The one thing I always remembered about Lewis Vendredi Antiques was the smell. Teddy and I came in from the pouring rain, which, despite the dirt and grime of downtown Chicago, was still cool and clean. The minute we stepped in the door, it was as though we were in another world. The air was taut and sharp with a tang I couldn't quite identify. It was dust, age, mold. Years later, long after it was all over, I would enter a long-closed crypt to pay respects to my (eventual) wife's grandmother. Stepping into that shut-in place, so long separated from the freshness of the outside world, I would be reminded of Vendredi Antiques. It smelled dead.
"Aw, man, why couldn't we have found a bar or something?" Teddy whined. "Marty, dude, how could you get us stuck in here?"
"Hey, you see anywhere else we could go? Everything else's closed!" I shook some of the water droplets off my coat. "Anyway, we can call a cab to get back to the frat house, if you want. It's not like you can't afford it." I was almost surprised at the bitterness that crept into my tone. Teddy, of course, didn't notice.
"I told you we shoulda taken my Jag," my friend countered, already pacing about the store as if he owned the place, like his father owned one-quarter of the business district. "Lookit this!" he complained, shaking out his backpack, sending water spinning into my face. "My sketches are probably history by now!" His long red hair flamed redder in the bright lights of the store; I took some grim satisfaction in noting that the heavy rain had just about ruined his brand new leather jacket. He turned towards me, his long, drawn, lean face twisted in almost comic annoyance. "Shoulda taken the Jag," he repeated. "Buses are for weirdos and pussies, man!" This from a man who looked, and often was, a stoner.
"You're the one who always complains about parking. And you're the one who wanted to get off-campus. Aren't the bars there good enough?"
"No strip clubs, though." Teddy grinned savagely at me as he scoured the wares, pushing rudely at a wooden baby cradle sitting in the front window. "Now look what happened. We get kicked off the bus..."
"YOU got us kicked off the bus," I corrected. "She was a bus driver, not a stripper."
"...And now we're stuck in the boonies in this stupid store with no way to get back." He charged up the small stairs to the main level of the store, rattling the glass cases with his knuckles. "I don't think anyone's even here." He tried turning on an old TV set sitting on one of the shelves, but nothing happened. He snorted. "Now we'll get back late. I got finals in a coupla days, you know."
"It's not like you study," I reminded him, trying to wring some of the water out of my hair. "Your dad's not gonna be happy if you flunk all your classes again."
"I know." He suddenly quieted, as if someone had flipped a switch in his brain. "'You must apply yourself, young man!'" he harrumphed in a fair approximation of his stuffy father. "'You'll never get anywhere without a brain in your head!'" He shook his head, sending water droplets flying. "He'll freak. He really will." Teddy looked up at me in more sorrow than I'd ever seen him. "I don't wanna lose my Jag, man."
I was fighting the temptation to remind him that it was his fault that his grades were so lousy, when a voice boomed throughout the store. "Something I can help you with, gentlemen?" An old man, white shirt spotless, brown slacks neatly creased, silk cravat jauntily knotted (cravat? Who wore cravats anymore?) entered from the shadowy back rooms. He gazed at us both with appraising glares that made me nervous; I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Teddy seemed similarly uncomfortable. "Looking for anything in particular?"
"Um, no, not really." I shook my head, more violently than I intended. "We just needed to get out of the rain."
He glanced over my shoulder out the window. "Ah, yes, it is quite a storm. I hadn't noticed. I was in the basement doing inventory."
"Think we could use a phone to call a cab?"
"Certainly! It's on the desk over there."
"Thanks." I headed towards the phone while Teddy, perhaps needing to do something to avoid the old man's stare, continued browsing the shelves. "You must be Mr. Vendredi?"
He nodded with pride. "Yes, this is my store. Feel free to look around. It's been a slow night, so perhaps you can find something that interests you."
"No, we just need a cab." I picked up the phone and dialed. As the dispatcher came through, I was distracted by a sudden cry from Teddy.
"Whoa, cool!" I saw him pick up a clean white human skull from one of the shelves. Before I could yell at him to put it back, he was turning it over in his hands, like a child opening a valued new toy. "Is this real?"
