Later, Jennifer would think of it as the Blue Room, though there was no room-ness to it at all. She could conceive of no walls and no ceiling. There seemed to be some luminescence, but she was not aware of any light sources. There was just the endless, glowing Blue.
She felt like she was floating, but there was no water. Her body stood erect with tension in her spine and legs, but there was no floor. She was barely able to distinguish between thinking her thoughts and speaking them aloud.
“Am I asleep?” she called out. “Because I’ve got a crazy person after me, and I don’t have time for dreams this boring.”
A voice filled the Blue Room, not unlike thunder, in that it seemed to make her body vibrate down to her very bones. There was an odd cadence to the voice, something that reminded her of the songs of humpback whales, though the voice was less melodic. “You are here,” it said.
“Oh-kaaaay,” Jennifer said. “And to whom am I speaking?”
“I am Blue,” the voice said.
“Of course you are,” Jennifer muttered. Then, louder: “Well, I’m here. Want an autograph?”
“The Dark One,” the Voice of Blue said.
Now we ‘re getting somewhere, Jennifer thought. “Jezebel,” she said aloud. “What do you know about her? What does she want?”
“The Dark One,” the Voice of Blue said again.
Then, an image, playing as clear in Jennifer’s mind as a high-def video. She could not tell if the Blue was projecting it onto the “wall” of the place she was in, or if it was being sent direct from His Mind to hers. She supposed there was little difference.
She saw a clearing in the forest, facing a cave in the wall of a nearby hillside. A woman was lying in the middle of the clearing, unmoving. Jennifer understood that the woman was not her — for one thing, her hair was longer and a shade of red so bright that it probably came from a bottle — but she felt sure that she had been in a similar situation on that first night.
Something came out of the cave. It was jet black, a human finger covered in oil. The word tentacle occurred to her, but seemed wrong somehow; octopi and squids had suckers on their tentacles, and this thing was smooth. It paused for a moment, hovering in mid-air, and then it shot forward, wrapping itself around the woman’s head.
Jennifer gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. The tentacle spun the woman around and around, the red hair vanishing under the oily blackness of its skin, until it was wrapped like a boa constrictor around her head and upper torso. Then it dragged her into the cave, the woman’s heels drawing grooves in the dirt and leaves. The woman had not struggled once.
“That could’ve been me,” Jennifer said, her voice muffled through her own fingers, as the image dissipated.
(Somewhere, in a place that Jennifer unconsciously understood to be the “real world,” her gut twisted. But her muscles had gone too slack for any risk of vomit.)
“That’s what she wants?” she called out. “I’m just food?”
“Flesh is nothing,” the Voice of Blue said. “He hungers.”
“Looks like He eats flesh to me,” Jennifer said.
This time, the images came in quick flashes across her vision: husbands and wives screaming at each other. A couple on a date at the Silver Kettle, the woman throwing a drink at the man as he stopped to gawk. High school girls slapping their boyfriends in homeroom. And everyone, everyone, casting a spiteful side-eye at the black-clad woman responsible for it all.
“Rage,” Jennifer said. “The flesh is nothing. He feeds on rage.”
“He hungers,” the Voice of Blue said.
“So what does he need Jezebel for?! He’s got the White House!”
But deep inside, Jennifer already knew the answer to that one, as only a small-town girl could. As scary as a hateful politician could be — and she was scared a lot these days — the hate of a powerful man far away was nothing compared to the resentment of your neighbors. Jezebel had turned this town, and most of the surrounding county, into a nuclear reactor of resentment. Thanks to her ability to influence their minds and bodies, the meltdown would never come.
“”So why kill all those women?” Jennifer shouted. “If He feeds on rage, He doesn’t even need them! Why?!”
Through another series of flashes, Jennifer saw:
—the owner of the diner saying You’re chippy enough, maybe she think’s you’re competition;
—a half-remembered mash-up of Disney films, Maleficent looking into the Magic Mirror and raging at the budding love of Belle and the Beast;
—A teenage Jezebel, the red highlights unmistakeable in the dark hair, walking past a Model T Ford with the message Just Married! soaped in the rear window, picking up a rock and throwing it directly through the letter A;
—Jezebel in a bedroom, looking Dan Handler in the eye, both of them naked as the day they were born. She speaks words that Jennifer is not allowed to hear, and Dan immediately falls to his knees. A doctor might call what follows cunnilingus, but no one who has ever experienced the act would call it such. His hands are at his sides, limp, fingers splayed out and not even twitching. In fact the only part of his body that is not completely inert is his head, which pursues Jezebel’s vagina like a dog chasing a squirrel into a too-small hole in a tree, only hungrier, so much hungrier. Jennifer wants to look away but the image is in her head, it is everywhere, even in the darkness under her eyelids. Then the image swings, sickeningly, as though she turned her head, and she sees Donna standing in the corner, watching. Tears are streaming down Donna’s face, but she does not sob nor make a sound, her eyes blank and opaque, and somehow Jennifer knows that the tears are not because of the betrayal her husband is committing, but because she has begged for this herself, begged and pleaded with Jezebel to be the one on her knees right now, unable to think about anything but Jezebel’s voice while she watches her husband give Jezebel the one pleasure which he would never give in their own bed…
“STOP IT!” Jennifer screamed, and the image was gone.
“He makes Agreements,” the Voice of Blue said. “She feeds Him. He feeds her.”
“Yeah,” Jennifer said, blinking back tears, even as she was unsure if it was possible to cry in this place. “You didn’t have to show me that. I already wanted to kick every part of her ass.”
“Flesh is nothing,” the Voice of Blue said. “She feeds Him. He feeds her.”
“Yes, I get it!” Jennifer snapped. She was having trouble forgetting that image of the tears streaming down Donna’s face. “Her rage needs to be fed, too. So what do I do about it?”
“I make Agreements,” the Voice of Blue said. “You feed Me. I feed you.”
And there it is, Jennifer thought. Everybody’s got something to offer. “Sorry,” she said. “I’d rather let Jezebel take me, than start a career as a hate-farmer.”
