It flowed past her pale shoulders, a river of black. Down her back, past wide hips, stopping just at the top of her thighs. It had taken years to grow, but now seemed as if it had always been there, its weight a comforting tug at her head as she moved.
She rarely did this look at herself in a mirror but she was curious as to what Brian had meant when hed called her a black-and-white photo of herself. Shed laughed at the time, thinking it was a joke, but the momentary flash in his eyes betrayed him. Now she wondered what he meant.
She stood away from the mirror, neck craned awkwardly to view the sheet of black as it splayed across her back. The contrast against her very white skin was indeed shocking. Why hadnt she noticed before?
Despite the indirect lighting, her skin was fishbelly white. Unhealthy, chalk white.
She was dying. But no... she was imagining it. She only wanted to die, and naturally her mind filled in the blanks. She wasn't dying: she was going mad.
Abruptly, Kate turned from the mirror and shrugged into her nightgown, tugged her hair free and let it cascade down her back again. She climbed into bed, and pulled the sheets up. Reached from between the covers to flick the light off. Darkness descended and she forced her eyes closed, determined to have only good dreams this night.
Of course that didnt work.
Two hours later she was sitting up, screaming soundlessly. She was being drained dry by a ghost attached to her head! She could feel her essence sucked away in cold breaths, each inhalation accompanied by a low guttural chuckle.
Eyes open, she came back. Only a dream. Kates heart hammered still, but at least she knew it wasnt real. She closed her eyes and flicked the light back on, waited a moment, then eased her eyes open again slowly.
A few blinks later and she was certain: the image of herself reflected in the mirror was even more pale, more white than before. Coldness prickled her skin, and perhaps a distant chuckle
no! She leapt from the bed, threw open the door. Kate didnt realize her hands were covering her ears until she stood at the bottom of the stairs gazing upwards to her room. Still shaking, she sat on the bottom stair.
Its real. Its real. The thought careened within her mind.
Again she wished she wasnt alone in the big old house. She suddenly wanted to be around light and people. Anywhere but here. She found the phone in the kitchen and punched Brians number. While she listened to the distant ringing she noted the time on the phone (2:15 AM) and wondered if this was indeed a good idea. She had decided to hang up when on the fourth ring Brian picked up.
Lo? Husky, asleep. Yes, shed awoken him.
Kate? Is that you?
Im sorry. Ill call tomorrow.
Kate? Are you okay?
She closed her eyes, listening for
what? Im fine. Well talk tomorrow. She hung up before she could change her mind. Was not surprised when a moment later the phone rang in her hand. Rang and rang. She placed it carefully on the step beside her and decided to wait for morning right there.
She did not call Brian. Instead, at 6:35 she left her rambling old house at the top of the hill and walked into town. The sun was barely up, the air cool and damp. Despite her fears shed managed to look in the mirror again that morning and decided that she hadnt been hallucinating she was becoming a pale white ghost.
And her thick black hair was somehow blacker.
The half-formed plan was to visit a doctor. That was the logical thing to do, but never having needed a doctor in this place she had no idea how to proceed. She dimly remembered a dentistry office in-town, and believed there might be other doctors in that same building. So the plan was to go and check it out, stopping for a coffee at the bakery when it opened. She shoved thoughts of fatal blood diseases and dementia from her mind and concentrated on the coffee. Short term goals: that was the trick.
Though she arrived early, the bakerys sign was flipped to OPEN. She pushed through the door with a jingle of bells and inhaled deeply. The world was right again, the aroma of bread, doughnuts, and fresh coffee washing away the memories of the night before.
Haley appeared from the back, wiping her hands on her apron. Kate! Howre you doing?
Kate smiled, pouring milk in her coffee without looking up. Ive been better. Will be better, once I get some caffeine into my bloodstream.
I have fresh bear claws. You want?
Need you ask?
Haley grinned, saluted, and set off on her mission.
The door jingled again and Gerard was suddenly there, standing in her space. Six-foot-five, pale blue eyes in a weathered tan face, ridiculous goatee and mustache. His shoulders were broad enough to destroy normal shirts, so he wore stretchy spandex, the muscles sliding and working beneath as he moved. Sometimes when he cut her hair, Gerard wore nothing at all from the waist up. It was not that he was proud of his body; it was just difficult to contain. He was an ageless artist, and she loved him dearly.
