Thursday, December 12, 2013

Leander- Short story

It is shortly past 11 o’ clock, and I am still lying in my bed, burrowed in soft silk and warm down pillows. I had been laying here in the quiet, denying the birds chirping on my veranda the satisfaction of waking me, but now I sit, watching the light shift across the floor and onto my duvet. Sooner or later, something will pull me into the tiring reality of my birthday, but until then, nothing can convince me to leave this bed of my own volition.
            My eyes drift closed as my heart pounds in dreadful expectation of the start of the festivities. I can’t sleep again, distracted by the commotion of the servants chattering in the courtyard, shouting directions in excited tones to each other. Soon enough they’ll be at my door, ready to tie me into a corset or paint me like a porcelain doll. The whole process is exhausting, and the party itself, I can’t even think about. The constant congratulations on nothing more than living another year, the incessant small talk, the hordes of people I don’t know giving me gifts I don’t need and reminiscing about a childhood I barely remember, and did I mention the corset?  If it were my decision, I’d skip the whole affair. But unfortunately, that is not my choice, and the knock at the door reiterates the fact.
            “Come in” I shout to the door. I push my blankets to the side and throw my legs over the edge of the bed, my body following in reluctant obedience to gravity. My toes crack as my weight settles onto my feet. I run my hands through my hair and flip a layer of curls away from my eyes, but as it falls back into my vision, I realize it’s useless until someone with actual skill comes to help.
            “May I come in, Miss Catherine?” My servant Beatrice peeks around my door and into my room, only entering when I smile and nod in her direction. She bounces inside with her arms full of clothes, the dreaded corset topping the pile like a depressing crown. She knows I hate it and does her best to go quickly, but it’s still frustrating to be dressed rather than dressing myself. Layer after layer of fabric, all different in texture is slipped onto my body. First come bloomers, then a petticoat, covered by a thin lace slip and finally a deep green dress. I straighten up in the mirror and look at myself, pleased it was less painful than I remember, but out of the corner of my eye, Beatrice is loosening the laces of the leather corset. My shoulders slump, and the air in my lungs flees in a frustrated huff before being forcibly vacated. I lift my arms and draw in the last full breath I can expect, and Beatrice wraps the corset around my rib cage. I put my hands on the back of my desk chair, digging my fingers into the wood.
            “Are you ready?” Beatrice says as she finishes running the ribbon through the eyelets again.
            “Yeah, go ahead.” I say and then try to suck in my stomach. The first swift yank sends sparks to my eyes, my vision erupting in flurries of snow. I instinctively gasp, only to find my ribs bruised against the boning. Another forceful pull cracks my spine into alignment. The next three pulls are less jarring, with my lung capacity already reduced to what feels like a thimble.  I’m still breathing, albeit lightly, so Beatrice looks pleased with her work as she straightens and ties the ribbon in a bow at the base of my spine.  She turns her attention to my hair, gathering it into a bun and sliding a bronze comb with colored glass into it. I tap my bare foot on the cold floor, and she shoots me a look in the mirror. She is really a sweet lady, and it isn’t her fault. I just want to be left alone.
            “I can do the rest if you need to do other things.” I say. I do my best to look as kind as possible, but in the mirror I can see my smile is strained. She smiles and nods, then turns to leave. I hope she’s not hurt, I’ll apologize later. My chair swivels and I walk out to the veranda. The courtyard is now full of decorations but devoid of people. Lights are hung, wrapped around floral arrangements and dipping down from the branches of the oak in the middle.  Underneath my window, two men are constructing an archway, presumably for the cake. I want to get a better look, so I lean forward, farther and farther. There is a creaking sound rising, and before I can react, a snap of wood. The metal railing has broken free and now I’m falling. The workmen’s eyes dart to me, dangling with one hand grasped firmly around the side rail.
            “We’ll be right there, Miss Leander! Hold on!” Both men run stumbling inside, not the most intelligent move. One could easily have pulled me up, the other making sure I don’t fall. As for now, I’m hanging by one hand, my feet kicking at thin air when one suddenly brushes metal. I look down, and sure enough, the broken railing lies propped between the wooden arch and the wall. If only I could get a hold on it.
            I manage to wrap the toes of my left foot around a pole, but even with all my strength, I can’t pull it more than a few inches upward. My eyes clamp shut, and I reach as far as I can, praying to feel metal. Finally, a shock of success runs thorough me as cold iron sinks into my warm palm. Fighting against the tingling in my right arm I plant my feet on the poles and push myself upward. Looking down to find my next step, I notice something strange. The railing isn’t standing on the archway, or on anything.
            I’m not even holding it.