“No,” the Voice of Blue said, and it showed her another image, this time one of her own memories. A sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, to celebrate her third album going platinum. Maybe the greatest show she’d ever done; the crowd was electric. She played all of the hits but two, her first two. When she had screamed thank you New York! and run off stage, the crowd had roared their loudest of the night, and over the next two minutes, the roar built and built until the speakers were shaking. The noise during the encore had been impressive, but not as loud as the noise before they knew an encore was a certainty.
“Hope,” Jennifer said. “Your thing is hope.”
“The Power of Possibility,” the Voice of Blue said. “Imagination. Ambition. Anticipation. Inspiration. What is not, but could be.”
“That’s why you don’t use Donna,” she said, thinking of the other woman’s hard-headed Midwestern practicality.
The Voice of Blue said nothing, but showed another series of memory flashes:
—Donna saying I just had a feeling that something was very, very wrong;
—Donna saying I refuse to accept that, then coming up with a nice little scheme to get the State Police involved despite the phone blackout;
—Donna leaning forward over an unconscious Jennifer, the stone swinging out of her blouse and tapping Jennifer on the forehead, the source of that unreal moment of THE BEST PART OF WAKING UP;
—Donna setting the stone on the kitchen island, for reasons that she herself did not seem to understand.
“She is not open to Me,” the Voice of Blue said. “I make suggestions only.”
“And what about me?” Jennifer said.
“You are open to Me,” the Voice of Blue said.
Terrific, Jennifer thought. “You give me the power to fight Jezebel straight-up, in exchange for songs I do later to feed you,” she said. “Is that about it?”
“I make Agreements,” the Voice of Blue said.
It seemed too good to be true, so Jennifer felt like she had to ask at least one question. “What happens if I can’t hold up the Agreement?”
“I hunger,” the Voice of Blue said.
In that moment Jennifer thought she understood His nature, as well as the nature of the Thing behind Jezebel. This was no God, and the Dark One was no Satan. They were great white sharks swimming though an ocean of human emotion, and she was one of the normal-sized fish. They didn’t especially care if she ended up in Their bellies, on purpose or by accident. But this Thing, at least, was offering her a tool to keep her from being eaten.
“I’ll do it,” she said.
“You will feel My Touch,” the Voice of Blue said.
Jennifer thought of young Jezebel throwing the rock at the Ford Model T. The car had looked brand new. “Wait,” she said. “Jezebel’s really old. The Dark One stops her aging, or something. She’s been doing this for decades, and I’m just now learning. How do I stop her?”
“Her strength is your weapon,” the Voice of Blue said.
“Yeah, thanks, Yoda,” Jennifer said dryly. “But how do I use my weapon? What trigger do I pull?”
Instead of a response Jennifer was hit with a bolt of lightning. Her vision flashed over from blue to white. She wanted to call out to the Voice of Blue, but the connection with Him was already fading, as the white turned to gray and then black.
Jennifer was not sure what state of mind she had been in — asleep, in a trance, in a coma, who could say? — but she came out of it with the suddenness of waking from a nightmare. She flinched, her legs kicking against a wall, and she became aware of her location: she was inside the bedroom closet. Jennifer realized that she was wearing the blue stone on its leather strap around her neck.
“Wow,” she said aloud, and then she heard a commotion on the other side of the door. The sound of a gun cocking.
“Come out of there, slowly!” a voice shouted. Talbot’s voice.
Shit, Jennifer thought. She could not remember where she had put the Mace and the Emerson knife. She had nothing but the T-shirt and sweatpants that she was wearing … and whatever the Blue had given her, however she was supposed to use it, with the hope that it was strong enough to stop bullets.
No, she thought, no bullets. Jezebel wants me alive. He shoots me, she kills him.
Still, she exited the closet with hands held high. The first thing she saw was Talbot; his gun was out, but pointed straight at the floor. The second thing she saw was the bed, and it was a gut punch. She even made a shocked, gut-punched sound as she saw it: Unnnnh!
Donna lay spread-eagled on the bed, eyes closed, head where the pillows would have been had Jennifer not taken them away. Dan was sprawled facedown across his wife’s lower legs, perpendicular to her body, his head and arms hanging down over the near side of the bed. They were both completely naked; she smelled the sex on them even before she saw that Donna’s vagina was glistening. Both of their bodies were covered with welts, and the occasional silver of blood, where Jezebel had scratched them with her fingernails.
She turned on Talbot, lowering her hands, which she balled into fists. He made no effort to point his gun at her. “What did she do?”
“They’re alive,” Talbot said, his voice trying to carry authority, but sounding pathetic to both of them. Jennifer realized that Jezebel had probably ordered him to carry the limp bodies in here. That was the extent of his importance to the county: he hauled Jezebel’s freight.
Without another word, she turned and stalked to the living room. Talbot said nothing and made no move to impede her. Before she was even fully in the room, Jennifer saw that it was early morning; she had been in the Blue all night.
Jezebel was standing in the middle of the living room, as if she were about to deliver a presentation to people on the couch and easy chairs, though she was alone in the room. Jezebel smiled as Jennifer entered, throwing her head back. Jennifer suspected that Jezebel wanted to present herself in the sunlight, the rising sun in the windows behind her, but she had not realized that the sun rose on the opposite side of the cabin.
“What did you do!” Jennifer shouted. She was quivering with rage, but even so, she kept her distance. She remembered what Jezebel could do with just a touch.
“Oh, they have so much to learn,” Jezebel said, still smiling. “I taught them all night and just wore them right out.”
At once Jennifer was sick of Jezebel, sick of her super-villain preening, sick of the way that she treated petty resentment as a currency more valuable than gold. The Blue had laid Jezebel bare before her, and she would never be more than a redneck teenager throwing a rock through a car’s window.
“Oh, please,” Jennifer said, the words flying out before she even knew what she was going to say. “You couldn’t teach a dog to sit. I think I did more sexy stuff in high school than you’ve taught anyone in your life.”
“Be quiet!” Jezebel hissed. “You came for me yesterday and you loved it!”
