Chapter 1: Murder
Naomi Peterson clapped a hand to her mouth to stifle a scream. Her horrified eyes met Bob’s astonished ones through the dirty glass of a small window inserted in the door. She just witnessed him stab a man to death in the alley, and he knew she did. It didn’t matter that they had been classmates at school. It didn’t matter that they had kissed once in eleventh grade. She just saw him commit murder in broad daylight. He would come after her. She saw the realization unfolding in his eyes too and didn’t wait for the inevitable. She whirled and raced for the front door. The locked back door of the club rattled behind her, as Bob tried to force it open. It would take him some time to circle the long building to the parking lot at the front, the time for her to escape. Her fingers shook on the car key. It took her three tries to start the car, and her hands still felt unsteady on the wheel. She accelerated out of the parking lot. He would find her soon. He didn’t know her address, but he had the Internet, like everyone else. It was only a matter of hours until he found her. She needed to disappear. She drove on autopilot, her mind numb with dread. Should she report him to the police? And then what? Testify in court? Was he with a gang? Mafia? They had never been friends at school, and she had known, vaguely, that he was into a bad stuff, but she had never been interested. She had been with the intellectual crowd in those days, set for university and a glorious dancing career. She had never dreamed that their paths would cross again after graduation, and in such a drastic manner. She calmed a bit when nobody chased her on the highway. By the time she turned into the driveway of her house, she was almost back to normal, but she was glad to see the windows downstairs glow with light. Her father was home. He would know what to do. She let herself in the downstairs apartment, where her father lived alone since she had moved upstairs during her freshman year. Her friends mocked her that she still lived at home, but she didn’t care. Both she and her dad had their privacy—the apartments had separate entrances—while still being in the same house, close enough if they needed each other. She needed him now. “Naomi?” He just had his shower and was dressed only in sweatpants, with a towel hanging over his neck. His dark brown chest rippled with muscles, even though his short fuzzy hair was almost white already. It had still been mostly black when she had met Bob last, at her prom three years ago. Bob! She started hyperventilating again and leaned on the door to support her jellifying bones. She opened her lips to tell her dad, but no sound emerged. Her throat locked. She gazed at him in a mute appeal for help. “Naomi, what happened?” He reached her in two long strides and clapped his big hands on her shoulders. “You’re trembling. Come, sit down. Tell me what’s wrong?” His strong grip was reassuring, his familiar round face a brown mask of serenity. “Talk to me, girl. Do you want some whiskey? No, you don’t like whiskey. Ouzo?” He moved unhurriedly as he talked, fitting words to actions, his deep baritone a soothing balm for her frazzled nerves. By the time she downed a large splash of liquor, she was finally ready to talk. He listened without comment, as he always did, nodding thoughtfully now and again. “Should I call the police?” she asked uncertainly. “If I were an upstanding citizen, I’d have said ‘yes’,” he murmured. “But I’m not sure the police are as uncorrupted in real life as they’re on TV. I don’t want you to testify in court. It could be dangerous. I agree with your assessment: you’d better disappear, at least for a while. Until he’s arrested.” His eyes turned sad. “Maybe a long time. I’ll miss you, pumpkin. Was there anyone else at the club?” “No. I rehearsed alone. Nobody was there. It’s too early.” “I knew it was a bad idea for you to dance at the strip club,” he said without heat. It was an old argument, one she had already won, but she replied all the same, as she always had. “At least I could pay for my schooling. No student loans for me. I wouldn’t be able to do that with any other part-time job.” “You could’ve taught dancing at a community center. Much safer.” “I do. Much less money,” she countered. “I would’ve paid your tuitions.” “I know. I wanted to do it myself. Besides, the girls are all safe at the club, you know that. The bouncers wouldn’t let anything happen to us during the night. But it’s daytime. No bouncers.” He sighed. “Well, we can’t change the past. Go, pack, Naomi. We’ll leave as soon as you’re done.” “Where will I go?” Naomi obediently stood up. Her hand draped around the door handle. “To your family in Virginia?” “No. Anyone can find you in Virginia. We’re going... I’ll tell you in the car. We’re taking your Beetle. I’ll rent a car to return home.” Naomi nodded and opened the door. It wasn’t like her father to be secretive, but it didn’t matter. She jogged around the house to the back stairs, leading to her second-floor apartment, while the cold sick fear in her stomach finally started to melt. Obviously, her father had a plan. He would tell her when he was ready. An hour later, they were on the highway, heading west towards Pennsylvania, and Naomi started fretting again. Where were they going? They already made a couple of detours, to his bank and hers, and withdrew as much cash as the banks allowed from all their accounts. The money resided now in the backseat of the car, stuffed into her old backpack. Her father didn’t think she would have access to a bank wherever he was taking her. Did he want her to camp in the wild? For how long? Maybe he knew something about Bob that she didn’t. “All right, Dad. Spill,” she said between her teeth. “You’re scaring me. Where am I going?” “To Pittsburgh,” he said quietly. “Nobody will find you there.”
Chapter 2: Road trip
“Pittsburgh?” Naomi gaped. “It’s on Elfhome. Has been for as long as I’ve been alive. What are you talking about? I can’t go to Pittsburgh. It’s another planet. I don’t have any papers, just my driver’s license.”
“You were born in Pittsburgh,” her father said. “Drive, Naomi, and I’ll tell you your true story.”
“I was born in New York,” she objected. “I saw my birth certificate.” She ventured a sideway glance at him.
He seemed inscrutable, as always, and she returned her attention to the road.
“It’s a duplicate,” he said. “They issue one to every baby born in a foreign country of American parents, when they first arrive back in America. The original was issued on Elfhome. In Pittsburgh. It’s in here.” He patted his breast pocket.
“Really? What about my mom? Was she an American too? Or is she still in Pittsburgh? Is that why she isn’t living with us?”
As far as Naomi knew, her father never talked about her mother, except saying she couldn’t raise her daughter for family reasons. He never answered any of Naomi’s questions, never blamed her mother for anything, but Naomi had always been resentful. She had always assumed her mother was a white married woman and wouldn’t acknowledge her illegitimate daughter with a black lover. Maybe she just didn’t want a half-blood girl? On the other hand, if her mother was an Elfhome citizen, perhaps the situation was different. Perhaps she couldn’t leave home. Maybe the elves, who ruled Elfhome, wouldn’t allow an illegitimate child? A mulatto child? Who knew what the elves thought?
Her father sighed. “Your mother is an elf.”
“What?” Naomi gasped. He hands tightened on the wheel. “My birth certificate says Janette Smith.”
“Yes. Janette was a girl about your age. She wanted off Elfhome, but didn’t have the money. Your mother paid her to put her name on the certificate. Janette also signed an agreement with me: she relinquished all the rights to her baby—namely you—to me. You were never hers to begin with.”
“But why? My elven mother didn’t want me?”
“It’s not that simple. Your mother is a domana caste elf.”
“The ones with magic?”
“Yes. By the elven law, the domana caste can’t have sexual intercourse with anyone else. Only among themselves or with their sekasha.”
“Their bodyguards,” Naomi translated softly.
“Yes. If anyone finds out that she had sex with a human, had a baby with a human, she’d be in trouble. They might even kill her. And you. And me.”
“Wow! Slow down. The elves might kill me? Then why am I going there? Might as well stay at home and risk my murderous former classmate. At least I’d know what to expect.”
Her father snorted without humor. “Nobody in Pittsburgh knows about you, except one person, your mother’s friend. She is some sort of a healer at the elven hospital. She helped with the birth. In secret. You shouldn’t tell anyone either.”
“But,” Naomi sputtered. “But if I’m half-elf, what about my ears? I don’t have the ears.”
“You did. When you were born. She... they...” He winced and looked away from Naomi towards the window.
“They what?” Naomi yelped. She was so flabbergasted she felt as if she was listening to a fantasy show on the radio. It didn’t feel real.
“They performed some kind of surgery on you, sculpted your ears to the human shape. I think they did it with magic. There was no blood or scarring, but you cried for a week, poor baby. I was terrified. Then you stopped crying, and I took you home. Became a single parent to my wonderful baby girl.”
“What did you do in Pittsburgh anyway? I didn’t know you ever went to Pittsburgh.”
“I was on a student exchange program. Went to Elfhome for a month. Met your mother. Fell in love. Stayed for a year and left with my daughter.”
“Darn, what a story.” Naomi mulled it over for a while, and her father kept quiet too. “What was her name?” she asked at last. “My mother’s.”
“Better you don’t know. I promised her not to tell anyone. Besides, she was going to leave Pittsburgh right after I left. I doubt she is there now.” His face assumed a faraway expression, and a small smile played on his dark lips. “She was so beautiful,” he said dreamily.
Naomi shook her head. “I didn’t know any of it.”
“No,” he agreed. He still gazed out the car window and wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Time to disperse with his reminiscences and focus on the practical stuff. “Dad, pay attention. The way to Pittsburgh only opens once a month, on the Shutdown day, when the Chinese shut down their gate. What do I do before then?”
“Shutdown is two days from today, Tuesday night,” he said. “I always keep count. We’ll stay in a motel for the next night. Then you’ll go to Pittsburgh, and I’ll go home.”
“And then I’ll stay on another planet alone? For a month?”
“Probably longer, pumpkin. On the next Shutdown, send me a letter, to let me know how you are. I’ll keep you informed about the situation with Bob. If it is ever resolved, you could return home.”
“That’s why you wanted me to have the cash.”
“Yes. You could buy a house in Pittsburgh for one dollar. Find a job. Teach dancing to the local kids. You should do fine.”
“What if Bob or his associates come after you?”
“Why? Nobody will trouble me. I didn’t witness a murder. I won’t even know where you are, at least not for the first month. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them you took off to San Francisco, to a dancing gig. Let them look for you in San Francisco.”
Naomi smiled, probably her first smile since she witnessed Bob killing a man. “Fine. But I don’t know anyone in Pittsburgh. Could you at least tell me the name of the elven healer, my mom’s friend? I’ll only contact her if it is an emergency, I promise. Would she help, do you think?”
“Probably.” He hesitated for a few seconds. “Her name is Field of Rye Bending to Wind. I called her Rye.”
“Thank you,” Naomi said.
“But only in an emergency,” he admonished. “Tell the guards on the border you’re considering immigration. You have the rights: you were born in Pittsburgh.”
“Fine.” Naomi’s lips moved, as she mouthed a few choice profanities. She wouldn’t say them aloud. Her father didn’t like it when she cussed, but if ever a situation called for swearwords, this was it.
