There were two sisters who lived by the sea
Oh, the wind and rain
The younger one loved a man in the trees
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain
Rose had always liked stories, and no one told them better than her mother. She would tuck her into bed, kiss her on the forehead, and then begin to read. Rose had many favourite stories. She enjoyed Arabian Nights, particularly the story of Scheherazade, and she enjoyed the story of the subway, but most of all, she enjoyed the tale of the murderous sister.
But the only tune that the fiddle would play was
Oh, the wind and rain
The only tune that the fiddle would play was
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain
‘That’s not a very good ending,’ she’d remarked the first time she’d heard the tale.
Lady Usher laughed. ‘And what ending would you prefer, my flower?’
‘The man in the trees should have died. He deserved it more than the sister did.’
‘A story is a story,’ Lady Usher shrugged. ‘You can’t change the ending.’
When she was fourteen years old, a sickness swept through the house. The whole family was ill, but none more than Rose. She lay on her deathbed, and her mother sang while her brother played a mournful melody on his cello.
So she pushed her sister in the river to drown,
Oh, the wind and rain
Watched her coldly as she floated down
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain…
Lady Usher cut off as she looked at her daughter’s face in horror. ‘Rosie, my flower, why are you smiling?’
Rose looked up at her mother with eyes filled with tears of joy. ‘That’s my favourite part,’ she said in a pitiful voice barely above a whisper. And then she closed her eyes and let the tears roll down her cheek, a last breath escaping her lips, still smiling eerily.
Lady Usher placed her hands on her stomach. Rose had deserved a chance to meet her sister, but now it was all too late.
Roxie clutched at her head, screaming or perhaps making no sound at all. She fell to her knees, her auburn hair sticking to the hot tears on her face.
WHO AM I?
She was Pearl’s sister, and yet she was Pearl’s daughter, and yet she was Pearl’s lover, and yet Rose was her sister, and the starchild was her daughter…
She dissolved into sobs, screaming and tearing and smashing anything she could find in a blind rage.
And then there was a knock at the door, and it all went away and there was only her brother there at the door.
‘Roxie?’ he said, staring at her. ‘Are you alright?’
‘It’s nothing,’ she said quickly.
He blinked. ‘It doesn’t look like nothing. It didn’t sound like nothing, either.’
‘Don’t you have a cello to be playing?’
He sighed. ‘Right. Excuse me for trying to be a considerate brother.’ He went to leave. On a whim, Roxie followed him, tidying herself up as she did so.
‘Where are mom and dad?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘When are they coming back?’
‘I don’t know.’
She pouted her lips. ‘Is there anything you do know?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’
The house creaked as a heavy, terrible wind shook the walls. Roxie shivered as the rain pelted down on the roof.
Her brother noticed her fearful expression. ‘Relax. Since when have you been scared of the wind and rain?’
‘Since mom went crazy,’ she said, large eyes darting around nervously. ‘Something happened to her. You said she never used to be like that.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘two things changed at the time she lost her mind. Rose died, and you were born. So either the grief drove her out of her mind – or you did.’
She stuck out her tongue. At the same time, there was a loud crack of thunder, and she jumped. Her brother laughed. She heard another tinkling laugh from the corner and turned to see Rose, smiling cryptically. ‘There’s nothing wrong with the wind and rain,’ she said teasingly. Roxie laughed.
‘What are you looking at?’ her brother asked quickly, following her gaze to an empty wall. ‘There’s nothing there- oh. When are you going to realise Rose isn’t real? She’s dead, Roxie.’
‘You don’t know anything!’ Roxie snapped. ‘You’re a fool! She says dying was the best thing that ever happened to her!’
‘Oh, God, not this again, Roxie,’ he sighed, rolling his eyes. He turned away from her. ‘You’re just a little attention seeker.’
‘Don’t call me that!’ she shouted, grabbing his arm. ‘Rose is real, and one day you’ll be dead and you’ll see I was right!’
He pulled his arm out of her grip and leaned in close to her face, sneering. ‘Go away, little girl.’
Tears welled up in her eyes as she turned on her heel and ran. ‘I hate you!’
The Ushers arrived home after yet another of their mysterious outings. Edgar helped his wife inside. ‘There, now, you see? Nothing so terrible about the outside world.’
‘Roxie,’ Lady Usher said mechanically, evidently not listening to her husband.
‘Roxie is fine, dear. Isn’t that right, Brent?’ he asked his son, who had just entered the room.
The boy shifted his weight from side to side anxiously. ‘Well… she had a little fit and passed out, but I’m sure-’
He didn’t get to finish before both his parents had pushed past him and were running upstairs to their daughter’s side, just like they did after every stupid stunt she pulled. He sighed and went to the corner of the drawing room to practice cello.
Time seemed to melt together into one long, sorrowful melody as he played, his blistered, practiced fingers moving over the worn strings. The cello was practically ancient, but he knew his father would never buy him a new one – and besides, he was too deeply attached to the cello to abandon it.
Perhaps an hour, perhaps an eternity later, Edgar came back down the stairs, looking exhausted. ‘They’re asleep,’ he sighed, moving to the kitchen to get himself a drink. ‘God, don’t you hate it here?’
‘Why are you asking me?’ Brent said monotonously. ‘You already know my answer.’
Edgar brought over a bottle and pulled up a chair by the fire, listening to the storm outside. ‘You’ve improved on your cello.’
‘Thanks,’ he said, not looking at him. He missed a note and cursed. Edgar let out a bark of a laugh.
‘You should really take care of your sister and your mother, you know,’ he said, taking a swig from the bottle. ‘I need a break.’
‘I am taking care of them,’ his son retorted. ‘You’re always just too shitfaced to notice.’
Edgar raised his eyebrows but said nothing and instead moved over to the piano under the tapestry on the opposite side of the room. ‘Have I ever told you I can play piano?’
‘You can play one song, Dad.’
