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Falling Leaves and Failing Hopes
A The Ones Who Call story
Start at the beginning of The Ones Who Call series
The "Closed for Renovations" sign above the gas station made Noreen's stress headache flare back to life as she drove past.
A month ago, the inspectors had come by the valley to make sure her tanks were up to code, and the verdict had not been a good one. She'd let Gordon, who was part owner of the business, deal with most of the fine print, but what it had all boiled down to was that they needed new tanks installed. That meant digging up the old ones, getting more inspectors in to see if any of the gas had contaminated the soil around the tanks, and on and on and on...
The list of expenses seemed nearly infinite. They'd agreed to keep the convenience store open during the renovations to help offset some of the costs, but it still wasn't going to be enough to keep them both afloat. She'd graciously let Gordon work the store, as his bad back and knees kept him from working his old job at the mines, but that left her without a source of income.
She sighed heavily and rolled down the window, letting the hot autumn air blow past her face. Last week's frost had brought splashes of color to the poplar and willow trees down by the creek, and even though the weather felt summery today, she knew that true fall wasn't far away. Indian Summer, they called it. She chuckled, remembering a song by that title that one of the local bands played at dances. It was more than a little dirty, and when the tall, lean singer belted it out, it always got her out on the dance floor.
Her good mood didn't last long, though. The turnoff to the lakeside cottages came into view, and she suddenly felt a very strong urge to turn around and go back home, debts be damned. Sure, jobs were hard to come by in the valley, but she could find something else, couldn?t she?
She remembered the cold, crazy, pale blue eyes of the old man who had owned the resort when she was a child and shuddered. All of the reserve kids had been terrified of the man. Even Douglas, who'd once been crazy enough to jump into the bull pasture with a torch so that he could play toreador, had given the resort a wide berth after that summer they'd been caught by the wishing well.
Local legends said that the wishing well in the middle at the resort hid a cache of treasure that the family had brought with them from Europe. The same legends said that the treasure was haunted by the ghosts of the king they'd stolen it from, or by the ghost of a gypsy woman they'd wronged who had followed them to the New World. Either way, the promise of a ghost story and a treasure had been too much temptation for her and her friends.
They'd snuck into the resort, carrying long nets and poles that they'd stolen from the docks. The boys had immediately run to the well, laughing, and begun to poke around in the dank waters in search of the treasure. Noreen elected herself to stand watch, for the well made her uneasy. There was something dark and very old about it, and even though she'd only newly discovered her heritage, she could feel that it was a place of magic.
"I don't think we should be here." Her best friend whispered.
"We'll be in so much shit if he finds us here." She agreed, nodding towards the old man's house."
The boys laughed as one of them hauled up a netful of sludge and flung it at the girls. The sludge hit Noreen in the back and she screeched, wheeling on them.
"You bastards!" She said, feeling the wet slime running down her back. "What if he heard that?"
The boys just laughed, and Douglas shook his head. "Then you shouldn't have screamed, Reenie."
Noreen scowled, hating her nickname, and tried to scrape off the slime as casually as possible. "Fine. Stay here and get caught. I'm leaving. There's nothing down there, anyway."
She and her friend marched away in a huff, with the boys calling out jeers after them. They'd gotten only a few yards away when Noreen heard the singing start.
It hurt her to listen to it, high-pitched as the shrilling of a fire alarm, but she watched as her friend stopped and turned towards it, her face filled with wonder. By the well, the boys had fallen silent as well.
Terrified, Noreen dashed back to the well in time to see Dickie, Douglas' younger brother, go to his knees in the pool. She felt more than she saw the dark something seize him by the throat and begin dragging him into the water. The other boys were marching towards the water after Dickie, staring eagerly into the depths.
"Let them go." Noreen commanded, and her voice echoed back from all sides of the pool, reinforcing the magic.
A wash of energy struck her in the side, making her stumble and retch. As she vomited, she could see Douglas walking past her field of vision.
"Doug!" She called, reaching out to him. Her hand brushed his leg, and as it did, he seemed to shake himself out of his trance.
"Huh?" He said, looking around. "What's going on?Shit. Dickie!"