Unlike many of her classmates, she had never longed for adventures. She was happy at home, with her father and her dancing. Now, to escape a murderer in New York, she was driving to Elfhome, an alien planet where immortal elves wielded magic. Where she didn’t know a single person. Where she half-belonged, maybe even could work magic herself, but she couldn’t tell anyone, because if someone found out about her mother, they might kill her. In her wildest imagination, she could never imagine such an adventure. A road trip to Elfhome nobody but her would ever make. She shook her head and started laughing. It was either that or howling, and she preferred laughter.
Chapter 3: Dina
Two days later, Naomi drove her bright yellow Beetle into Pittsburgh. The lineup of cars and trucks was crazy. It took her from midnight to four in the afternoon to travel a couple hundred meters, from the last American checkpoint to the guard post on the Elfhome side of the border. Both posts were manned by human guards. Would it be ‘elved’ if it was elven guards, she wondered?
Surreptitiously, she touched her round, entirely human ear, while the guards studied her Pittsburgh birth certificate. Nobody screamed: “Elf!” So far so good. After several routine questions, they stamped her documents and waved her through.
“Welcome to Pittsburgh,” said one of the guards.
“Thank you.” Naomi smiled as she drove past the post and into the city proper. For the next month, she was a legitimate tourist. On Elfhome. On another planet! She felt surreal.
A few hundred meters into Pittsburgh, she saw her first elves up close, sauntering along the street in colorful silks. They looked even more beautiful than on a TV screen. More unreal too. Would the elves realize she was one of them? Half of them? The surreal feeling intensified. Maybe the air was different here, as well as the elves and the magic.
She drove slowly, looking for a motel or a B&B, but the area seemed purely industrial. After a while, small businesses started to appear on both sides of the street, full of activity, although the sky was already darkening.
In the bluish dusk, further camouflaged by a drizzle, she almost missed a scuffle deep in an alley. She would’ve driven through anyway, if an angry girlish scream didn’t make her slam on the brakes. Someone was attacking a young girl. Naomi could never turn away now. She had taught dancing to girls for the past two years. A couple of her students had been sexually assaulted. She couldn’t ignore it.
“Let me go, moron!” The voice belonged to a terrified child.
Her fingers trembling and heart pounding in terror, Naomi stopped the car, unzipped her costume duffel, and rummaged for her prop gun. At the strip club, men liked it when she wielded that gun while dressed only in her silver lame belt for the tips. In the darkness of the alley, it should look almost real.
She hopped out of the car before she talked herself out of this insane attempt at rescue and raced into the alley. The girl still shrieked like a banshee as she struggled with her assailant.
“Let her go,” Naomi growled and pressed the muzzle of the gun into the man’s neck.
He stilled and tensed but didn’t release the girl. His fingers dipped into the girl’s thin flailing arms. Naomi grabbed a handful of his long greasy hair. She yanked his head back. “I said, let go.” For good measure, she kicked him behind one knee. She was a dancer and wore hard boots for the road. Her kick packed a punch.
He cursed and pushed the girl away, his elbow poised to strike Naomi. She used his hair as a handle, spun him around, and delivered her second kick into his groin. He howled and folded.
The girl, short and skinny, looked about twelve. She had already scrambled to her feet and was inching away from the fight.
“I have a car. Come on.” Naomi grabbed her hand and sprinted towards the mouth of the alley, tugging the girl after her. “Get in.”
While the girl dived in, Naomi ran around to the driver’s seat and started the car as soon as her door slammed shut. She didn’t care where to drive, just away from that alley. After a few turns, totally lost, she pulled over and took a good look at her passenger.
The girl had large blue eyes, a tangled mass of dark hair, and a bruise on one cheek. Her ears strained up—an elf. Her short red knit sweater was torn and unraveling along the bottom. She stared back at Naomi.
“I’ll take you home,” Naomi said quietly. “But you have to direct me. I just came across the border. I don’t even know where we are.”
“Thanks,” the elf girl said. “I know where we are. Drive. I’ll tell you where to go.”
“You’re an elf,” Naomi stated the obvious.
“Half. My mom is human.”
“I thought elves are forbidden to have half-blood children.”
“Only the domana caste. The other castes are okay. Why did you come here?”
“I was born here, but I lived in New York all my life. I wanted to see Elfhome.”
“Ah. So where are you staying?”
Naomi’s lips twitched. “I was actually looking for a place. Do you know any? A B&B or a motel.”
“No. But you could stay at my place tonight.”
“Your parents wouldn’t mind?”
“My dad... is not in the picture. And my mom has gone to Earth. For a surgery. I’m alone.”
Naomi frowned. “But you can’t stay alone. You’re a minor.”
“No. I’m twenty. I just look like a child because I’m half-elf. I’ll look like that for the next fifty years, but I’ve already graduated, and I drive.” She nodded ahead. “Next block. Stop at the yarn shop.”
“That can’t be,” Naomi muttered as she parked the Beetle in front of the yarn shop.
The girl snickered. “Why? How would you know?”
“I’m also half-elf; my father said my mom was an elf, but I look my age, twenty-one.”
They gazed at each other.
“Maybe because you lived on Earth, without magic.” The girl smiled and climbed out of the car.
Flabbergasted, Naomi followed, rolling her suitcase behind. She didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“This is our shop.” The girl opened the door and ushered Naomi inside, through a narrow aisle with shelves stuffed with colored yarn on both sides, towards a back door. “We live upstairs. Did I thank you for my rescue?”
“Yes,” Naomi said.
“You pointed a gun at that jerk. Would you shoot? For me?”
“It’s not a real gun,” Naomi confessed. “It’s a theatrical prop.”
Her hostess rocked to a halt at the top of the staircase between two opposite archways. One opened up into a living room, another into a kitchen. She glared at Naomi. “You came after a man twice your size with a fake gun? Idiot!”
“He thought it was real,” Naomi said defensively. “And I kicked him. That was real. I’m a dancer. My kick’s almost as good as a bullet.”
The girl snorted, shook her head, and continued along a narrow corridor towards the last of several closed doors. Between the doors, beautiful knitted tapestries with a bright abstract pattern hung, filling the entire place with coziness and warmth. “This is a guest room. The next one is the bathroom.” She opened the door and turned, her hand motioning for Naomi to enter. “I’m Dina. Welcome to my home,” she said.
“I’m Naomi. Thank you, Dina. Did your mom knit those tapestries? They’re gorgeous.”
“No. I did. If you’re a half-elf, like me, why don’t you have the ears?”
Naomi shrugged. “Maybe I’ll find out while I’m here.”
“Strange. I’d like to visit Earth one day,” Dina said wistfully, “but according to the treaty, no elven child, no elven DNA at all, could be taken from Elfhome. I wonder how your father managed.” Her eyes sparkled with interest. “Dinner will be ready soon.” She turned on the light and closed the door, leaving Naomi alone.
“Yeah, I wonder that too,” Naomi murmured to herself.
Chapter 4: Culture shock
She woke up the next morning, still wondering. Last night, during dinner, she and Dina had come to an understanding. She would help the girl run the shop part-time, at least until Dina’s mother came back, in exchange for staying in their guest room, and they would share the costs of food and utilities. It seemed a reasonable arrangement, and the amazing tapestries decorating her room added to Naomi’s contentment.
“What do you want me to do today?” she asked Dina over breakfast. “Stay in the shop?”
“No. I need to lay out food for the next month. I’m out of most dry stuff—pasta, rice, sugar. We usually buy ten- or twenty-pound bags, but Mom took our car to Earth, and I only have my bike. I can’t load much on it. I haven’t bought anything but fresh local produce for the past two months. Could you drive to the supermarket in your car? I’ll give you a list.”
“Sure. Why such big bags? There are only the two of you, right? Two of us now.”
“Because it all comes from Earth. In a couple weeks, all the dry grocery would be gone from every store until the next Shutdown.”
“Oh,” Naomi said in surprise. “I guess you have a different life here.”
Dina smiled. “I guess. I’m going food shopping too: eggs, milk, veggies. Everybody shops right after Startup, so nobody will come for our yarn. I’ll keep the boutique closed today.”
“I meant to ask—what’s wrong with your mom? Could you tell me?” Naomi probed.
“She has a bad heart.” Dina sighed and looked away. “She’s having a heart transplant. That’s why it’s taking so long. I hoped for a letter this Shutdown, but none came. That’s why I was there, near the Rim.”
“You know the guy who attacked you last night?”
Dina shook her head, her big blue eyes shadowed. “I heard,” she said slowly, “that half-elf kids have been disappearing.”
“Are there many half-elf kids like you? What about the fathers?”
“The elves come here as tourists from the Easternlands. They look around, play with the exotic native women, and go back home. It’s too wild for them here, too barbaric. They’re not interested in half-breed children.” Dina sounded bitter but resigned. “There were a few half-breed children in my school, mostly younger than me, and it was the same story. No elven parent was ever interested. Not even the sekasha, who are supposed to be holy. Holy, my ass. There was that boy, Blue Sky. His father was a sekasha, but he lives with his older half-brother, a full human.”
Naomi mouthed an expletive. Her elven mother probably wasn’t interested either.
“Although that boy’s father is dead,” Dina mused aloud. “Maybe that’s why.”
“I thought elves are immortal.”
Dina shrugged. “They are, but they can be killed. His dad was killed by a saurus.”
“A saurus? It’s like a dinosaur. I saw one on TV, but it was in a zoo.”
“It was in the zoo here too. It’s a mean monster. It escaped and ate that poor elf.”
Naomi gulped. They had mean, man-eating dinosaurs on the loose here? Her father had never told her that. She needed a guide to the dangerous local fauna to stay away from monsters.
“Do they live inside the city?” she asked faintly.
“They’re not supposed to. Elven rangers patrol the surrounding woods and get rid of any carnivorous beasts and plants, but you have to be careful.”
Carnivorous plants, Naomi thought in dismay. She needed a guide to the local flora too.
Oblivious to her distress, Dina continued her recital. “Sometimes, a stray warg gets into the streets, or a strangle vine sets roots in someone’s backyard. They show how to deal with them on one of our TV programs, Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden. You should watch it: very educational. The other day, they showed a nest of steel spinners in an abandoned warehouse in Windgap. Flamethrower is the only thing that helps against those. I should get one. You should get a real gun too if you’re ever planning to be outside after dark.”
“I have Mace in my purse,” Naomi said weakly. “I forgot about it yesterday, when that dickhead assaulted you. My dad only gave it to me the day before.”