Edgar shrugged but began playing a melody on the old piano. His playing was sloppy and he continuously stopped, muttered something, and repeated a section, but his son did his best to play along on the cello anyway.
‘What song even is that?’ he asked when they’d finished.
‘I don’t know. Something by Monk.’
Brent sighed and stood up. ‘I’m going to bed.’
Edgar looked at him with tired eyes. ‘Do you ever – this is going to sound crazy but – do you ever have flashbacks to things that never happened?’
‘What?’ He sat down again. ‘I mean, yeah. I thought everyone did.’
‘It’s just, I feel like I…’ He laughed and shook his head. ‘No, I’m being ridiculous.’
Brent eyed his father suspiciously. ‘…Say, Dad, did you see anyone come around here earlier, around midnight last night?’
‘I thought I heard someone talking to Roxie… but it’s nothing. Goodnight, Dad.’
The astronomer liked to tell himself that he knew the forest like the back of his own hand… and yet he’d still managed to get himself lost. ‘Hello?’ he called, and immediately regretted it. Anyone – or anything – could hear him out in the woods, and with an insane woman trying to kill him, making himself visible was dangerous.
‘Dad?’ said a voice. He whipped around.
‘Did you just talk?’ he asked the enormous bear standing before him.
The bear blinked. ‘Oh, sorry. You’re not my dad.’
‘No,’ the astronomer said, more than a little bewildered. ‘I don’t recall fathering a bear. I’m an astronomer.’
‘The astronomer? Oh. I’m supposed to kill you.’
‘Oh, wonderful. Is there anyone who doesn’t want to kill me?’
‘I shouldn’t think so.’
The astronomer looked at the humungous animal before him. ‘Well, are you going to kill me or not? I haven’t got all day.’
The bear seemed to shrug. ‘I really don’t feel like killing anyone.’
‘Right,’ the astronomer said decisively, deciding that the talking bear was just a hallucination. ‘Well, I’ll be on my way, then, son- I mean! You’re not my son. Don’t- you know what? I’m gonna go. Goodbye.’ And he turned and left, vowing to find his way back to his treehouse by himself. Immediately after he found his home, he poured himself a drink.
‘Talking bears…’ he muttered angrily to himself. ‘No such thing! No ghosts, no magic, no talking bears!’
But just before he closed his eyes, Brent heard the voices again. They were muffled, but one was definitely his sister’s, and the other was a man’s. He stepped out into the hall, a candle in his hand, and walked as quietly as he could to Roxie’s room.
‘…And this one?’
The door was already open, and so he pushed open the door. Roxie was sitting on her bed with an unfamiliar man, looking through a booklet of stars by candlelight. Brent watched incredulously as his sixteen-year-old sister let this stranger whisper in her ear, touch her, kiss her. He felt fury build up inside himself and was about to storm into the room, demand that the man leave, but he stopped.
What did he care if Roxie gave herself away to some mysterious stargazer? What was in it for him if he confronted them, told their father? What reward would he receive?
Nothing. Because no one in the family ever gave a damn about him.
And so he quietly stepped away from the door and returned to his room.
The Shah used to find it amusing that David would torture himself to perform for the ghost of some Monk, but after so long it became concerning.
‘Do you not think you should rest?’ he asked after one particularly painful piano-playing session. ‘If the gods decreed that music is to be banned, then perhaps it should be.’
‘No,’ David said determinedly. ‘Monk’s ghost is behind that door, I’m sure of it. Besides, I thought you liked my piano playing? No-one else on the entire planet can play piano for you, except me.’
‘Yes, but I’m concerned for you,’ Shah Zaman said. ‘This has all become rather ridiculous, wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Why do you care? The music sounds nice, doesn’t it? And just because you can’t see a reason for my piano playing doesn’t mean I can’t.’
‘Then enlighten me.’
David sighed as he bandaged his blistered, bleeding fingers. ‘I have to find a meaning. A purpose. There has to be a reason for all this suffering. And I’m certain the answer lies behind that door.’
‘What suffering? I don’t suffer.’
‘You’re a Shah. I’m a servant.’
‘Oh. But, David…’
Shah Zaman gave him a sympathetic smile. ‘He’s dead, David. Dead and gone.’
‘Don’t you believe in ghosts?’
‘I don’t believe in anything.’
‘Since when did you grow out of “Dad”?’
‘-this is the third family meeting this week. When are we going to see the falconer?’
Edgar didn’t smile. ‘Brent, this is… this is more serious than that.’
‘Oh, yes, it’s always serious, isn’t it, Edgar?’ he sneered. ‘Roxie this, Rose that – are you even aware you have another kid?’
‘What has Rose done this time? Why do we need a family meeting every damn time Roxie bring up Rose?’
‘THIS ISN’T ABOUT ROSE!’
Brent went silent. ‘Oh,’ he said in a small voice.
Roxie was sitting in the living room in a sobbing mess, her mother comforting her. Edgar gave her a sympathetic glance.
‘Now, as we all know, a great misfortune has befallen our family-’
‘What?’ Brent interrupted. ‘What misfortune? How could you neglect to tell me what you’re talking about?’
Edgar and Lady Usher exchanged a glance. ‘Tell him,’ Roxie choked out through sobs.
‘Roxie has fallen pregnant,’ Lady Usher said ruefully.
Brent’s eyes went wide. ‘Roxie, you’re seventeen!’
‘Hush!’ Lady Usher scolded as Roxie let out a wail. ‘You’ll only make her worse.’
‘Am I the only one not okay with this? Who’s the father? Is it that man I saw you with?’
‘What man?’ the three of them said at the same time.
Brent looked between them. ‘No one,’ he said sullenly. ‘Look, is that all? Can I go?’
‘Lose the attitude, Brent,’ Edgar sighed in the tone of voice exasperated parents use when they’ve had to repeat the same phrase one too many times. ‘The point is, we have decided to keep the child, which means all of us will have to make sacrifices.’
