mo ns ters
I hold a beast, an angel,
and a madman in me.
ALEX had fallen like this only once in her life. That happened when she was nine and took a wild leap from Blackrocks Cliff off Presque Isle into the deep sapphire-blue of Lake Superior. She remembered that the air was laced with the scent of wild lilacs and early honeysuckle. Although hot sun splashed her shoulders, her bare arms and legs were sandpapery with gooseflesh because the wind skimming Superior was, even in June, still very cold—and she was also, frankly, freaked out. Standing at the cliff ’s edge, her monkey-thin toes gripping rough basalt, she looked down past her new emerald green bathing suit, felt her stomach drop, and thought, Seriously? That cove looked pretty puny. Her dad, who’d gone first with a whoop and a leap, was only a dot.
“Come on, you can do this, honey!” She could see the white flash of his grin—a tanned, muscular, bluff, and confident man, who carried her on his shoulders and boomed out songs. “Jump to me, sweetheart! Just remember, feet first and you’ll be fine!”
“Oh-oh-oh . . .” She meant to say okay, but her teeth chattered. Heights scared her something stupid. Stephanie’s birthday party last month? The indoor climbing wall? Mistaaake. Not only was she the only one to freeze and then slip; she came this close to wetting her pants. And now her dad was daring her to jump from way up here? For fun?
Can’t do this, I can’t . . . Every muscle locked in a sudden, wholebody freeze, except for her head, which swelled and ballooned. I’m going to faint. Her brain seemed surprised. This is what it’s like to—
There was a whirring sensation, like the blast of a jet engine gushing through her skull, blowing her sky-high. All of a sudden, she wasn’t in her body at all but floating waaay up there, looking down at this teeny-tiny girl in a deep green bathing suit, an emerald smudge with hair as red as blood. Far below, so small he was nothing more than a mote in a very blue and watery eye, was her dad.
“Alex?” Her dad’s voice was the size of a gnat. “Come on, sweetheart, jump to me.”
“If she doesn’t want to . . .” Her mom, the worrier, on a faraway crescent of gravel, hand to her eyes as the wind whipped her hair. “She doesn’t have to prove—”
But yes, I do. Her mom’s words—her doubt that Alex had the guts—cut the string of the strange kite to which her brain was yoked. That weird distance collapsed, and Alex plunged back into her skin, faster than a comet, to flood the space behind her eyes.
Then she was out over open water, with no memory of launching herself from the cliff—probably a good thing, because she’d have spazzed, I’ll slip, I’ll slip, I’ll bust a leg or break my face, and only scared herself more. Long red hair streaming like a failed parachute, she sliced through air in a high whistle of wind.
Slapping the water, still icy at that time of year, was a shock. She punched through with her hip, a hard smack that jolted a mouthful of air past the corkscrew of her lips. Silvery, shimmering bubbles boiled from her mouth and all around her. Water gushed up her nose, the pain of the brain freeze scaring her even more than losing what was probably no more than a sip of air. She could hear herself, too: a choked little underwater raspberry, a bwwwuhh, not quite a mo ns ters scream but close enough. The water wasn’t blue at all but murky and a really weird, brassy green. She couldn’t see more than a few feet—and was she still sinking? I’m going to drown! She could feel a panic-rat skittering in her skull, nipping her eyeballs as she whirled, her hair fanning like seaweed. I’m going to drown! Wild with fear, she looked for her dad but didn’t, couldn’t see legs or feet or hands or anything. She wasn’t sure where the surface was. Craning, she saw how the water yellowed with diffuse sun. Go, that’s up, go, go, swim! Thrashing, she bulleted up and then crashed through, her breath jetting in a thin shriek: “Ahh!”
“Attagirl!” Her father was instantly there, laughing, his wet hair dark and slick as seal skin. “That’s my Alex! Wasn’t that fun?”
“Uh,” she grunted. Still booming a delighted laugh, her dad wrapped her up and boosted her—shrieking deliriously now—way up high, nearly out of the water, before bringing her back down to earth and to him, because he was that strong.
Then, together, they stroked for the gravel beach, her father pulling a slow sidestroke, staying with her the whole way as she churned for shore, and home.
That was where the memory ended. She couldn’t recall if she and her dad climbed the cliff again. Knowing her dad—how much she adored and wanted to please, be his girl and dare anything—they probably had. Knowing her dad, he’d treated her to a waffle cone of chocolate custard topped with Mounds and Almond Joy chunks because, sometimes, you just feel like a nut. Her dad probably stole from her cone so she could dip into his, right backatcha. She bet her dad told her mom, Relax, honey, she’s wash and wear, as Alex crunched almonds and chewy, juicy coconut and licked sweet chocolate runnels, molten in the afternoon heat, from her wrist and forearm and the knob of her elbow. Her father was that kind of man.