“Pepper spray?” Dina scrunched her nose doubtfully. “I don’t think it could be much help against a saurus. Oh, and don’t get too close to the river edge. Some jump fish could jump ten meters.”
“Fish...” Naomi trailed off. Fish too? Maybe she shouldn’t have come here at all. Maybe this place wasn’t a safe haven her father imagined. It sounded much more perilous, in a wacky sort of way, than Bob and his mundane knife.
Dina smiled. “Don’t worry. This is Elfhome, not Earth, but you’ll learn. Come outside. I want to show you my hover bike. Mom bought it for me as a birthday gift, when I turned twenty. The best gift in my life. I wish I could’ve ridden it to the Rim yesterday. Then no one could’ve touched me.”
“Why do you call it a ‘hover bike’?” Naomi inspected the weird motorcycle sitting in a shed behind the shop.
“It has a lift. It moves in 3D.”
“You mean it flies?” Naomi almost screeched.
“Not flies, exactly, but it could move above ground, yes. But only when we are on Elfhome. It uses a magic spell for its lift drive. That’s why I couldn’t ride it yesterday, on Shutdown. No magic on Earth.”
Cold prickles ran down Naomi’s spine. “Obviously, I’m not in Kansas anymore.”
“You said you lived in New York.” Dina led the bike out of the shed.
Naomi didn’t reply. If the girl didn’t get the reference, any Wizard-of-Oz explanation would sound as absurd to Dina as Dina’s talk of saurus and flying bikes sounded to Naomi. “I think I’m getting a culture shock,” she said instead.
Dina grinned evilly. “If you wish, I could teach you to ride a hover bike.”
“No, thank you,” Naomi snapped. “I’ll stick to my car.”
Chapter 5: Rescue
Naomi followed Dina’s instructions and found the superstore with no problem. After piling everything on Dina’s list plus a few items of her own into her shopping cart, she endured a long lineup to one of the cashiers. Clearly, Dina was right: everyone in Pittsburgh stockpiled their groceries the day after Shutdown. The line took over an hour to get through.
She stored the bags in the boot and in the truncated backseat of her Beetle and started to retrace her route to the yarn shop. Where was that brick house with the yellow door? She had to turn right at the next intersection after she passed it. Her eyes scanned the houses and their doors, while her fingers beat a fandango rhythm on the wheel, but no yellow door flashed anywhere.
She must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Darn! She was lost. She needed a Pittsburgh street atlas, in addition to the local flora and fauna guide, she thought in irritation. She needed a whole damn encyclopedia to understand this nutty place with no straight routes and bridges everywhere.
She looked for somebody to ask directions, but strangely, nobody was around. The street felt abandoned, the houses shut up, their paint peeling. Assorted detritus and weeds chocked the front yards. A breeze blew yellow autumn leaves off the trees and across the cracked pavement.
Getting nervous, Naomi watched for any signs of danger. Strangle vines. Steel spinners. How did they even look? Could they get inside a car? How would she recognize any of those biohazards? She knew how a saurus looked from a TV show, but that was small comfort. It could probably flatten her car.
A purely human cry for help from a house she was passing felt like a relief. She stopped. The house looked as abandoned as the rest, its windows boarded. Maybe she didn’t really hear that cry.
“Help!” a childish voice called again.
Damn, she did hear it, and nobody else was in sight, just like yesterday. She had to do something. Naomi checked to make sure the Mace spray was in her purse and climbed out of the car. Prompted by her growing paranoia, she grabbed a crowbar from the car boot as well. It wouldn’t be much help against a dinosaur, but it made her feel safer. Only then, cautiously, she tiptoed along a narrow gravel path to the porch.
Her head swiveled from left to right, searching for monsters. No creature jumped at her, but the realization hit: the abandonment was an illusion. Although the large window beside the front door was still boarded, and the boards seemed old and grey, the door sported a new padlock.
“Help!” the voice behind the door screamed once more. Frantic fists pounded. “Whoever you’re. Please! They’ll kill me.”
“Okay, wait,” Naomi said. “I’m here. The door is locked. Who is going to kill you?”
“He’s gone to buy food, but he’ll be back soon. Hurry.”
“Is there a back door?” Naomi tried to project a calm reassurance she was far from feeling.
The inside girl sniffled audibly. “It’s locked too,” she said.
“Perhaps I should call the police.”
“He’ll be back soon,” the girl said forlornly. “They won’t have time.”
“Okay.” Naomi studied the crowbar in her hand. “I’ll try to pry the boards off this window.”
She had never done anything like this before—she wasn’t a DIY person—but she persevered. The girl on the other side whimpered piteously. Finally one board came loose. Another. She could at last see the girl inside the house. Huge terrified eyes glimmered in the small face. Elven ears strained up over the short uneven haircut. Another elven child? A dizzying sense of deja vu swept over Naomi.
“One more board, and you could climb through,” she said soothingly. The board moaned, as she pushed the crowbar harder. Naomi didn’t hear the footsteps. Her only warning was a horrified “No!” from inside the house.
She whirled and dropped the crowbar at the sight of a man with a gun, the same one who had mugged Dina yesterday. He might’ve recognized her too, because he smiled maliciously as he mounted the steps.
Naomi’s eyes were glued to his gun, only a couple steps away from her. He said something and sniggered, but she didn’t listen. Feeling strangely calm, she lifted her left hand as if to ward off the bullets, while her right hand crept furtively into the purse hanging at her side. Blindly, she palmed the Mace, set her finger on the trigger, and whipped it out. Squeezing her eyes shut and holding her breath, she stretched her arm into his face and pushed the trigger.
The spray hissed, and the man howled. Something clattered to the porch deck, hopefully the gun. Naomi backed off and risked a peek. Her eyes and nose stung and watered, but not badly. She could see him. He got a full blast of Mace in the face and was clawing at his eyes, yelling incomprehensible words, probably dire curses, and spinning aimlessly. The girl inside the house screeched too, but Naomi’s unnatural calm persisted. She inched towards him, picked up her crowbar, swung, and brought the tines down on his head. Something crackled loudly. He stopped screaming and dropped. And lay still. Blood oozed from under his head, soaking into the old wood of the porch.
Naomi picked up his gun, put it into her purse, and started shaking. She couldn’t work on the boarded window anymore. Her palms were sweaty, and her arms seemed boneless. They wouldn’t hold the crowbar. It hit the deck with a muted thump. Maybe she didn’t need the crowbar, she thought numbly. Maybe he had the key to the padlock. Feeling detached, her fingers trembling, she searched his pockets and found a key chain. The third key she tried opened the door.
The girl shot out, straight into Naomi’s arms. “Is he dead?” She clutched at Naomi’s jacket.
“I don’t know. Let’s go.” Naomi tugged the girl off the porch. There was another car parked behind hers—his jeep. She avoided looking at the crumpled body on the porch. Her only wish was to escape this place as fast as she could. Incomprehensibly, the girl resisted her tugging.
“There is someone else there,” she begged, dragging her feet. “They brought him in yesterday, just before Shutdown. You must free him too.”
Chapter 6: Falcon
Naomi swore. Dreading whatever she would find inside, she marched after her undersized guide back into the house. One of the doors in the hallway opened into an operating theatre, with a metal table in the middle, assorted medical equipment along the walls, and a revolting reek of blood and excrement. An elf lay on the table, naked above the waist, his hands and feet shackled to the sturdy metal supports. Both his arms looking like raw meat, crusted in places, as if the skin was flayed from his biceps, but he still struggled. Blood trickled from under his fetters, collecting into the drying puddles underneath the table.
“Oh, god!” Naomi whispered and vomited. Then, furious at the blackguards who did it, she wiped her mouth with a sleeve and rooted through her purloined key chain for the key to his cuffs. “It’ll be OK,” she muttered. “I won’t leave you to these torturers.”
He stopped struggling and watched her with his electric blue eyes, not making a sound. The girl meeped at the door. Naomi kept on talking on an automatic, something banal and reassuring, but she hardly registered her own words. She reeled inside from the horrors of what she had just done and witnessed. She wanted to call the police, but she might’ve killed the guy with her crowbar. No matter how evil he was, the police would arrest her. Throw her in prison. She wasn’t ready to go to prison on Elfhome.
No, she wouldn’t call the police. She wanted to go home and hide under her bed, let her father deal with problems, but she couldn’t do that either. She needed to get the injured elf to a doctor, but she didn’t know how. She couldn’t carry him; he was much bigger than her, and the girl she had just rescued wouldn’t be much help. She looked about ten.
Eventually, Naomi unlocked all his restrains. As soon as he was free, the elf climbed off the table. He swayed but determinedly pattered to a workbench at the wall. He scooped up a number of knives and a sword from there and started towards the door, but almost pitched over. He would’ve, if Naomi didn’t rush to support him. With him leaning heavily on her, she led him outside.
He stopped when he saw the unconscious man Naomi had downed on the porch. Growling viciously, he dropped all his knives except the sword, gripped the sword with both hands and chopped the man’s head off. Then he prodded the separated head with his bare foot, nodded in satisfaction, and leaned on the porch post, exhausted. He said something softly, but Naomi didn’t understand. She shook her head, her eyes kept straying to the autonomous head, lying in grisly splendor away from its body, beside her crowbar. Her teeth clattered hysterically.
The girl yanked at her sleeve. “He asks you to pick up his weapons, lady,” the girl said.
“Sure,” Naomi squeaked. By will alone, she pulled herself together. She picked up all his knives and her crowbar too and then led her two charges towards her car. At least, she wouldn’t be imprisoned for the man’s death. She definitely didn’t lop off his head.
The Beetle felt claustrophobic after the elf folded himself uncomfortably into the passenger seat. The tiny car wasn’t designed for six-foot-tall elves. The girl climbed into the back seat, and Naomi finally drove away from the ghastly house.
The girl and the elf between them directed her to the elven hospice—their medical clinic. Although the elf spoke English with a heavy accent, he had enough of a grasp of the language to communicate. At Naomi’s careful queries, their disjointed stories emerged in bits and pieces.
The girl’s name was Miranda. Small and frail, with a short, ragged mop of auburn hair, she was half-elf, like Dina. She just turned seventeen. Her human mother was a junkie, and in the spring, the elves had deported the woman back to Earth. She had left her half-elven daughter to fetch for herself.
Miranda and her two friends, also half-elf teenage girls, with their mothers gone to Earth, banded together. Housing was not a problem in Pittsburgh, and they managed a part-time employment here and there over the summer. Naomi suspected not all of their employment opportunities had been legal, but the girls scraped up enough cash between them for food and utilities. They did fine, until two scary men kidnapped them. Miranda had been in the men’s house of death for a week.