Vendredi nodded. "It's certainly an actual human skull." He gave Teddy one of those appraising looks again, and I grew even more nervous, so much so that I almost missed the dispatcher asking for the address. "What's your name, young man?"
"Teddy. Teddy Caruso. That's Marty Walsh." He said this without even looking up at the old man; he poked his eyes through the skull's gaping eyeholes.
"Caruso... You wouldn't happen to be related to Franklin Caruso of Caruso Industries, would you?"
Teddy finally looked up, his face sour. "Yeah. He's my old man." Then the happy beam returned to his face as he opened the skull's jawbone. "This is so cool!"
Vendredi chuckled. "Indeed. That piece in particular has a fascinating story behind it. Legend has it that it was the skull of a man named Nunzio Belluci, a man who lived in Italy in the 15th century. He was a thinker, a scientist, an inventor; some say that had he been given a chance, he would've been greater than Da Vinci, revered even today as one of the great intellectuals of history." The old man shook his head sadly. "Unfortunately, it was not to be. There was a Salieri to his Mozart, a rival by the name of Gunther Von Stropp, a German expatriate who envied Belluci's great mind. He sought to steal Belluci's knowledge, and snuck into his lab one night with theft and sabotage in his mind. But Belluci caught him, and there was a struggle. Von Stropp murdered Belluci in cold blood. The act unhinged him, and he cut off Belluci's head, convinced that it would give him the key to the man's great knowledge."
I hadn't realized I'd been holding my breath; something about the way Vendredi told the story was mesmerizing. Teddy seemed similarly affected, gaping at the old man in wonder. "Of course, Von Stropp was caught and put into an insane asylum," Vendredi continued. "But the head of the great man, the man who could've given so much to the world had he been given the chance, was never found, and Von Stropp would never tell anyone what he did with it. There were whispers that Von Stropp had eaten the great brain in a futile attempt to gain Belluci's wisdom, but those were just stories." Vendredi smiled tightly. "They also said that the skull was still out there, seething with rage at the life so cut short, tainted by Von Stropp's jealousy and madness. They say that the skull hungers so for the knowledge stolen from it that it steals the knowledge from others in order to fill the void, and that whoever possesses it can share in that knowledge."
There was a long pause. Finally, I was able to speak. "That skull looks like it's in pretty good condition for being over 500 years old."
Vendredi grinned. "All my antiques are of the finest quality." A horn sounded from outside. "That must be your taxi, young man. Why don't you go check?" I did so, not really knowing why I obeyed so quickly, and without question. I only vaguely noticed as I left the store that Teddy still hadn't moved; he was still staring at Vendredi, the skull held loosely in his hands.
The cabbie was impatient; he was just about to go off-duty when our call came in, and the rain wasn't helping his mood either. It took me a few minutes to convince him to wait long enough for me to grab Teddy. When I reentered the store, he was still clutching the skull as Vendredi wrote something down in a thick, dusty book. "Come on, the cab's here. Put that thing down and let's go."
"Hey, it's mine now, dude." He gave me that savage, toothy smile again. "I just bought it."
My nose wrinkled in disgust. "You bought it? Why?"
"It's..." He glanced over at Vendredi, who raised an eyebrow. "It's just cool," he said quietly. "That's all. Cool."
I shrugged. It wasn't like I hadn't seen more unusual things sticking out of frat room doors. "I suppose. Come on, we've gotta get going. Thanks for the phone, Mr. Vendredi."
"No problem. Oh, and Teddy!" Teddy turned. "Enjoy your purchase."
He cackled, a high pitched, gleeful sound that always grated my ears. "I will, sir. I will." Rolling my eyes, I grabbed Teddy's arm and we made our way out into the rain.
"Finals week" is a phrase that can strike terror in the hearts of even those long out of school. My pre-med program was one of the toughest in the country, and though I appreciated the training, even I had to wonder at its worth as I hunkered down for hour four of my seven hour study marathon. I groaned, taking another swig of deep, black coffee before settling down at my desk.