‘Sacrifices?!’ Brent said with a malicious, humourless laugh. He looked dispassionately around at his poor excuse for a family. ‘Tell me, father, what more can I sacrifice? I’ve been ignored ever since Rose was born! Now both mom and Roxie are out of their minds, as well as Roxie being in the family way, and I’m supposed to carry this burden? How long ago since the falconer came to town, huh? And did we go to see him? No. Why? Because we were too busy talking about Roxie. So no, father, I won’t be making any more sacrifices anytime soon. God knows I’ve given this family enough already.’
And he stormed from the room, the only sound Roxie’s shocked sniffs and sobs behind him.
‘She’s like you, Roxie,’ Brent remarked, looking down at the bawling baby in his sister’s arms. ‘A crybaby.’
‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ Roxie gushed, clearly not taking in a word he was saying. ‘Look – you can see the stars in her eyes.’
Brent looked. ‘I don’t see anything.’
She ignored him.
Shah Zaman, Scheherezade, and Dunyazad sat in the grand hall, while David played piano, the slightly out-of-tune notes reverberating around the wide open room. Dunyazad was gazing at David with wide eyes while Scheherezade smiled sadly, as though the music was transporting her to another lifetime.
The Shah looked at the other three. Was he really the only one there who thought David’s constant piano playing was ridiculous? Surely he had better things to do than put himself through that each and every night.
He turned to his wife. ‘Dance with me,’ he said, snapping her out of her trance.
She blinked and looked at him with her piercing eyes older than she was. ‘Of course, my lord.’
They rose and he put a hand on her waist, leading her in some sort of dance across the room. ‘Forgive me,’ he said embarrassedly. ‘I’m not practiced.’
‘I think you dance wonderfully, my lord,’ she said smilingly.
Dunyazad, excitable as ever, stood and began dancing across the room by herself. ‘Sister, stop that,’ Scheherezade said sternly. ‘You’ll distract David.’
‘Let her dance,’ the Shah commanded. ‘This bleak palace could use a youthful spirit like hers.’
Scheherazade bowed her head. ‘Of course.’
The song ended and Dunyazad went to David’s side. ‘That was wonderful. As always. I’m sure Monk is applauding this very minute.’
David laughed and patted her head. ‘Thank you, Dunyazad.’ He winced as he noticed his bleeding fingers, last night’s wounds freshly reopened.
‘And now,’ Shah Zaman said, turning to his wife, ‘to finish last night’s story.’
The four took their seats, Dunyazad bandaging David’s fingers, and Scheherezade began to tell her story.
‘And so, Roxie cared for the starchild with all her heart, and Brent continued to help his father look after their mother, whose health was gradually deteriorating…’
‘I’m… I’m going into town. To see the falconer. Do you want to come, or…?’
Brent stared in shock at his father. ‘After all this time, now you want to go see him?’
Edgar looked away. ‘Just a thought. I just-’
‘No, no, of course I want to come, but – why now?’
Edgar let out a heavy sigh and cast his tired eyes over to Roxie and Lady Usher, asleep on the sofa together even though it was the middle of the day. ‘I need a break from looking after them.’
The festival was in full swing. Edgar and Brent took the carriage into town alone, but could already hear the sounds of excitement coming from outside. People chattering, something that sounded like fireworks, and – birds. At least one very loud bird.
‘That’s him!’ Brent said excitedly, pointing at the falconer.
‘That’s great, son,’ Edgar muttered as the carriage came to a stop. ‘Listen, I’m going to see if I can find anywhere that sells food, okay? You do whatever you want.’
‘Sure,’ Brent said, only half-listening. He’d been waiting for years, and now, finally, he was at the festival. For once, he felt like he hadn’t been completely overlooked.
‘Dad?’ Brent called. He’d been searching for hours. The festival was coming to an end for the day, with only a few latecomers remaining. The sky was a smoky shade of purple and discarded trash floated around the almost-empty streets in the breeze, past the stalls just closing up. Edgar was nowhere to be found. Desperately, Brent began scouring the shops on the street, asking if anyone had seen his father.
It was only when he came to the ice cream shop, just closing its doors, when he found him. He wouldn’t have known at all if he hadn’t recognised the faint sobbing coming from the bathroom of the store. He pushed open the bathroom door and found his father lying against the sink, a bottle in hand, sobbing into his arm with the tap running.
‘Oh, Dad, not again,’ Brent sighed. ‘Come on, we have to go.’
Edgar sniffled and looked up at his son. ‘Why? Can’t I stay here?’
‘No, Dad. This is an ice cream shop bathroom. The festival’s over, everyone’s gone home. Mom and Roxie will be wondering where we are.’
His father muttered something as Brent helped him up. ‘Why are you helping me?’
‘Because we have to go home.’
‘No, I mean… why do you help me look after them every day? You could leave anytime you wanted.’
Brent sighed. ‘Believe me, Dad, the moment I get the chance, I’m outta here.’
‘Good,’ Edgar said, before he started crying again. ‘I’m- I’m sorry I’ve never been around for you, Brent. I should have- I should have been a better-’
‘No,’ Brent said forcefully. ‘What’s passed is passed. Come on.’
And with that, he dragged his sobbing mess of a father from the ice cream shop, apologising to the owner, and brought him back to the carriage to go home.
Perhaps a few weeks later, Brent first noticed a hooded figure lurking by his house. At first, he thought nothing of it – there were many creeps around their neighbourhood; why was this one any different?
But the figure continued to watch the house. They weren’t exactly well-hidden, in a bright red cloak, and they never seemed to move. They simply watched.
A fortnight or so after he’d noticed the figure, he finally mustered up the courage to confront them.
‘Who are you and what do you want?’ he demanded of the figure in what he hoped was a steady, commanding voice.
The figure tilted its head before pulling back the hood, letting long auburn hair spill over her shoulders. Brent’s jaw dropped open. ‘—Rose?’
She smiled, and Brent involuntarily shivered. The smile she wore matched that smile perfectly embedded into his mind, the one his sister had died wearing. She watched him with curious, malevolent eyes, as though trying to calculate his character from his face. ‘Yes.’
