[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]
October 10, 1995
Micah begins to hate himself. He begins to think he is unclean. The burden of it grows on him with the scars of Tina and the monster’s work.
He begins to want, not to beat the monster, not to help him, but to suffer, suffer, and die!
He steals a book from the local store. He is caught — possibly, he allows himself to be caught. He struggles against the police. He screams and bites. He names the monster as his father when they ask after his identity, knowing that the monster will deny it. He gets himself taken down to the police station and put in an empty cell.
This seems like a brilliant idea at first.
Later it seems like he’s adding insult to his own injury and he tries to walk out through the bars. This doesn’t work. He experimentally invokes the power of ‘surprisingly relevant historical trivia’ against the cell but that doesn’t help either.
Then his heart lifts.
He feels a fierce and wild joy.
He’d forgotten it was a monster’s day. He’d forgotten he was supposed to go to Central, later on, and now he can’t. He remembers now, and it’s sweet as icing, because the monster’s follower Stefan is standing at the door.
“You can’t take me,” Micah says. He leers through the bars. He laughs in sheer delight. “If I made enough trouble you would never see me again.”
“I can wait,” Stefan says.
“I can wait. They’re not going to hold you for long. They might want you to come in for a hearing, but, seriously, Micah, it was a book.”
“I fought back,” Micah says, blankly.
Stefan swift-steps into the cell. He seizes Micah. He pushes him up against the wall. He chokes Micah with one arm. Then as suddenly as that he is outside again.
“Not well,” Stefan says.
“They have cameras,” Micah says, incoherently.
Stefan looks around. He seems a little nervous. There are not, however, any actual cameras in the holding cells at the Santa Ynez police station. He shakes his head.
“I can wait,” Stefan says.
He turns to leave.
“No,” Micah says.
He’s leaning against the bars. He’s grinning again, like three hyenas.
“No, you can’t,” Micah says, “because — get this — if you wait, that’s the police exerting power that supersedes the monster’s. And then he’s weak. And you and I have witnessed him being weak. You can swift-step in and get me out. You can leave me in here as a punishment for my sins and get me later, when it’s convenient. But you sure as Hell can’t wait.”
He is shaking. It is good but he is so very weak. He has so very little left in him of defiance.
“Naturally the police can have precedence for a few hours,” Stefan says.
“You’re going to die,” giggles Micah.
Stefan swift-steps away. Micah looks out the window. Through the criss-cross wires in the heavy glass he watches a leaf fall from an elm tree’s branch.
“Fine,” Stefan says.
He is outside the bars again. He is staring at Micah. He is angry. His position becomes ambiguous. He dissolves into potential. He swift-steps into the cell. He grabs Micah.
“The car!” shrieks Micah, mid-swift-step.
Stefan jerks. He loses concentration. He swift-stumbles into a road with a car heading straight for them, briefly Edinburgh, and, unable quite to concentrate, plunges sideways through the racks of clothing at the Sears in Santa Ynez.
Micah bangs Stefan’s head into the floor, once, twice, three times, then tears away before Stefan reorients. He is weaving through the departments. He is bursting out the door. He is out before the staff of Sears can show a reaction to his presence. He is diving under a car in the parking lot. He is hidden by the time Stefan looks around outside the door.
“Damn it,” Stefan says.
Micah waits for five minutes, then another two. That’s all he can afford. He rolls out from under the car and runs. If Stefan is in sight, if Stefan can see him, then it’s over —
It isn’t over.
He makes it away. He staggers down the road.
He hasn’t quite figured out what he’s doing next. His mind’s a blank.
He staggers into a phone booth.
It’s idiotic. It’s ridiculous. He feels a terrible guilt and shame. But he calls home. He asks for Liril.
“What is it?” her mother asks him. He shakes his head. She can’t see it.
“I’m shaking my head,” says Micah. “Please, just put her on.”
“OK,” says Liril’s mother.
It doesn’t take her long. He says, “Liril, what do I do?”
“I’m in a phone booth,” he says. “I’ve gotten away from Stefan and the authorities —”
“Micah,” she says, softly.
And it comes out of him in one long wail. “Why did you want me to suffer this? Why have you forsaken me? Why have you made me to live this way in sorrow?”
“I don’t want that,” she says.
“Please,” he says. “Tell me some other way.”
She is quiet for a long time. Then she says, “Any.”
“You can do it any way.”
“I can fight them off?” he says. “I can shatter their world? I can strangle myself on this phone cord and leave them godless? I can master the elements and wield them in a terrible thunder against the monster until everyone in the world lifts me up on their shoulders in praise?”
“OK,” she says.
He almost hangs up.
He is staring out the window and he can see harpies coming. There are actual harpies in the sky. The monster has sent actual harpies out. They are hunting him. They are hunting him for the monster and he will lose —
It suddenly occurs to him that Liril is serious.
“You’re serious,” he tells her.
She doesn’t say anything.
“I want to fight him,” Micah says. “Oh, God, I want to fight him. I want to hurt him. I want him to hurt him so badly he won’t come after us for years. I want you to be all grown-up by the time you see him next, and I want you to spit in his goddamned face.”
“That’s awful,” she says. “Spitting.”
He can hear her happiness through the phone.
“Listen,” he says. “There are harpies coming. There are . . . there are harpies. I am being hunted by half-bird half-women — that isn’t as weird as I think it is, is it.”
“I like harpies,” Liril says. “They have cool feathers.”
“What do I do?”
“When somebody is really dirty,” Liril says, “you wash them off. Then you show them a mirror. Then you say, ‘look! You’re awesome!’”
This is my last chance at sanity, he thinks.
He could be what the monster wants him to be. He could be a skin to suffer for Liril, and take her pains, and give birth for her to the gods the monster needs. It would be awful but it would make sense to him. He is used to it. He could even think of it as good —
He knows better.
It is settling in to his stomach. It is wild and it is glorious.
I’m going to wash off a bunch of immortal horrors, Micah thinks, and show them a mirror. And then I’m going to say, ‘look! You’re awesome!’
The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die
And finally he is standing there alone, in the mirrored room, past the showers at the Y. There are still feathers drifting down all around him, and there’s a nasty poisoned gash in Micah’s side.
We’re skipping right past the frantic explanations at the door.
We’re skipping past the horrid run through the showers, and the screaming, and the time when Micah slipped on the flowing water and he lay there as the foul beasts came down. The frantic scrambling, scrabbling, the adrenaline-fired desperation of it all.
He made it to a mirrored room, and turned, and told them, “Look! You’re awesome!” and they went away; for harpies reify only the unpleasantest and filthiest conceits.
It occurs to him, as he looks up at the mirror, that he is awesome, though for a long and terrifying moment, as the poison pulses through him, he can’t remember what he’s called.