I had so much caffiene in me that I think I jumped literally six feet when Queen started blaring from the room next to mine. Teddy's room. I gritted my teeth and got up, stalking to his door and pounding loudly. "Hey, Caruso! Keep it down in there! Some of us are trying to study!"
The door swung open under my knuckles. Teddy grinned at me, as cheery as I'd ever seen him, his chair kicked back, his feet propped on his desk, his trademark sketch pad propped on his knees. He twirled a pencil across his fingers merrily. "Hey, Walsh. Don't sweat the exam thing too much. Life's too short."
"Don't sweat it? In case you didn't notice, some of us actually study."
"So did I. These exams are no problem." I must've failed in my effort to keep from snickering, because he suddenly looked mock-hurt. "Seriously. I aced my econ final, and I've already got my lit final taken care of."
I raised an eyebrow. "Uh-huh. Well, anyway, Mr. Einstein, we peons actually have to study, so keep it down, okay?"
"No prob, dude." At that moment, Harry Franklin came running up to us, out of breath.
"Hey, guys, did you hear? Professor Quimby's dead!"
I gaped. Professor Quimby was one of the university's top scholars, former economic advisor to two presidents, and probably the most respected man in his field outside the government. "What happened?"
"I dunno, exactly. I heard he was mugged last night. They found him this afternoon in a dumpster."
"Man." I shook my head. "That's terrible."
"Yeah, man." I looked up at Teddy and saw, to my astonishment, a hint of a smile on his face, a hint that vanished so fast that I was left doubting if I ever really saw it. As his door creaked closed, I caught a hint of the skull, sitting on top of his stereo, and almost thought that its rictus grin was just a little wider...
A PhD student in English, fallen from a freeway overpass in a tragic accident. A noted local author, a business administration consultant, killed in a hit-and-run. And, of course, Professor Quimby. Tragic death after tragic death. Still, there was something about it all I just couldn't get out of my mind. I pored over the various newspaper articles dealing with these people, trying to reconcile it with the suspicion growing in my mind. Teddy had indeed aced all of his exams so far, passed with flying colors. One TA I'd talked to had checked up on him especially hard for cheating, but couldn't find one trace of possibility in that; he'd just KNOWN all the answers.
Perhaps someone else could've gotten away with it. Perhaps I wouldn't have ever suspected even the most braindead of jocks had they shown the same miraculous improvement. I would've just chalked it up to judging books by their covers. But not Teddy. I knew him much too well. There was no way on Earth he could've known enough to pass all those exams so easily. Yet he did. And what was my conclusion? All I could do was think about that story Lewis Vendredi had told us at his store. All I could do was tell myself that it was impossible. All I could do was stare at the newspaper clippings about the three dead people, three people who were experts in the very subjects whose exams Teddy had so easily aced.
I stood. Teddy had one more exam left. I had to find out for myself, no matter what I discovered.
"This is insane," I told myself again as I waited across the street from Teddy's favorite bar. It was a glitzy hangout, themed after the rough and tumble motorcycle gangs, set up to be in most respects one of those roadside joints where dangerous, leather clad men and loose women hung out. Except in this case, drinks were double the price, and the leather swathing the customers was designer label.
Of course, I hadn't seen any sign that Teddy did even a hint of studying for his environmental ethics final. He was about the least eloquent person I knew; one explanation about why he liked his favorite band could take hours to interpret. Combined with his lack of studying, there should be no way he could pass this exam, unless...
I shook my head. I kicked myself for the fiftieth time for even considering doing what I was currently doing. It was outlandish, what I was thinking. I pulled my jacket tighter around me, ready to go home, as I'd been ready every half hour for the past three hours. Teddy chose that moment to stumble out of the bar, laughing and waving to someone inside before staggering down the street. I swore under my breath and followed the retreating figure.
We were about a block and a half from campus before I realized where we were: a set of faculty and staff apartment buildings run by the university. I quickened my pace as Teddy turned towards one in particular. I'd seen that very building a week ago on the local news, when a business professor and former long-haired hippie Greenpeace member held a press conference in front of his building protesting the university's plans to expand the apartments into nearby wetland. Somehow, deep down, I knew with cold certainty that Teddy was going to see him.