“They killed my friends,” Miranda said. “For their organs. I heard them talking. They wanted elven organs because the elves are immortal. The other one took the organs to sell on Earth this Shutdown.” She shuddered with dry sobs. “They would’ve killed me too, if they had another freezer for the organs. They kept me for future use. When their freezers empty up.”
“Animals! Abominable snakes!” Naomi couldn’t come up with words bad enough to describe her loathing for the murderers.
“What about you?” She glanced at the elf with concern. “How did you end up there?” He was too big and had too many weapons, like a warrior from fantasy stories. His chest muscles, untouched by the flaying knife, looked chiseled. He wouldn’t be easy to kidnap, when healthy, although at the moment, he was slumped beside her, his eyes closed. He seemed hardly conscious. His head almost touched the ceiling, and his long legs were surely cramped in her mini car. He must be in tremendous pain with his arm in such condition, but he didn’t complain.
He didn’t open his eyes at Naomi’s question, but he answered in short, choppy sentences.
His name was Falcon Soaring on Wind, or simply Falcon. He was a sekasha of the Wind clan. At the moment, he didn’t have anyone to guard; he was still young and hadn’t chosen yet. Naomi didn’t really understand that part, but it sounded as if he was unemployed and looking for a job. He had come to Pittsburgh, like many other young elves, as a tourist, to see the exotic humans and their strange technology. To see if he wanted to stay.
He didn’t know how he was caught. The evening before Shutdown, he had walked along a street, alone, heading to one of the elven enclaves, where he stayed. Then the man he just killed on the porch had asked him something, and the next moment, he had woken up chained to the table. His captors had already removed the skin off his arms, so his first memory was pain.
“Why did they do this horrid thing to you? Did they want your skin, like organs?”
In the rearview mirror, Miranda snorted. She replied before Falcon translated Naomi’s question. “The sekasha have protective spells tattooed on their arms. Those killers probably did it to remove his protections. They wanted to cut him for organs too.”
“Monsters,” Naomi muttered.
“Yes,” Falcon agreed. “What is your name? When I’m well, I want to thank you properly. Where do you live?”
“Naomi. I don’t live here. I’m visiting from Earth, staying with a friend.” Should she give him Dina’s address? She stole another glance at him. He was deadly pale, his lips chopped, his long black hair matted with sweat and blood, and he still looked as beautiful as a movie star. She wanted to see him healthy. He had killed the bad guy, so he probably wouldn’t get her in trouble with the authorities.
“My friend owns a yarn shop,” she said. “We live above it.”
“Oh, I know where it is. Dina, right?” Miranda perked up. “I remember her from school, a couple years ahead of me.”
“Yes,” Naomi said.
Falcon nodded imperceptibly. “Thank you, Naomi.”
“You’re welcome,” Naomi said. “I hope you get better soon.”
His dry lips twitched in an approximation of a smile.
Chapter 7: Celebration
After they let Falcon out at the hospice, Naomi sat unmoving in the car and stared at the unprepossessing building of the hospice. Her mother’s healer friend, Rye, worked here. Twenty-one years ago, the woman had committed a crime by participating in Naomi’s birth. What a strange culture this was.
“Are we going anywhere?” Miranda asked impatiently. She was curled in the back seat, beside the bags of oatmeal, pasta, and rice.
“Yes.” Naomi restarted the car. “Miranda, do you have a place to go?” She didn’t expect a positive answer and didn’t get one.
Miranda shook her head, her lips trembling. “My house, but I’d be all alone there.”
“You should come with me. Between us, we’ll figure out what you should do.”
“Thank you,” the girl whispered. “If Dina agrees to let me stay.”
Dina was already home, finishing a tapestry with a marine motif. Naomi hadn’t seen it before. The silk ribbons Dina used for the waves made the image come alive. It reminded Naomi of the Mediterranean, when her father had taken her on a trip to Italy after her high school graduation. She wanted to swim in those warm, silky waves emerging from Dina’s clever fingers.
“It’s so beautiful,” Naomi breathed. “You’re a great artist.”
“Thank you.” Dina beamed. Then her eyes alighted on Miranda, who cowered behind Naomi. “Who is that?”
Naomi told her.
Dina gasped at Naomi’s adventures and shook her head at Miranda’s and Falcon’s plight. “If that filthy worm caught me last night, if you didn’t rescue me, he would’ve taken me to the same place. To cut to pieces.” Her voice spiked. She hugged herself and rubbed her arms, as if warding off a chill.
“We got lucky,” Naomi agreed. “Dina, would you mind if Miranda stayed here?”
To her surprise, Dina objected. “No. I can’t feed her. Not for long. She can stay for a day or two, of course, but then she should go.”
Naomi frowned. “Where? She has nowhere to go?”
“I can work,” Miranda said.
Dina pursed her lips. “You’re too young. Mom would never agree to take on another mouth. The money is tight as it is, and she is sick. Besides, I remember you and your friends from school, a couple years behind me. Your mothers were druggies, probably deported by the elves. I bet their daughters are just as useless.”
Miranda wilted. “My friends are dead,” she said tonelessly, her big eyes filling with tears.
“Drat!” Dina averted her eyes.
“You can’t send her to the streets alone,” Naomi said. “If she can’t stay here, I’ll pack my stuff and go with her. We’ll go to the house where she lived with her friends before being kidnapped and figure out what to do later.”
“But I’m alone too,” Dina said in a small voice.
“I know. Maybe we’d better stay together. We have another month until your mom comes home.”
“If then,” Dina said. She fiddled with a scrap of silk turquoise ribbon, twisting it around her thin fingers.
“I hope she does and soon,” Naomi said firmly. “Until then, we should find the solution to Miranda’s problem. Together.” She really couldn’t leave either of the girls alone. They both looked preadolescent. She felt the only adult in the house. Definitely the only teacher. She had minored in teaching after all.
“Fine,” Dina relented. “She can stay. I’ll make a bed for her... in mom’s room. For now,” she added grudgingly.
“Thank you, Dina.” Miranda unfolded like a flower. Naomi didn’t notice how tense the girl had been, until that tension flowed out of her. “You could teach me to knit.”
“My dream coming true,” Dina retorted. “You should both take a shower. You stink.”
“I know.” Naomi winced. “It’s the Mace. It clings. Could you find Miranda something to wear? She is practically your size.”
“Yes.” Dina sighed.
Naomi smiled with approval. Good deeds should always be rewarded. It was the secret of any successful teacher. “Wonderful. It’s the right decision, Dina. After our shower, we’ll celebrate Miranda’s safe delivery. With cake and candles. Could we buy a cake and have it delivered?”
Dina snorted, but her eyes warmed. “You’re as bad as my mother,” she said.
Naomi snickered. “Thank you, darling. It must be a compliment.”
She let Miranda take the shower first. As soon as she heard the water hit the plastic curtain, she went back to Dina. “Look,” she said. “I didn’t want to tell you this in Miranda’s hearing, but I’ll pay you for her.”
“No, you shouldn’t. You already saved my life.”
“Yes, I should. Your mom is going to come home after a major heart surgery. It’ll take her a while to recover. You’ll need the money.”
“I hope mom is okay,” Dina said. “Why hasn’t she written? It’s been two months.”
“She’ll be fine. Maybe the mail got lost or something.” Naomi hugged the girl. “Meanwhile, I’ll help. I’m here.”
Dina bit her lower lip and swiped her arm furiously across her face, wiping away the unwanted tears. She pushed Naomi away. “Go have your shower. I want to sneeze from all that Mace.” Then she brightened. “Do you think I could get one too, for myself?”
Naomi grinned. “That’s the spirit. We can check the superstore tomorrow. If they sell it, we’ll buy one for you and one for Miranda.”
Afterwards, she took a long shower and pondered her mounting problems. She had enough money to support Miranda for now, but what about after she returned to Earth. She couldn’t stay here forever. Maybe she should seek out Rye after all and ask for her help with Miranda. Or at least for advice. The woman was a healer and an elf. She ought to know what to do about a half-elf child.
According to the treaty, as a half-elf, the girl couldn’t move back to Earth with her mother. Besides, her druggie mother didn’t seem to want her. Did the elves have something like orphanages? A fostering system? And what about the assassin who took the freezers with the organs to Earth? He would come back in a month and resume his murderous activities. What could she do about him? Leave him to the elves?
She pushed away the troubling thoughts and presented an optimistic facade for the girls during their dinner. Tomorrow, she would worry. Tonight, they all stuffed themselves with grilled fish and chocolate cake. The candle flames in the silver candlesticks flickered merrily over their table, and the ribbons on Dina’s tapestry fluttered like water sprites.
Chapter 8: Miranda's house
The next morning, Naomi drove Miranda to her house to pack some clothing. The house was a surprise. Large and airy and in a pretty good condition, it had a backyard transformed into a vegetable garden. Potato plants grew in neat rows. The yellow pumpkins waited for harvesting.
“My garden!” Miranda squealed and pounced. “I thought it would be gone, but it’s all still here. I have to get the potatoes, or they’ll rot from the rains. I’ll bring a shovel and a basket. Dina would like potatoes, wouldn’t she?”
“You’re a gardener?”
“I love gardening. Next year, I’m going to plant more potatoes, and carrots, and cucumbers, and...” Muttering about her future vegetable largess, Miranda skipped inside the house.
Naomi studied the street. It wasn’t as busy as the one with the yarn shop. Some of the houses on either side looked abandoned, but many others had occupants. An old woman leaning heavily on her cane zeroed down across the street towards Naomi.
Naomi smiled and waved. “Hello.”
“Are the girls okay?” the woman demanded.
Naomi’s smile faded. “Miranda is fine,” she said. “She is harvesting her potatoes.”
“Good. What about the other girls? When those social service men came, I didn’t like them.”
“Social service?” Naomi felt cold. “They came here?”
The woman nodded, her short gray curls bobbing. “They took the girls away. I worried. I live across the street.” She nodded at her house, made of reddish bricks with a blue door.
“They were not social service,” Naomi said softly. She hadn’t realized the girls had been kidnapped from their own house. “They were killers. They killed the other girls.” And they knew Miranda’s address. Her cold turned to icy dread.
“Oh, dear!” The woman paled and gripped her cane tighter. “Killed?”
