The sun was well set by the time Matthew made it back to his apartment building. With Wednesday done, the week was more than half over, then the weekend, and then Pat would come home. Maybe by then things would be back—
Matthew stopped a few paces from the lobby door, feeling a prickle on his back. Something about this felt familiar…
With mixed feelings of trepidation and resignation, he turned around and stepped back out to the sidewalk. Standing underneath the large oak tree by the road just past his building was Lady Erica.
Matthew inclined his head as she took a single step forward, just barely outside the pool of light from the warm streetlamp overhead. “Lady Erica,” he said, the conversation with Meihua swirling around in his head.
“Matthew Li,” the girl responded. “You do attract more than your fair share of trouble.”
“What do you mean by that?” said Matthew, trying to keep the edge from his voice. God is trying to show me something, he reminded himself.
“In all the space of Miracles, there were many outcomes of today with…” Lady Erica paused deliberately. “More severe consequences.”
Matthew’s mind made the connection. “You were the kid they spotted—” He cut himself off, not exactly understanding why but knowing it seemed wise not to finish that sentence.
The girl simply looked at him. As with every time before, her mouth didn’t move in the slightest, and her eyes—as much as he could see them—seemed inscrutable and opaque, neither light with levity or dark with danger. It was almost as if she were disinterested in the whole affair…
Matthew felt a crawling sensation up his back. The thought came to him—
Is this what it’s like? When a human life passes in the blink of an eye?
He took a breath, trying to steady his rushing heartbeat. “Why did you come to see me again?” he asked. No “what do you want from me”, no “what are you doing here”, just a simple question.
“To see if you would still consider my offer.” Lady Erica turned away, taking a step back into the shadow of the tree and facing the street. “While circumstances may conflict with this belief, I assure you that my intent is not to see you come to harm.”
Something about the girl’s precise phrasing set Matthew on edge, and all of Meihua’s kind and sensible words fell back in his mind, leaving the ingrained fear of the occult and powerful.
“Can you state clearly what the offer was?” he pursued, trying to keep his voice steady. The question wasn’t exactly a safe one, but without clarification there was no telling what he would be agreeing to.
The witch did not turn around, but somehow he sensed approval in her stance. “There is much in this world to be afraid of, and rightly so. You’ve seen what I am capable of.” She clasped her hands in front of her, out of Matthew’s sight. “One could call it a Miracle that the whole building did not burn to the ground.”
Matthew gripped his bag a little tighter, held low at his side. “None of that explains your offer,” he stated. It was cold enough out to see his breath in the light of the streetlamps, but Lady Erica’s form was dappled with shadows, and there was no answering steam from her direction.
The witch did not reply, and again Matthew felt a rising sense of frustration. “I’ve never been any good at puzzles,” he continued. “Can’t you just tell me clearly what I need to do?” He only realized after he said it that he had changed the question; unconsciously his mind had jumped from Lady Erica’s reticence to thinking about the purpose God had planned for…all this.
Matthew was watching carefully, and he didn’t see the witch’s shoulders stiffen, didn’t see her stance firm. Nonetheless there seemed to be a new tension in the atmosphere, like a build-up of static electricity. He found himself holding his breath.
The witch remained silent.
Look, I’m here, Matthew thought, becoming annoyed despite himself. I’m listening, even if it does turn out to be a devil’s bargain you’re offering. And now you won’t speak? It wasn’t difficult to keep from saying it aloud, though; whether this experience was occult or divine it didn’t seem wise to offer insult.
He sighed. “Look, you said it’s something about Pat, right?” I assume you care for the one who is close to you. “What do we need to do? What can you tell me?”
Lady Erica turned back to him, and for a moment she was just a girl again, just a teenage girl out of place in an unfamiliar neighborhood. For the first time Matthew heard hesitation, true unsurety, in her voice as she finally responded.
“I…cannot tell you any more than I already have. But rest assured. I will be there on Monday.”
“Be where on Monday?” Matthew couldn’t help asking.
Lady Erica lifted her eyebrows slightly, as if he had said something interesting, and the witch was back. She closed her eyes. “Good night, Matthew Li.”
“But—” Matthew started, taking a step forward—and then stopping. There was nothing but shadows under the oak tree.
Shivering a bit—it is cold out—he picked up his bag, even though he couldn’t remember having set it down, and turned back to the warm, bright, normal lights of his apartment building.
As he extracted his keys from his pocket, he wondered at himself taking this all in stride. Not only were apparent supernatural visitations becoming a matter of course, but the witch—Lady Erica—wasn’t following the script, or at least not any script he had ever heard of. No temptation, no blackmail, no requests or demands. And when I give in and listen she won’t even tell me what she originally planned to propose.
He didn’t see how he could be trapped into a demon’s bargain this way, but neither did he understand what God could be asking of him. As surreal as it was, there seemed to be nothing for it but to ignore the strange encounters.
Familiarity breeds contempt, the old maxim came into his mind. It had been a long and harrowing day, and he just didn’t have the energy left to keep worrying and chasing ideas around in his head.
But it was still a long time lying in an empty bed, feeling Pat’s absence, before Matthew could get to sleep that night.
I’m going to revise my previous estimate downwards, and say there will probably be only 8-12 sections of this story, instead of 10-15. I’m not sure if I’m forgetting one of the (extended) episodes I had planned, but I’m finding that there’s not too much more to explore and set up before the (pre-planned) climax, and the process has gone on for several months already. I need to get to the end so I can move on to other things (NaNoWriMo notwithstanding).
I haven’t even started part 7 yet, so there might be another break while I write that and then plan part 8, to try to keep things moving.
And a short NaNoWriMo update: I did make it to the end, and I’m letting the story sit for a month before I do an editing pass. After that’s finished, I do intend to let other people read it if they like; like before, I’ll send you my story if you send me something of yours. Details to come later (like, say, February).