In a minute, I'd almost caught up to my fraternity brother and friend. I had to know. "Teddy!" I shouted.
It was almost funny, the way Teddy jumped. "Gah! Frickin' a, man, you startled me." He held his backpack straps tightly. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I should ask you the same thing," I snapped.
"Uhhh... Nothin'. Nothin' much." He began fumbling with his backpack, starting to yank open one pocket, and I immediately tensed. He stared at me, indecision and fear and a million other emotions I couldn't identify streaming past his eyes. It wasn't until then that I realized just how much of Teddy these past few days, how much of Teddy in all the time I knew him, was a mask. And it looked like that mask was starting to crack under incredible strain. I started to wonder if I really knew Teddy that well after all.
"Look, what's going on? C'mon, we're pals, right? Level with me."
"You don't know!" he suddenly shrieked, becoming more and more agitated. "You don't know what it's like, going home to him!"
"Who? Teddy, what the hell's going on?"
"Nothing I ever did was good enough for him." He shook his head violently. "He never told me so, but I always knew he was disappointed in me. He had to be. He was the big shot business executive, and I was supposed to take over the business, like he did for his old man." Teddy looked up at me with eyes quickly tearing over, his hand stuck inside his backpack. "I'm not a businessman, Marty. I suck at business. I wanted to draw." His chest heaved with choked sobs. "I just wanted to draw." Abruptly, he turned and started running across the street. He didn't see the car.
Teddy's body smashed across the Ford's windshield before I could take a single step.
His father was openly in tears at the funeral. "Son," he told me after I lent him whatever condolences I could, "don't just treasure every day you have, make sure you tell the people you love how much you care about them. You might never get a second chance." After that, I couldn't bear to stay another second.
When I got back to my room, the first thing I saw was the skull, grinning up at me from my desk. Strange, I thought I'd shoved it into a desk drawer. Then again, I was having trouble remembering to put on pants, let alone keeping track of things like this. When I first got to Teddy's body, his hand was still jammed inside his backpack. Gently, I pulled out his arm, and clutched in his hand was the skull he'd bought from Vendredi Antiques. I took that skull and had it in my own bag before the police came. And I still didn't know why.
I sat at my desk and rested my chin on my knuckles, staring into the skull's eyeholes. "Why?" I asked it. "Did the guilt push him over?" I paused. "And why am I talking to you?" Predictably, it didn't answer.
I should have left it in his backpack. I should have given it to his father. I should have returned it to the antique store. I should have donated it to the biology department. I should have done anything, *anything*, but what I did.
I kept it.
And forgot about it. For several long years. If fate had been kind, I would've forgotten about it forever.
But eventually, I remembered.
I like to think of myself as a pretty normal guy. Odds are there's someone just like me in everyone's life, a brother, a friend, an officemate. I grew up in a middle class suburb in a nuclear family. I played some sports, got good grades, was reasonably popular. I got into a good college, went to medical school, and became an overworked, undersleeping intern at a local hospital. I was dating a wonderful woman, thinking about marriage. I vote in every election, keep up with the news, and even wrote a letter to the editor once. I still play the occasional pick-up game at the park's courts when I have the time; I like to think I still had the three-point skill I had in high school. I get together with friends in my incredibly limited free time and go fishing or hiking. I think of myself as a moderate Republican, and I go to church every Sunday morning like I have for the past two-plus decades. All in all, I don't think you could pick me out of a lineup; I'm just not the sort of guy you really... notice. And that suits me just fine.
Even though I go to church, I don't know how much of it I believe. In med school, I was trained to look the human body straight in the eye, at all of its wonders and flaws, be more concerned with saving lives than saving souls. I suppose that gave me a rather down-to-earth view of life; no time to pray when all of your mental faculties are going towards trying to keep a sixteen year old boy from bleeding to death from multiple gunshot wounds. Sure, I believed in God, and sometimes even said grace at dinner, but evil... I'd seen enough of it to know it existed. The drive-bys, the battered spouses, the hit-and-runs. The follies of man come into the emergency room every night. But it's our own fault, isn't it? Free will and all that? We don't need a Hell, an outside force, orchestrating wickedness. We do that just fine by ourselves, thank you very much. I didn't need to believe in Hell when little bits of it came by in stretchers before my eyes for hours on end.
