“A Cold Grip” for Award Consideration

Category: Short Fiction (5600 words)

Author: Christi Nogle

Publication: Boneyard Soup 1 (January 2021)

A Cold Grip

By Christi Nogle

October 28, 1925

Andrew readied for sleep in the front room of Vivian’s grandmother’s cabin. There would be no love tonight, but that was all right. He’d washed up as best he could but still felt grimy from the road and shaken by the long day’s drive. His hands, always so tightly gripped on the wheel, felt old and cramped. He needed rest.

Vivian returned from visiting in her grandmother’s room, her pale silk pajamas and her elegant self lit by the oil lamp she carried. Everything about her was out of place against the room’s austere and rustic furnishings. She sat beside him on the makeshift bed and turned down her light. The room was cozy in the brown glow reflected from the fireplace.

Vivian moved onto her side, pressed her back into Andrew. “There’s no room,” she said. “Oh, I won’t sleep at all, will I?”

 This was their first moment of privacy since they arrived on the sun-dappled hill where Vivian had spent her childhood.

Vivian was, like Andrew, an only child. Her mother and father no longer lived on the hill, but somewhere around two score of uncles, aunts, and cousins still did. Andrew guessed that not one of them had declined the invitation (announced with an iron bell) to come on over to Grandmother’s. They were all too curious to see what had become of their girl who’d run off to the city. After they had all filtered from this room and back to their own cabins, the stately grandmother had fussed with the fire and the bed and did not leave them alone until she was ready to sleep.

Andrew could not express all he was feeling now. He said, “Your aunt is a very beautiful woman. It shows how I’ll see you in ten years, fifteen.”

“Aunt Sarah?” Vivian said, “more like twenty years.”

“That’s remarkable. All of your people, really.”

Stunning. They wore plainer garb than he and Vivian, of course, but every one, from the cherubic babies to the still-energized matriarch, the young men and the old—every one was remarkably well-built and healthy, pleasant-featured, calm and agreeable.

“All of my people,” she said and sighed. “Did you think they’d be grotesques?”

“I thought nothing at all,” he said. He’d thought some of them would be beautiful and graceful like Vivian, but all of them? No. He would not have thought it natural, though the uniform beauty of them did seemed perfectly natural now that he thought of it. Animals are perfectly, uniformly beautiful. Trees are. 

Vivian didn’t speak or stir. Her breathing had already relaxed. In a moment she would be dreaming. Andrew breathed in the scent of her, thinking how he’d never smelled her skin at night like this when she hadn’t just come from the bath. She smelled of honey and apples and just a hint of vinegar. He wished he could roll onto his back, but there was no room.

“Do you know what she asked me in there?” said Vivian. She yawned and growled, in impression of the old woman, “Do you feel light in your heart as you appear to feel, Vivian?”

Andrew laughed a gentle, false laugh, and she followed. There was no more to say, so each of them thought on the question. Did they feel as light as they appeared?

Long after her body had relaxed into sleep, he lay awake thinking of the wonder of the day. How was it possible to wake in their fine apartment and breakfast on the balcony looking down on all the traffic and the fashionable people, then in mere hours—before dark—to be so well settled and at ease within this place that felt like a different century?

Where would their adventures lead tomorrow and the rest of their lives? Anywhere. Anything was possible with Vivian beside him. Exotic forests came before his mind’s eye and gave way to long, clean expanses of sand. The lights and action of new cities.

These fantasies led to thoughts of accidents, a jerking sensation as he had a small dream of plowing into something on a city street at night, in Vivian’s old convertible. This stage of sleep passed quickly, more heroic dreams followed, and—apart from an unpleasant moment late in the night when he woke to find he’d thrown a leg over Vivian, making her struggle under him as though drowning—it was a good deep country sleep.

#

October 29, 1925

Roosters called from various directions on the hill. Vivian was already off somewhere. She was back before Andrew’d roused himself from bed, all made up and wearing an apple-green silk traveling suit but none of her jewelry. They breakfasted on coffee, scrambled eggs, and cold apple pie in Grandmother’s kitchen—just about the most delicious meal he could remember. The sounds of dogs and children came from the yards of cabins all around. The trees’ fall colors caught at him in glimpses through the low windows, and when he stepped outside, he was in awe. 

He, Vivian, and Grandmother arranged themselves in a spot of sun on the front porch, and the younger cousins began coming around for a few moments’ visit after their morning chores. Andrew took the boys out back to see the new Peugeot. The girls lingered around Vivian, wanting to touch her bobbed hair and hear about life in the city.