Naomi nodded. “I’ll take care of her. I’ll let the police know about those men.” She didn’t have a choice now. She had to talk to the police, no matter how much she disliked the idea. They had to find the other man and arrest him as soon as he arrived back in Pittsburgh. She couldn’t rely on the elves to do the policing. Besides, she didn’t kill anyone, so she shouldn’t worry. She hoped. With the head of that kidnapper chopped off by Falcon, surely, her crowbar blow became moot.
She said goodbye to the old woman and went inside. Although the house wasn’t very neat, it was reasonably clean, even though three young girls had lived there without any adult supervision for months, and nobody had been home for a week. The kitchen still had dirty dishes from the girls’ last meal piled in the sink.
Their last meal... Naomi cringed inwardly and turned on the taps. The water gurgled for a moment, but then started flowing. She tried not to think about the poor girls as she cleaned the kitchen, then checked the fridge. If Miranda was going to stay with Dina and Naomi for the next month, they should empty the fridge of anything perishable.
Done with the kitchen, she went exploring and got another pleasant surprise. The living room was a huge open space, with a few old leather sofas in dark colors and a large flat TV. When the girls lived here, it was their entertainment room, but before that, it had been a dance studio. It still had a barre along one long wall, now hung with pieces of clothing, and lots of mirrored panels on the opposite wall. Some mirrors were broken and replaced with colored posters, but most were intact. She could push the sofas to the sides and exercise here. Naomi shucked off her boots in the corner, went to the barre, and assumed the first position.
Since she had started her dance training at the age of seven, she had never missed her ballet class for more than two days in a row, and even that hadn’t happened often. Now, with all the excitement of Bob, Elfhome, and Miranda, she had missed almost a week. Suddenly, her body craved the orderly routine of the class. She wasn’t dressed for it, but she would do what she could now and come back tomorrow for a full workout and a dance practice. With music. And all the days after until the next Shutdown.
Smiling, Naomi sank into the first plie. By the time she warmed up all her muscles, Miranda scampered in. The girl’s pale cheeks flushed from her exertions, and her hands were dirty from digging up potatoes, but a big grin illuminated her small face.
“I got two pails of potatoes,” she reported. “Dina would be happy. What are you doing?”
“Dance class,” Naomi said. “Go pack your stuff. When you’re done, we’ll take the potatoes back to Dina. Who was the dancer here?”
“It was before we moved in,” Miranda said and ran towards the stairs.
“Wash your hands first,” Naomi called after her.
Her body amiably warm and limber, tingling with the joy of movement, she decided to do some of her Senegalese calisthenics. Her father had first taught them to her when she turned four or five, and they were a wonderful addition to the classic ballet regimen. They kept her body strong and supple and very flexible, which was always a plus in strip dancing.
Something like yoga—a series of complicated static poses one had to maintain for as long as one could—they came from her father’s ancestral land. He said they were intrinsic to the shamanic spiritual rites. Naomi wasn’t sure she believed in the spiritual nonsense. Her father’s ancestors had come to America from Senegal centuries ago, as slaves. Neither he nor any of his relatives—and she had countless cousins in Virginia—ever did anything the least shamanic or spiritual. A very practical lot was the Peterson clan, but she liked the poses anyway.
About two dozen positions in all, each one came with a name and a short one-liner of nonsensical words. Maybe they were Senegalese, as her father claimed. He didn’t speak Senegalese anyway, and neither did she, so how would he know? Maybe they were just meaningless refrains from folk songs or children’s tong-twisters.
Whatever they were, she knew them all by heart. Slowly, she lifted her right leg, slightly bent at the knee, grabbed the toes with her right hand, and curled her left hand over her head. The Push position, one of the easiest. Muttering the gibberish syllables quietly to complement the calisthenics, she fixed her gaze on one of the sofas and felt the familiar elation rising within her. She could keep this position for several minutes. Then she felt something else, unfamiliar, powerful, and scary, as if a lightning traveled through her bones, thrumming with a built-up energy.
The sofa abruptly slid across the studio and smashed into the opposite wall with a loud thud. Naomi squeaked and dropped the pose. She stared at the sofa. It remained at the opposite wall. What had just happened?
Chapter 9: Dance studio
She didn’t do any more Senegalese calisthenics. She didn’t do anything really, just stood there clutching the barre and trying to figure out what went wrong. As soon as Miranda trudged down with her duffel, they picked up the potatoes and left the house.
Miranda didn’t ask any awkward questions about moving sofas, but chatted instead about vegetables, seeds, and soil. Naomi didn’t tell her either. She tuned the girl out, made appropriate noises, and thought furiously.
Should she ask someone else? Whom? And for what? She couldn’t admit to anyone that her Senegalese calisthenics had caused furniture to move by itself. Was it what really happened? Was it magic? Or did she imagine it? She had done all her Senegalese exercises for years, and no sofa ever moved. What would happen if she did Strike? Or Twist? Or Lightning?
She inhaled sharply and concentrated on driving. Most of the names had some kind of violent connotations, although all the positions were quite restful, if complex. What a strange way to do magic, if it was magic. She’d better not do any of the positions in Dina’s house until she knew more. Until she had experimented alone.
The rest of the day, she spent answering the police questions when she reported the situation with Miranda and the slain girls. The big and burly policeman interviewing her, Detective Becket, promised to look into it. He was visibly happy she was taking care of Miranda for now. She didn’t tell him about her crowbar, but she did mention her Mace self-defense. She also told him about Falcon beheading the bad guy.
Becket swore. “We don’t touch the elves,” he said. “Especially the sekasha. They can do whatever they please. They’re above the law, human or elven. You’re new here, but I advise you, Miss Peterson, to be wary of them. I have to say that in this case, I’m not much surprised. The swine mutilated that elf. Of course, the sekasha retaliated.”
On the whole, the conversation with the policeman was reassuring. The next morning, Naomi drove to Miranda’s house alone, to figure out what she had done yesterday. Everything in the house stayed the same as when they had left. This time, she traveled through the entire house from top to bottom. The bedrooms upstairs had much more clutter than the common areas downstairs, and Naomi didn’t linger there. Thinking about the poor dead girls, the owners of all those jeans, T-shirts, and posters made her sad.
She pattered back downstairs, changed into her leotard and woolen leggings, turned on her music as loudly as she dared, to drown out the silence of the murdered girls, and went through an hour of her ballet class without stopping once to think.
Then, she gave herself a pep-talk. She couldn’t figure out anything if she didn’t experiment. She would start her experimentations with the pose that had the most innocuous name: Map. In theory, it shouldn’t shove furniture into walls. At least she hoped so.
She took a deep breath and slowly bent her body the required way. Then she said the usual Senegalese mambo-jumbo and held the pose. What was going to happen?
The power ran through her blood again, a liquid fire, warm and nourishing. When she felt saturated with it, a hologram, or something like it, slowly formed above the floor in front of her. She wasn’t sure what she was seeing, a city of some kind. It looked like a scaled-down model of Pittsburgh. The landmarks fit—the Cathedral of Learning, the glass EIA tower, the rivers. But they were inconsequential, muted, overlaid by a shiny network of blue glowing lines, some thick and pulsing, others thin like spider web strands. Naomi stared. When she at last dropped the pose and straightened, the strange map disappeared.
What were those blue lines? A map of magical streams? She had never shared her classmates’ fascination with the elves and their culture. They looked too perfect, too plastic to her, like Disney characters instead of real people. Even Falcon, bloody, exhausted, and mutilated as he was, matched that mold, but perhaps she had misjudged them all. It wasn’t their fault they were so beautiful. She should pay more attention from now on, if she was going to fit here. Maybe she should visit a bookstore and see if there was any tourist guide on elves and magic. One had to start somewhere.
Until she learned what her Senegalese contretemps did, she would just do the entire pose routine in silence and keep the Senegalese recitations inside her head.
That worked well and didn’t trigger any unusual energy surges within her body. The household items stayed inanimate, as they were supposed to. After another hour of workout, she was finally tired. She dropped onto the dark green sofa, the same one that had moved of its own volition yesterday, and contemplated the studio.
She really liked it. Maybe when Dina’s mother returned home, Miranda and Naomi could move back here. The police or the elves should catch the bad guy by then, so it would be safe. The house was roomy, and she could use the studio. She could start dance lessons here, if she spruced up the space a bit. Draperies would be nice for the panels where the mirrors were broken, and the room needed a better lighting for the evenings. Maybe some gauzy curtains to decorate the windows. If she made it pretty and not just functional, she might even give private performances here. Would the elves be interested in her strip dancing? Delightfully occupied with the speculations of which of her costumes would go with which of Dina’s tapestries, Naomi daydreamed.
Chapter 10: First date
The next day, all those speculations popped up and disappeared from her head, when Falcon came to the yarn shop. Healed and fully dressed in silk, with a strange blue armor covering his chest, he looked as yummy as a Manga character and as bright too. Even a sword was present. She wanted to gobble him whole, preferably with chocolate ice cream. Even his impressive assortment of knives didn’t spoil the impression but magnified it instead. All his weapons’ hilts glittered like spun sugar sprinkled over a confection.
He studied the skeins of colorful yarn with interest and didn’t seem to notice Dina’s nervous jitters.
“For you, Naomi.” He bowed formally and presented her with a huge bouquet of gorgeous flowers she had never seen before. “Elven orchids,” he said gravely. “The only gift worthy of your beauty and courage.”
Naomi grinned. “Thank you. They are lovely, Falcon. You sure clean up nicely. How are you?” She needed both hands to hold the ginormous bouquet.
“Well.” With his hands free of his floral offering, he picked up one skein of yellow variegated silk yarn and examined it with a frown of concentration.
Behind Naomi’s back, Dina squeaked. “He’ll ruin my shop. Take him elsewhere,” she hissed.
Naomi thrust the bouquet back at her. “Put them in water. There is enough for three separate vases—for all three of us.” She didn’t understand why Dina was so agitated, until Falcon tore the paper ribbon off the skein, found an end, and started unraveling. If he were a three-year-old toddler, she wouldn’t even be surprised at his actions. For a six-foot-tall elf who was probably over a hundred years old, it sure was a strange behavior.
“What are you doing, you big hooligan?” She appropriated the skein and put it on Dina’s counter. “These cost money. Dina can’t sell this one because it’s been opened.”
“What are they for?”
“To make things. Look.” She pointed at Dina’s latest marine tapestry behind the counter. “Dina made it from such threads. Other people buy them to make clothing or blankets or whatever they want.”
“Oh.” He nodded. Then he bowed to Dina. “This... blanket... is beautiful. It is not the right word, is it?”
“No,” Naomi agreed. “It is a tapestry. Blanket is what you cover yourself with when you’re cold.” She talked slowly and pronounced each word with precision, as she had during her lessons. Many of her dance students had been immigrants struggling with English.