Well, they say that that Devil's greatest trick was convincing the world that he didn't exist.
I remember that night. I was working hour four of my latest sixteen hour shift, and I was already worn out. Two heart attacks, one stroke, and an attempted suicide had already come and gone, and I was already hitting the coffee machine like a desperate drunk looking for an alcoholic fix. The only thing that kept me going, besides the caffiene fix, was visiting one particular patient. When she first arrived at the hospital, she called me "Dr. Walsh," the first person ever to do so, even though I wasn't a full-fledged doctor yet. Her chocolate-brown complexion was always shiny and perfect, thanks to doting nurses, and her sparkling blue eyes dazzled like a pair of brightly polished opals. I probably would've dated her, had I not been already dating. And if she weren't ten years old.
Don't get me wrong; dying isn't an easy thing. It never is. Three times out of four, Miranda was sleeping as though in a coma, her body too weak to perform anything but the most elementary of functions. Getting the bone marrow transplant she desperately needed was, to put it mildly, difficult, and her rare blood type wasn't helping matters either. Neither was the fact that she was adopted. Sure, the Jordans were the only parents she'd ever known. Sure, they visited her every day. But they weren't her flesh and blood, and I know that the knowledge that they might've been able to help her transplant chances if she'd been their own flesh and blood haunted them every time they left her bedside.
I don't have that many memories of her. I checked her IV every night, wrote minor observations on her condition, which never improved. I even helped a nurse braid her hair once, though my clumsy fingers couldn't quite get it right. But most of the time, she was in the hold of sleep, a little china doll that slowly paled and wasted away every time I looked in on her. This was death, in its purest form, right before my eyes, and I was helpless.
I hate being helpless. I was helpless when Teddy died. I swore to myself I wouldn't be again. I had no idea what this little girl was like, if she was angel or brat, energetic or quiet, graceful or clumsy. I'd never heard more than ten words out of her the entire time I knew her. To her, I was just one of the many, many faceless adults who tried to help her live, but failed. I didn't know her. But I did know one thing: death should never be that pure in someone so young.
So I decided to do something. Every spare moment I had, I searched records, nagged officials, and combed entire blocks until finally, finally, I found a promising lead. I didn't do it alone; it seemed that the entire ward pitched in whatever help and support they could. It was a hard road, the adoption laws being what they were then, but eventually, through a lot of sweat and a few minor miracles, I found someone who could help.
Edward Dean, as far as I could tell, was the former boyfriend of Miranda's birth mother. Though he definitely wasn't her father, he was the best, and only, link I had to being able to track down family who would likely be compatible with Miranda's blood type. After some wheedling, he agreed to meet me at a diner near his apartment. He was a thin, threadbare man, his forehead and eyes already wrinkled with hardship and worry, despite his relatively young age. He scratched at tightly curled black hair under a worn Cubs cap, his moustache bristling as he sipped at his coffee.
"Miranda, huh? That's what they named her? Well, I'm glad she found a good home, far away from here." He gestured at the tenement blocks and run-down, abandoned apartments outside the diner window. He shook his head. "She deserves better than what's happenin' to her."
"So you'll help?" I asked eagerly.
To my shock, he shook his head. "I'm sorry. I can't."
"Can't?" I demanded, trying to keep the outrage from my voice and failing. "What the hell do you mean, you can't?"
Dean shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry. I promised Miranda's momma a long time ago that I'd keep her name secret, no matter what. She hated giving Miranda up, and wanted to make a clean slate of it, so she could escape the guilt that was eating away at her."
"But that little girl's dying! Her mother may be our only hope! Don't you think she'd want you to break it if it'd help her daughter?"