It was the goodness of these people that made them so beautiful, Andrew decided. Their burdens were light because they were all so pure, and light burdens make for calm handsome faces.

After most of the boys were called away to other tasks, one named Robin lingered with him looking under the hood. Andrew thought, What if we took this half-grown boy with his wide shoulders and his suntanned, open face, put him up against my sister’s boys or the boys one sees on the streets in the city? No comparison.

Thinking of boys on the streets of cities gave Andrew a momentary chill, which he attributed to it being a little cold in the shade. He and Robin returned to the porch and visited with the young ladies, who asked about Vivian’s clothes, her hair, how she spent her days and nights in the city. Vivian answered: shopping, lunching, dancing. What else? She wasn’t a chorus girl anymore, hadn’t been for two years, but still she danced nearly every night. It all sounded quite pleasant, but there was much she omitted, namely the drinking.

The pleasantness ended when one gorgeous girl of fifteen or sixteen said to Andrew, “I didn’t expect you’d look quite so young.”

Vivian scoffed. “He’s three years older than I am. That’s about right, isn’t it?”

The girl only blushed and looked over to a girl next to her, who evaded her eyes.

“You were thinking of my first husband,” said Vivian. “I was widowed earlier this year, and young Andrew is my second husband. We were married, oh, six months ago. Early June.”

This brought the conversation to an end, as none of the young people knew whether to express sorrow at the loss or congratulations on the new marriage. The matter of the few months between husbands might have troubled them. It was a wonder the young people had not heard the whole saga; the older people certainly seemed to be in the know.

After a pause, Robin had the presence of mind to change the topic. “My mother and father would love to have you up at our cabin for supper, not tonight of course but in a day or two. We do hope you’ll be staying a while.”

“We’d be grateful, though I’m not sure how long we’ll be staying,” said Andrew with a look toward Vivian.

“We’ll see,” she said. “We might just head out after lunch, or in the morning. We might go all the way to California. Who can say?”

Anything. They could do anything now. They were wealthy and free of all bonds.

 “We’ll have time to take some of the children for a ride, anyway,” said Andrew, thinking they had probably never ridden in an automobile before.

Vivian said only, “We’ll see.”

The man called Duck came by then, to see about getting a hand with a fence that had come down just a “stone’s throw” down the hill, and Andrew went with him. On the way to the fence, the man went inside a cabin smaller than Grandmother’s and came out with a work jacket and gloves for Andrew’s use.

The late-morning light made the whole area striking in a way it had not been last night. the beauty was not only in the pink and orange and yellow trees but also the violet-blue patches of sky the distant taller hills in the background. All around him the quaint cabins were tucked back from the road with their kitchen gardens tidied for winter and steep pastures filled with goats and milk cows. He wished he’d seen this all before the leaves started to fall.

Andrew had only to hold a post in place while Duck repaired the wire. Something about the cool day and the fresh country air got him fantasizing about living on the hill. How would it feel to work like a beast all day, eat like a beast, fall into bed in one of these sleepy cabins? How would Vivian look in one of those simple cotton frocks? He thought she might look very nice.  

His fantasies wandered, as they often did, into memories. The decadent bedroom scene. It always came back to that, Vivian beneath him in the center of that old-fashioned canopy bed in the old man’s mansion. The door creaking, one of the husband’s eyes visible through the narrow crack, seeing all.

A different sort of man might have attacked. There had been a time when Andrew wished that he had done that. They might have fought, or perhaps not. Perhaps the husband would have shot Andrew or, more likely, Andrew would have fled.

Another sort of man might have laughed it off. A young, spirited wife like that caught with a boy? How much blame could be heaped on either of them? It was only nature. He could have forgiven her. He could have punished her, kept her in thrall to him, moved her away, divorced her. There were many things he could have done. What he did was call his driver to take him to his club. He entered and, speaking to no one, settled down in a chair with a drink, and quietly died. It was his heart.

It would have taken a different sort of man—a whole different life—for the old man to have survived his broken heart. This old man had been a lifelong bachelor before being swept away by Vivian. The boy in his bed was the only son of his oldest, dearest friend. This boy was like a godson to him.

Wind struck at the tears in Andrew’s eyes. He felt he would like to stand here many hours more, merely holding the post in place, but the man was standing back, looking over everything.

“Done,” Duck said. “It’s about time for lunch.”