He nodded, eyes narrowing in concentration, obviously parsing her sentence. “She can’t use it if I opened it?”
“She can, but she can’t sell it to others.”
“Oh. I’ll pay. I’m sorry.” Looking contrite and absolutely adorable, he pulled a purse out of his pocket and fished out a golden nugget the size of Naomi’s pinky nail. He dropped it on the counter. “Will this be enough?”
Dina moaned. “Naomi, go away and take him with you. I can’t accept his gold. It’s too much. The others will come and kill me for extortion.”
He switched his gaze between Naomi and Dina. “She is talking too fast. I don’t understand. Not enough?” He looked worried.
Naomi laughed. She didn’t understand Dina’s fear of the sekasha in general. “Too much,” she said kindly. “Don’t touch anything else. I’ll go put on my jacket, and we’ll go for a drive. Would you like that?”
“Yes!” He beamed.
They drove aimlessly around the city, then wandered wherever she pulled up, then drove some more. One neighborhood after another, a little park here and a charming wooded ravine there. They talked and laughed and kissed and understood each other perfectly despite the language barrier. She couldn’t help being enchanted.
Besides, with the hulking elf bursting with blades at her side, like a mythical hero to protect her from monsters, she felt safe. Not even afraid of toothy dinosaurs. The fact that Falcon behaved like a bashful sixteen-year-old on his first date only intensified her pleasure.
After their long and lovely ramble around Pittsburgh and a really tasty and really weird dinner in one of the elven restaurant, Naomi took him to Miranda’s house.
“I’ll dance for you,” she said. “Sit down.” She pushed him to the sofa in the studio. “A private show.”
He obediently sat down and cocked his head to one side, obviously curious.
Would he like it, she wondered? How much had he seen and experienced in his long life? He had told her he was almost two hundred years old, but she could’ve mistaken him for a teenager. Maybe for the immortal elves, two hundred equaled eighteen in human years? Was she trying to rob a cradle? She was almost twenty-two.
She put on music and started one of her strip dance routine, the one choreographed for street clothing. Falcon’s eyes grew big half-way through, right after her jeans hit the floor, and his breathing sped up. Yes, he did like it, like any other male. He started to get up off the sofa, but Naomi wouldn’t have it. Waltzing towards him, she pushed him back and grinned mischievously.
“Sit.” She panted, blew him an air kiss, and skipped away, letting her shirt drop on his lap. “Watch.” Gyrating and whirling, she glided to the opposite corner and removed her bra, spinning it around her finger. Falcon groaned behind her back.
Unlike her performances at the strip club, this one climaxed at its logical conclusion, on the sofa, with Falcon, both of them naked. He might be a teenager by the elven standards, but his body was a gorgeous man’s body. He had obviously been practicing his lovemaking for at least a few decades. Afterwards, they lay together, entwined on the old narrow sofa.
“This is your job? You must be very rich,” he said when he could finally talk.
“Naomi laughed. “Not the last part. That was for you alone. But the dancing, yes. I perform strip dance, contemporary dance, and ballroom dance. And I teach dancing. I’m not rich but I do fine.”
“Should I pay you?”
“No. I got so much joy today. You’re wonderful.”
He stretched beneath her, sated and unashamed, all golden muscles and smooth skin, and murmured something in Elvish. She didn’t understand the words, but she could extrapolate the meaning: adoration, affection, desire. His eyes gleamed in the twilight of the room, and his hands burrowed in Naomi’s curly mane.
His upper arms were still covered in protective bandages where the skin had been flayed away, but he didn’t seem in any pain. “Are you fully healed?” she asked softly, skimming her fingers along one of the bandages.
“I’ll be soon. I’m well,” he said and kissed her. “My friends would like to see you dancing. Could you do it for them? They will pay.”
“Not the last part,” Naomi repeated sternly.
“No.” He smiled smugly. “That is for me alone.”
Chapter 11: Performance
The next week flew by. Naomi placed an ad offering dance lessons in the local Pittsburgh newspaper and on the city’s truncated version of the Internet. She even got a few calls from some potential students, both children and adults, and promised to phone them back as soon as she finalized her schedule. She rehearsed a couple hours a day. When not rehearsing, she cleaned up Miranda’s house and decorated the studio windows with creamy tulle curtains.
Excited about moving back to her house, Miranda helped with the cleaning, and they went together to the local second-hand warehouse to find curtains and throws for the old shabby sofas in the studio. They also moved both sofas and a couple of armchairs to one end of the long narrow studio, like seats in a theater, freeing most of the space for lessons and performances.
“Why can’t we see you dancing for the elves?” Dina asked one afternoon. They had left Miranda to manage the boutique, while Dina helped Naomi install a curtain rod across the middle of the studio, to denote the ‘stage.’
“I’ll be doing strip dancing for them, and you’re both underage.”
“I’m twenty,” Dina grumbled.
“In human years,” Naomi retorted. She was getting rather good with the Elfhome quirks. The place was growing on her, sauruses and other monsters notwithstanding, and more than once recently she contemplated making this place her permanent home. “In elven years, you’re still a toddler. An average would be exactly what you look now, about twelve. No strip dancing for you for another fifty years.”
Dina growled and made claws at Naomi—a miniature irate monster in a green knit sweater. “I hate it.”
“I’ll dance for you both tonight,” Naomi promised. “For you only. Ballroom dancing. I need to practice my holographic partner anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah, practice, my ass. Practice for us, perform for the elves. You do everything for the darn elves.”
“Only for one of them,” Naomi said, her lips twitching. She had spent almost every evening this week with Falcon and come home in the middle of the nights. Both girls seemed displeased, dispensing barbed comments and turning cold shoulders. Their jealousy confounded Naomi.
As if echoing her thoughts, Dina got a malicious gleam in her eyes. “You’ll get a baby of your own one of these days, if you keep doing him,” she announced. “Then you’ll be stuck in Pittsburgh, like my mom.”
“Don’t threaten me, you goose. It’s not such a dire fate.” Naomi detected a momentary hopeful look on Dina’s face, before the girl wiped it off. “But not yet,” Naomi continued. “I’m on the pill. No chance of a baby.” She grinned. “I like the guy, but why you two are jealous of him escapes me. I like you and Miranda too. I have enough love for a dozen people. Truly. Two dozen.” She hugged Dina and kissed her forehead.
Dina huffed and squirmed out of Naomi’s embrace, but she seemed mollified. “I know. I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “You need a curtain for this rod.”
By the end of next week, when Falcon brought his elven friends for a promised performance, she was as ready as she could be. The elves towered over her—eleven big and beautiful creatures, divided equally between males and females. They eyed her tiny self with interest. Whatever Falcon had told them about her, it must’ve been flattering.
He introduced them all: three sekasha besides himself, all four in their blue shining armor, three laedin cast warriors, and four artisans.
Naomi pointed to the sofas. “Sit.” Then she slipped behind the stage curtain. She had found a beautiful roll of brown and gold brocade in the second-hand warehouse, and it made a gorgeous curtain for her studio. She already wore a costume for her first number—a flamenco dance—beneath her long robe. She dropped the robe in her change corner behind the disconnected TV, put on her castanets, pulled the curtain away, and turned on the music on her computer.
With her back to the sofas and her immortal public, she raised her hands over her head and slowly started beating the rhythm with her castanets, simultaneously undulating her hips. By the time she whirled to face the audience, her long red skirt flaring, the elves all leaned forward, their rapt eyes aglow.
She gave herself to the music, and it carried her through the dance’s climbing tempo towards its explosive finale. She ended the dance with the rapid drumming of her castanets and sank into a low curtsey. The red flounces of her skirt pulled around her.
The elves’ reaction was all she hoped for. They talked. The clapped their hands. They smiled widely. And they tossed money at her: a handful of small chunks of gold that served as their currency. Dina had told her that each nugget exchanged at a human bank for a few thousand dollars. She was going to be rich after this show.
Naomi swept the gold off the floor, rose to her feet, bowed, and pulled the curtain closed. She had carefully planned her show with a medley of dances. Only the next two were strip numbers. In the first one, she started out as a gentleman of the 19th century, complete with a hat, which of course stayed on her head for the entire length of the dance. In the second piece, a slow and sensuous serenade, her initial attire consisted of scarves and ribbons, long and short, thin and thick, all in the shades of blue, attached to her body in a variety of ways, and each one removed in the end. The elves, both male and female, were beyond decorum now. They whistled. They stomped. They engaged in hand waving. They definitely liked what they saw. The small golden nuggets continued falling at her feet.
The next two were ballroom dances with a holographic partner. She had a special holographic projector and two bracelets on her wrists, to attach the partner to her. The projector and the program for it had been her biggest expenditures up to date. They had cost more than all her education and all her costumes together, but they were the best. The partner wore all black, had a face of a Disney prince, and his range of movements was incredibly versatile. The only things he couldn’t do was lift her or show emotions. She hadn’t choreographed any lifts into the dances, and she didn’t want any emotion from him. He was a foil for her performance, nothing else.
She danced a foxtrot with him, and then an exuberant rumba. By the middle of the rumba, the elves climbed to their feet and joined her.
“I have one last dance for you, guys,” she panted after the rumba ended. She turned off the music and the projector, but she still wore her rumba costume, and the elves crowded around her. They touched her sweaty skin and her tumbled mane of black hair. The artisans fingered the silk and the sequins of her skimpy dress. All of them wanted to know how her phantom partner worked. They pelted her with questions.
They talked fast, and Falcon tried faithfully to translate everyone. Most of it came to the same sentiment: they enjoyed her dancing. Naomi smiled and nodded and answered when she could, happy with their admiration. She had missed it: the performances and the aftermath.
“Okay. Everyone back to your seats,” she directed them after she resumed her regular breathing. “I need one of you to help me.”
Falcon stepped forward, but she shook her head and pointed to the tallest of the sekasha. “Could he do it? I need a prop. He has to play a tree—to stand without moving during the entire dance. It’s about five minutes long. I’ll move around him, but I’ll have to touch him.” She eyed the armor they all wore with mistrust. It was made of small overlapping scales, and they looked very sharp. “Could he remove this thing?”
Falcon translated. The elf looked down at himself, pointed to his armored chest, and nodded.
“Thank you. Go take it off. I need to change.” She disappeared behind her curtain.
This last dance was a contemporary number choreographed specifically for her by a famous Swedish choreographer. It was her diploma dance: a dryad and her tree. Her costume was a green silk mesh leotard with appliqued flowers and leaves in strategic places. It covered her from neck to toes while showing most of her skin.
