It was late summer. All the fruit was heavy and ripe and sweet on the tongue and she wore sandals, afraid of the splinters on the still-bare wood of the floors. And an old sun dress, so worn the shape of her hips and the curve of her breasts was a visible shadow through the fabric.
It was their first weekend alone in the new house and they were drinking red wine as they unpacked the boxes. James put on a Beatles record, watching Mary as she swayed to the music and raised her arms above her head as she twirled. The wine swirled in the glass, the light through the dark liquid seeming to prism and splinter on her skin. It made it look as if her fingers were wearing a thin veneer of watery blood over the delicate knuckles.
They had a spare antique bedstead and no use for it, for though the house was big enough for the half-dozen children they'd spent happy evenings dreaming of that was all off in the future, all yet to come, all a might-be. Now there were just two newlyweds in their new home with the hiss-skip-scratch of favourite songs and the smell of unfamiliar dust in the air.
They put the bedstead in one of the highest rooms, the view like a half-woozy drop out the window.
"This room feels special," Mary said. "I think the walls remember something good... look, there's a basin in one corner. Perhaps this was the place where mothers used to give birth."
Or a sick room, thought James. In later years, he'd wonder where that idea came into his head from.
"Oh, James!" Mary said suddenly, rocking up onto the balls of her feet with a laugh. "We're going to be so happy here."
They made love then, in that dusty sunny room, and lay together in the quiet as the air settled and the perspiration on their skin cooled and dried.
"How much do you love me?" James asked teasingly, propping himself up on one elbow so as to better watch the subtle movements of her breathing.
"I would die for you," answered Mary in a matter-of-fact voice. "And you, James, how much do you love me?"
"I would find you through the dark."
That answer wasn't supposed to mean anything much, he'd been reading a paperback about a world struck with blindness and chaos and the dread of imagining a situation such as that put the idea into his head. It sounded pretty, a suitable reply to Mary's own statement.
But they were newlyweds, so perhaps vows had a certain unexpected power to them.
Lives - and deaths - are messy things, and do not always translate well into written accounts later. Stories repeat and vary and contradict. One lover dies and the other ventures down and down into the breathless underland. Orpheus faces purgatory and pleads for the wife who died too young; as if there in an allotment of life each being is entitled to.
Orpheus lost his love in that old story, but times change and protagonists before cannier. After Mary died James let his feet guide him to a place where spirits watched and waited.
These spirits conjured a create with Mary's face, Mary's smell, to distract him. But once upon a time he and Mary had visited the Lakeside Amusement Park and James could remember the maze of mirrors. Image after image, reflections that doubled and echoed. Time and time again he thought he'd caught up with her only to find she was still ahead, still just an image on glass. It had taken practice, but James had learnt to tell the real from the fakes in that silvery maze. He did not fall for the distraction.
Heroes and villains are words for fairy tales. Life and death and hate and love and sickness and health seek to separate themselves from their opposites when truth demands adhesion of one to the other.
There were old gods with old names in that place, older than heaven and hell and perhaps older that loss and death itself. Xuchilpaba and Lobsel Vith and Xuchilbara. Gods of snakes and reeds and sun and mist.
James performed the rites and rituals, begged and threatened and pleaded and wept. In the end, however, it seemed that none of these things meant so much to the gods as the memory of a promise. A man, a woman, an afternoon in late summer, and a vow for one to find the other in the dark.
Laura was a girl with very little to call her own: a sharp tongue, a clever mind, and the memory of a kind lady who made her laugh. Laura would have walked the world to find Mary again, but no matter the direction of her route it would have eventually brought her to that town, the silent spirit-place where ghosts could wait forever.
Laura hated James, but love and hate are messy things and he was all she had left in the end, so she decided it was probably the smart thing to try and find him again.
Laura had never been to a hotel before, and even waterlogged and abandoned the Lakeview seemed fascinatingly opulent.
Maybe James had been lying. He wouldn't really kill Mary, Laura mused. Nobody could do something like that to someone so nice, even if they were really sick and crabby sometimes.
Laura drew shapes in the dust beneath a table in one of the upstairs rooms, wondering where she should look for James and listening to the building settle and creak around her.