Brent’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he choked out a weak, ‘How?’
She continued to smile cryptically. ‘Do you believe in ghosts, Brent?’
‘W-What? I mean – no. No, I don’t. Everything has a rational explanation.’
‘What about God? Do you believe in God?’
Brent laughed hollowly. ‘Not for a long time.’
Her smile grew broader and she gave a slight nod, as though approving of what he’d said. ‘Well, I’m only visiting. I heard there’s been a birth in the family recently. I thought I’d send my good wishes.’
‘You’ve been watching the house for days.’
She laughed coldly. ‘Well, perhaps ‘send my good wishes’ isn’t the right way to put things. I’ve never cared much for children.’
She glanced up at him, no longer smiling. ‘Book of Psalms, chapter 137, verse nine.’
‘I don’t own a Bible.’
‘Perhaps you should consider finding one.’
Rose continued to watch the house day after day. No one other than Brent noticed her presence, but he was unsettled by her being there, not least because she was supposed to be dead. He told himself he was going crazy, that he’d been drinking too much, thinking too much. But that didn’t stop him from borrowing his mother’s old Bible.
At first, he simply sat it down on the coffee table and stared at it for a long time. Then he opened it and read some words. After five minutes, he grew bored and set it back down again.
The same day, he returned to Rose. ‘Why are you still here?’
‘It’s none of your business.’
‘I have a right to know why my long-dead sister has suddenly decided to rise from her grave.’
She glared at him icily. ‘I need something from your family, and I’m waiting for the right opportunity.’
‘Our family,’ he corrected. ‘Hey, I got a Bible.’
He didn’t smile. ‘Maybe I can help you get what you need.’
‘I really don’t think you could.’
‘Well, I want something too. Maybe we can help each other.’
She pursed her lips and cast her eyes over him. ‘Maybe. What exactly is it that you want?’
‘I want to get away from here. I’m sick of looking after this godforsaken family.’
‘If you left, no one would be there to take care of them.’
‘That’s their problem. What do you want?’
‘Roxie’s daughter. I need her. But I can help you escape from here.’
Her mysterious smile returned as she withdrew a gold coin, gleaming in the setting sun. ‘Are these what you’re after?’
Brent watched the coin with a hungry glint in his eye. ‘How many of those do you have?’
‘Enough to get you far, far away from here. As long as you bring me the child.’
Brent licked his lips nervously, eyes darting between the coin, his dead sister, and the ground. ‘I… Fine. Fine, I’ll do it. Meet me here at midnight tonight.’
Roxie woke up in a cold sweat. ‘Where is she?’ she asked frantically.
Edgar jolted awake. He’d been keeping watch over his daughter ever since the starchild had been taken. ‘Roxie… she’s gone.’
Roxie’s eyes filled with tears all over again. ‘She’s gone,’ she repeated, rocking herself backwards and forwards in her nightgown. ‘She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone…’
Brent tried to leave. He really, really did. A pouch of gold coins sat on his dresser beside his Bible, and never did a day go by where he didn’t try to reach for it and run, slamming the door behind him. But he never did, and he had no idea why.
The coins were proof that Rose was real, something that he had spent years denying. Roxie had always been the mad one, crazy Roxie, foolish Roxie, poor, poor Roxie. But now Brent had seen Rose with his own two eyes, had given her a child, had been paid in gold coins.
And he desperately scoured his Bible for answers.
He flipped the pages constantly, and every time he was led back to the Book of Revelation. The apocalypse. The end of all things. It captivated him like nothing else he’d ever read.
Another family meeting had been called together, but both Roxie and Lady Usher were too sick to attend, and so once again, there was simply Brent and Edgar sitting in the living room together, both maintaining an uncomfortable silence.
‘Roxie’s getting worse,’ Edgar said dully.
‘I don’t care.’
‘Brent! Show a little compassion for your sister! I couldn’t bear to lose another daughter.’
Brent made a growling sound in the back of his throat. ‘It’s always about Roxie! Maybe I don’t care about Roxie! Maybe I care about my own life!’
‘Stop it!’ Edgar spat venomously, getting to his feet. ‘You stop that right now!’
‘Fine!’ Brent shouted, on the verge of tears. ‘I hate this family! You’ve all wasted away, and I refuse to do the same!’
He stormed up to his room and slammed the door.
Rose was gone, but in her place, red leaves fell from the sky. The withered trees outside Brent’s window seemed to reflect how he felt – empty and dead. As Roxie’s condition worsened, his family spent less and less attention on Brent and more at Roxie’s side. Brent felt as insignificant as one of the red leaves falling from the trees.
His room was the only room with the curtains opened. His mother, in her madness, had become tortured by the faintest light, and the house had to be kept in darkness at all times. This did nothing to help the bleak, depressed, and heavy air of the house.
With a sigh, carrying his Bible, Brent went to Roxie’s room, where his parents were standing, heads bowed gravely. Roxie was muttering under her breath. ‘Little girl, little girl…’ Tears slid from her face. Brent felt a surge of déjà vu, a feeling he had long grown accustomed to.
‘Where’s my starchild?’
A sick feeling of guilt and self-loathing built up inside Brent’s chest and he turned away.
‘Brent, go get your guitar,’ Lady Usher said quietly.
‘What? Why? I haven’t played that old thing in years.’
‘I want to sing.’
Brent sighed but did as he was told, returning with the old, out of tune guitar. After he’d tuned it and his mother had warmed her voice, they began to play.
The stones are alive, the stones are alive
The decaying trees
The moss on the wall, the moss on the wall
The condensation on the window
On the window
And it’s all alive
And it’s all alive…
‘Where is my brother?’ Roxie cried out.
Brent blinked. ‘I’m right here,’ he said with a shrug.
‘Where is my sister?’
‘You don’t have a sister,’ Lady Usher said, gazing at her curiously with her wide, bird-like eyes.