The elf played a tree to perfection. He stood rock still and allowed her to do what she wanted. She leaned on her tree and flirted with it, hugged it and peeked around it, and through it all, he never moved a muscle. She ended the dance snuggled at the feet of her beloved tree, her arms lifted in supplication, as the music ebbed into silence.
It would’ve been much better if she could have proper lighting as well, but her performance was a resounding success as it was. After she had a quick shower and changed to her street clothing, the elves surrounded her again. This time, they wanted to know if she could teach them. Seven of the eleven—four girls and three boys—wanted to learn strip dancing. Five, Falcon included, asked her to teach ballroom dancing. And two females wanted to learn flamenco.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said to them all. “I need to develop a schedule and work out all the details, but it is all doable.”
They parted very pleased with each other. Only Falcon stayed. They ended the evening with a slow waltz—he was an extremely quick and talented pupil, much better than her hologram—before they went to bed.
Chapter 12: Magic
“I’ve got a letter too.” Dina waved her letter as she skipped around their living room and laughed in elation. “Mom is doing better. She is staying with her relatives. If everything works out as it should, she’ll come home the next Shutdown. What does your dad say in his letter?”
Naomi smiled at Dina’s antics and caressed her father’s thick missive. Both letters arrived this morning. Pittsburgh must have an extremely efficient postmaster, for the post to be delivered the next day after Shutdown. Her first Shutdown in Pittsburgh.
“Everything is quiet,” she reported her father’s pertinent news. “Bob did call on him, asking about me, and dad sent him on a wild goose chase to San Francisco. He doesn’t think Bob has been arrested yet. I’m staying here for the duration.” The rest of his letter was for Naomi’s eyes alone and didn’t concern the girls. Hopefully, her own letter was on its way to her father right now. She had dropped it into the mail box last week, right after her triumphant performance for the elves.
“Yippee!” Dina raised her hand into the air in salute.
Miranda smiled too, a strained little smile. She worried Naomi. The girl seemed to shrink under the onslaught of Dina’s gaiety. Since her mother had left, Miranda hadn’t received anything from her. How could a mother treat her daughter that way? And how does your mother treat you, a nasty little voice whispered in her head? By pretending you don’t exist?
My mother has a reason, she answered her subversive inner voice. She committed a crime by having me. What reason did Miranda’s druggie mother have to disregard her daughter? Naomi slid closer to Miranda on the sofa and put her arm around the girl’s thin shoulders.
Miranda rubbed her cheek on Naomi’s hand and sprang to her feet. “Let’s celebrate your letters,” she said bravely.
“Yes, let’s do it tonight,” Naomi agreed. “We have to do food shopping now. Then you girls cook, and I must go to the studio for a while. I needed to prepare for my first lesson on Thursday.”
“Who is coming?” Dina carefully folded her letter and put it away in a chest drawer.
“A bunch of university students for the ballroom dancing class.”
“Would you teach us ballroom dancing too?” Miranda asked suddenly.
“Free!” Dina stated firmly.
“Of course. For you girls, all my lessons are free. Want to come on Thursday?”
“Not sure. Maybe,” Dina hedged.
“I don’t want to have lessons with university students,” Miranda objected. “I want with kids, like myself.”
“Sure. Whatever you want, pumpkin.” Naomi mussed the girl’s hair and grinned all the way to her car.
She went through her ballet class on autopilot, only occasionally glancing in the mirrors to check her lines. Her mind whirled with possibilities. She would start the lesson on Thursday with tango, she decided. It was a very gratifying dance, and the steps were comparatively easy. Everyone loved tango. First, she would demonstrate with her holographic partner. Then she would show them the simplest steps. Then they would practice.
Smiling at the prospect—she loved teaching—she finished her ballet routine. Her body pleasantly warm, muscles tingling, she turned off her music player to begin her Senegalese calisthenics. Somehow, she couldn’t do them with music. Never had. They demanded something else, probably the nonsense words that activated magic, even though she had only learned about that a couple weeks ago. She still wasn’t used to not saying those words, to staying silent while maintaining the positions, so she hummed softly instead.
She finished Push and stretched, preparing for the next, tricky one, Twist. It was a really twisty pose, a true challenge. She inhaled deeply, her hand on the barre, when the entrance door banged open.
“Who is there?” she called. She didn’t expect anyone, but anything could’ve come up. Maybe Miranda wanted to harvest the last batch of squashes. Instead of Miranda, a man appeared at the open door of the studio. She had never seen him before. He looked Asian, like the one Falcon had beheaded, and he held a gun in his hand. The gun’s barrel gaped at her.
Queasy with terror, Naomi stared at him. Her stomach clenched, and her sweat turned icy. She could guess who he was: the partner of the beheaded one. The police and the elves between them should’ve arrested him. They had said as much, but obviously this man had eluded their efforts.
“Where is the elven bitch?” he snarled.
Naomi’s hand on the barre tightened. She shook her head mutely.
“Where is she?” He sidled closer. Tall and thin, dressed in a black shirt and suit, he looked like a Japanese movie gangster, only much more menacing. And his gun was real too, not a movie prop. It pointed at the middle of her chest.
“I don’t know,” Naomi squeaked, her mouth dry.
He was so close now, she could see the pores on his nose. The gun was almost touching her belly, and her Mace was a universe away, in her purse on a sofa. He would kill her if she didn’t come up with a ploy to save herself.
“This was her house. Where is she?” He smiled, showing even white teeth. “I suppose I can take you instead, but you’re not an elf. I want an elf.”
Naomi swallowed convulsively. “There were no elves here when I came. I’m a dancer. I bought this house for the studio.”
He frowned as he took in her attire: the black leotard and the colorful woolen leggings. Her hand clutching the barre.
“I do strip dancing.” Naomi’s voice trembled. “I can show you. If you just step away.”
“Strip dancing?” His eyes glinted. “Of course. Show me.” He stepped back and motioned with the gun. “Proceed.” Naomi flinched, and he laughed.
“Okay,” she whispered. She took a couple of deep breaths to calm herself and lifted her sweaty hand from the barre. If there ever was a time for magic, this was it. She was about to do the Twist pose before he appeared. Twist it would be. She didn’t know what its magic would do, whether it would come to her call at all, but she had nothing to lose.
Her eyes centering on the man with the gun, she slowly bent her body into the position. When it was stable, she locked her muscles, inhaled once, exhaled, and sang the Senegalese words that had never made sense to her before. It’d better work now, she thought grimly.
It did work. The magic swirled through her body, hot and scary, but she held the pose steady, until the magic shot out, arrowing at the focus of her attention.
He screamed only once. Whatever the magic made of him couldn’t produce sound. The gun clattered on the floor, but the man was still upright, twisting in the air inside her creation: a purplish miniature whirlwind.
Scared more of her handiwork than even of his gun, Naomi dropped the pose. The moment she did, the magic dissipated, and the remains of the man hit the floor, splashing in the pool of his blood underneath. Red droplets flew everywhere. Like a laundry drier, her magic had twisted all the blood out of him, leaving a desiccated, twisted husk.
“Oh, God!” She rushed to the bathroom. She heaved until she was empty. Then she started shivering.
Chapter 13: Windwolf
She couldn’t go back to the studio with that horrible thing in the middle of the floor. Her clothes and her purse with the car keys were still there, on the sofa, but she couldn’t. She stumbled to the kitchen instead, filled the kettle like an automation, and put it on the stove. Maybe some herbal tea would calm her down.
Why had the police and the elves missed that man? They had all promised they would arrest him. They shouldn’t have left him for her. She couldn’t deal with criminals. Tears leaked out of her eyes, and she wiped them off with shaking hands. She was cold. She needed her jacket. She needed to get out of here, but she just sat on a kitchen stool, sobbed, and watched the kettle boil. She couldn’t even bring herself to get up and turn off the burner.
The kettle still boiled, when a group of elves burst in through the front door minutes later. No Falcon though. Of all of them, Naomi recognized only two who had attended her performance: the female sekasha Canary and the male Ivy Tangle, the tall one who had played her tree.
He wasn’t playing now. With a sword in one hand and a pistol in another, Ivy Tangle swept along the corridor towards her studio, his face expressionless, no sign of the twinkling eyes he had displayed after playing the tree. The others raced after him.
Canary stopped in the kitchen to gaze at Naomi. Her sword was also out, but for some reason Naomi wasn’t afraid. She gazed back at the elf, sniffed, and wiped off her wet cheeks with a tissue. Then she blew her nose. Her hands still shook. She had twisted a man to death, with magic, only moments ago. And now, the elves. She couldn’t take much more. She needed her tea. She just couldn’t muster the energy to get off her stool and pour.
Behind the sekasha came a young elf, the only one not wearing armor. Dressed in silk and pretty like a teen idol or an expensive French doll, he looked younger than the rest. His hand was at his mouth, fingers bent into a strange configuration. He followed Canary into the kitchen and stopped beside Naomi. After a moment, he lowered his hand.
“What happened here?” he asked in clear English. He nodded at the kettle, and Canary took it off the burner. She sheathed her sword but remained at the entrance to the kitchen.
Naomi sniffled. “Who are you?”
“I’m Windwolf,” he said. “Who are you? Someone worked domana magic at this place.”
Naomi frowned. Windwolf was the name of the viceroy, the head honcho of the elves and the only domana elf in Pittsburgh. This boy was the viceroy. He knew someone worked magic here.
“That would be me,” she said in a small voice and hugged herself. “I’m Naomi Peterson.” She rubbed her arms for warmth.
“You accessed esva of the Wind clan? How?”
“Esva? What is esva? I just did... a Senegalese... pose.” She shuddered. “And said the words.”
It was his turn to frown. While he processed her answer, Ivy Tangle came back. He snapped something in Elvish. Windwolf replied. After a few more rapid exchanges, Windwolf looked back at her. Ivy Tangle retreated to bracket the kitchen door with Canary. He probably told Windwolf about her twisted victim in the studio.
“You killed that man?” Windwolf asked. “With magic? How?”
Naomi’s teeth clattered so hard, she couldn’t form words. Windwolf shook his head and said something to Canary. She left her post and returned in a moment with Naomi’s purse and clothing. She thrust a sweater and a jacket at Naomi and deposited the rest on the counter. While Naomi dressed, Canary poured her a cup of steaming water from the kettle.
Naomi thought about asking for tea, but Canary didn’t know where they kept the tea bags, and explanations were beyond Naomi at the moment. Besides, hot water was better than nothing. She pulled on the sweater, buttoned up her jacket, and gulped in a few swallows of hot water.