#

Back in Grandmother’s kitchen, Andrew, Vivian, Grandmother, and Duck stared at their empty plates without moving to serve themselves. Lunch was light, just a plate of ham sandwiches on dark bread, a bowl of applesauce, and a pitcher of milk in the center of the table. Andrew had noticed that these people didn’t talk much while they ate, but he thought that this silence was different.

After a while, he cleared his throat, closed his eyes and said, “Dear Lord—”

“Please, no,” said Grandmother.

“I did not take you for a devout man,” said Duck.

“Of course not. I only—” said Andrew, but there seemed no need to finish speaking. He noticed the two extra place settings then and knew silence was called for as they awaited the rest of the party.

After a time, Robin came out from a door that Andrew had not noticed. He held the arm of a shrunken old man. They all rose.

“Great Grandfather,” said Vivian.

 “Glad to see you’re well enough to join us,” said Grandmother with, Andrew thought, a little scolding edge to her voice.

Everyone sat. Robin helped with Great Grandfather’s plate.

The old man was a wonder, no teeth and a marble smoothness to his skin, the soft white fluff on his head well cleaned and combed down. He ate well, seeming to savor his food. When perhaps the first half of the meal had gone down, he turned to Vivian and said, “Light in your heart, now, Vivian?”

“Yes, of course,” she said quickly.

“Not so restless anymore?” he said.

Vivian seemed like a little girl being chided for something small. “Not so restless anymore,” she repeated, looking down at her half-sandwich still nearly untouched.

Andrew wanted her. He could not remember wanting her so badly since before their wedding.

Grandmother said, “Vivian never was a bad girl. She only left to see the world. No harm in that,” seemingly for the benefit of Robin, who was managing his own meal while keeping an eye on Great-Grandfather.

“She had to see New York, and how does she like it?” said Duck. His plate was clean.

“We’re in Chicago now,” said Andrew. His heart raced; he wondered if they saw it in his visage. He and Vivian had never spoken of fleeing New York in shame, but that was the case, wasn’t it? If they still had friends there, they were only the lowlier sort of friends.

“We have a beautiful apartment,” said Vivian. “There is so much art and fashion, you know, in any big city.”

“Well,” Grandmother said, rising. “I’m going to bed now. You all ought to try to sleep. Robin will wash up.”

“Rest well,” said Vivian. Her face was pensive. Andrew wished, not for the first time, to read her thoughts.

Robin rose, helped the old man back through his door, and came out within a few minutes to set about washing dishes.

Andrew asked, “Would you like to go for a ride when you’re done, Robin? We could take a few of the girls along.”

Robin said without turning toward them, “No, sir. I’ll be needing to get some sleep in myself. Tonight’s the big camp-out.”

“No, but that’s two days away,” said Vivian. She sat straighter, looked to Duck.

“Usually, yes, but it’s more in the way shadows fall than the calendar date. You know that.” He held up splayed fingers, made a kind of clawing motion that Andrew thought was meant to evoke light falling across bare branches.

“Say, Duck, I hate to bother you, but I wonder if there’s any place a man might have a bath,” said Andrew.

Vivian said, “Of course. I’ll heat the water for you.”

She rose, and the men stood with her. Andrew gathered his bag, thanked Robin for the help, and the three of them crossed the dirt drive to Duck’s place. 

The hill was free of human voices, and Andrew thought that the midday rest must be a custom here, as in some other cultures he had read about in college. You’d wake feeling vital and go about the evening as a man should. 

#

“We’re not going to any old camp-out. I’ll tell you that,” said Vivian. She knelt beside the deep metal tub in a lean-to off the back of Duck’s cabin. She’d taken off her suit jacket and wore a much-washed cotton pinafore over her chemise. Her cheeks were flushed from the heat and the struggle to bring water for him. It was a wife’s duty, out here, one she had too much pride to be seen ignoring.

She seemed a perfect farm-wench, but he knew better than to tell her so. “Get in here with me,” he said.

“I’ll get in there after you,” she said like it was an expression of love. “That’s how it’s done out here. And then we’ll go.”

To the narrow bed for their own rest, or would they take the children for a ride? He was inexplicably drawn to that idea. He visualized the Peugeot overflowing with boys and girls, all of them cheering.

He didn’t ask. He touched her neck, tempted her down into a kiss.

A rap came at the door. “I cleared off the bed in the back room. You can rest there after your bath,” called Duck.

“Many thanks,” called Vivian, and to Andrew, “A nap, and then we go.”