Dean stared into his cup of coffee for a long moment. "You know what it's like, living around here?" I shook my head. "I've got nothin'. Miranda's momma was the best thing that ever happened to me, and even she left. Every day I have to struggle to find a reason to get outta bed in the morning. I've tried to kill myself three times. My life isn't worth shit, kid. The only thing I got left is what's left of my honor." He looked up at me with watery brown eyes. "No matter what I do, I'm gonna regret it for the rest of my life. Tell me, are the chances any good that you'll find a match if I brought you Miranda's birth family?"
"Better than none, which is what it's at now..."
"But still not good, is it?" I couldn't answer, and Dean nodded in some satisfaction. "You might not find your blood match, and Miranda's mom will hate me forever for bringing Miranda back into her life just to watch her die. I don't think I could take it, either..." He stood, tossing a few bills onto the diner counter. "I'm sorry." His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "I'm sorry." He left without even looking back.
When I came home early that morning, just off my shift, the skull was waiting for me. I thought I'd left it stuffed in my closet when I moved into my apartment, but there it was, sitting on a shelf between an old pair of sneakers and a stack of folded sheets. Already in a dazed, morbid mood, I picked up the skull and took it to my desk, where I stared into its eye sockets, much as I had after Teddy's funeral.
"What is it with mankind, huh?" I asked it, knowing full well I was going a little nuts from stress and lack of sleep. "A little girl's dying, and all the bastard can think of is himself." I could feel my eyelids drooping already, but I continued. "I suppose I can understand him, almost... His reasons are still based in love, in a way. But he's still willing to let that chance that she could live be destroyed... And I can't stop him."
"I can help," the skull whispered in an airy, reedy, nasal tone.
"Oh, yeah?" I asked. "How?"
"I can tell you the knowledge he holds. I can tell you the name of the girl's birth mother, where to find her. You can save the child's life. All you have to do is..."
"Yes?" I prompted.
"Give him to me."
I frowned. "Who?"
"The man named Edward Dean." The skull's empty sockets seemed to gleam in anticipation. "Give me his life."
The shock jolted me awake. I sat bolt upright in my chair, blinking; even now, I couldn't remember when I'd fallen asleep. The sun was already beginning to sink behind the Chicago skyline. Almost time for my shift to start.
A dream. Of course. I glanced at the skull and wrinkled my nose. "Back into the closet with you." With that kind of thing staring him in the face, no wonder Teddy broke.
I didn't forget the skull's promise, though. Not by a long shot.
Another night, another long shift of watching a little girl die. Every time I saw her room, stepped into her ward, all I could think of was the skull. *Give me his life*, it said. Dean had told me how miserable his existance was. If he were to die, it might even be a favor to him. And it'd free him from his guilt and allow the little girl to live. He'd even said he tried to kill himself...
I don't know what I was thinking. I like to think that the skull was whispering to me, even then. But I know better. God help me, I know better.
Not only that, my entire view of the world had been turned topsy-turvy. The story the old man told us was true, magic was real. Evil was a living thing, sneering and tempting. I knew it in my gut. I could feel it surrounding me, invading my thoughts. And I was letting it in, willingly, and that was the worst part of all.
Dr. Steinbach, one of my first-year professors, told us that not everyone appreciated what we did. Some would say that we were playing God. Which, he proclaimed, was ridiculous; our duty was simply to prolong and better life with the mortal tools we had. If we actually had the power to play God, he finished, doctors would be going mad at an alarming rate. I wasn't sure I knew what he was talking about then, but now... Get down on your hands and knees and thank whatever power you believe in for your helplessness and mortality. Doctors hold lives in their hands every day, and I learned to deal with that, but to weigh one in favor of the other, to become an agent of death to give life... How can anyone but a monster make that kind of choice?
But I had to. And I was only human.
The minute I got off my shift, I raced home. The skull was still in my closet, daring me, silently this time. "Get out of my head," I growled at it. No response. I sat on the edge of my bed, my face buried in my hands. I fought the urge to cry.
As with Teddy, as with so many other things in my life, I failed.