‘Where is my little girl?’
Edgar looked at her ruefully. ‘She’s gone.’
And with that, Roxie died.
Brent looked over at his sister’s lifeless face. Her skin was white apart from the faintest of blushes in her cheeks, but most unsettling of all was the lingering smile on her lips – a smile perfectly matched to Rose’s.
‘Remember what she used to say?’ Brent said. His voice was hoarse and dry. ‘She used to say Rose wanted her to cross over. Well, now she has.’ He tried to smile. ‘She’s happy.’
Neither of his parents acknowledged him. Lady Usher approached the body, her face remarkably blank. ‘I shall preserve her corpse a fortnight in the vault underneath our bedroom.’
That night, Brent gathered his things and fled for New York.
‘David, I order you to stop.’
David took his hands from the keys and glared up at the Shah. ‘Your majesty, I thought you enjoyed my piano playing?’
The Shah shook his head. ‘You’re hurt. I won’t see you suffer in pain any longer.’
‘But I enjoy making music. And one day, Monk will reveal himself to us and grant me a reason for all this pain.’
‘At least come to Dunyazad. She longs to see you. The poor child is on her deathbed.’
David glanced away. ‘I don’t want to see her.’
‘No!’ He slammed the lid of the piano down. ‘She’s in love with me, it’s all too obvious, and every time I look at her, I hate myself a little more for not loving her in return.’
‘Why not love her? She’s a pretty young thing.’
‘I can’t. I love someone else.’
The Shah cackled. ‘Who could you possibly love, David?’
‘It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to see her.’
Scheherazade came into the room, her face cast down. ‘She’s gone.’
‘Roxie is taking her daughter to the park tomorrow. I can distract her while you take the child.’
‘And your parents?’
‘Our parents won’t see a thing.’
Brent awoke with a jolt. Ever since he’d sold the starchild to Rose Red, the conversation had been playing over and over again in his head – her sinister voice, the clink of coins in the bag, and her satisfied smile that he was ever so afraid of.
Sweating, he leapt out of bed and paced the room.
He’d managed to rent a tiny one-bedroom flat above a club. It was noisy, and the room smelt of mould, but he was in New York, and most importantly, he was away from his family.
He snatched up his Bible and flipped the pages frantically, searching for something, anything, to grant him a little comfort, to soothe his guilt and tell him everything would be alright. He only found himself rereading the pages on the apocalypse, with a sick kind of awe in the pit of his stomach. He closed the book feeling more empty than ever.
What the Bible couldn’t fix, whiskey could.
He couldn’t afford anything more than Evan Williams, but that didn’t mean he didn’t love it. He laughed at nothing in particular as he drank, a strange smile on his face, until his caught his reflection in the grimy mirror on the wall. He looked like his father, tired and drunk, and it repulsed him.
He took a swig from his bottle despite himself. Two constants in his new life – the Bible, and whiskey. One day, when the apocalypse rained down upon them all and the dead climbed from their graves, he’d be drinking his faithful whiskey out of his shoe.
It was thirteen of the fourteen nights when Edgar had his first nightmare.
There had been a bear, a crow, a telescope, and a rose. And then he’d been playing piano, the last piano on earth, for a king of some sorts. And then he’d been on a train, speeding towards a helpless figure on the tracks…
He gasped and struggled and bolted upright in his bed. Unintentionally, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror across the room, his face cast in eerie shadows in the candlelight. Sweat poured down his forehead and his eyes were wide open.
A howl from outside alerted him to the fact that a storm was raging. The house shook from side to side and the wind screamed and whistled. Edgar shivered as the wind seeped through the cracks in the walls into his room. Above the dreadful wind and rain, he could almost hear something else, something resembling his Roxie’s voice, crying out, singing the song of the dead.
He turned to his side automatically to look for his wife, but of course, she wasn’t there. They had agreed to sleep in separate chambers ever since Roxie’s death. Their grief at the loss of both their children at the same time was something they could not bring themselves to share with one another and had to suffer through alone. But just as he’d remembered why he was alone, there was a knock at the door. He jumped.
‘Can you hear her?’ Lady Usher called through the locked door. ‘Throw open the windows! Let the storm in! We don’t need moons or stars or God! We have the wind! The terrible wind!’
Edgar rolled his eyes. She really had gone insane. His children were gone, and now it seemed his wife was gone, too. He truly was alone. With a sigh, he stood and unlocked the door. His wife stared at him with wide, curious eyes, as though she didn’t recognise him. He smiled sadly and slung his arm over her shoulder, guiding her to the bed and sitting her down. ‘My love, you have to sleep. Roxie is gone.’
‘Will you read me a story?’ she asked, a childlike plea.
A wave of sadness rushed over Edgar as he thought of how changed his wife was from the woman she used to be, but he knew there was only one thing that could possibly soothe her. He reached for a storybook from the shelf. ‘Alright. I will read, you will listen, and this terrible night will pass.’
He dusted off the book and flipped to a random page. ‘Book Seven, Chapter Ten. The tale of Pearl, and the pusher, and the subway driver, and the photograph.’
‘Pearl stood on the platform, playing a game on her phone, trying to beat the boss at the end of the level.’
Scheherezade had aged. It didn’t show on her face, of course, and she looked as young and beautiful as the day Shah Zaman had married her. But, when looking closely into her eyes, one could see the effect her sister’s death had had on her.
She rarely smiled, and when she did, it was forced and unnatural and made her normally stunning face look ugly and plastic. She lost weight, ate less and less, and her skin lost its usual glow. Her stories lost their passionate thrill and became more of a dull chore for everyone involved. The only time this blanket of misery was lifted was when David played his music. It somehow reminded her of her sister, and how she had danced across the great hall when it was just the four of them, four friends, with so few cares. Then, it had all seemed one great joke. The possibility of being killed by the Shah was never seriously considered; David’s piano playing was just one of his strange quirks; and Dunyazad would dance forever, a beautiful, youthful flower dancing on the edge of a star.