            My heart pumps violently and I scream, swinging my left arm up to reach for the railing my other arm can no longer feel. The one supporting my feet flies out of our yard and into a tree.  My left leg had followed and now lies stretched out across the wood floor of my balcony.  All the muscles in my left side flex at once and I climb into my room, collapsing in a heap of fabric as Beatrice and the workmen rush in.
            “How did you-” they all look at me in astonishment, and I raise my arm and make a muscle, breathing heavily all the while, or as heavily as I can in this wretched corset. Before I know it, Beatrice is at my side, quick hands loosening the lacing and waving the men out. As she’s pulling splinters out of my knee, I’m just staring at my hands. What just happened? Somehow, I held a 200 pound railing in midair without touching it. That is impossible, isn’t it?
            “How are you feeling now? Are you sure you’re alright?” Beatrice asks, standing up and hauling me with her. As she moves to examine my hands, I see the veins in my left hand pulsing- no, glowing blue. I pull my hand back quickly and hold the sleeve against my palm with my fingers. Beatrice jumps back, her eyes wide with concern.
            “No Beatrice, I’m really fine. My hands are only a bit hurt, but I’ll be fine, really.” My heart is pounding as I see the light glow faintly under my sleeve. As I get more nervous, I can see the string of her glasses lift from her shoulders a bit. I breathe out and force a smile, and it settles back to its resting place. “I’m sorry for all the commotion.”
            “Nonsense,” She waves a hand at me and goes back to looking at my hand, the veins now only faintly luminescent. “I will always be here to help you. Now let’s finish getting you ready.” She looks at my face and hair, undone and messy with no makeup. Her eyes narrow and she shakes her head at me “You haven’t started. No matter, I’ll have you all set in no time.” She sets to work, and in another hour, I’m primped and polished for the masses pouring through our gates. Beatrice pushes me out the door, and we scurry through the halls as quickly as we can.
            I round the corner into the foyer, and my father stands at the top of the stairs, waiting to escort me down to the party.
            “I heard you had a rather eventful afternoon, Catherine.” Father says, a statement rather than a question. He’s dressed extravagantly, even for him; a black tuxedo over a burgundy vest, with a cravat and chains. You would never know he’d spent the majority of the day in his private workshop if not for the faint smell of metal and coal that follows him. Or perhaps, its only time- maybe jealousy of his work- that causes me to take notice.
            “You could say that” I put my arm in his, while he nods politely, feigning attentiveness and then leading me out to a roar of applause. Like the showman he is, he parades me around like his newest invention. His daughter and heir, the only hope for his legacy, finally becoming an adult must be a tremendous occasion, and it is. He spared no expense on this occasion, never failing to live up to expectations. A string quartet plays in the shade of our oak tree, while the glamorous and refined of the city gossip and chatter. We wander from one bigwig to another. They all bow politely and congratulate me, but the conversations all inevitably drift to my father’s accomplishments, and finish with “What wonders you must be capable of, Miss Leander!” to which my answer has always been “None.”
            Around an hour and a half into the party, Father motions for me to wait while he walks away, stepping onto the small stage under the archway by my window. I look up and follow the flight path of the railing; I can still see it in the tree just over our wall. My eyes snap at the clinking of crystal, radiating from the champagne glass in my father’s hand. He stands on the platform, the cake moved to a cart and a cloaked shape in its place. The eyes of all the guests glide from him to me, and a couple push me forward into a clear space.
            “Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues… Thank you for joining me in celebrating my dear Catherine’s 18th birthday.” He says, making wide gestures and smiling an unnaturally wide smile. The crowd is enraptured, whooping and clapping with expectation. “In all my years as an inventor, my pride for all my creations could never compare to the pride I feel when I look on this incredible young woman.” The crowd awws at this as his voice cracks on the last word. No one could ever say he doesn’t know how win a crowd. “Catherine, would you come here, please?” I pick up my skirt in one hand and walk to the platform, my father lifting me up to his side. I flick my eyes over the object, covered with rough burlap and a bow wrapped around the upper part. Near the bottom, I can see a faint blue glow
            “Now, I wasn’t sure what to give you. After all, what business does a man of my age have knowing a young woman’s world?” His face crinkles into a laugh, and the older men in the crowd laugh with him. “So, I stuck with what I knew.”
            He whips the burlap back with a wide flourish, and the crowd claps and cheers. The gift is a statue, an iron woman floating while rings spin around her. Arcs of electricity spark between the elements of the sculpture. My eyes follow the white flashes to their source and then I see it again, that blue light, pulsing and glowing at the bottom of the device, and I recognize it: that same blue glow that had shone from my veins.
            “What’s the blue glow? Is that the magnet?” I ask, my eyes growing wider by the second.