“Where are we going, dear?”

She laughed. “California. I want to get far enough to find a hotel. I want to get out of the country before the sun sets. All right?”

It was all right.

#

“This was my parents’ room,” she said after love. They lay nude and cold in damp blankets, in a room that had long been used for storage.

Andrew tensed at the mention of her parents. They were a great mystery. She did not claim they were dead or lost. They’d left this home for reasons unknown to him, perhaps also to her.

He asked no questions about them, but she said, “Don’t you know by now? They weren’t good. Only the good people can stay.”

“None of us is without sin, but they had good in them too,” he said. “All people have—”

“Shh,” she said. “Let’s rest for the drive.”

#

A rap came on the door, waking them. Duck said, “We’re loading up.”

“We’re not going,” said Vivian, and to Andrew, “We should have gotten out before.” Was that worry in her face? Outright fear?

There was a pause, and Duck finally said, “Grandmother says you are going.”

“We aren’t, though. We’re not feeling well,” called Vivian.

“You can take it up with Grandmother. You feeling well enough to go over there, or should I fetch her for you?” Andrew didn’t like the nasty edge to his voice. 

Vivian was already out of the bed, dressing.

“We’ll be right over,” she called.

Vivian dressed more quickly than he and was halfway between the two cabins when he stepped outside. Duck held Andrew back further, grasping his shoulder and turning him, saying, “Would you look at that fence? Good as new.” Andrew tried to brush him away. Why was the Peugot parked in front of Grandmother’s cabin now?

Grandmother and Robin strode toward Vivian. Meeting her, Grandmother called, “She’s going with us,” and they rushed Vivian to the car. Great-Grandfather was already seated in the back. Robin and another tall boy flanked Vivian, helping her into the backseat. She did not struggle against them.

They didn’t force her into the car, or not exactly.

“You’ll ride with me,” said Duck with a hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “Robin’s driven a car before. It’s all right.”

The car moved down the hill and turned left. Vivian turned her face back toward Andrew, but he could not tell if she was distressed.

Andrew and Duck watched a wagon come from behind a cabin further up the hill and followed down the hill where the car had gone. Andrew saw, a little down the hill from Duck’s, a bunch of people setting their children in the back of another wagon.

“That’s your ride,” said Duck. He didn’t tell Andrew more than that, and Andrew didn’t ask. He climbed into the wagon with a dozen little masked children. All around them lay baskets of food, pumpkin-lanterns, split wood, blankets.

His wagon pulled out, the rest of the people coming down the hill behind it by now. A few rode on horseback, but most people walked, so Andrew knew the destination was not far.

The wagon tipped hard on a rock and Andrew called, “Careful, careful. Sit down, everyone,” but none of the children listened. 

“We’re going on out to the graveyard tonight,” said the boy standing before him. The boy’s mask was unreadable, nothing but a glossy, wrinkled chaos of brown and green.

“You been a good boy?” said a larger girl seated beside Andrew. She wore a goat-face. It was hard to know what to say to children masked as foxes and ghouls, chickens and skulls. You couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad. You couldn’t see how lovely they were.

“I’ve been the best boy I knew how to be,” Andrew finally told the girl.

“That right?” said the girl. “I am quite light in my heart myself this year.”

“Oh, I am light in my heart, I am light in my heart,” a little girl started to sing, but she left off. All the children grew quiet after that.

#

No time to confer with Vivian or to take in the details of the eerie space where they stopped. He saw only a dark dirt clearing bordered by tall trees and scrub. He noted and was troubled by the lack of crosses or cross imagery amongst the plain headstones, and that was all he noticed. All hands were needed for work as the sun set. Andrew and Duck brought wood from the wagon and built the fire while others moved chairs and supplies. The sun had set by the time they’d settled in a circle around a fire on the center of the small graveyard.

Grandmother and Great-Grandfather and a couple of the older aunts sat in kitchen chairs that had been brought out in the first wagon. Everyone else did the best they could on the ground in blankets, the families and couples each in their own little huddle. Except for a few of the tiny children fussing, all were silent.

Andrew and Vivian sat close, holding hands under their blankets. “We’re here,” she said and would not say more. Surprise to be here, nervousness, boredom—he could not say.

There was no food. Andrew had thought there might be pumpkin pies and hot drinks, but no. The pumpkins were hollow, lighting the perimeter of the graveyard as the sky darkened. The baskets of food were for later or—and this thought unsettled him—they were not for the people at all.