But the Shah grew impatient with her, David’s music became more frantic, more desperate for Monk to reveal himself, and Dunyazad was gone, long gone.
The first beams of sunlight spilt over the horizon and Scheherezade stopped speaking abruptly. ‘Ah, my lord, the sun has risen. I suppose I shall have to finish my story tomorrow.’
The Shah pouted. ‘If you keep this up, Scheherezade, I may just have to kill you. No one wants to be kept waiting.’
‘You would miss me if you killed me,’ Scheherezade pointed out with a tired smile.
The Shah laughed and stood up. ‘Ah, perhaps you’re right. Well, goodnight, wife. Goodnight, David.’ He stretched and left for bed, his purple, jewel-encrusted robes trailing after him.
David watched him leave, shaking his head slightly. ‘You know, I’ve been serving him for two centuries, and I still don’t understand him.’
‘What don’t you understand?’ Scheherezade asked with a yawn. ‘I myself find him very simple – he’s a foolish man who enjoys killing women and we are unfortunate enough to have him as our Shah.’
‘No one is that one-dimensional.’
‘He is the most one-dimensional person I have ever met. He does not think. He does not create. He sits and he gives bad orders to bad men to do bad things.’
David sighed and held her hand. ‘I think he is foolish, yes. But I also think he thinks.’
‘No, he doesn’t.’
‘Well, maybe not, but he cares. He cares for me, at least. He cares about my well-being. He cares that the piano hurts me, and he cares that I refuse to stop.’
‘But he refuses to try and understand why you continue to play.’
‘He’s a Shah,’ David said exasperatedly. ‘What do you expect? No one is more stubborn than a Shah.’
They sat in silence for some time, two good friends at peace for once in their lives as they watched the sunrise.
‘You should have said goodbye to her,’ Scheherezade said softly, pulling her hand away from his. ‘She called your name before she died.’
David hung his head, eyes darting away from hers. ‘I… I couldn’t. Isn’t it better to let her die in hope than let her know I can’t love her?’
‘Why are you so upset? What is so wrong with loving her?’
‘I can’t, Scheherezade. I love someone else.’
Scheherezade glanced behind her to where the Shah had wandered away. ‘You love the Shah, don’t you?’
David pushed her away. ‘Don’t. Don’t even go there.’
She laughed playfully. ‘Why did you never tell me? Perhaps you’d like to marry him, and you could tell him a story every night!’
‘Scheherezade, I swear-’
‘Oh, everything makes so much more sense now!’ she said with a good-humoured giggle, almost returning to her old youthful spirit. ‘No wonder you always want him to hear your music!’
David rolled his eyes but he smiled nonetheless. ‘I’m going to bed, Scheherezade. Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it.’
Brent liked to wonder what happened in the club beneath him. Perhaps there were two lovers meeting in secret. Perhaps someone was drinking away the pain of another lonely week. Perhaps someone was sitting in a chair in the corner all alone, staring at her phone.
In reality, nothing much was happening other than a young woman in a uniform meeting a young woman in a red cape with a smile that Brent knew rather well. But Brent didn’t know this. He didn’t know the girl in the red cape wanted honey. He didn’t know she was trying to seduce the soldier. He didn’t know the soldier was falling for nothing. He didn’t hear the gunshot in the alleyway out back.
But he did think he caught a glimpse of a ghost for just a moment, gazing at him curiously, before flickering away.
Brent was drunk.
He knew this because he was thinking about the apocalypse again, which was something he only ever did when he was drunk.
He’d also, somehow, brought himself to a subway platform. Did he have money? He didn’t know. He cared only that he was on a subway platform.
There were quite a few people on the subway platform, but to Brent, two faces stood out, as though he’d known them forever, although he couldn’t think why, because he knew he’d never met them before.
The first was a young woman, freckles, red hair, a camera around her neck. She looked impatient, as though waiting for a moment to arrive. Brent speculated through his drunkenness that she was more likely waiting for a train to arrive.
The second face that stood out to him was a taller woman, her eyes glued to the screen of her phone. She was tapping away furiously at the screen and seemed completely immersed in whatever she was doing, ignorant to her surroundings.
Brent realised he was shouting far too long after he had already started. His mouth was open and he was yelling about things he didn’t understand – the apocalypse and the end of all things and the train, the train would be coming any minute.
His commotion turned a few heads, but for some strange reason, he was fascinated by the fact that the tall woman did not look up, still completely closed off in her own little world as she played her game on her phone.
He took a step closer toward her, and then almost another, as though testing to see if she’d look up. She did not. A raving alerted him to the fact that the train was rapidly approaching. His eyes darted to the bright headlights charging toward the platform, and he felt a stab of panic for no particular reason. In his blind terror, he reached for his flask and took a swig of his drink.
And then he was right in front of the woman and it seemed to him that the only logical move was to push her onto the tracks.
Just a quick note that toward the end, I use the names of all four actors. However, these aren't based on the actors themselves. I am simply using their names (seriously, I don't do RPF). Also, sorry about the long wait, I've been pretty busy and it took a lot of effort to string these ideas together. Thank you to everyone who's supported this story!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Despite Scheherazade’s teasing, David was not in love with the Shah. At least, not in the typical way. It was a strange sort of connection, as though he’d known him a million lifetimes over, and that he had been important, not just another face in the crowd.
David rarely dreamed, but he carried with him memories that he knew could never have happened to him. He could predict the endings of Scheherazade’s stories before she’d finished them – a bear, a subway train, an old house… Surely these were more than dreams?
He couldn’t answer his own endless question. It tormented him, more than the hidden door, more than the blisters on his fingers, more than the Shah himself. That endless who am I? And more importantly, Who is the Shah?
He played for Monk’s ghost every night because he had to believe there were things he didn’t understand. He had to believe that the world was so much larger than he could dare to imagine, that his life was simply a tiny speck in the grand mechanisms of the universe. To him, this thought was a comfort rather than a terror. Because if he didn’t know everything, then there was still so much left to be learned. And perhaps one day, Monk would reveal himself to him and tell him why he had so many memories of lives he’d never lived.
