[CHAPTER 11: DOUBTS]
When Lori woke, there was a bed beneath her and a clock on the wall telling her that it was evening. She had no memory of falling asleep, or what had happened after jumping down from the tree; everything was a blur. But that was how time seemed to have been going lately; it slipped out of her grasp like a thief in the night and vanished with the tender touch of the winter spirit’s fingers. She had a dull ache in her chest, a stabbing pain in her foot, and the rest of her body felt like one single bruise.
In her groggy, dazed fog, it took several minutes for her to realize this was a hospital. Next came the thought that she wasn’t supposed to be here, followed by the realization that she was alone, and at last the horrible conclusion….they had left her here. Peter Grey hadn’t been joking. She couldn’t keep up, and now she had been left behind.
She sat up, wincing, and pressed the call button. She waited several minutes and pressed it again, but still no one came. Paranoia throbbed in her ears. “Hello?” she called, her throat scratchy. “Anyone?” She pressed it again and then gave up and swung her legs out of bed. One of them was in a cast. She swore quietly and looked around for crutches or a wheelchair, but there was nothing.
Then her eyes came to rest on something by the door—something that made her sink back in her bed and wonder if she hadn’t perhaps sustained a concussion as well as a leg injury. There was snow falling from the doorway. It made a shimmering white curtain, and somewhere beyond it the sound of bells echoed.
“Tristan?” She called. “Peter?”
Gradually the bells became a distant moan. She shivered and drew the thin hospital blanket closer, her breath leaving her in short, frightened puffs of steam. The moan was distinctly human now—the rawest, most bitter sob ever to cross her memory. “Peter?” she called again. She wasn’t quite sure why she hoped it was he, except for the fact that if it wasn’t…it was probably someone worse.
Beneath the snowy curtain, a dark shape came lurching into sight. It moved haltingly, like a Claymation film, hunched over like a scolded child with its back to her. Its hair was too dark to be Peter’s, its clothes too unfashionable and ruined. She thought its name in a flash of horror, and at once the figure turned. Despernot, blue eyes burning with tears beneath the stained curtains of his hair, had found her. The skin on the back of her neck prickled as he uncurled his shivering body like a cobra ready to strike. With soundless, shoeless steps he drew near.
“Where is my ship, little fox? Where is my poor muse?”
“I don’t know,” Lori whispered.
His hand had somehow found its way to side of her neck. He chuckled to himself as he felt the goosebumps on her skin. “Do you know what will happen to her, little fox?” he asked. “Far worse than anything you have endured. If ever she is found, alone, adrift, they will put her in some museum. In a lovely little glass box for people in sterile white coats to look at. They’ll stare and they’ll ponder. They’ll undress her with their eyes, maybe with their hands, too. They’ll give her a name she never had and write articles about her and pretend they know who she is.”
She could feel his hand on her back now, and that was too much to take. She tried to jerk away, but pain raced through her leg.
“Oh, hush, easy,” he soothed. The unstable gleam of his eyes pierced her from above as he leaned over, his hands on her face now. “What’ve they done to you, poor, beautiful creature…?”
“Don’t touch me,” Lori hissed. A great weight seemed to be pressing on her chest now. Invisible and massive, it held her down while the lunatic grew more and more desperate. The cold depths of his eyes burned with ageless anger.
“She can’t command a boat!” he snapped. “She was lost on that cursed road! She never came back; only her body stayed with me! I alone can direct that ship! Without me, where has it to go? It will be lost! She will be lost! I will never see her again!”
Lori would have told him she was sorry. She would have shouted for one final time that it wasn’t her fault, but it was too late for either of those things. The pressure increased, cutting into her chest until her lungs labored to fill with air. Strange white spots danced before her eyes and cart-wheeled over his furious, wild face as he seized her head and held it tight, growling,
“You know what I’ll do with you? I’ll put YOU on display! I’ll skin you and hang your pelt in a tree! I’ll make them wonder where YOU came from! I’ll make dice of your eyes and a belt from your bones. I’ll sell your corpse to the highest bidder and—no!” His nails were digging into her skin, drawing blood. “No, I shan’t. I’ll take your corpse. I’ll fly back over the water with you, back to Egypt, and I’ll bury you in a little silver box and you’ll never live and you’ll never die. Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there? I frightened a little fox under her chair!”
He laughed brokenly. It felt like knives were piercing her heart. His laughter was terrifying, even more so than the sound she had heard from him that night on the ship when he had been tangled in the rigging, glorifying in the storm. If she could have turned back time, Lori would never have confronted him. She would have died on that ship, and spared herself the trouble.
“Go away,” she pleaded weakly. Her ribs were empty. Her chest couldn’t rise. She gasped and reached for him, her fingers brushing his face and finding it empty, too.
Peter’s voice. Despernot was gone. He had vanished without a trace, leaving behind nothing of the nightmare—no snow in the doorway, no cold, no sound of bells. The sun was setting behind the curtains of her room, its sinking rays dappling her paralyzed features in pale colors as the fool approached her side at a run. A nurse trailed behind him, frazzled and alarmed.
“What happened? We heard you shouting, but…oh, Satan’s hooves.”
For a moment, Lori didn’t understand why the sharp angles of his face should look so defeated, or why his shoulders slumped when he saw her. But then her eyes followed his and she saw the source of the great pressure she had felt. The metal hilts of two surgical instruments protruded from two blood-rimmed wounds. The nurse called it in and soon there were people fussing over her, making her lie back, saying things to each other that she couldn’t be bothered to process. She could see in their faces the panic she ought to be feeling, but fear was becoming numbness.
“What did you do, girl?” Peter moaned.
“I didn’t,” she pleaded, her voice trailing off after the last of her thoughts. “It was Despernot.”
“There wasn’t anyone here,” he insisted. “I was right outside and never heard anybody but you. Besides, we’re twelve stories up.”
“Of course,” Lori mumbled. It would be just like that deceitful little lunatic to make her look crazier than he. As her heart raced in its bone-cage and the nurses worked on her, she went back over their encounter, searching for any miniscule sign that Despernot had appeared only in her mind. But it just couldn’t be. She wasn’t insane; it wasn’t possible.
But why not, a tiny voice smirked from a shadowed corner. After everything you’ve done and seen, after everything you’ve been through…why not? She caught a sob in her throat and shut her eyes. She thought desperately of anything else. Insanity was not an option. The nurses stuck something in her arm and her vision began to blur.
“Don’t I have enough holes in me…?” she slurred. A nurse said something she couldn’t hear, and then there was nothing.
(TCOS continues on Thursday! New social media handles: @greenherself )