Suddenly, Great-Grandfather said, in a thin weak voice, “If there be any spirits who know something against me, I’d as soon to know it now and not have to wait.”

“Louder,” said Grandmother.

He called the same, more loudly. He added, “If there be any spirits see evil in my heart, I’d like them to say.”

Everyone waited.

Grandmother called, “Any of you spirits have something to say, I hope you will. I hope you will. Will you? I hope you do.” She waited a time and called, even more energetically, “If you see evil in my heart, I hope you strike me down!”

Everyone waited, and then it was the eldest aunt’s turn, and then it was the next-eldest aunt’s turn to challenge the dead.

After that. Robin and some other boys started helping the old folks back to the car. “Is it about over?” Andrew asked Vivian. She shook her head, shushed him and held him. Was she shaking?

The boys came back from the car with water cans and doused the fire. In the dark now, Robin stood calling, “Any spirits out there with something against me?” He waited. “Nobody?” Someone chuckled. Someone else put a warm jar into Andrew’s hands. He sipped, and it was a syrup-sweet hard cider. Vivian had her own jar of it. 

“Nobody?” Robin called again. “Well I’ve got to see the old folks home. It’s too cold. You all have a good time. Make sure the little ones stay warm.”

“You’ll come back, won’t you?” a girl said.

“You forgot the other part,” a boy said.

“All right, anybody want to strike me dead now, for the evil in my heart?” called Robin in a flip tone, and another boy hooted.

“That’s enough,” said a man on the other side of the circle, across the doused fire. “He’s going to get the old ones home. He might not have much to fear out here, but I’m not sure I’d say the same for some of you.”

There were no hoots, no responses at all. Around the perimeter of the graveyard, the lanterns puffed out, one by one. Andrew imagined a boy going around blowing them out, but he did not see the boy.

He and Vivian pulled the blankets over their heads after a time. In the midst of all these people, he felt they were as private as they’d ever been. “Is it Duck’s turn?” Andrew whispered close to Vivian’s ear. She whispered back, cider on her breath, “No, now we’re going to wait for full dark. The idea is the old folks are so close to the darkness already, they shouldn’t be made to suffer through the whole thing.”

“Maybe we don’t need to stay,” said Andrew. “Surely Grandmother’s satisfied now.”

“No, I want to do this” said Vivian. He struggled to see excitement or resolve on her face, even fear. She revealed nothing.

It seemed the other couples and families were visiting under their blankets, same as them. Andrew heard whisperings. Someone came close and asked if he needed more cider. He did.

#

Darkness had come and all the whispering had ceased for a while when a girl cleared her throat and screamed, “Spirits in this graveyard and beyond, I want you to hear me.” Her voice vibrated against her the mask at the end. She made a choking sound and then clearly she was crying. “Momma, I want you to hear me. Is there someone out there wants to hurt me? Hurt me now. Do!” She cried for a while and as an afterthought asked about the evil in her heart.

A boy went next, another boy, Duck, another girl, a young woman. There was often a long pause between people, as though they were getting up the nerve, and some of them went on piteously about the specific people they were calling. Some of them cried. The pauses between grew longer.

More adults began to speak. Were these more fearful? They sounded so.

Vivian whispered in his ear, “The children wear masks because that makes it harder for the spirits to identify them. The children get to cheat, in a way.” The children get to cheat. The old ones get to cheat. Robin, too, because he needed to leave early with the old ones, had gotten to cheat. The people speaking now were not cheating. There was terror in some of the voices and gulping as people belted down their cooling cider.

Andrew drank his cider, imagining the faces of people who spoke. It sometimes seemed that he could see the faces. In the dark, under the blanket, he imagined Duck’s rugged face while that man spoke, and when the voice was feminine, he saw the faces of one or another of the stunning girls with their clear warm skin, their eyes wide open and starry.

Andrew began to feel too warm, and Vivian rearranged blankets so that their faces were exposed to the cold country air. He thought that two or three mothers with infants had not come to the graveyard, but Andrew thought that left thirty-five or forty people in total, which meant that the proceedings should take . . . oh, but thinking about it hurt his head. Hours, anyway. Hours and hours.

Someone came to take his empty jar and to press, this time, a cooler jar into his hand. It smelled almost of solvent, and it burned going down.

Hours and hours it went on. He wondered if he might fall asleep out here and perhaps be abandoned and die. It did not sound like such a terrible thing. He felt at the edge of such a communal warmth here. He might enter into the center, or he might freeze away at the outer edge, and it would not matter. These people would go on.