Ah, Miss Kathryn, he rumbled. My sweet! How delicious to see you this early in the day. What a wonderful treat! His accent was difficult to place: something eastern European, perhaps.
Kate looked down as she smiled, suddenly nervous.
Gerard reached out and touched her hair, letting it fall between his fingers. I was just thinking of you and your magnificent mane, thinking it has been too long. And then I was about to accuse you of seeing another man, one with exquisite coloring skills
this black, it is supernatural.
He let her hair fall free, touched her shoulder instead. But I can see this is too perfect. This is not the work of man. Please, you must share with me your secret!
She looked up into his eyes, bewildered to see genuine concern there. For no good reason Kate was about to tell him of her dreams, the horrible waking nightmare of wasting away in front of a mirror
all of it. But Haley returned with bear claws.
And for you, also, Gerard. Bear claws. Enjoy!
I thank you, kind Haley." He accepted a small white bag with a bow. "Miss Kathryn?
She was surprised to see Gerard holding the door open for her, as if he expected her to join him. She was even more surprised when she found herself moving, happy to fall into the large mans orbit. She felt safer now than she had in days with the giant beside her.
There is something deathly wrong, I can tell, he muttered. I have seen hair so perfect before, and my dear I do not wish to alarm you but it was not human hair.
Kates world tilted. What was he saying? Did she hear him correctly? Not human? The unreality washed over her and left her numb. But surely she misheard? Maybe he said normal hair. Yes?
No. All the fear and worry shed managed to suppress came bubbling back, a choking lump in her throat. She swallowed painfully, wishing the tears would come and be done with it. But she hadnt the energy to cry in weeks.
Instantly Gerards thick arm was around her, pulling her close. He patted her absently with a hand the size of a small dinner plate. Be strong, my sweet. While there is danger there is also time. But we must act quickly.
He led her past the many closed shops in the village, around a corner and up to his loft. The same place he cut hair during the week. A faded sign hung over his massive oak door, proclaiming this to be Shear Ecstasy by Gerard.
Gerard hummed as he fished keys from his pocket, carefully unlocking three deadbolts in succession. Finally he palmed the door open and almost shoved Kate inside.
Find a place, my sweet. I shall be but a moment.
She looked around the cool, dark space while he rummaged in a back room, his humming growing ever louder. It sounded like a military march. The floors were pine, spotlessly clean. Small painted artworks hung upon the wall, each one a perfect gem, she realized, and probably valuable. Some appeared to be quite old.
Eventually she settled into the cool red-leather-and-chrome barbers chair that dominated the room, the only place shed ever spent any time before. The morning sunlight flooded in through clever transoms near the ceiling, providing natural light. Shed never noticed how carefully Gerard had planned his workspace.
He returned shortly carrying a small leather case. Coffee, tea? The offer was automatic, perfunctory. He didnt even look up when she raised her still-steaming cup by way of saying no. Gerard seemed more and more distracted as he searched the room for something. Finally, he leapt upon a piece of chalk dangling by its string from the Daily Specials blackboard. He snapped the string without a thought.
Hush, sweetheart. Bide a moment
The humming returned as he sketched a rough circle around the chair, going over it again and again until it was almost perfect, with Kate in the exact center. She turned to watch him, noting for the first time that Gerard had a bald spot in the center of his scalp.
Circle completed, he tossed the chalk aside and opened his case. Within were numerous small vials and pouches, and
tools. Tools that looked familiar but different. A part of her was growing very afraid as his hands moved among the bits of his kit, and she almost jumped when he folded back pale chamois to reveal a pair of crystal shears. She had no idea from where the fear came.
Gerard retraced his steps around the circle, scattering a fine brown powder from a vial. Circle complete, he stood, exhaled mightily.
Okay, he rumbled, now we can talk. Even if it hears, its power will be constrained.
Her stomach fell. It?