When the sour taste of bile stopped scratching her throat, she told Windwolf what had happened last month to Miranda and her friends and to Falcon. “I’m not sure whether this was the same man that had killed the girls,” she finished, “but who else could he be? He brandished a gun at me. He knew that Miranda had lived in this house. He demanded I told him where she was. He could’ve killed me. The only thing I could think of to save myself was my Senegalese calisthenics. I told him I didn’t know where Miranda was. I said: I’m a dancer and I can prove it. He said: yeah, prove it. So I did. I did the Twist pose. I didn’t know the results would be so... spectacular.” She gulped in more hot water.
Ivy Tangle started talking to Windwolf in Elvish again, and Naomi tuned them out. Dina, Miranda, and Falcon were all teaching her Elvish, but she had only learned basics. “You guys should’ve caught this villain by now,” she muttered into her cup. “Falcon promised me. The police promised me. But all of you, big brutes with all your swords and guns, have left him for me, half your size. If I didn’t... he might’ve found Miranda again. Killed her. And Dina.” She couldn’t keep her spiking resentment out of her voice. “You should take better care of the half-elven children. It’s wrong that the elves don’t care about them.”
“Yes, we should,” Windwolf said quietly. “We will. And you’re right, we should’ve found the man before he came to harass you. You had no choice in what you did.”
“Yeah.” Naomi put her empty cup on the counter.
“What I want to know is how you managed the deed,” Windwolf continued. “You’re obviously human, but you killed the man with the domana magic. You accessed our esva. Someone among your ancestors was a domana elf of the Wind clan. Do you know who that was?”
Naomi tensed. So far, all her responses were on the gut level, but how could she explain her ability to work magic? She couldn’t tell him about her mother. She knew the elves didn’t lie, but she wasn’t an elf, and the truth was out of the question. Time for some fancy verbal acrobatics.
“I don’t know much about my mother, only the name from my birth certificate, Janette Smith. My father said she was human. She left Elfhome soon after my birth. My father is definitely human himself, originally from Senegal. His ancestors came to America as slaves hundreds of years ago.” She explained about her Senegalese calisthenics and her first attempts to perform them on Elfhome. And the magic that pushed a sofa around. “I never said the words afterwards, just poses. But when this man came at me with the gun, I... said the words with the pose.”
“What words? Repeat them.”
Naomi opened her lips in surprise. In theory, magic shouldn’t erupt without the full body pose, but she was reluctant to test her guess.
He confirmed her supposition. “Nothing will happen if you don’t provide the finger position.”
“Okay,” Naomi said slowly and voiced the Senegalese accompaniment to Twist. Nothing happened, as he had promised, and she relaxed a little. Then she thought better about his statement.
“Finger position?” She glanced at Ivy Tangle for elucidation. He stared mutely at her. So did Canary. Naomi looked back at Windwolf. “But I don’t do anything with my fingers,” she said. “It’s a body pose, like yoga.”
“Body pose? Could you show me?”
“Okay.” Naomi stood up, motioned the sekasha out of the doorway, and assumed the Twist pose. She held it for a few counts before she straightened. “You mean it could be done with fingers only?” she murmured. “I thought it was an awkward way to work magic, but...” She lowered her eyes to her fingers and wiggled them experimentally. Yes, it could work, if she bent her pinky this way...
“Don’t!” Windwolf ordered.
She lifted her eyes to his face. He was watching her hand. Naomi put her palm on the counter, fingers splayed. “Okay.”
“Why do you call them Senegalese?”
“That was what my father said. He said the words are in Senegalese.”
“They are in Elvish,” Windwolf growled. “How did you know how to access our esva? Your father taught you that too?”
“I don’t even know what esva is,” Naomi countered. “Could you tell me what it is?”
He sighed. “Despite your human appearance, you’re a domana elf. You should be taught your heritage.”
“I can’t be an elf.” Naomi’s nervous laughter switched on and off. “Elves have different DNA. I’ve lived all my life on Earth. I’ve had blood tests many times and donated my blood once in college. Nobody said anything about my blood being different.” Obviously, her mother had had something to do with it when she sculpted her daughter’s ears, but she hadn’t removed Naomi’s ability to work magic. Why hadn’t she? Maybe the woman hadn’t considered it important. Naomi pursed her lips and glared at Windwolf. “I wouldn’t mind learning finger magic. Sounds much easier. I know only a couple dozen body positions. I’m sure there are many more spells.”
“You know a couple dozen?” Windwolf looked shell-shocked.
“I didn’t know it was magic,” Naomi said defensively. “It wasn’t on Earth anyway. Just complex gymnastics. Can I find a magic teacher here? And what do I do with that... corpse in my studio?”
Chapter 14: Truth and lies
“What happened next?” Dina exclaimed.
Miranda cuddled beside the older girl on the loveseat, her hand gripping Dina’s as if it was a lifeline. Their two pairs of blue eyes had watched Naomi with horrified anticipation all through her recital.
“Well.” Naomi smiled weakly for the girls’ benefit. She felt drained by the events of the day. Empty. She had killed a man with her magic. It didn’t matter that the man was a criminal, that he would’ve killed her if she let him. She wanted to huddle in her bed and put a blanket over her head. She wanted to howl, but she couldn’t indulge in a fit of hysterics. She had to be strong for the girls.
“Windwolf said he would think about a magic teacher for me,” she continued quietly. “He said I shouldn’t leave Elfhome. Then the elves left, and I called the police.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I told Detective Becket that I didn’t know what happened. I practiced my Senegalese exercises, as I do every day. Then the man came at me with the gun. I was scared shitless. Then... whatever happened, happened.” She winced. “Apparently those calisthenics are not Senegalese but Elvish, but I didn’t know that. I have to ask my dad about it. Anyway, Becket didn’t blame me for anything. Instead, he apologized for not arresting the man, and they took the body away. He said they would send someone tomorrow to clean up the blood.”
Miranda gasped, her eyes huge and frightened.
“Don’t be afraid, Miranda. It’s over. We can move to the house any day now, as soon as they clean it up. Certainly as soon as Dina’s mother comes home.”
“But you knew what would happen,” Dina said with a frown. “You lied. You lied to the police, and to Windwolf too.” She sounded disappointed. “Elves don’t lie. It is dishonorable.”
Naomi lifted her eyebrows, still too deep in her misery to care. “I’m not an elf.”
“You said your mom was an elf. You’re half, like us. We don’t lie.”
Suddenly, Naomi’s anger stirred, hot and reviving, burning off her gloom. “You, snotty little moralizer,” she bit off. “Don’t you dare taking the high moral ground with me. I had a trying day. Of course, I lied. And I lied to that gunman too. I told him I didn’t know where Miranda was. What would’ve happened if I told him the truth? Any of them, actually?”
She glared at both girls, and they shrank deeper into the cushions. Naomi reined in her temper. They had been conditioned to think that the truth was always right and a lie was always wrong, but life was never that simple.
“Let’s review,” she said softly. “If I told the gunman where Miranda was, he would’ve come here. He would’ve taken you both. Dire consequences for both of you would ensue.”
Miranda squeaked, and even Dina paled.
Naomi nodded in satisfaction and went on. “If I told Windwolf the truth about my mother, she would’ve been punished for giving birth to me. She broke the elven law, but that law is unfair. No law should tell anyone who they should and shouldn’t love. She shouldn’t be penalized for loving my father and having me. If she didn’t, I wouldn’t have existed. I couldn’t bring trouble on her head for giving me life.
“As for the police, nobody would miss that murderer. He already killed Miranda’s friends and who knows how many other people before that. If I told Becket that I knew my magic would work, he might’ve arrested me for murder. Tossed me in prison. Who would’ve benefitted from that truth? From any of the truths? Nobody, that’s who.”
“Then...” Miranda said hesitantly. “Then lying is okay?”
“Sometimes,” Naomi said. “Truth and lies are rather complicated concepts. Often, they depend on the point of view. When I lied to that thug, only my tongue lied. My actions spoke the truth. They said that I cared about you and Dina. That I would lie to him again and again but would never betray you. When I lied to Windwolf, the same story. I care about my mother, even if I don’t know her. And the police.” She shrugged. “Self-preservation is not a bad thing, really.”
Miranda nodded, her eyes shining, but Dina still looked doubtful.
Naomi shook her head at the girl’s sheer stubbornness. She felt like a teacher who suddenly discovered that all her lessons were pointless because her students spoke a language she didn’t know.
“There are different kinds of lies, Dina,” she said. “When you lie for your personal self-interest, to gain money or power, that’s wrong. But when you lie to protect someone, to make them feel better, it’s not so bad. It is called a white lie. I bet you mom often lied to you, said she felt okay, when in fact she didn’t. She lied to save you from worry. She loves you, and her lies reflected her love. Was she wrong to lie?”
“No,” Dina whispered, looking forlorn. “Yes. I don’t know.”
“Oh, my dear.” Naomi squeezed Dina’s hand in sympathy. “The truth is in your heart. In your mother’s heart. The words... sometimes they’re negotiable.”
She swallowed, trying to dislodge the huge lump forming in her throat. “Look, girls. I’m not sure I can dance tonight. Not after… Maybe tomorrow. I know I promised you, our celebration and all, but…” Her lips begin trembling. Her brief surge of temper seemed to tear open the cauldron of emotions. She couldn’t keep them in check any longer. Tears started flowing, blinding her.
“Of course!” Miranda rushed to her. “You should rest now. You had a shock.” She hugged Naomi tightly, and Dina joined them a moment later. One of the girls caressed her hair, another patted her arm; their small hands conveying all their fears and uncertainties. In the end, Naomi found herself on the loveseat, sandwiched between the girls, sobbing, while they murmured inane reassurances into her ears and showered her with kisses.
“You’ll feel better after dinner,” Dina insisted. She tried to sound adult and responsible, but her voice squeaked in her distress. “You’re just hungry. It’s all nerves, Naomi. I made rabbit stew. You’ll like it; it’s my mom’s best recipe. Please don’t cry.”
“I baked a pumpkin pie,” Miranda announced, her words wobbly. “You like pumpkin pie, right?” She wiped off Naomi’s wet cheeks with her thin fingers and clung to her sleeve. “You’ll be okay, right?”
Through her tears, Naomi smiled and nodded. “Thank you, girls,” she said. “You’re my rocks.”
She would be okay. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but she would find her place here, in Pittsburgh. With these girls and the others like them. Maybe she already did.