“Oh, really? I don’t recall,” Jennifer said. She did recall, of course, but since she suspected that Jezebel had messed with her memory in other ways, it was easy to troll her by playing forgetful. “Maybe that’s why you make people forget, so they won’t remember that you have no clue how to fu—“
“QUIET!” Jezebel screamed. She raised a fist in front of her, like an athlete about to celebrate a particularly impressive play. Jennifer saw her clench her fist, hard enough to make the tendons in her wrist bulge. Jennifer flinched in response, expecting agony to stab into her uterus and every surrounding organ.
A shadow of pure terror crossed over Jezebel’s face. Jennifer and Talbot both saw it. Before they could act, Jezebel released her fist and pointed her index finger at Jennifer. She barked a word that the Visigoths had used to refer to warriors who suffered what were later called spinal injuries.
Jennifer’s hands, balled into fists, fell open. She felt the still-sore forearm, bruised from the hardware store cashier’s attempt to grab it, go numb. The numbness raced toward her torso, a full-body Novocain shot that acted a hundred times faster than any anesthetic. She took one step forward before the numbness reached her spine and her legs stopped working. She tried to swing her weight forward, out of desperation, and flopped face-first over the arm of one of the easy chairs.
Lying there facedown, half in and half out of the chair with her ass up in the air, Jennifer’s first emotion was not terror but annoyance. The pain thing doesn’t work, but this does? she thought. What the hell, Blue?
Jezebel could not answer Jennifer’s question any better than Jennifer could. The paralysis spell had been the last arrow in her quiver. Upon seeing its success, she had a half-second of gratitude.
Then the base of her skull was seized by a searing pain at the nape of her neck. Jezebel staggered, leaning hard against a windowsill to keep from falling.
Though she had never in her life possessed a bank account, Jezebel understood the concept of one’s mouth writing checks that one’s body could not cash. She had paid the Dark One an insufficient amount for the last group of spells, and now she was deeper in debt. Like any successful loan shark, He had a small reserve of patience.
Soon, she screamed inside, hoping He could hear her somehow. Soon, soon, I have her, You’ll get anything You could ever want. Soon. The pain did not abate.
She saw Talbot coming to her side, holstering his pistol. She waited until he was within reach, and then she swung a closed fist backhand, striking him square on the cheek. Even through her pain, she hit him with enough force to drive him to his knees.
“Goddamned fool!” she shouted. What was he trying to do, in the shadow of the Dark One’s titanic rage? Give her a bandage? “The girl! She’s all I need!”
Talbot looked up at her, already sure he would have a black eye the next day, and for the first time since he had met this woman, the ghost of an idea—
(she assaulted a sheriff while committing a felony. Draw your pistol and fire.)
—passed through his head. But the idea was only ghostly; he had sacrificed his ability to entertain such ideas years ago.
When Talbot came to her and flipped her over roughly, until she was sitting up in the easy chair, was when Jennifer was first frightened. Her arms swung around like dishrags. The feeling in her limbs was not returning any time soon. She was in the presence of a crooked cop and a fucking maniac and she couldn’t move.
She could not move her tongue and lips, but for some reason, her eyes could roll in their sockets. So she looked at Talbot, locked her eyes on him from just a foot away, and tried to burn a hole through his head with her stare. She tried to say the same thing with her eyes in that moment, that she had said the day before: Coward, coward, coward. Talbot gave her nothing in return, just his blank Cop Stare.
Talbot arranged her inert body in the chair until she was sitting up, arms laid on the chair’s arms, the same posture with which her father sometimes watched the Mizzou football games on Saturday afternoon. Giving her one last dose of Cop Stare, Talbot yanked the reclining lever, putting her feet in the air and leaning her back.
Leaning her back just enough to be looking directly at Jezebel’s face.
Jezebel had not wanted to use the Touch here. She had wanted to trigger pleasure and pain in the girl’s body, back and forth, over and over, until she begged for mercy even as she moaned with orgasm. But, if the pain trigger would no longer work, then there was no point in wasting time. Her backup plan was simple and reliable. She focused the Touch.
“Jennifer, look at me,” she said.
The words boomed through Jennifer’s mind, blasting away all thoughts that she wanted to have. She tried to hold on to her rage, but it scattered like leaves in high wind. The red embers in Jezebel’s eyes whirled and danced, leading her deeper into the darkness beyond. The floor, which had been under her feet just a few minutes ago, was miles and miles below.
Jennifer floated away.
Jennifer stood, fully nude, in the clearing before the cave. The air should have been too cool for her to tolerate being nude in the open, but she felt warm and safe. There should have been sounds all around her, from bugs and birds and squirrels and deer, but the woods were as silent as Jennifer’s own mind.
(At times, Jennifer would have an odd, deja-vu sort of sensation, that she was in two places at once. She was in the forest clearing, but she was also in the cabin, reclined in the easy chair, gazing deeply into Jezebel’s eyes. She did not think of the cabin as the “real world” and the clearing as a “hypnotic hallucination.” Nothing was more real to her than the clearing. All other places could be ignored.)
Inside the cave, there was darkness. But there was a peculiar liquidity to the darkness, more like water than oil or tar or blood. The darkness was the surface of a pond, and every so often it would ripple, as though a rock had been dropped into the middle of that pond. These ripples would roll outward, concentric circles that seemed—
(DARK ONE DARK ONE DARK ONE)
—so familiar to Jennifer. The familiarity soothed her, lulled her, caressed her brain stem with an icy hand and sent her deeper into the dark place.
“You’re doing so well,” Jezebel’s voice would say, from time to time. The voice seemed to be coming from all around her, every side at once. It was the only sound in the forest, the only thing on which she could briefly focus. There was a time when Jennifer might have asked sardonically, Doing so well at what? I’m not doing anything. But that time was ancient, eons ago. Here in this place she knew that “doing well” simply entailed letting the ripples carry her deeper into the cave.
She did not remember the Thing in the cave, wrapping His tentacle around the redheaded woman. She did not remember Donna’s tears. Not only was her rage at Jezebel forgotten, but she could barely remember what rage itself had been.
(In the far-off place that Jennifer no longer considered to be the real world, Jezebel was standing a few feet away from the easy chair, looking down. The darkness of her eyes was almost as compelling as the moving darkness in the cave. After some time she stepped forward and took Jennifer’s right hand.)