Voices drifted up from downstairs, muffled by the layers of damp carpet between Laura's current room and the airy lobby below.
"I don't like this, you should be resting until we're sure you're strong enough."
"Don't be silly, honey. I haven't felt so well in years. So alive. Oh, James..."
The voice sounded like it wanted to laugh and cry all at the same time, but Laura barely noticed the tone - she knew that voice! She'd strained her ears for a whisper of it ever since she'd come here.
"Mary!" she shouted, pounding down the corridor and down the stairs and taking turns so fast it seemed a miracle she didn't slip. Wrenching a door open and standing on the upper level of the lobby looking down, Laura could see stupid old James standing by the door and a woman beside him.
"Mary," Laura cried again, and then Mary was running up the stairs as Laura was running down. Laura considered crying to be a dumb babyish thing to do, but she had been so lonely and everyone was so weird and still in this town and Mary was so warm and soft and she didn't smell sick anymore, so it was okay that she cried a little when they hugged.
"James," Laura gulped. "James said you were dead."
"Yes. I was," Mary answered, nodding. She was several steps lower that Laura and as they broke apart from the embrace she looked at the girl's face. "Look at you. I bet you haven't brushed you hair in a week... yes, I was dead, Laura. I was very sick and James didn't want it to go on as it was - we were both very unhappy, and it was terrible. You mustn't be angry for what he did. anyway, he brought me back." Mary smiled, and her eyes were bright with tears. "And we came here to find you, and now everything's all right again."
In later years, Laura began to doubt her memory of this scene, for surely she felt disturbed or nervous when confronted with someone who had died and come back. But despite close analysis, the moment never lost the perfection of that particular fulfillment of the most unconscious and greedy needs of a child requiring a mother.
Institutions had long been a mainstay of Laura's life. Orphanages, the hospital, more orphanages. She knew the smells of rooms inhabited by lonely bodies and regulation furniture. When James and Mary enrolled her in boarding school she was so astounded it was several days before she was sufficiently aware of the idea to argue about it. Laura shouted at James, punched and kicked and swore. Never Mary, though Laura knew it had been a decision the pair had made together, but James was fair game and she made him see exactly what she thought of the idea.
Still, fighting didn't help in the end. She'd gained parents, after a fashion, but not a home.
She wrote letters, and James and Mary wrote back, and between semesters the three of them visited exotic and beautiful and strange places, beachside apartments and cabins in the forest and townhouses in teeming cities. But never Silent Hill, never back to the address Laura wrote on the envelopes she posted home.
Home seemed the wrong word for it, anyway, considering she hadn't seen it for six years.
At fourteen Laura looked much like her features at eight had promised she would, though the brittle anger had faded somewhat into the sadness she felt pressing down on her a little more each day. Oftentimes on their holidays Laura would ask idle and roundabout questions of James, about the demon-angel-creature born from daydreams and nightmares who had worn Mary's face.
Red tips on blonde hair, James said. Long pink fingernails. A wicked smile.
One mid-term break Laura had tinted her hair with two inches of red at her shoulders and painted her nails a glossy shade like lipstick or candy. James and Mary had not remarked on it. Defeated, Laura scrubbed her nails clean and clipped her hair short, and still they didn't remark on it. Perhaps, she thought to herself, it was because she did not know how to smile in a sufficiently wicked manner. Her own grin was, she had been told, more bittersweet than anything else.
Because she saw them so infrequently, it took those six years from eight to fourteen before Laura noticed that James and Mary never changed. Not simply that their personalities didn't alter, the quiet and somewhat unsure manner with which the dealt with the world around them, but their appearance remained unchanged also. It was as if the town they lived in held them static, preserved them.
But Silent Hill was just an ordinary place, with an ordinary postal service to send her letters to and fro and an ordinary dot on the state maps Laura stared at boredly in geography class.
In all her years at the school, Laura hadn't run away. There didn't seem a point to doing something like that, when all that waited for her outside was a family who had simultaneously chosen and abandoned her.
There was no catalyst, really. No single event that made Laura decide to pack a bag and slink off into the night. Just a breaking point, a day when the loneliness and routine and repetition got too much and Laura knew she must change or die.
