Chapter 1 - Strange Dreams
Charlotte sighed heavily and let the drape slip through her fingers, extinguishing the lights of Los Angeles twinkling below her. Normally a reassuring sight, the endless stretch of humanity seemed to press on her shoulders like a dead weight. Robert Smith's voice sang her song mournfully from the speakers mounted on the ceiling of her apartment, "Sometimes I'm dreaming, Charlotte sometimes"(1)
"Happy birthday to me," she muttered under her breath and sloshed more wine into her glass. She'd always told herself that turning thirty was no big deal, especially to a creature who could potentially live hundreds of years. But here it was, her thirtieth birthday and all she wanted to do was punch something. Or, get stinking drunk.
She supposed that she should have gone out dancing with her friends. They'd found a guy for her who they promised was handsome, intelligent, wonderful, not at all the like the loser with whom they'd set her up last time. She'd bowed out, complaining of a headache and cramps, knowing they'd take the bait and leave her alone. She just didn't feel like making small talk with some boring lout who's only aspirations were getting in her pants.
She'd even taken a couple of weeks vacation off work. Tomorrow, she planned to drive up to her twin brother's place near Yosemite, but today, she'd lounged around the apartment. She'd done some reading, dozed in front of a movie, and generally did absolutely nothing, all in a haze of self-pity. The highlight of her day had been the Fed-Ex package that had arrived in the afternoon. Answering the door in her bathrobe and a headscarf, she'd signed for the thin, flat parcel and carried it to her living room.
A girlfriend from Tokyo had sent it, someone she had met in college and hadn't seen since graduation. They'd met in one of their programming classes and had quickly become the best of friends. Keiko had been in LA as an exchange student, studying English and Computer Science and Charlotte had been taking Japanese as a minor with her Computer Science major. Keiko had been the only human to whom she had revealed her true nature. She had been surprised but not horrified, and had told Charlotte stories about the 'youkai' that supposedly populated Japan. After finishing school, Keiko had moved back to Japan. They had drifted apart but stayed in contact, periodically emailing each other or sending cards.
The package still sat in the living room, unopened. Shortly after the Fed-Ex guy had left, the phone had rung. She'd set the thing down to answer it and it had slipped from her mind. Now, she eyed the white box curiously, wondering what on earth her friend had sent her. Setting the half-full (or is it half-empty, her mind supplied) glass of wine on the coffee table, she wandered over to the box leaning against the sofa.
Catching her reflection in the mirror in the mirror above the sofa, she paused. 'Thirty's nothing when you don't age,' she contemplated her unlined face. Her blonde hair was short and layered, framing her face, the longest layers curling against her tanned shoulders. Sun-kissed highlights on the top and dark blond underneath, the effect was three-dimensional and few people believed it was natural. Small, tufted, triangular ears poked out of her hair, a rich honey-gold that blended with her hair. 'Then why are you so bummed?'
She flopped down on the couch and buried her face in the overstuffed cushions. "Because I'm BORED!" She sighed, 'Now you're talking to yourself.' She raised herself to her elbows and grabbed the goblet, downing the contents. Leaning her body over the arm of the sofa, she located the "open here" tab on the side of the box. Without much hope that it would actually work, she tugged on the bit of cardboard. Sure enough, the tab tore off halfway through the top. "Fuck it," she muttered and extended a sharp, talon-like claw from the tip of her finger. Wondering why she hadn't that in the first place, she slid the claw through the rest of the top. She peered into the darkness inside the box, then gently tilted it. A piece of paper, carefully folded, fluttered out. Snatching it up and setting the box down, she unfolded it.
Happy Birthday! Hope you like this - the shopkeeper assured me that it had youkai origins and I had to get it for you. Even if it doesn't, it's right up your alley!
Come visit me sometime!
Charlotte chuckled, the wine pleasantly buzzing in her head. "Keiko, I'm not a demon. I'm a werelion." Her friend's voice echoed in her head, supplying the reply to the old argument, "Same difference"
She reached into the box and pulled out the brightly wrapped package, laying it in her lap. Using her still-extended claw, she eased the tape from the paper until Keiko's present had been freed from its colorful bindings. "Whenever I'm alone with you, you make you feel like I am free again,"(2) The Cure crooned in the background.