Jennifer felt the pad of a thumb stroke her labia. In another frame of mind, she might have wondered where the owner of the thumb was standing; she did not feel the touch of an arm reaching across her body. But such considerations did not matter now. All that mattered was the electric tingle that she felt, deep between her hips, when Jezebel whispered in her ear, “Oh yes. So well.”
(In the cabin, Jezebel’s thumb stroked Jennifer’s hand. She slid her thumb over each knuckle, settling comfortably into the soft spaces in between, then massaged the tendons on the back of the hand until they were completely limp. Through the connection of the Touch, she could feel the effect that she was having on the younger woman. She smiled, feeling that after a momentary blip, everything in the county was once again under control.)
What amazed Jennifer — to the extent that, in her current frame of mind, she could feel amazement — was that the thumb never actually penetrated her. It simply caressed the surface of her vagina, the thumb pad on one lip and the perfectly manicured edge of the thumbnail on the other, back and forth, so intensely erotic that it was all she could do just to follow the soothing ripples with her eyes.
“Does that feel good?” Jezebel whispered in her ear.
“Yes,” Jennifer said, the word mixed with a contented sigh that stretched it out to three or four syllables.
“Am I good at this?”
“Yes,” Jennifer said, the trash talk from before now long forgotten. And her answer was true: she’d been fingered by a woman once before, which had gone terribly, because they were both too shy and inexperienced to have any clue what they should be doing. Jezebel was teaching her so much.
“Yet you’re still so tense,” Jezebel whispered.
Jennifer’s brow furrowed slightly. “Tense,” she echoed. It was too much effort to turn the word into a question, and far too much effort to doubt Jezebel’s suggestions, but ... she certainly didn’t feel tense.
“Tense,” Jezebel repeated. “You’ve been in Hollywood for so long, you don’t even realize how tense you’ve become.”
“Yes,” Jennifer said. Put it that way, and there was no question Jezebel was right. Wasn’t that why Jennifer had come to Missouri in the first place?
“The fame,” Jezebel said. “The power. They push other people away. They weigh you down, making you so tense.”
“Tense,” Jennifer said, her brow smooth again. That was why her friends had gone to Rolling Stone with the bogus suicide story, wasn’t it? They had felt isolated from her. Pushed away.
“They don’t care if you are happy, Jennifer,” Jezebel said. “They only care if you make them happy.”
“Yes,” Jennifer said. Her social media team would joke about this: how many times did a given fan’s tweet or Facebook post say “I” or “me”, versus how many times it said “you”? They made the entire interaction about themselves without even realizing.
“But it goes far beyond Hollywood,” Jezebel whispered. “Ever since you were young … it’s so tough to belong with anyone.”
Jennifer thought of her freshman year of high school. A group of white senior girls had targeted her by saying horrible things about Canadians in her presence. They all understood that the word Canadian was standing in for the racial slurs that the teachers would not tolerate. “Yes,” she told Jezebel.
Jezebel smiled. She could not read minds, but neither was she as ignorant as Jennifer had thought. She had enough fame and power within the county to guess at how fame and power in Hollywood could warp this girl’s life. She had fucked enough high school quarterbacks to guess how the mean high school girls would respond to those blue eyes and off-black skin.
Jezebel felt that she was deeply enough entwined in this woman’s mind and pussy. Time to take it home. “You can belong with me, Jennifer,” Jezebel said.
Jennifer said nothing. The thumb massaged her vagina in rhythm with the swimming darkness, and she fell deeper into the dark, deeper into the pleasure.
“I don’t need your money, Jennifer,” Jezebel said. “The Dark One does not care about money. Do you believe me?”
Jezebel’s voice filled her pussy, filled the cabin, filled the forest, filled the world. How could she not believe? “Yes,” Jennifer said.
“I am already happy, Jennifer,” the older woman said. “The Dark One makes me happy. All I want is for you to be happy. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” The warmth in her loins was spreading upward, to her breasts. Jennifer wanted to massage her breasts with her hands, release the built-up arousal, but her arms were inert.
“Does this make you happy, Jennifer?” The thumb bent, just enough for the thumbnail to scratch her pussylips. Not a violent scratch, barely enough to leave a mark, but just enough to send electric waves of arousal rocketing through her entire body.
Cabin-Jennifer shuddered all over. Forest-Jennifer swayed on her feet, as though she might fall over, but her eyes remained locked on the shimmering darkness in the cave and she kept her balance. “Yes!” she moaned. “God, yes!”
“Jennifer, do you know how happy I can make you?” Another scratch, this one almost playful.
Jennifer cried out, “Yes!” but did not orgasm; on some level she knew that she could not orgasm until Jezebel allowed her.
“But I cannot make you happy until you are less tense, Jennifer.”
Jennifer said nothing, continuing to moan and shudder. She wanted to toss her head back and forth, any kind of movement to release the passion building in her. But moving her head would mean looking away from the liquid concentric circles in the cave, and that she could never do.
“What makes you tense, Jennifer?”
“Fame,” Jennifer gasped. The darkness in the cave rippled in time with the waves of heat radiating from her crotch, helping her arousal build even as she slipped deeper. “Power.”
“People who want things from you,” Jezebel whispered in her ear.
(In the cabin, too far away for Jennifer to care, Jezebel began to lean over Jennifer’s limp body as she said)
“People who prey on you. They make you tense, Jennifer.”
“Yes.” She could not have denied it even if she had been able to think of a denial.
“The Handlers make you tense, Jennifer. They don’t care about your happiness, only themselves. Do you understand?”
Jennifer remembered what Donna had said during the half-assed intervention. It blows my mind that I have this chance to help you. Making Jennifer’s well-being all about herself, no different than a fan sending a bad-grammar Facebook post. “Yes,” she said.
“You must be free of the Handlers, Jennifer. If you can be free of them, you will be happy. Your tension will disappear. You will be at peace.”
“At peace,” Jennifer murmured.
(In the cabin, Jezebel’s face was now just inches from Jennifer’s — as close as she could get, considering the way that the younger woman was nearly convulsing with pleasure.)
“Kill them, Jennifer,” Jezebel whispered. “Kill the Handlers and you can be at peace. Kill them.”