He had no smile for her this time. Your hair, my dear. Your magnificent hair. It is a mistake, and all mine. I will take full blame for this, and you have my heartfelt apologies. But quickly, we must act. Perhaps you can be mad at me later.
Far from mad, Kate was simply confused. My hair?
He leaned into her, standing from outside the circle, one giant paw on each arm of the antique chair. It creaked beneath his weight. You knew, girl. Dont deny it. Youve had dreams. And your skin
surely youve noticed?
She looked away, the lump of fear back in her throat. Yes. I was on my way to see a doctor.
Gerard laughed, his breath washing over her, smelling of tobacco and coffee. A doctor! I would pay good money to sit in on that consultation. What were you planning to tell him?
I dont know.
He grunted, not unsympathetically. Well, fortunately, I can help. But first I must speak with your hair.
She looked up into his eyes, searching for any sign of a joke. My hair?
He grinned mirthlessly. Your demon.
Its name was Netherostin-Tennenbael, but it preferred Netheros.
It was a young entity as demons go, and was fairly ignorant of the world and its place therein. Gerard teased this information out in small bits, using enchanted tools from his valise. A threat from the crystal shears (and they were crystal, Kate noted, honed to surgical sharpness but as clear as ice) produced the most information, and finally Gerard leaned back, satisfied.
Netheros does not mean you harm, he explained. It is a child, drinking from your fountain, so to speak. Nevertheless it is quite dangerous and may still kill you unless we establish some ground rules.
"I don't understand. We're negotiating... with my hair?"
Gerard grimaced. "It is not your hair, exactly, but that which lives within." He stood and gestured as he spoke, broad movements with his hands as if shaping something from the air. "The entities, they have many names. Have had. The most precise name might be 'demon'... Which is not very precise at all, but comes as close as any word we know."
Kate tried to suspend disbelief, tried to play along. "It's a supernatural thing?"
"Supernatural only in the sense that it exists beyond science, beyond our dim undestanding of the world. Always, there has been more than we care to admit."
"So... a demon. Lives in my hair?"
Gerard blew out his cheeks. "For lack of a better... it's... yes."
"And it's hurting me?"
"Can you not see it? Surely you have noticed. It drains you. Slowly at first, but now more quickly as it matures."
She shook her head. "Assuming I buy all this -- and I still want to see a doctor -- assuming I believe you... what can I do?"
Gerard turned and paced as he spoke.
First, you must understand it is a symbiotic relationship. You are extremely anemic now because of the
feeding. I have explained the situation to Netheros and I believe it understands, but still, you will have to meet it more than half-way. I suggest iron supplements to begin with. Lots of red meat, cooked as rare as you can tolerate later
when you are stronger. If I had the facilities here, I would give you whole blood. But alas
that is beyond me for the moment.
It was too much. She closed her eyes and rubbed them with her knuckles.
Who are you, Gerard?
You mean, besides a flamboyantly gay hair dresser? He chuckled. Miss, I am one of the remaining members of a once famous organization. Les Chevaliers De La Coiffure. For 1200 years we have groomed kings and sorcerers. And in the process learned a great deal of the true nature of reality. Many
walk among us. Not humans. And they require our services.
It just kept getting weirder. Services?
He shrugged. Hair cuts, mostly. Now. Before, hair had different uses and meaning. For instance, the story of Sampson and Delilah is based on an actual event. He grew silent, remembering.
Hmmm? He drifted back to now, raised his eyebrows.
Whats to become of me? Am I stuck with this
forever? She reached up to stroke her hair, remembered, and hurriedly dropped her hand.
The large man sighed, seemed to diminish slightly. Aye, I believe so. The demon, it is too tightly bound now. Had we caught it sooner
and that is entirely my fault. In fact, I believe you were
in this very place. In my age I grow sloppy. My methods are no longer as pure as they once were. I believe I used the wrong pair of shears to cut your fine hair a time you visited. A pair I reserve for
a different clientele. He shrugged. You have my apologies, of course, but the damage is done.
your friend is immature, but rapidly growing. Soon you will feel certain compulsions. Which you must resist.
Kate simply stared.
