Dropping to the ground beside me, he said, “I beg to disagree, love. It is fair, and you can win.”
“You’re just too used to playing by the rules.”
“In my world, if you don’t follow the rules, bad things happen,” I said.
“In my world, which is now halfway your world, there are ways around everything. Loopholes. Nudging a toe over the line,” he said.
“But I can’t nudge a toe over from one world to the other. I don’t have a choice.”
“Well, as I see it, no one gets much of a choice, and everyone is forced to live between worlds, and you’ve got it a good deal better than most. After all, if you haven’t any choice, you must capitulate, and there’s a comfort in that.”
“That sounds a lot like being trapped.”
“Not necessarily,” he said. “Take me, for example. I drink blood. But I’m forced to live in a world that perverts my natural nature, reduces me to measured sips from a cold glass instead of deep gulps of hot, pulsing life. You think that’s easy for a creature? It’s like giving you a sandwich made of one onion and two pieces of parchment. Keeps you alive, barely. But I’ve found a way to make the best of things, beat them at their own game. I live by my own rules. You can do that, too.”
“You’ve got a gift here, a rare one. That gives you power and, as long as you travel with me, prestige. You won’t want for the things you need, you won’t go hungry. That’s a lot more than most people can say. And hell, pet, maybe you’ll learn to love me. Perhaps not. But what woman in any world wouldn’t give her little finger to have the love of one good man?”
“You’re a good man?” I asked, eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Depends on the criteria,” he said with a grin. He looked down and said more soberly, “But I’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Whether you believe it nor or not, you’ll discover one day that we’re two halves of a whole. I just have to keep you close and alive long enough to learn it.”