The darkness in the cave shimmered, and then showed her an image, just as the Blue had done. She saw herself, in the first person, killing the Handlers. It was the most erotic fantasy she’d ever had. She saw herself stabbing Dan with the Emerson knife, each strike like a finger flicking her rock-hard nipples. She saw herself taking a pillowcase and strangling Donna with it, feeling the other woman’s gasps for breath as gentle kisses on her pussy.
The greatest horror of Jennifer’s life was in that moment: she wanted to do it. Wanted it more than anything, more than financial success, more than critical success, more than she had ever wanted to be a musician when she’d been a teenager. God help her, in that moment she wanted to kill the Handlers more than she’d ever wanted her parents back.
She formed the words in her head: Yes, oh yes, kill them I’ll kill them oh yes.
She opened her mouth to say it, and her throat filled with Blue. Tasting it, smelling it, drowning in Blue everywhere as it wiped the paralysis out of her body, she heard His final words again: her strength is your weapon.
Finally she understood: the Power of Possibility is the province of dreamers. She could not access it while she was awake. She had needed Jezebel to lull her into a dream deep enough to use it.
Forest-Jennifer seized the thumb that was stroking her vagina. Cabin-Jennifer flipped her hand over and seized the thumb that had been massaging it. As Cabin-Jennifer felt the thumb in her grip, on an unconscious level she understood its realness, its there-ness. She did not wake from her trance, and she remained in two places at once, but the places switched priority in her mind: the cabin was where she was nearest to reality, and forest-Jennifer became all but irrelevant.
Jennifer wrenched the thumb, breaking it in three places. As she did so, she felt the power of Blue course down her arm. She squeezed her hand into a fist, pulverizing the bone. The skin and some connective tissues remained intact, but for all intents and purposes, Jezebel’s left thumb ceased to exist.
Jezebel screamed, a sound so shrill and piercing that cracks formed in the shatterproof glass of the cabin windows behind her.
Jim Talbot was miserable.
He hadn’t expected to be. He’d never watched Jezebel seduce someone other than himself, and he had expected it to be a hot-as-hell thing to watch. But Jezebel had used the Touch to subdue the Handlers and Jennifer both.
Talbot did not understand the true nature of Jezebel’s power, and he was not interesting in learning. He had listened to Jezebel have her way with the Handlers through the thin bedroom wall and felt the presence of … he didn’t know. Something inhuman. He’d spent all night hunting for the right word, and finally came up with it as Jezebel ordered him to put the Handlers in the car: affront. Whatever Jezebel was doing, she was inviting an affront to humankind.
Several times during the night he’d felt an irrational urge to run into the bedroom and stop Jezebel, wake the Handlers up, oppose the Affront (which had quickly gained proper-noun status in his mind). When Jezebel had begun using the Touch on Jennifer, the ghost of—
(draw your pistol and fire)
—a different idea had passed through his head for a second time. But he had made no move to stop her, and the idea had vanished before he could fully develop it, because at the very core of him Talbot understood one truth: he’d taken sides in that debate long ago, and he hadn’t sided with humanity.
When Jezebel had whispered for Jennifer to kill the Handlers, Talbot winced and looked away, into the room where the naked, entranced bodies lay on the bed. Jim Talbot had a great deal of experience lying to himself, but if he was to be honest, he’d known where this was going. It would not be the worst thing that he had done for Jezebel, but it would be close.
These were the miserable thoughts going through Talbot’s head, and the reason he was not even watching Jennifer, when Jennifer took Jezebel’s thumb and annihilated it. He heard the cracking of bone and knew something was wrong, but before he could act Jezebel screamed so loudly that he felt a stabbing pain in his ears.
Talbot turned, his hand dropping to his pistol, when he saw the younger woman lift her free hand off of the easy chair’s arm. The index finger pointed upward, a gesture that seemed to say hold on just a minute, and she spoke some words that sounded like gibberish to him. He could not have been expected to understand the language; it had died out on the Gobi desert a thousand years before the Ming Dynasty began.
Talbot felt an immense hand grab his entire bicep in a “come along” hold, the same sort of hold that he had used on a hundred criminals (and more innocent people than he wanted to admit) in his career. He looked over his shoulder and saw no one there, even as he was pulled backward with incredible strength. His legs kicked awkwardly on the floor as he tried to keep upright, staggering across the cabin. When he reached the wall his arm was flung against it with enough force to punch an arm-shaped indentation in the plaster. Talbot’s shoulder dislocated on impact, and he did his best to bellow as loud as Jezebel had done.
Talbot tried to pull his maimed arm free. It stuck fast to the wall, as though glued there. He could not even wiggle his fingers. His pistol had never cleared the holster, and the girl had never looked him in the eye.
Jezebel’s and Talbot’s screams blared through the enclosed space of the cabin, but Jennifer was nowhere close to waking up. It occurred to her, in a vague and disinterested sort of way, that this was probably what the Voice of Blue had meant by saying You are open to Me. Her trance was unique, compared to Donna and indeed most other people.
She wasn’t exactly sure what she had done to Talbot. She understood that she had been given the Chinese-sounding words by the Blue, and that she owed Him a great deal of Possibility in return, but she had not intended anything. It had simply happened.
As Jezebel staggered away, her scream trailing off, her eyes remained fixed on Jennifer’s. Jezebel tried to break the Touch and found that she could not.
(In the forest, Jennifer turned away from the hypnotic images in the cave and looked Jezebel in the eye. She still held Jezebel’s mangled hand. Jezebel tried to release the other woman’s hand but could not break free. She had never before tried to Touch someone who could Touch back, and only now she understood its true nature)
“Like a handshake,” Jennifer murmured aloud, and Jezebel hissed in a combination of pain and fury.
An odd sort of equilibrium was reached, with Jezebel and Jennifer looking into each other’s eyes over a distance of a few yards. Jezebel was leaning heavily against the door to the back patio, in obvious pain but still standing; Jennifer was still reclined in the easy chair, her left finger pointing skyward as though calling for the check in a restaurant.
After about ten seconds of this, Jezebel became aware of how dire her situation was. The mangled hand was painful but irrelevant; the flesh is nothing, the Dark One had told her during their first meeting. The emergency was the burning knot at the base of her skull, which was growing in size and intensity. She had never felt it grow before. She was no longer sure what she was going to pay Him with.