She stared down at the painted landscape. "Keiko, you know me too well," she thought as she traced the delicate branches of the blooming cherry tree in the foreground. Behind, a snowcapped mountain kissed the blushing sky, it's base haloed in fog. Almost shrouded by the mist, a mansion was barely visible, defined only by tiny brushstrokes. Charlotte had always loved this kind of painting, whimsical, magical and graceful. 'I want to go there,' she had told Keiko on the occasions they had seen this style of artwork. 'Everything would be so perfect and beautiful.' Keiko had laughed at her, 'It would be like anywhere else. It's probably a real place.'
She sighed and set it down, leaning it against the couch. Applying the logic of mildly intoxicated people the world over, she decided it was time for another drink. Wending her way back to the bottle, she filled her glass and began to set the bottle back down. She thought better of it and meandered back to the couch, bottle in tow. She dropped into a cross-legged sit in front of the painting and took a long sip. There was something unusually fascinating about this painting - was it the way the fog seemed to roll around the mountain? It didn't move but it didn't seem to stay in the same place, either. Or was it the cherry blossoms that almost shivered in the breeze?
She stretched out on the floor and propped herself up on her elbows, her brain too hazy to keep her sitting upright. The painting took up her entire field of view but lost no detail. Reaching a hand to the end table by the sofa, she found her reading glasses by feel. Usually using them to protect her eyes from the light of the computer screen, they were also handy for focusing on small print. Concentrating for moment, she transformed into her most human form and slipped them onto her face, the arms hooking behind her slightly pointed ears, now in the position of a human's ears. Blinking through the light plastic lenses, she examined it again. 'Fascinating, it's like I can zoom in…' She giggled suddenly and inched forward until her nose was only inches from the thin wood. 'I can almost touch that tree…' she brushed her fingers, the nails short and blunt, through the air over the paint. A warm tingle traveled from her fingertips up her arm, filling her head with a sudden vertigo. She blinked, too groggy to really react and analyze the situation.
Squinting, she pressed her nose against the wood. A dot of yellow paint now touched the mansion, as if there were a light shining from a window. She was positive it hadn't been there a second ago. The floor suddenly tilted and Charlotte tumbled into black oblivion.
Her head pounded steadily and her mouth felt stuffed with cotton. It wasn't fair - she didn't remember having drunk enough to get a hangover, and if you didn't remember it, it didn't count, right? And it was chilly - had she left the balcony door open? She shouldn't have taken that robe off…why was she laying in grass?
Charlotte's eyes popped open. Cherry blossoms rustled above her, petals falling like snow. Blades of grass tickled her cheek and the twilit air was filled with the song of crickets. Rubbing her temples with her knuckles, she groaned and sat up. 'I must have passed out in front of that painting…since when have dreams included headaches? And wet jammies?' Her pink flannel pajama pants were damp and clammy where she had laid in the grass, sticking to her tops of her thighs. The front of her camisole top was also wet and grass stains now marred "Hello Kitty's" pretty white fur. She sighed resignedly, "I hope the cleaning lady doesn't trip over me when she comes in tomorrow morning."
As far as dreams went, this one was truly amazing. The scents alone that hit her nose were overwhelming and she could hardly name any of them. Conspicuously absent were the odors of car exhaust, rotting garbage and human sweat that seemed to permeate the city. She was accustomed to them so hadn't really noticed them in years. A scattering of stars twinkled down at her thought the purple sky and she blinked back up at them, trying to remember the last time she'd seen real stars. The chorus of crickets rose in a sweeping crescendo as more stars winked into the sky. Awestruck, she sat in the wet grass, hands resting limply in her lap, and watched the blossoming night, unaware of the quiet footsteps that approached from behind.
(1) "Charlotte Sometimes", written and performed by The Cure
(2) "Love Song", written and performed by The Cure