            “No, my dear, that’s the power source.” He beams down at me with his arm around my shoulders. My breathing is heavy, I’m positive that the glow emanating from the power core is the same as the one that I’d seen.
“What is it?” I turn to him, my eyes wide and my heartbeat pounding in my ears. “What’s powering it?”
Father’s eyes drift over my face quizzically. “A thank you would suffice, Catherine.” The power source surges more intensely now, it’s light less a gentle flow than before, pulsing brightly and rhythmically, like the beat of a heart. The electromagnet sparks violently, causing Father and I to jump back.
“I don’t think you understand me.” I say, my pulse rushing. “this isn’t safe!” The crowd backs further away,  the light show still entertaining, but not instilling the same fear I feel, the feeling that this thing, whatever it is, is a danger to us all.
“Nonsense, I pioneered the Aether Harness before you were even born. Don’t be so irrationa-“
A massive spark wrenches its way out of the sculpture, arcing from the magnet to my balcony and over to the tree where the railing had fallen to rest. Like invisible hands that just grazed a missing coin, the Harness takes hold of the railing and lift it from the tree. The crowd cheers, still keeping their distance.
All of a sudden, the railing whips through the air, crashing through the wooden arch over me. Just as quickly, almost without thinking, my hands stretch out in front of me. As the feeling of metal grazes my fingers, the flying metal stops just feet away from the heads of the crowd. My fingers stretch unnaturally and all the power I can possibly muster is focused into my forearms. Unlike before, it feels like something is fighting back against me. My arms twist painfully, so I inhale and draw them in toward my body. Whatever had been fighting me releases, and the railing soars over my head and clatters loudly against the courtyard wall.
The whole party seems to have fallen to dead silence, couples cowering together, and the sizzle of the electric statue signaling the magnet’s death throes. I stand to my feet, my sleeves now in tatters, revealing the afterglow in my veins. My pulse thuds in my ears like a drum, disorienting and painful. My eyes are heavy, and as my vision fades, I catch a glimpse of my father, looks horror and guilt fighting for dominance before everything goes black.
My eyes snap open to an unfamiliar ceiling. I try to raise my arm to rub my temples, but find my wrists clamped tightly to a table. The feeling of metal against my wrists is cold and painful, and my hands sting. Turning my head returns a rush of nausea, and I choke it down as tears burn in my eyes. My hands are dotted with red marks. What happened to me?
Footsteps echo through the room, the sound causing my head to ache anew. As they get closer, I can smell coal and metal, and the tears break free. It’s my father.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I howl like a child, my voice a foggy wail through the haze of injuries and sedative. His hand moves tentatively and gently to brush my forehead, and I choke on snot and saliva, gasping and crying harder than before. He leans over, and for the first time since I was small, I see a look of love in his eyes. He shushes me and wipes my tears away with a handkerchief.
“Oh Catherine, what have I done? My precious girl, what have I done to you?” His eyes well up, and he backs away a bit, picking up a light and moving it closer to me. “I’m so sorry.” He taps the side of a syringe and moves toward me, with tears falling in thick beads.
“I don’t understand…” My vision still swims, the vicious combination of being drugged and crying. Seeing me cry causes him to sob, and he stands at my side, fighting for composure. He takes a deep breath and starts to tear off my sleeve.
“No, please, don’t! Please! Please dad! What are you doing?” My voice rings across the room, bouncing off the walls and accentuating my frantic plea. The echoes sound like a chorus of angels pleading my case; a sound my father is deaf to hear. His eyes closed tight with resolve, his arm swings with considerable force toward my exposed and glowing arm.
In a flash, my vision is crystal clear. My brow furrowed, my eyes burning, I turn to the man who raised me, the man who gave me life. In his hand, the syringe shakes, held back by the force of my will. He is paralyzed, staring wild-eyed at me. My glare does not move from his face, my mouth set in a firm line with teeth bared and grating. A voice, unlike any I’d ever heard coming from my mouth growls, and Caswell Leander stumbles backward. The shackles binding me to the table creak and break off at the welded joints, hanging from my wrists like thick bracelets. I sit up and swing my legs over the edge, my bare feet turning to ice against the concrete.
In, my breath flows as I walk toward him. Out, it runs from me as he tries to back away. In, I pull him, with the feeling of fabric dancing across my torn hands in response to his unaided levitation. Out, his arm flies from his side, his fingers open, and the syringe is lying in his shaking palm.
“What’s in it?” I ask, pressing him against the wall.
He shakes his head and cries “Please, Please, Catherine.”
“Tell me what’s in it, or I’ll drop you. I swear I will.”