Noreen collapsed to her hands and knees, feeling fever sick, as Douglas raced towards the pool and hauled his little brother out of the water. Noreen heard something hiss like a snake, but Douglas showed no sign of having heard it. He kicked the other guys, yelling at them to help him, and they roused from their stupor.
Just then, a shout came from up the path. "What are you doing?"
Old man Pavylchenko was standing on the path, a shotgun hanging casually from one bony arm. Even in the darkness, she could see his pale eyes glaring out at them, and the sight filled her with more fear than even the sight of the thing in the pool had. It was a abstract threat, terrifying for its mystery, but Mr. Pavylchenko's eyes burned with hard, cold anger. He meant to shot them. All of them.
She screamed and scrambled to her feet, running for her life. The other kids had done the same, but Douglas and his brother hadn't been quick enough.
It was two days before she saw them again, and when she did, neither boy was the same. Douglas was withdrawn, all of his bluster and cockiness replaced by a nervous sort of fear. Dickie was even worse off. He didn't speak again for two years, and when he did, his words were muddled and nonsensical. His parents suspected Mr. Pavylchenko of giving him a blow to the head, but no wound was ever found, and the charges they pressed against him were dropped.
Noreen remembered the last time she'd seen Dickie. He'd been eighteen, just shy of his ninetieth birthday, and she'd gone with Douglas to visit him at the home. He seemed terribly excited, and kept repeating, "She's calling. I'll get to go see her now." His eyes were lit up with a strange brightness, and refused to focus on any object before him.
He'd disappeared the next day, and when they found him, he was face-down in the pond by the wishing well.
She shivered despite the sunshine and turned off onto the long, poplar-lined drive that led to the resort. The well-maintained cabins looked peaceful and inviting, and also considerably more expensive than Noreen could hope to afford. When she pulled into the parking lot across from the spa, her battered old reserve car seemed hopeless shabby next to Mercedes and Corvettes in the lot.
The man who met her outside the admin office seemed to have walked straight out of her childhood nightmares.
Mr. Pavylchenko looked as though he hadn't aged a day. Wrinkles still creased his brow, and his short white hair stood up in the same unruly curls. Those cruel blue eyes locked with hers as he reached out and shook her hand roughly.
"Mrs. S?sis?" He said, and it was only when he spoke that she realized that this was not the old man, but his son Nicholas.
"Err, yes." She said, feeling like an awkward teen again. She cleared her throat and smoothed her hair back behind her ear, giving him a bright smile. "Ready for work. Um. Where do I start?"
Either ignoring her embarrassment or not commenting on it, he led her to the back of the house and got her to fill out some paperwork. When she'd finished, he set her up on the reception computer and showed her how to enter information into their ancient accounting software. Then, he left a massive stack of accounting information on her desk and left her to her work.
The pile didn't seem any smaller by the time five o'clock rolled around, but Noreen was bleary-eyed and stiff. She stretched, feeling her back pop and crackle, and bid Mr. Pavylchenko good night, glad to be out of the old man's presence. His office was just behind hers, and several times during the day she'd been sure that she could feel him watching her through the clouded glass window.
As she walked out to her car, she caught sight of the wishing well through the trees. Even in the bright evening sun, the marshy pool that surrounded the well seemed forbidding. She turned her back to it and didn't look back until she was on the main road home.
Jenny and Kyle were both home when she arrived, chatting on the back steps. She greeted them both, asked how Kyle's mother was doing, and then sent them both inside to work on their math homework while she got dinner on the stove.
"How did she know we had homework? It's, like, the second week of school." She heard Kyle whisper.
Jenny rolled her eyes. "She says it's 'mom magic', but our new teacher is her best friend. They text each other all the time. It's super annoying."
Noreen smirked to herself as she chopped vegetables. She had just put the sauce on the stove when she remembered that she needed to take her pills before dinner.
"Shit." She said, slamming the lid down on the pot.
Jenny poked her head around the corner. "What's wrong, Mom?"
"I forgot my damn purse at work." She said, scowling. She grabbed her keys from the counter. "Jenny, can you look after the food? I've got to go and get it."