Gerard looked away, his voice falling to a whisper. You will find the idea of blood, human blood, irresistible. The iron will help with this, as well as red meat, as much as you can stand. But ultimately, it is upon you to deny the demon what it wants.
She closed her eyes, listening. She already imagined she could hear the chuckling from deep within her soul. Despite herself, she smiled. A grim, determined thing.
And if I succumb? I am to be a vampire?
He looked back at her, expression unreadable. No, not that. Such things do not exist. Rather
a fiend, of sorts. Please. Do not give in. Your life would become a torment, and I fear what comes after that.
Kate inhaled, held it for a moment, then breathed out. Torment. Somehow it all made sense. Thoughts of doctors and mundane treatments receded before these new thoughts, this new way of looking at things. Of course, it made a certain sense now. The dreams, her sickness, everything. Dream logic though it may be, Kate was tired of the "real world", tired of being alone, and this new path opening before her was... interesting. Seductive.
"Kate? Do you understand? Do not give it what it wants. You would be lost."
Lost? The chuckling within stilled as her demon absorbed her feelings. Of course, she lied. I will be strong. Now, she opened her eyes, release me from the circle, and tell me everything else I should know.
Gerard smiled uncertainly, but stood nevertheless.
Of course, he mumbled, erasing an arc of circle with his shoe. Before I forget, you will be needing these.
She palmed the bottle of iron tablets, felt their cool mundane weight... the weight of real things, in a real world. Not her world anymore. She pretended to listen as Gerard listed a number of cautions and suggestions, but in her mind she was already out the door.
Again, she stood before the mirror. Pale skin and blackest of black hair, cascading playfully about her shoulders, draping her, obscuring her, reaching to the top of her long legs. Loving her.
She understood the dreams now, and awaited them. Her nights were no longer unwelcome, though the nightmares came with renewed intensity. She felt detached, however, as if she was an observer watching somebody else endure the dreams.
When she awoke, she digested each experience hungrily, learning more of her demon with every passing night. And this night was to be special. She felt energized, despite her ghost-like appearance in the glass. Veins showed as blue networks beneath paper skin, and she imagined the muscles and tendons visible beneath that. Of course, part of that was due to her rapidly evolving demon sight, but she wondered what a normal person would see.
She laughed. Turned from the mirror, tossing her black mane, now lighter than she remembered. It seemed to carry its own weight now, seemed to float above her shoulders sometimes. But that was illusion, wasnt it?
She pulled on her jeans, shrugged into a T-shirt. Padded down the cold, dark stairs to the phone in the kitchen. Returning to the bottom step the same step as that fateful night, the night when she awoke she punched in Brians number.
Hello? His voice was slow and delicious. She imagined him reaching for his watch on the bed-stand to check the time.
Brian? Its Kate.
Kate! Ive been thinking about you. Are you okay?
yes, much better Id say. She heard a dim chuckling in the back of her mind but stilled it. In fact, I was wondering if youd like some company.
There was a long pause as Brian absorbed this. Kate felt like laughing.
Kate? Really? Right now?
Yes. Right now. I want you over here right now.
I guess. I mean, are you sure? Really?
Oh yes, I am very sure. Hurry, she whispered into the phone.
He laughed and agreed, of course he would. Hed been pressuring her to come over for months and months, not for sex necessarily, but she knew he wanted that too. But up until now it had not seemed right. The house, her parents house, was cold and empty, and having anyone over against their wishes simply felt wrong.
Theyd never let her have boys over when they were alive, after all.
She thought back to the day of their funeral. The rain, the torrential rain. Stupid black umbrellas. Empty people saying empty things.
Shed started growing her hair that very day, thinking she would never cut it again. Not knowing why, just that it should be done that way a kind of remembering, just for them. Shed started seeing Gerard shortly after that, and he taught her how to care for long hair, how to avoid split ends, how to keep it trimmed.
And of course, how to invite a demon into her life, to live within these dread locks, this black abyss of simple human hair. He didnt mean to, and she didnt blame him, but she knew it was what shed always wanted. Funny how things work out.
She sat upon the bottom stair, waiting for Brian.
Imagining how good he would taste.