Silent Hill didn't seem to require change of any sort, or very little at most. It was just as Laura remembered, still and quiet and cold. She'd developed enough sense since childhood to have brought a coat on this occasion, and huddled down against the wind within the soft wool folds. James and Mary always bought her good, expensive clothes. Maybe it was their small way of making up for the one thing Laura wanted which they refused to give. A place in their life.
Laura remembered the stories James had told her of the way the town had looked to him back before Mary had returned. The rust, the blood, the sounds of the periphery of hearing. It made her think of old maps, the blankness of uncharted sea. Here be monsters, the explorers would write there.
Laura wondered if she was broken and tired enough now to see the things Silent Hill had lurking. She wasn't that little girl who'd feared nothing anymore.
But there were no monsters, no fearsome things. An ordinary town with ordinary people and a cafe that sold cups of hot soup at a price even a runaway orphan could afford.
She found the house easily enough, an address she knew by heart on a street she vaguely remembered from so long ago. She had no key but it was easy enough to pry a window open and wriggle through. Laura noted with some amusement that James and Mary's taste in furnishings was kinda tacky. Still, the house felt like a home, and that was all that mattered.
Nobody was there at the moment, so Laura poked around at differed drawers and cupboards. She'd never bothered to keep secrets herself and had no comprehension of why a person would seek to make things private. There was a box below the clothes in the closet of the master bedroom, an old-fashioned hatbox with curved sides and a shallow lid. Inside it Laura found every letter she'd sent over the years, a record of her growth and growing-up. She didn't bother to read any of them, having lived the events the words recorded.
In the drawer of the living-room desk were all kinds of documents and photocopies about Hope House. Laura, who'd spent enough time on the orphanage circuit to recognise the name, felt as if she'd been winded by a punch. It seemed from the files and folders in the drawer that James and Mary both worked there. They spent every day helping orphaned children have a better life, and the child they'd taken as their own daughter was sent off like an inconvenience.
Though years of disappointment had worn her down somewhat, Laura still wasn't the type to cry. She blinked a few times, and drew a shaky breath, and put the documents back.
There was a spare bedroom, pretty and impersonal like all spare bedrooms. A fine layer of dust coated everything, as if the room was kept still as a shrine and never entered. It reminded Laura of something, but she wasn't sure what.
"This could have been mine," Laura whispered to herself, because fourteen is young enough to reply on personal exposition when things are too overwhelming to believe.
Not so welcoming as a room of her own would have been, but a thousand times closer to that than her dormitory bed at the school. Tired, so tired, from her journey and discoveries, Laura closed the door and lay down on the bed, putting her expensive coat over her as she fell into an unhappy sleep.
"She's an old woman. It isn't right."
Laura resurfaced from drowsing to the sound of James' voice, raised in anger in the master bedroom. She sat up abruptly, sending her coat sliding to the dusty floor, but apparently nobody had noticed anything out of place in the house or the closed spare-room door.
"Elderly people often feel driven to become involved in their church. They use it as insurance for the trip to heaven."
This second voice was one Laura didn't know, the words oddly inflected and faintly mocking. Laura had heard similar tones from teachers and housemistresses at school. It was the voice of someone who had power and enjoyed that power very much.
"Vincent." Mary's voice, not raised like the men's but sounding more irritable than Laura had heard her since the illness. "Mrs Mortensen is more faithful than she is rich, and neither amount is very high. You've used guilt or sorrow or one of your other tricks, and the money's not fairly come by."
"Of everyone I know, I thought the two of you would be the most acquainted with the idea of a justifiable sin!" The unknown voice - Vincent, Mary had said - was somewhere between angry and amused in tone. "Without the donations I get out of people, your precious orphanage would still be overrun with spiders and dust. Your daughter... Laura, right? Laura would have to come live here, without my money paying her school fees!"
"You leave Laura out of this." Laura could hear the fury in James' voice, and the wall between the rooms thudded as if someone had been pushed against it roughly.
"Don't -" Mary said then. "Please, stop it. James, let him go."