"Okay." Jenny called, wandering in to stir the noodles. "It is okay if Kyle stays for dinner?"
"Mmm-hmm." Noreen said, already headed for the door. "Just make sure the garlic bread doesn't burn, okay?"
Noreen started the car, glad that she could trust Jenny to get the food ready, but cursing herself for her own stupidity. She hated the thought of bugging her new boss during his dinner just as much as she hated wasting gas on another long drive to work.
It was twilight when she arrived back at the resort, and the cabins that had seemed so cozy earlier now stared out at her from darkened windows. She took the side road that lead to Mr. Pavylcheno's house and parked in the lot across from the pond. In the dim light, the wishing well was silhouetted against the last of the daylight.
Noreen turned her back to the well and began up the path to the house, but a moan of pain drew her attention back to the pond. It sounded like a woman in pain.
Hesitantly, she turned around. "Hello?"
The only response was the sound of the wind, rippling through the leaves of the massive oak that grew by the pond. She watched for a moment, wondering if someone was out for a walk, and was about to leave when she heard the cough. Deep and wracking, it sounded like an old woman trying to clear her lungs.
When the coughing fit subsided, a thin, reedy voice called out. "Come here. Help me."
Her senses warned her that there was a compulsion in those words and she shrugged it off instinctively. A tingling, warm buzz flared to life in her mind, much as it did when she heard one of her kin speak. Was there another Memegwaysiwuk living here? How had she missed that when she was younger?
Frowning, she edged closer to the pool, and then gasped as she saw the woman laying in the water.
The woman was as old and gnarled as the oak she lived under. Her sagging flesh was a mottled green and grey, making the pattern of wrinkles and toad-like lumps covering her face and torso look like the contour map of distant, hilly country. Every inch of her exposed skin glistened from under a thick layer of slime, but what made Noreen shudder were the thin, wriggling tendrils that erupted from the old woman's head, back, and arms.
A ghastly white, Noreen had first mistaken them for a thousand wriggling maggots. Now, however, she saw that they were actually small rootlets. Most of them floated free in the pond, waving behind her like a veil. Some clustered under her skin, forming the lumps that covered the woman's body, and Noreen was reminded again of insect larvae feeding on flesh. She shifted her gaze to the largest of the roots, which seemed to have sprung from the woman's spine. These were thick as ropes, and had a woody texture that Noreen found easier to look at than the pale veiny webbing of the smaller roots.
The woman shifted forward in her pool, squinting through foggy eyes to try and make out Noreen. When she moved, the roots in her back pulled at her flesh like living chains.
She has not left this pool in centuries, Noreen found herself thinking, and the thought made her frown.
Her own people lived no longer than humans, but there were stories of a time when they had been eternal. She had assumed that any creatures who survived from those times had likewise lost whatever bit of essence had made them immortal, but this hag proved otherwise. Even without the obvious signs of aging on her face and body, she seemed to exude the weight of centuries of decay and corruption.
She was repulsive, and yet Noreen was entranced by her.
She had only met a few creatures of legend in her time, and all of them had been a recognizable part of the stories that her mother had taught her. Wendigo and rugarou, trickster spirit and lake guardian, these were all things she knew. But none of the stories had mentioned anything like the old woman before her.
"You're not one of mine." The old woman said, and her voice was as raspy and creaking as two tree limbs rubbing together in the wind. She pointed one gnarled digit at Noreen, narrowing her eyes.
"You are one of them. The Lake-Cat's servants."
Noreen nodded cautiously. "Yes."
The old woman snorted and shook her head. The wrinkles in her face stretched and distorted as the roots on her head pulled at her. "Go." She said sharply. "You can't steal what is mine."
"I'm not here to steal anything!" Noreen said, but the hag wasn't listening.
She surged forward, washing murky swamp water onto Noreen's shoes. "Leave!" She shouted, baring a few crooked, blackened teeth. Noreen stepped back out of reach, unsure of how to respond. The hag was so bent and feeble that the attack was almost laughable, but there was a malice in the woman's clouded eyes that Noreen found deeply unsettling.
The hag continued hurling abuse at her, though now she'd lapsed into a language that Noreen didn't understand.