“It’s cyanide.” A child’s fear seems to have overtaken him.  He closes his eyes and continues to sob uncontrollably. He was trying to kill me like a criminal, not a child he’d seen grow from an infant to a young woman. I was a danger to be dealt with, no more, no less.
“Who do you think I am, Father?” I set him down gently, and let the syringe fall to the floor. “Why would you do this?” my rage subsides and all I can feel is confusion. I drop to my knees and crawl toward him, a huddled crying mass. He shrinks back, and his tears glisten in the luminescence of my skin. I reach out and gently touch his shoulder. “I’m your daughter.”
“That you are.” His eyes peek out from under his brow, narrow with violence and determination. “I made you who you are, and I can unmake you.” He lunges forward and pins me down, his knees holding my forearms firmly against the cold concrete. I struggle against his weight, but my arms can’t move. All I can do is tug at his clothes in vain attempts to dissuade him, but he has the upper hand. Without any further conversation, no apology or explanation, he swipes at me with the needle. I throw my head forward, and make contact with his hand, throwing it off course… and directly into his own arm.
The syringe drops to the ground, his face overtaken by disbelief. He looks from my face to the blooming stain on his sleeve, the bright red blood standing in start relief against the linen shirt.  He hadn’t injected himself, but the pure trace of poison on the needle that plunged deep into the meat of his arm was enough. Clutching his arm, his knees roll off my mine. I pull myself up to sit in front of him, and he looks me over. The poison can’t be taking effect yet, but he knows death is on its way.  His lips move incoherently, too overcome with emotion to actually form words or the sounds to convey them. He reaches for me. I kick the needle away and crawl to his side, wrapping my arms around him. What can I do? I have nothing to help him. I’m helpless and broken.
My eyes sting with the struggle to hold back tears, but I immediately surrender.  I hold him tightly, my tears and snot mixing with the blood on his clothing. I whisper comforts, but whether for him or for me, I cannot tell.  He is fading, but still clinging to me, choking for air and seizing from suffocation. I shush him gently, and smooth his hair with my hand. His lips quietly form “Sorry” over and over again between gasps. I let my eyes drift over his face, his eyes are wide under upturned brows, scanning my face like reading a book.
“I’ll be fine, Daddy. I promise.” I say as he shakes his head, tears falling and gathering at his temples.
“No, don’t be fine. Be free.” He chokes out the last words I would ever hear from him, and gasps one last time. “Run.” He mouths gently, pressing his hand into mine, and then falling silent and motionless. My heart thuds to a halt, beating once and waiting for me to breathe again to beat once more. A wail rips its way out of my lungs, and I shake him, but there is no doubt, Caswell Leander is gone. My arms illuminate the silent corpse,  and the clatter of metal and tools echoes through the room. I feel something metallic pressed against my palm, not the ghost of something, but something really lays in my hand. I carefully fold my father’s arms on top of his body, and look. A card with teeth like a key, brass, enameled with his portrait, lies across my dotted palm. Inscribed with flowing script, the words he spoke on the revelation of his airships.
“The world belongs to those who are not bound to it.”-Caswell Leander
Out of nowhere, a banging and screaming sound comes from the door. Through my tears, I can see feet breaking the light coming from the stairwell. Frantically, I look around. Even with all the tools in the room, I’d be helpless against guns. I lay my father down and scramble to my feet. The keycard in hand, I run, obedient to the end. In the distant darkness of the basement workshop, I see it. Little more than a mining track, lit with phosphorescent lamps. I jump into the cart, and pull the lever, hurtling off into the darkness.
The light breaks me out of my crying and the cart coasts to a stop. I step out of the cart and stumble blindly through the door. There, waiting for me like someone knew, a small airship with Leander emblazoned across its side. The room is silent, except for the faint bubble of a boiler and the hiss of steam escaping. I run from the shadows through the bright hangar, and push my key into the groove made for it. It turns and the door unlocks and hisses open with pneumatic pressure. I walk inside and press the buttons I know will set the ship on its course. The tethers retract and the ship rises into the air, lurching forward as I hit the throttle.
The door closes behind me, but I don't turn around. My eyes are focused on the horizon, getting away from the danger of what was once my home. I keep my hands on the steering wheel and breathe a sigh of relief. Then, against the hum of the ships motor and the rush of the wind, I hear the sound of feet tapping and turn to see her…
“Beatrice, what- why are you-” I stammer incoherently, dividing my attention between my unusually confident servant and the path of the ship.
“I told you, I’ll always be here to help you.” She slips off her coat and her bare forearms throw blue light around the cockpit. The controls move without my motion and the clouds ahead dissipate suddenly. My hands retract and I stare in wonder, as she says with a shake of her head. “You haven't even started.”

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