“Who are you?” Jezebel said to the younger woman in the easy chair. “What are you?”
“I bleed the same blood as any other woman you fed to Him,” Jennifer said. Her voice was indifferent, even drowsy, as though she could nod off at any point during the conversation. “But I was able to make an Agreement.”
“He would never deal with you,” Jezebel said. “I am His favorite. He adores my purity.”
Jennifer’s blood would have roiled if she were awake. From the depths of her trance she observed the ugliness of Jezebel’s words, a zoologist studying a savage beast from behind glass. “There are Others,” she said.
Jezebel was struck speechless. As Talbot had told Jennifer the day before, Jezebel was was inclined to think that almost anything said by someone of Jennifer’s heritage was a lie. But, if she were capable of setting aside her bigotry, she would admit that she had never even considered that there could be Others in the world.
Could it be possible that the younger woman was … stronger?
No, Jezebel thought. She refused to believe it. Jezebel had gained control of an entire town. This silly bitch was sleeping through her greatest chance to steal that control away. She just needed a good chance to take the bitch by surprise.
At that moment Donna Handler walked through the bedroom door. The Emerson knife was in her hand, unfolded. Without breaking stride she began to cross the room in the direction of Jim Talbot, who was still pinned to the wall.
Jennifer was learning new things about the Blue with literally every second.
She’d felt a tickle in the back of her mind during her conversation with Jezebel, but she was too relaxed to expend the effort to make anything of it. It was only when Donna Handler walked through the bedroom door that she understood she could sense the presence of other people and Touch them without looking at them. It must have been a difference between her Touch and Jezebel’s, because if Jezebel could Touch her without looking at her, this all would have been over two nights ago.
She focused her Touch on Donna, and the Possibilities appeared in her mind.
It was not seeing the future, precisely. Instantaneously, hundreds of images flowed into her mind, possible outcomes for the next 10 seconds. Then thousands more images on top of those, possibilities for the 10 seconds after that. Then more images, and more, piling on top of each other faster than she could study them. She did not try to follow each individual chain of decisions; she did not try to calculate Donna doing A, which leads to B, which causes C. Instead, the massive collection of As, Bs, Cs, and all the actions to follow, meshed together to form a picture of what the future could look like. The closest comparison to the sensation that she could make, was a picture that she had seen on the Internet: a massive portrait of Donald Trump composed entirely of extremely tiny images of penises.
For Donna, the Possibilities were easy to put together. She was going to go for Talbot’s pistol, and do her level best to stab him to death as she did. After that, more people would die in this room; the only question was whom and how quickly.
“Donna, stop,” Jennifer said. Although her voice carried all of the sleepy enthusiasm of a Tommy Wiseau line reading, it thundered through Donna’s mind as Jezebel’s suggestions had thundered through Jennifer’s. Donna stopped so suddenly that her bare feet skidded a little on the hardwood. She had crossed the room halfway, needing four or five more strides to get to Talbot.
Jennifer knew that she could not control Donna directly, as Jezebel might do. Her Touch did not work that way. If Donna’s mind had not been so deeply numbed by Jezebel last night, she might not have stopped.
Jennifer tried to focus on one of the images in the mosaic in her mind, similar to trying to zoom in on one of the individual penis-pics in the Trump portrait that made up the blue in his eye. It was difficult, because she was still new to this and did not have a clue what she was doing. The images scattered before her, as though her mind was playing a game of fifty-two-pick-up with an infinitely large deck.
Talbot looked at Donna. Her face was not blank, as it had been before, but it was … distant. Whatever she was thinking in there, only the vaguest suggestion of it was on her face. He had no faith that this woman was in any control of her faculties at all.
Talbot reached across his body to get the gun out of the holster. It was impossible; he could not reach all the way across his wide hips without rotating the maimed shoulder. He reached again and again, howling with pain each time.
Amidst all of these distractions — the holding spell on Talbot, the Touch on Donna, Talbot’s agonized shouts filling the room — Jezebel moved to strike.
(Jezebel acted in the place where she thought she would have the most advantage: the forest clearing. Instead of pulling back from the handshake of the Touch, as she had been trying to do ever since Jennifer had ruined her left hand, she pulled forward, drawing Jennifer close.
(Jezebel lashed out with her good hand, immaculate fingernails striking like tiger claws. At the last moment Jennifer twisted on the bad hand, wrenching the ruined thumb at its joint, buckling Jezebel’s legs a little. The fingernails made deep furrows just below Jennifer’s collarbone instead of cutting her throat.)
In the cabin, a thin sliver of blood barely deserving the title /nosebleed/ began to issue from one of Jennifer’s nostrils. Jezebel’s knees buckled, and she slid down the wall on her back, cradling the damaged hand, her eyes still never leaving Jennifer’s as she went.
(In the clearing, Jennifer could remember only one of the self-defense moves she had learned from the bodyguard who had given her the Emerson knife, and it was not a complicated one. She raised her leg, tucking her knee to her chest, and pistoned the leg forward. The sole of her foot planted directly in Jezebel’s gut, just below the solar plexus.
(Jennifer felt the Blue shoot down her leg as she executed the kick, and the force of Blue sent Jezebel flying. Literally flying, fifteen or twenty feet in the air, until she struck a tree with enough impact to splinter a heavy branch.)
In the cabin, the whites of Jezebel’s right eye turned bright red. Gruesome bloody tears began to run down her cheek.
With Jennifer’s mind turned elsewhere, Donna started moving forward again. Talbot saw the knife and understood that he might be in his last ten seconds on earth. He shouted, “No!”
Jennifer’s mind was too sluggish in the trance to plan, or think tactically. This was actually in her favor; in her right mind, she might have been overwhelmed by the number of challenges in her face, and panicked. Instead, she simply reacted to the most recent stimulus: Talbot’s exclamation.
Jennifer re-oriented her mind to the cabin, and re-focused her Touch. “Don’t do it, Donna,” she said. “Think of the Possibilities.”