Noreen backed up another step and held up her hands pleadingly. "Calm down. I'm not here to take anything from you." She said. "I was just curious."
The hag stopped yelling and glared at Noreen. "Curious? Hah! You were sent to torment the old Rusalka, I bet. Not enough that I was chased away from clean water. Not enough to spend the ages here, away from the homeland. The fanged one must torment me, even here."
The old woman's muttered angrily to herself in much the same vein, stopping now and then to spit a curse in Noreen's direction. Noreen tried desperately to calm her down, but nothing she said seemed to register with the old woman.
"Come here!" The hag called again, louder. "Help! I am being attacked!"
Noreen protested that she wasn't trying to hurt her and considered running back to her car and leaving all of this madness behind her, but her curiosity about the old woman held her in place. She'd called herself Rusalka, and Noreen recalled that they were a type of Slavic water fairy, distant kin to her people.
"Just calm down." Noreen insisted.
Suddenly, Noreen heard footsteps crunching through the woods towards them. She froze, her eyes darting around wildly. There was no time to hide, and the hag showed no signs of climbing back into her lake. This was bad. Noreen had seen what happened when a human saw a fairy in her true form, and it didn't go well for either party.
"Lie down." She said, reaching out and pressing a hand gently but insistently against the woman's shoulder. Her voice wove a spell of slumber and compliance, willing the woman to go back to sleep in her pool.
The Rusalka's scream pierced the air like the cry of a wounded rabbit. Noreen flinched. If the person out there hadn't heard them already, that cry would bring them running. "Savage magic!" She hissed and slapped Noreen's hand away.
The blow was so weak that it barely moved her hand, but the sticky slime that now coated her hand began to burn. Noreen yelped and jumped away from the hag, cursing.
At that moment, Nicholas ran out of the house towards them.
Noreen was still half-crouched, cradling her wounded hand and trying desperately to shake the slime off of it. She gasped and looked up at her him, her mind whirling to try and come up with a way to keep him from seeing the hag. She quickly realized that it was too late. He was staring right at her, holding his shotgun.
She flinched, knowing what would happen now. She wondered if the resort would keep her on after Nicholas' death...
Nicholas' gaze met the hag's milky white eyes and he smiled dreamily, bowing his head to her. Then, he whirled on Noreen and levelled the shotgun at her chest. She swore and froze, holding up her hands.
"Stop." She commanded, and he faltered, some of the dreamy look gone from his eyes. "You will not shoot me."
The hag hissed. "No! I forbid you to hear her words. My voice is the only one you will respond to, and I say to kill her!"
He paused, confused by the conflicting impulses, and Noreen took advantage of his distraction to dart into the bushes. She heard the Rusalka screech behind her.
"Find her! Kill her, and bring me her body!" The hag yelled.
Cold sweat ran down Noreen's back as she reeled her way through the brush, seeking a way to escape. Unfortunately, Nicholas was between her and her car, and there was too much open ground between her and the nearest cabin. Already she could hear Nicholas' footsteps crunching towards her hiding spot. She sent whispers through the air to distract him, but he continued on, deaf to her voice.
Frantic now, she closed her eyes and sought fresh water. Unfortunately, the nearest source was the hag's pond, and that water would not respond to her. However, she thought she felt something nearby, and she pulled.
The sprinklers came on, dousing Nicholas with water. He stumbled backwards, accidentally pulling the trigger. Buckshot pelted the ground in front of the bushes, and Noreen swore at how close the shot had come to her hiding spot. She ran forward while he was still off balance and slammed into him, trying to wrest away the gun. They tumbled to the ground as the hag screeched and shouted commands.
They struggled for a moment, but Nicholas was much older than she was and Noreen managed to pry the gun from his grasp. He cursed and scrabbled at her, but Noreen squirmed away, sliding across the muddy ground.
"Stop!" She said, getting to her feet. She levelled the gun at the Rusalka as the sprinklers flared behind her.
"I don?t want to hurt you, but I will pull the trigger if you don't let him go."
The hag thrashed in her pool, baring her teeth at Noreen. "No. No. He is mine. You cannot have him."