A pause then. Laura held her breath, hardly daring to move. The quiet went on longer, and then Vincent said,
"It won't do any good, you know. Keeping her away. The town called her and it'll call her back, and all the schools in the world won't change that." He sounded very smug, and Laura felt her own fists clenching.
"I called her here six years ago. Not the town," Mary argued.
"Not much difference between the two anymore, though, is there?" asked Vincent. "What is it you two insist on protecting her from? You seem pretty happy with the lives that you've got for yourselves. Has the Order ever done you wrong?"
Laura could imagine the kind of smile Vincent would have on his face, even though she didn't know what he looked like. A taunting but genuinely curious grin.
"She's... damaged," James said heavily. "We see it more with every vacation. She'd be pulled into the dark places."
Laura looked around the guest room, suddenly nervous, but the heavy gold of the afternoon sunlight came to rest on nothing more sinister than dust and a rumpled bedspread.
"And what do you think damaged her, eh?" Vincent's words were lazier now, punctuated with pauses. "You haven't been the most present of parents, have you?"
"It was the only way to save her," Mary answered in a level voice. "We knew what it might mean..." Now she sounded like the Mary before her phoenix-like second beginning, helpless and hopeless and full of impotent anger. "We had no choice."
"You -" Vincent started to say before James' voice cut him off.
"Stop." The word was a low growl, dripping frustration and dislike and something else. Laura's education had kept her in an almost entirely female world, and so she assumed that she was misinterpreting the tone. Anyway, it didn't make any sense.
Then Laura heard the creak of bedsprings, and a small soft sigh from Mary, and that was all just too weird and unexpected.
Not wanting to listen, not daring to move, Laura clamped her hands over her ears and shut her eyes. She was safe here, inside her head, where nobody could abandon her or hurt her. She imagined all the small pains and sorrows of her life drifting out from her like silver strands of cobweb, ensnaring her in the town's bad dreams.
Evening purpled into night and Laura slowly uncurled, encouraged by the lack of sounds from the main bedroom. Creeping softly over to her coat, Laura pulled it around her and muffled a sneeze as the disturbed dust flurried around her face.
The door of the main bedroom was slightly ajar, perhaps if it hadn't been Laura would have opened it to look anyhow. Perhaps not. The colours were drained to shades of blue and while in the night-palette, expanses of smooth skin and the sharp angles of hipbones and shoulders. Vincent looks much as Laura had predicted from his voice; a thin and somehow vaguely catlike form.
Laura couldn't help but blush at the sight of the three of them there, so decadent and pale and alien looking. Closing the door and moving away quietly, she tried to tell herself that discomfort and unhappiness were all she felt. But beneath that, insistent as a heartbeat, lurked another reaction. Envy, green and sharp as fresh thorns.
It was a better fate to be damned like that than to be forced into a long and lonely road which might lead to a salvation. As far as Laura could see, anyway.
They had known (she was out on the street at this point, having taken fifty dollars from a wallet she'd found on the kitchen table and locking the back door behind her), they had sent her off to the life she'd had and they'd done it knowing what it would be. It felt like a betrayal, but some small voice inside her pointed out to Laura that if they'd known the pain of this option and still chosen it then perhaps the alternative was worse.
Pulling her coat tighter around herself and setting her shoulders back firmly, Laura started walking. The wind off the lake was cool and fresh, and seemed to blow all the dust away. The lights of the town reflected on the black water were like faintly glowing ghosts seen from far above.
"So," Laura said softly. "Do I stay, or do I go?"
She felt a jolt of pity for the bratty little girl condemned to grow up so wounded merely for the sake of this eventual choice, then let the past fade and dim. Laura thought she might be old enough to make that first and last and most important of decisions now, and only had that chance because of the difficult choices Mary and James had made before her.
Laura watched the water for another few minutes, her hair stirred into slight movement against her cheeks by the wind. The grit of dust was all but gone in the breeze.
Then Laura made her choice, and smiled slightly to herself, and walked away.
Dear Mary and James
Please don't be worried. I hope you're both well.
I wanted to let you know that I think I'm
I'm going to
I'm all right, and that you shouldn't worry if the school says I'm
It's not easy
I think I'm going to be okay.
Love to you both,