Rose Red saw the world a little differently, a little strangely. That was what the astronomer liked about her, he supposed. He liked the fact that he took his world of mathematics and lines and rules and formulas and turned it into something poetic, something beautiful. She treated his world like a blank canvas, something for her to beautify and make art from.
He saw stars. She saw stories.
I see mothers weeping in chairs, clutching their shawls in the morning… Everything is lost, all is gone… And she tries to find the joy in life, but she is wasting away…
Lady Usher sat by her window, watching the first rays of sunlight spill over the horizon. Her legs hung over the windowsill, dangling dangerously over the edge, and she shook and pulled her shawl closer to herself as a bitter wind swept past. She cast her bird-like eyes down to examine the streets below, still empty. All was silent, so silent that she could hear her own ragged breathing and her heartbeat in her ears.
Her daughters were dead. Her son had abandoned them, ashamed to even look at them. Her husband was slowly drinking himself to death… and she was losing her mind. She was wasting away. She had nothing left, nothing at all. Everything dear to her had been taken and she had only Roxie’s body underneath the house, and her distant husband, and her own clustered, crowded mind.
That night, Edgar read her a story. They pretended that the shrieking from downstairs was simply the wind and rain and paid no mind to it.
When Roxie appeared in the doorway, Edgar leapt up, cried out, shook his head. No, no, it can’t be! It can’t! But Lady Usher merely stood there, gazing at her daughter. She tried to see Roxie. She tried to recognise her in those distant eyes, the thin lips, the pale skin, the spider-web hair.
But she saw only Rose. And Rose saw her.
Her eyes became wide and terrible, and Lady Usher was certain that the girl was feeling the same connection she did, a jolt, a spark, something monstrous and almost hateful. Something that went back farther than either could remember.
In a vengeful, spite-fuelled rage, the dead girl leapt upon her mother with a force stronger than her frail body could contain, a fire more powerful than her seventeen years had known. Four generations worth of enmity, of hatred, and of each other tethered them, memories and stories and secrets and stars, and Lady Usher’s broken heart could not take it.
‘Tell me,’ the astronomer said slowly, gazing up at Rose Red as she lazily ran her fingers through his hair, ‘do you believe in ghosts?’
Rose’s hand stopped for just a moment before resuming its rhythmic stroking of his scalp. ‘Well, I suppose I believe in a lot of things… I believe in a consciousness, not so much a God, but something out there watching us, and I believe we are all a part of it… I believe in the stories of Arabian Nights… I believe in the significance of sharing meals…. I believe in never drinking coffee on the go – no, don’t laugh, coffee is a very serious beverage and deserves to be treated holier than music – and I once met an alcoholic on a subway platform who tried to convince me to believe that Judgement Day was coming… But ghosts?’ She laughed good-naturedly and shook her head. ‘No, I don’t believe in ghosts.’
‘Have you ever seen a ghost?’
Her hand paused again. She tilted her head and gave a bemused smile. ‘I just told you I don’t believe in them.’
‘It’s not the same question.’
Her hand began tracing patterns through his hair again. ‘Explain.’
‘I’ve seen ghosts,’ he informed her, closing his eyes and leaning into her delicate touch. ‘More than once. But I still don’t believe in them. Everything has a rational explanation, even ghosts.’
Her smile wavered for just a moment and her eyes became distant. ‘So is that how you pass off everything you see? Rationally? Does your mind only work rationally?’
‘How else would a mind work?’
‘Poetically. Poetically pushes the boundaries, lets you think things no one else has ever thought before. Rationally takes everything anyone has ever seen and categorises it – inaccurately, sometimes, as you’ve just demonstrated.’
‘But you said yourself you don’t believe in ghosts!’
‘I don’t believe in them, but only because I’ve never seen one.’ She hesitated. ‘Or perhaps I have, and I just haven’t realised yet.’
‘You know,’ he said softly, ‘there’s a man in… I don’t know, Iran or somewhere… and he claims he speaks with ghosts.’
‘Hm?’ she said, still looking distant. ‘And how does he do that?’
‘He hasn’t spoken to a single living soul in forty-two years. He just sits there, day after day, staring at his television or his phone or the wall, and he says every dead soul lives in the shadows of the sky.’ He snorted, just to show he didn’t believe a word of this story. ‘He says he sees hundreds, but only talks to three: his minstrel, his wife, and his sister-in-law.’
Rose involuntarily tugged on his hair sharply.
David didn’t attend Scheherazade’s execution.
‘Every story has to end sometime,’ he’d muttered when the Shah had invited him, and instead spent the time playing his piano. He’d played every song a million times over. He’d forgotten what his hands were supposed to look like and had instead become accustomed to their bloodied, blistered, and bruised state. Even he was beginning to doubt whether or not Monk was genuinely listening behind that door, but it was too late for questioning the authenticity of his story. He’d been suffering for so long that there had to be a reason, just something to prove he wasn’t completely insane. He couldn’t even remember where he’d gotten the story from in the first place.
He didn’t go to Scheherezade for the same reason he hadn’t gone to Dunyazad. If he didn’t see them die, he could pretend that they were still out there, somewhere. And perhaps they were. Perhaps Dunyazad was dancing across the room as he played that very moment. Perhaps everyone who had ever died was watching over him at that very moment from the darkest corners of the sky.
For the first time in three centuries, he missed a note on the piano.
Someone grabbed Brent’s arm and dragged him away from the platform. He was hardly aware of what was happening. ‘The apocalypse…’ he murmured feebly, before allowing himself to be taken wherever he was going.
Rose stood on the platform, frozen with horror. The camera was shattered on the ground. For four lifetimes, she had convinced herself that she was heartless, cold, cruel. A monster.
Did monsters feel the pain she felt in that moment?
On the platform, chaos. But her mind was very silent. There were three things she knew.