Even now, I don't remember how I came to be standing outside Edward Dean's tenement building, the skull resting inside my backpack. One minute, I was home, and it seemed as though the next, I was there.
"I can't do this," I said out loud to no one in particular. A passing wino gave me a funny look, shuffling away as quickly as he could. "This is crazy."
*Teddy passed his exams somehow,* a little voice in my head reminded me.
"Yeah, but this... I'm a doctor, for God's sake. I can't kill someone..."
*You'll be saving a life,* the voice corrected. *In exchange for one that all but admitted that he didn't want to live anymore. Don't you think he'd sacrifice himself for that little girl?*
"But that's his choice. Not mine."
*You swore to help her however you could.*
My head sagged. "I know... But this..."
*Don't you think Dean will die soon of his guilt anyway? You want Miranda to die, her parents to suffer? Why, when you can prevent it? You have the power to prevent it.*
"The power..." I whispered. I took the gleaming white skull out of my backpack. "God help me." I stared up at Dean's lighted window.
"What am I supposed to do?"
I raged. I punched the walls. I screamed and cried and roared, not caring that my knuckles were bleeding, that I was nearly blinded with tears.
I prayed. I got down on my hands and knees, my forehead touching the cold hospital tile, begging God or whatever was out there, for pity's sake change what was happening.
I pleaded. For the doctors to do something, for the nurses to bring more fluids. Yes, even to the skull. That I'd changed my mind, that I'd give anything. But, as the grinning thing took great pleasure in silently reminding me, it was too late. I made my decision. Edward Dean lived.
And Miranda Jordan died.
Shrieking, I threw the skull as hard as I could against a wall. I was almost not surprised when it simply bounced off and rolled to my feet, its smile of death still perfectly whole.
I heard later that I was huddled on the floor of the staff lounge crying for fifteen minutes before the head nurse finally picked me up and helped me home.
I think the only reason I let myself live after that was my girlfriend. Although I'd all but shut her out during this period, I managed to pour everything out to her, all except a few carefully edited parts. She helped me forgive myself, stand on my own feet and walk again, and for that, I asked her to be my bride.
But before I could move on, I had to do one last thing, something I should have done long ago. The skull had almost killed me in place of Edward Dean. It raised my hopes, then extinguished them, offered me redemption by stepping through hellfire and, I could tell, took great pleasure when I burned rather than follow. It almost got me like it got Teddy. Never again.
I really didn't want to return to Vendredi Antiques. But I had no idea where else to turn; even if the old man was still there, I could still maybe find some way to get rid of it. When I arrived, though, it was no longer Vendredi Antiques, but Curious Goods. Frowning, I went inside.
Physically, the store was little different than it was when Teddy and I first sought refuge from the rain several years, several lifetimes ago. But something, everything was different. It seemed lighter, brighter, and not just because of the difference between a cold rainy night and a sunny spring afternoon. It was a soothing feeling that warmed my body; it was as though someone had taken that cold, dead antique shop and resurrected it. But there was more. The smells. It smelled of coffee, of pine air freshener, of cotton, of laughter, of being comfortably lived in. It smelled alive.
Behind the counter where the old man Lewis Vendredi once told a story of hate and murder, a young woman with flaming red hair was talking to a man about her age over a pair of merrily steaming mugs.
"Snowshoes?" the young man was asking. "What could be so bad about snowshoes?"
"Well," the woman said, "according to what Jack and Ryan told me when they returned, these particular snowshoes were originally owned by a member of the Donner Party, and..."
The man held up a hand. "Say no more, Micki. Please."
The young woman, Micki, chuckled as she turned to face me. "Oh, hello. Can I help you?" Her smile, genuine, radiant, immediately set my heart at ease. I knew I was doing the right thing.
I reached into the shopping bag resting at my feet and brought out the skull. *End of the road, you bastard,* I thought at it in grim satisfaction as I revealed it to the two stunned looking people in front of me. Already, the man was flipping through a large, yellowing tome as Micki slowly walked towards me.
"Hi. A friend of mine bought this from this store a few years ago. I'd... I'd like to return it, please."
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This page was created on February 10, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.