Jennifer gave Donna an image, one that she thought would stop the other woman dead in her tracks:
(Donna drove the knife into Talbot’s chest. Her face was just inches from his face, and she looked into his shocked, terrified eyes as his wrecked heart shut down. It awakened something in her, something which had been deeply suppressed over the course of the previous evening by Jezebel’s power. Her inner doctor.)
That by itself would have been enough to neuter whatever emotions had drove Donna to pick up the knife in the first place. But Jennifer, doing this for the very first time, had no control over the vision. It continued:
(Donna yanked the revolver from Talbot’s holster. She did not have the presence of mind to release the safety, but Talbot had unwittingly helped her with that, taking the safety off when he had drawn on the sounds in the closet, and never putting it back on in the excitement. Donna spun, her mind completely in turmoil, and fired all six shots with her eyes closed, the gun pointed in Jezebel’s general direction.
(When she opened her eyes, Donna saw that a bullet had entered Jennifer’s skull about a centimeter over the left eye. The entire headrest of the chair was covered with the unspeakable results. Jezebel was still standing, untouched by any of the rounds. Donna did the only thing she could think of: she put the pistol to her temple and pulled the trigger. But there was only a dry click, because she had already fired it empty, and she saw Jezebel’s smile and fell into those eyes and knew that she would belong with this woman forever and ever and—)
Donna’s knees buckled and she collapsed. The Emerson knife clattered across the hardwood floor. The Touch was abruptly broken, and Jennifer knew intuitively that Donna had lost consciousness. Which was good, because part of Jennifer’s mind was still in the clearing, still Touching Jezebel’s mind, and Jezebel was coming again.
(Jezebel sprinted at her, making bizarre and indescribable noises, snarling like no creature on Earth that Jennifer could imagine. Her dress flared around her, even though there was no wind in this place and never would be, making her look like a hawk swooping low to take a smaller animal.)
(Jennifer stood her ground. She was not a smaller animal. She could remember now, and the images that the Blue had shown her flooded back. She saw Jezebel for what she was: a small-minded bigot who would rather turn this town into a hell of petty resentment and distrust than deal with life on its own terms.)
(The nails sought Jennifer’s throat again. Jennifer caught her arm at the wrist, and twisted hard. Jezebel screamed again as the bones broke, and this time the scream was of frustration, because she knew that she had no good hands left. Jennifer reached out with her other hand, seizing Jezebel by the neck, cutting her scream off.)
“You pathetic, evil thing,” Jennifer said. “All those relationships destroyed. All those women killed.”
Jezebel’s face was turning red, an ugly flush that did not spread over her neck or breasts. Blood continued to seep out of her eye. “Uppity nigra bitch,” she said, all pretensions to super-villainy gone, her voice no different than it had been at sixteen years old. “You ain’t better than me. You cummed for me just like they all do. You was gonna kill them for me, and cum while you did it.”
Jennifer remembered with perfect clarity, the moment when she had wanted so desperately to kill the Handlers. She realized that Jezebel had not tampered with her memory of that moment, because that had been her plan all along, to hold those murders over Jennifer’s head. You wanted this, Jezebel would have said if Jennifer had tried to break free of her grip later on. You made a choice. You killed them and you loved it.
And that had been so close to being true.
“I’ve Touched your Possibilities,” Jennifer said aloud. “It was a small picture. You’re out of options.”
“You was just lucky,” Jezebel said. In the cabin, there was a foul smell that Jennifer took to be a fever, literally cooking Jezebel’s skin. The blood running down her cheek was steaming. “The Dark One should’ve eaten your black ass alive that first night.”
“Not luck,” Jennifer said. Talbot heard this as well. “Possibility.”
(Forest-Jennifer turned, her arms thrumming with Blue, and threw Jezebel into the cave. Jezebel went into the dark, screaming, and vanished into the watery Thing there without so much as a ripple in the surface.)
In the cabin, Jezebel’s face burst into flame. Her hair and clothes caught soon afterward. Jennifer found the strength in her arms to push off of the easy chair. The world was blurry and indistinct, her legs were tired and heavy, but she was able to make her way into the kitchen for the fire extinguisher. When the fire was finally put out, Jezebel was not breathing, and not recognizable.
Jennifer looked at the corpse. Whatever feelings she might have had about it were deeply suppressed. She was still in trance, although the other place for her mind was no longer the forest. Her trance-mind was in the Blue Room, floating in that endless azure place.
She walked over to Talbot, still pinned against the wall. He was trying to reach the Emerson knife with the tip of his boot. It didn’t matter that the knife was two feet out of his reach, or that he was pinned upright to the wall and would be unable to grab it with his free hand even if he could get a foot on it. “How long am I gonna be stuck here like this?” he said, unable to mask the desperation in his voice.
“Look at me, Jim,” Jennifer said in her sleeper’s voice.
“No,” he said, turning his head away from her gaze. “No, please.”
Jennifer focused her Touch on him. “Look at me, Jim.”
He didn’t feel forced to look, not the way that he had with Jezebel. But he knew she was just going to stand there, saying the words over and over, and he didn’t think he could take it. He looked.
The eyes were a bright, brilliant blue, the color of the sky but somehow sharper. He could see himself in them, like a mirror, but then he began to see himself in different places, doing different things, as all of the Possibilities opened to him:
(He saw himself telling his story to the State Police. It was his word against a Hollywood celebrity almost three decades his junior. He knew who the State Police would believe. The Handlers were of no help for the girl; they were acting as if drugged. Not only did he walk, but he was the hero who had solved dozens of missing-persons cases.)
(He saw himself lying in his own bed, free from Jezebel forever and ever. Then the closet door swung open, and the darkness inside began to ripple and shudder like a living thing. A black finger reached out and wrapped around his ankle.)
Talbot screamed, wrenching his damaged shoulder in an effort to get away from what he was seeing, but barely feeling the pain in his terror.
“You’ll never be free from Him that way, Jim,” Jennifer said. Somehow her drowsy voice convinced him even further that it was true. He had never seen a person lie as though they would rather be taking a nap. “I can show you more.”
“No!” Talbot shouted, squeezing his eyes shut but still unable to stop seeing what the Dark One would do to him if it pulled him into the closet. “No more!”