One – her sister was gone.
Two – she now had everything the bear needed.
And three – she had just seen the astronomer.
He was there on the platform, frantically talking to someone about what had just happened. She saw his uniform and realised he was the driver.
He killed her.
So much for true love.
And then he looked over at her, and seemed to pause, and stare at her as though she were…
A ghost. That’s what she was to him, she realised. A memory from a life only half lived. A shadow of something that had died a long time ago.
With three quick strides, she marched over to him. ‘Rose Red. I saw the whole thing.’
Shah Zaman wept as he clutched David’s blistered hand. David was gone, and the Shah knew this. But it shook him to the core, for the sole reason that David had always been so good, so peaceful, that he’d never expected death’s merciless hand to fall upon him.
Shah Zaman wanted to destroy the piano, but he didn’t. He instead placed it in a room of its own, a room with gold-emblazoned walls, and extravagant marble statues of the gods. He had the piano treated as a holy object, something from another world, something greater than they petty humans could understand.
Slowly, music began to return to the world. But Shah Zaman never saw it. Instead, he locked himself away from the world, in a dark room, twenty-one television screens scattered around him. He sat and he stared at them, or perhaps the wall, day after day, neither seeing nor hearing. Some days he saw his friends – Dunyazad, dancing across the room. Scheherezade, telling her stories. And David, playing his piano with perfect, unmarked hands. Once, he even thought he saw Monk there, listening, and approving of the music.
Forty-two years after the Shah had locked himself away, David looked at him. Why do you think a ghost would linger? Why not just go straight to heaven?
The Shah continued to stare at the wall. ’Because there is no heaven.’
David laughed at that. Come with us.
When Lady Usher had sung the old song for Rose the first time, Rose had insisted that the ending was wrong. The sister shouldn’t have drowned.
But as Rose watched Pearl try to climb out – just like before, just like on the platform – she felt that it was the only ending to the story. Everything seemed so clear in her mind at that point, so clear, so blindingly obvious that she was stunned she’d never seen it before.
The bear hadn’t had to send her to find all those meaningless things. He could have asked simply for the honey, but he didn’t. He delayed her, for one reason – because he knew that she had to find her other selves. She had to find Pearl, in all her lifetimes.
It was all part of some greater plan.
She had killed the soldier, because the soldier had asked her to. That was the first sign. She could have kept the soldier, loved her, treated her well, but the soldier wouldn’t have wanted that. The soldier didn’t believe in that. She didn’t believe in anything. So different from Rose, who believed in everything. The soldier didn’t believe in ghosts, so how could she believe in love?
She’d ripped the starchild from her family, with the help of a boy who’d grown up into an empty man. And she’d felt Roxie’s pain. But she’d ignored it. There would always be lives to be ruined, even if that life was her own.
Scheherezade had recognised her, she knew. She’d recognised her from the moment she saw her. She saw her sister, and whether that was Dunyazad or Rose Red, she couldn’t tell, but she knew Scheherezade was a step ahead of her, just like the soldier. The soldier had seen through her and yet allowed her to take the honey. Scheherezade knew Rose didn’t give a damn about her past, her memories, her sadness, her dreams, and yet she’d still given her the stardust. Why? Why did they play into Rose’s game?
Pearl hadn’t tried to climb up off the tracks. She’d smiled. Smiled for the camera. She didn’t just fall – she let the train rip through her. Why? Why did they continue to let Rose Red win, every time, every single time?
It was all because of that damned song.
There were two sisters who lived by the sea…
It was a paradox. One great big paradox, and Rose despised it. If she had never heard the song, would she have come to live out the story? Or would everything have changed? Who could say?
But Lady Usher had told her that story, sang that song, because she knew that one day, Rose Red would go on to fulfil those actions. That was why the soldier, Scheherezade, Pearl, had let her do as she wished. Because they knew it had to be. Every life she’d lived had led to that moment, watching Pearl’s now lifeless body float down the river.
She had destroyed herself. Torn her soul to pieces just to live out these echoes, and why? Out of spite. The bear had known. Pearl had known. The astronomer had known.
Pearl might have died, but she had still won. Because now Rose Red was just a ghost of something from another lifetime.
Oh, fuck, she thought as she walked into the camera shop.
It had to be a sick joke, but of course. Who else?
‘Can I help you?’ Pearl asked with a malicious grin. I remember everything you did. And you are far from forgiven.
‘I hope so. I lost my camera…’
It is a peculiar thing, death.
Because it truly isn’t the end. The days and nights continue to pass in their weary procession. Nothing changes, nothing ever changes, and that is the serenity of it.
It was somehow a comfort for those four exhausted ghosts to know that the world went on without them.
Bodies sat in graves and melted away, and yet the mourners visited those rotting corpses, prayed or talked or simply sat and stared, thinking about death. But the dead did not hear them. The dead were not there.
The dead were in the whisperings of the trees in the wind. The dead were in the rushing of the river. The waves of the ocean. The petals of a rose. The dead were in the pebbles on the ground, in the pages of old, old books, in empty streets at dusk. The dead were finally, finally free.
David played his piano happily, his fingers moving painlessly over the keys. Brittain leaned on her elbow, listening with a small, tired smile. Brent plucked his cello aimlessly, and Gelsey rambled about Monk, and whether or not he was there at that moment, listening.
Four ghosts. Four friends. Four lives endlessly entangled. Gelsey and Brittain sang something haunting along to the music, chilling harmonies, wild improvisations. They made a beautiful quartet.
The truth to them was that they didn’t know who they were. They didn’t know how many lives they’d led, but they didn’t care, because it was irrelevant. Once all the masks were stripped away, all the lifetimes, all those strange emotions and attachments, once all that was gone, there were four skeletons left.
Their souls were bound together, and they could either fight it, or accept it, and become something greater than themselves.
whoa! guess who actually finished a multi-chapter fic?! thank you all for your support, and i hope you enjoyed the final chapter!