More than likely, she’d been underwater less than ten seconds. She got herself out of it, too, and all because her dad dared her to try. After that leap, she really believed she might dare anything, because no matter what, if she jumped, her father would be waiting to swim by her side, stroke for stroke, into forever.
Of course, she was nine and her dad was immortal.
And nothing lasts forever. Years later, after her parents were dead, her doctors said she’d had an out-of-body experience. Commonplace, no voodoo. For example, certain epileptics had similar experiences all the time. Hoping to walk the stars and know the gods, mystics and shamans drank potions. It was all funky brain chemistry, the doctors said, the mind’s switches already primed, requiring only that you tickle the brain in the right spot, goose it just so. Easy-peasy. Figure out how to bottle it, and we’d all be rich.
In fact, her last doctor thought what happened at Blackrocks— that shove from the shell of her mind—might’ve been the monster, just beginning to wake. That her sleep going to hell and the smell of phantom smoke weren’t her first symptoms after all. That her little baby monster was hatching, chip-chip-chipping a peephole to peer with one yellow baby-monster eye—why, hello there—way back then.
And she had been falling, falling, falling ever since . . . Into now.
INTO THE DARK
Alex fell, fast, into the dark, in a hail of splintered wood, a shower of stone as the mine came down around her ears and water stormed up the throat of her escape tunnel. She could smell the end, rushing to meet her, the water so icy and metallic, a scent of snow and steel laced with that queer, gassy fizz of rotten eggs. High above, so far away, she saw the stars wink out. The exit where Tom had been only minutes before now swarmed with viscous, oily shadows as the earth folded and fell in on itself.
She’d taken physics. Terminal velocity was . . . well, they didn’t call it terminal for nothing. Fall far enough and even an ant will shatter. After a certain height, coming to a sudden stop, even in water, would be like slamming a car into a brick wall. Sure, the car crumpled, but everything else—passengers, seats, anything movable—had its own momentum. People hurtled into one another or the seat or windshield, and then the brain, the heart, the lungs smashed against bone. So, fall far enough onto anything and the impact wouldn’t just break her; it would obliterate her.
She thought she was screaming but couldn’t hear herself over the combined thunder of falling rock and churning water. Something hard smacked the back of her head, not a rock but Leopard’s Uzi still slung over her shoulders, the carry strap slicing her right armpit. Leopard’s Glock 19 was a fist digging into the small of her back. For the first time in her life, she wished all Glocks had safeties. She didn’t think the weapon would discharge and blow a hole through her spine or into her butt, but there was a first time for everything, like the end of the world. Like falling to your death. On the other hand, a nice, quick, lethal bullet—
And then, suddenly, that was it. In that very last second, she closed her mouth, held her breath, thought about just maybe saving herself for . . . well, for something. Someone. For Tom, maybe. No, no maybe about him at all. She hadn’t wanted Tom to leave, but she couldn’t let him die in this place either—not for her. It was the last good thing she could do. She so desperately wanted him to live that it hurt—
Then, no more seconds. No more thoughts or memories. No wishes or dreams or regrets. Nothing. End of the line.
It wasn’t gentle.
Alex clobbered the water like a sledgehammer. A jag of agony spiked her right ankle; the impact blasted into her hips. A cannonball of pain roared up her spine to detonate in her head. Her vision blacked from the spinal shock. For a second, maybe two, she was out cold, helpless as a puppet cut loose from its strings.
Ironically, the water that had just tried to kill her slapped her awake for round two. Her mind came back in a scream as icy water jetted up her nose, gushed into her mouth, tried to flood her lungs. Having clamped down to keep her from drowning, her throat was a knot. She couldn’t manage a single breath. Muscling through with sheer will, she gulped one shrieking inhale before the water wrapped steely fingers around her ankles and calves to pull her down, down, down below the surface.
No! A fist of red, burning panic punched her chest. Completely underwater and totally in the dark, she thrashed with no sense of where the surface was. Caught in a whirlpool created by competing currents, she was spinning, whirling, tumbling. Her right shoulder slammed stone, a stunning blow that sent electric tingles down to her wrist and numbed her fingers. She tried swimming—where’s up, where’s up?—but her movements were spastic, feeble. Her back was a single, long shrill of pain. She wasn’t sure her legs were even working.
Nearly out of air. Got to do something. Her throat bunched and clenched, trying to force open her mouth for air that wasn’t there. A solid steel band cinched down tighter and tighter around her chest, squeezing, squeezing. Desperate for oxygen, her heart pounded fast and then faster and faster and faster, a fist frantically banging her caging ribs: Let me out, let me OUT, LET ME OUT!