She made a wrenching gesture with her long, ragged fingers, and Noreen felt invisible claws rake down her arm. She gasped, but kept hold of the gun. She summoned her power and pulled the sprinkler head around, sending a jet of water at Nicholas as he climbed to his feet. If she could break the hag's control of his mind, maybe no one would have to get hurt.
The water washed over Nicholas' face, and for a moment his eyes cleared as the whispers of her song drowned out that of the Rusalka. He stopped advancing towards her and stared, his eyes pleading.
Noreen heard his voice all around her, whispering much as her own did when she called upon her power.
In the well. Her comb...
Then the hag's power overcame him again and he lurched forward, trying to grab hold of the gun.
Noreen threw the gun as far as she could and pushed past him, sprinting for the wishing well. Nicholas stumbled after the gun for a few steps before the Rusalka realized where Noreen was going.
"No!" She shrieked, clawing at the air. "You must not!"
The hag tried to lunge out of her pool as Noreen ran past, but the roots held her fast. Her reaching hands missed Noreen's leg by mere inches, and then she was past and leaning over the stone edge of the well. She could see nothing down in the gloom, but she could feel a great power pulsing from below.
Great power, and water...
She called to it, bidding the water to reach for her and to bear its prize upwards. Slowly, almost lazily, it obeyed. Noreen could feel the Rusalka's power wash over her, grasping towards the water under her control, but it seemed as though the hag could not touch the clean, pure water of the well.
The water bubbled to the surface, and Noreen saw the glinting of metal within the well. She reached in and pulled free a delicate comb. Every inch of it was covered in a thick layer of tarnish and rot, but Noreen suspected that it had once been silver. It felt very warm to her fingers, and it, not the hag beside her, pulsed with the power she'd felt.
As soon as her fingers touched it, Noreen heard the Rusalka moan and whimper very softly in the back of her throat. She turned to see the old woman's wide white eyes staring at her as she cringed in the depths of her pool.
"Do. Not." The Rusalka croaked.
"Smash it." Nicholas' voice sounded very strong and sure.
Noreen turned to see him leaning against a tree, clutching at his head. He took a half step towards the gun and then stopped, trembling with the effort.
"Now. Before she takes me again." He said.
Noreen hesitated a moment, remembering that some creatures kept their life outside of their body. Then she remembered Dickie, and the fear she'd seen in Nicholas' eyes.
She set the comb on the edge of the well and picked up one of the decorative rocks from beside the pool. The Rusalka lunged against her bonds, pulling so hard that the loose skin around her mouth pulled back from blackened gums to reveal a skeletal smile. Her shriek lashed against Noreen's mind, threatening to shatter it.
Noreen slammed the rock down on the comb. It broke easily.
The scream stopped. The Rusalka made a curious gurgling noise, then slumped back into her pool. The quivering rootlets stopped moving, and the woman's body drifted slowly down to the mud. Silt and sedement drifted down onto the toad-like skin, and as Noreen watched, the Rusalka dissolved into mud and marshwater.
She stared, horrified by what she'd done.
The Rusalka, though vile, had been one of her kind. Noreen had killed her.
She dropped the stone and stepped away from the well, wishing she could dive into the waters of the lake and get clean. Behind her, Nicholas slumped against the tree, panting for breath.
"You did it." He breathed, clutching at his chest. "You killed her."
Noreen stepped back, feeling as though his words were an accusation. "I... I didn't want to."
Nicholas waved his hand, scowling. "You would have, if you knew what she was."
Noreen turned at met his eyes, seeing anger in that cold, blue stare. "Oh, and you did?" She snapped, still in shock.
He shrugged, and the casualness of the gesture offended her. "Of course." He said. "She's the god-damned tyrant that has been controlling my family for generations."
He spat, then set about trying to wipe the mud off of his face. The sprinklers continued to whir away around them, washing mud from his hair down onto his cheeks. He swore and made a sharp gesture with his hand.
The sprinklers trickled to a halt.
Noreen stared at him as though he'd grown another head. "You... What are you?"