The silence had held now for ten minutes or longer. “Should I go now?” he whispered to Vivian. She clamped a hand over his mouth, eased it away, kissed him, and then she said, with as much passion as anyone, “Are there spirits here who’d like to harm me?”

Andrew felt the heightened attention of all those others around them. “Is that Vivian?” someone whispered.

She kept going, “Spirits in this graveyard and beyond, all those spirits beyond. I call on all the spirits beyond.”

Andrew jolted back a foot or two. He spilled his jar but made no sound.

He saw the spirit stepping toward them, just a flat projected light like a motion picture in the air. Dim at first, its blue-toned brightness intensified as it approached. It was a skinny boy in ragged clothing, the boy they’d told each other was perhaps a dog (but knew in each of their hearts was a boy), the boy who had led to them getting the new car. This was all after their civil ceremony, after the hard words Andrew had with his father, after they’d left New York, after the new apartment. 

Vivian began to weep. Had he ever heard her do so? Not like this.

“If you want to hurt me, do it now,” she said.

The boy looked angry, but it was a frustrated anger. He scowled at the ground, not toward Vivian.

“Do it now!” she said, and like that, he began to fade. A moment more, and there was nothing in the air but shimmering darkness. An ecstatic sigh escaped Vivian; her body relaxed.

Andrew focused on the shimmer in the air and felt a cold dread grip him. There were faces, limbs, the gestures of people in the air. Could she see it? Could the others see?

Silence, and then a young man said, “The other part.”

Spirits were all around Andrew and Vivian now, dim and indistinguishable but plainly there. Couldn’t the others see?

Vivian called, “Do you see evil in my heart?” Her doubt came through in her voice, and the face of a spirit rose to the foreground, an old man.

The old husband, he lighted her. His face was so near that it lighted her face cool blue, and the others did see it. Andrew heard subtle gasps and murmurings. The spirit’s hands reached out to hold her face, the look in it nothing but love. Nothing but love on his face or on hers. He was glad to see her. That much was plain.

“Evil in my heart?” she said, her voice quavering. The old man shook his head. He tried to stroke her cheek and then faded back. A middle-aged man and woman holding hands came to the foreground and quickly receded. Andrew wondered if those were the parents letting Vivian know that, wherever they had gone, they lived no longer.

Silence again, and someone whispered, “Is that everyone?”

Vivian had collapsed against Andrew. He rocked her in his lap.

The haze of spirits still lingered around them, and there was still no way to tell how much the others saw. Andrew’s face was cold with sweat and tears.

“It’s not everyone,” said Duck.

Andrew brought Vivian’s face close and whispered, “I can’t.”

She sat up, squeezed his hand. “There’s one more,” she said loudly.

Silence, waiting. What if he ran? Surely they would not chase him down.

Silence, and then he said, “Is there anyone here who wants to hurt me?”

The old man came to the foreground, this time with a hurt and hateful face like a bulldog. He feinted and growled toward Andrew, who scooted back quickly as though the image could strike him.

“Do it now,” said Andrew.

“Louder,” called Duck.

“Do it now, do it now, do it now!” he screamed. He’d scuttered free of the blankets, and the last of the liquor had spilled over his pants, but it didn’t matter. It was pure exhilaration to have the shadow before him, furious but not touching him. Not able to touch him?

Vivian made a queasy sound. “The other part,” she whispered.

“The other part,” called Duck.

Andrew, broken down to nothing, called loudly so as not to have to repeat it— “Evil, is there any evil in my heart? Can you look? Can you see?” It was a pure request. He wanted to know.

The old man was himself again, the loving old bachelor Andrew had known all his life. He was so terribly bright that he lit Andrew and all the area around. All could see. The old man crouched and reached toward him, and Andrew flinched back. The old man gestured—settle, keep calm.

He reached again, and Andrew forced himself to keep still. He reached into Andrew’s chest and with a freezing, strong hand gripped his heart.

The man lit Andrew blue against the blackness. Their faces close, the old man’s fingers probing, reading the heart. He held the heart closely, firmly but gently. His face betrayed no passion. He only wanted to know, as Andrew did. Both of them wanted the same.

Endless hours of the unreadable face and the blackness all around. Vivian was unreachable. Her people emerged and receded, dim and indistinguishable as the spirits had been.

He’s taking me, Andrew knew.

And yet it did end. The hand eased out of him. The world came back, or it didn’t. The needed judgment never came.

The end