“Her death does not erase all that you did with her, Jim,” Jennifer said. The sleep-voice was implacable. “You must confess. How many women?”
“I don’t know!”
“For once in your life you are going to own up to what you have become,” Jennifer said. “How many women?”
“God, so many,” Talbot said. Tears began to stream from his eyes. “I lost count.”
“Who did you kill?” Jennifer said.
“No one! Jez killed ‘em all!”
“Jim, look at me,” Jennifer said. There was not a trace of anger in the dreamy voice. “Look at me. Jezebel wanted me to kill the Handlers. If I did it, she would have a hold on me that I would never be able to break. I would belong to her forever. Like you did.”
Talbot’s entire face seemed to twist. There were no barriers left for him to erect. He could tell her the truth or live with that Thing in every shadow for the rest of his life. And it would be a long, long life. He would live as long as Methuselah, and the higher power which would enable that life was not benevolent.
“Who did you kill, Jim?”
“My fiancée,” Talbot said, and erupted into a cavalcade of noisy, ugly sobs. Jennifer watched him, only now feeling that it was time to wake from the Blue.
Talbot’s arm was pinned to the wall for about an hour before he collapsed to the floor, moaning and wailing (Jennifer had long ago taken his gun, fearing that he might turn it on himself). Yet Jennifer’s phone still had no bars, and 911 would not answer.
After Donna came to, the Handlers spent at most two minutes in each other’s presence. They took enough time to shower separately and get dressed, saying nothing that Jennifer could hear from the other room, and then Donna went through the back door and sat on the patio futon, staring out at the backyard. Dan stayed in the bedroom, perfectly silent.
Jennifer walked out onto the back patio. Donna said nothing, even as Jennifer sat down on the futon next to her. Jennifer thought for several minutes about the right question to start with, Donna not acknowledging her the entire time, until: “What do you remember?”
“Everything,” Donna said. “Everything she did to us. Everything we did to each other. I even remember shooting you in the head. I still can’t believe you’re alive.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to see that, but I’m still learning how to use this thing.”
“Thing,” Donna said, bitterly. “You have to call it a thing, because it’s not science.”
“I can’t explain it,” Jennifer said. “All I know is, it happened.”
“I know it happened,” Donna said. “It happened to me. To us.” She put her face in her hands, making no sound.
“I’m so sorry,” Jennifer said.
“He betrayed me,” Donna said into her hands. “I betrayed him. And, and, we loved it.” She took a long, shuddering breath.
“I know,” Jennifer said.
“What do our vows even mean, now?” Donna said. “How can I ever trust him? How can I ever trust myself? Do you understand how it was with us? She hurt me in every way a person can be hurt ... and then I begged her to do it again...”
“Until she started toying with me,” Jennifer said, “she had never realized what she could do to women. The things she did to you, they’re all my fault.”
“Yes,” Donna said, lifting her head to look Jennifer in the eye. “It is your fault. We wanted to take you to a hospital that very first day, and you said no. We could have gotten away from that woman, from all of this, and it is your fault!”
Jennifer said nothing, because there was nothing to say.
“No,” Donna said, her voice stricken. “That’s not fair. I came back. I could have forgotten about it. I mean, who are you to me, really? Just a famous person. I don’t know anything about you. I could have let it go, but I came back.”
“You wouldn’t be a good doctor if you let it go,” Jennifer said. “And I’m grateful that you came back. I was too far gone by then to help myself on my own. The stone you gave me saved my life.”
“What was she?” Donna said.
“A horrible person who had a horrible amount of power,” Jennifer said. “With your help, I found enough power to beat her. Remember that, in the times when you feel like you can’t get past it. If not for you I would have lived a horrible life, or died a horrible death, or both. I owe you everything.”
Donna managed a shaky smile. “You’re paying for our next vacation, then,” she said. “Because you really fucked this one up.”
They did not hug. Jennifer could tell that Donna was not ready to be touched. But the smile they exchanged in that moment was close enough.
Jennifer went back in the cabin and dialed 911. It answered on the first ring. She had only given the name Jennifer Jones over the phone, but the first State Police trooper to come through the cabin door looked at her and said, “Holy fucking shit, you’re Sapphire!”
Skeletal remains of more than a hundred bodies were found in the cave. Jennifer read the coverage from L.A. and wondered about the Thing in that cave, and what it meant that the police had been able to enter safely.
Jim Talbot eventually admitted to knowledge of two dozen murders committed by the woman called Jezebel, with whom he admitted to having an affair. He also admitted to committing the murder of one Alice Jennings, to whom he had been engaged. Jennifer was not asked to testify in the case; Talbot’s confession and the physical evidence were strong enough without her. Talbot did not contest the sentence of death and was executed by lethal injection. The last light in his brain is unknown.
Cedar Grove disintegrated in the months following the arrest. The town’s Fox News-loving residents told themselves that they had no respect for the media who were swarming their streets, but in truth, there was no way for them to understand that the destruction of Jezebel’s hate-machine had left a hole in their minds that they could not fill. They moved to Branson, to Little Rock, to Columbia and Springfield. The diner has closed, and the rats have the sad mini-mall all to themselves. Cedar Grove never officially existed, and now it never will.
A few months after she returned to L.A., Sapphire recorded a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” She stood in a booth just before recording, closed her eyes, and imagined Donna saying and then I begged her to do it again. The song was elegiac, soulful; one critic wrote that “never in Cash’s life was his heart broken as Sapphire will break hearts with this effort.” The song’s proceeds were spread across several charities which provided housing and financial support to victims of various types of abuse. The Blue was pleased.
The months after the Affront were difficult for the Handlers, not least because they felt that they could not go to therapy; no therapist would ever believe the story behind their relationship problems. They separated twice over the course of the next year, but never divorced. They were living together on the following Halloween, when they took a vacation in the Bahamas that Jennifer happily paid for, and they continue to battle their demons one day at a time.
The body found in the cabin was never identified. Talbot told authorities that he had suspected Jezebel was not her real name, but regardless, he had never known her surname. Fingerprint, dental, and DNA analyses were unable to determine her identity. The corpse was cremated, but the remains were lost in a bureaucratic snafu.
No one knows her final resting place.