He ignored her for the moment and concentrated on pulling himself to his feet. From the way he stumbled, he'd likely hurt his leg during their tussle. He took the time to smooth out his hair and wipe most of the mud from his face and hands with his undershirt. Then, with great dignity, he turned towards her.
"I am her great, great, great grandson." He said. His lip pulled back in a sneer. "That witch followed us over from the Ukraine after my ancestor managed to escape her hold, and she has been tormenting us ever since."
Noreen was silent, too stunned by the revelation to speak.
He continued, gesturing angrily to the pond. "She feeds on our blood. Every goddamned night since I became a man, I've had to come out here and let her sink those broken, rotten teeth into me. And still it was not enough!"
"She demanded more and more, more blood to sustain her appetite." Nicholas' brows drew together as his gaze became unfocused. "She took my father first, then my mother. She would have taken me as well, if I had not sent my son away..."
"And then, she took one of your kind." He said, his eyes snapping up to meet hers. "She was worse after that. She could command me during the day as well as during the night, and she demanded to be fed more frequently."
He shook his head, gritting his teeth. "I do not know what she would have done, had you not been here."
He stepped towards her then, smiling a fierce, grim smile, and held out a hand to her. She stared at it, not wanting anyone close to her right now. He frowned and took her hand despite her reluctance, giving it a firm shake.
"Thank you." He said.
Noreen opened her mouth to speak, but no words could communicate what she was feeling. Horror, both at the Rusalka's death and at Nicholas' morbid glee, but also a deep, irrational sense of accomplishment. She had gone toe to toe with an enemy and won. It stirred a deep, primal sort of hunger within her.
Nicholas released her hand and looked her over, grinning wryly. "You look as though you've seen a ghost."
She shook her head. "I... just. I think I need to sit down."
"I would have thought that a full-fairy like you would be used to such things." He said, but graciously hooked an arm under hers and helped her over to a nearby bench.
She stared at him, annoyed by his levity. "I'm an admin assistant, not a superhero."
He laughed, a deep, rumbling chuckle that started in his chest, and patted her on the arm. "You're funny. I like that."
She scowled at him. "What are you?" She snapped. "How did you control the waters?"
He shrugged. "Her blood may have started my line, but we've married out through the generations. Our powers are weak, but it was enough to sustain her." He stroked his moustache, combing some mud out of it. "I suppose you could call me witch-blooded."
Noreen rubbed at her temples, trying to make sense of what he was saying. The whole night was too much for her, and she desperately wanted to get home and wash.
"Okay." She said. "Look, Mr. Pavylchenko. This is really too much right now. I just need to get my purse, and then I'm going to go home to my family and try to figure this out."
"Fine, fine." He said. "You talk to them. Tell them that the Rusalka is dead, and that they are free to come and cleanse her pool whenever they wish. I will feel better when her taint is not there."
"Then," He said, placing a hand upon her shoulder. "When you are feeling better, you come and talk to me. We have a lot in common, I think."
He gave her an appraising look, and his gaze shifted briefly to the sprinklers.
"But, I have kept you here too long. Tonight I will rest, and tomorrow we can talk of the past."
He stood, helping her to her feet as well, and together they limped slowly towards the office. Noreen was quiet through the journey, and it seemed to take all of her concentration just to put one foot in front of the other.
By the time she'd retrieved her car and was on her way back to the car, she felt a little more in command of herself. She had the presence of mind to help Mr. Pavylchenko back to his house, and got him an ice pack for his ankle. He waved off the offer of any more help, and told her to be on her way.
She smiled nervously, realizing that she no longer feared his curt manner and intense stare. Instead, she found his gruff, sensible manner almost appealing. She was eager to speak with him about his family, but realized that that was a matter for another day.
She bid him good night and gratefully started towards the car.
His voice stopped her. "Oh, Mrs. S?sis?" He called.
She paused, one hand on the handle of the car door. "Yes?"
He was standing in the doorway of his house, scowling out at her. However, she saw a mischievous glint in her eyes that she recognized from her own crazy family members.
He grinned wolfishly. "If you think you're getting a raise for that, think again."
She was still chuckling over that joke as she made her way back home.
Story by Alina Pete, Copyright 2011
Image by Tara Willett, Copyright 2011