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by Leigh Bridger, Deborah Smith
Category: Dark Fantasy/Fantasy
Description: From New York Times bestselling author Deborah Smith (A PLACE TO CALL HOME) now writing as LEIGH BRIDGER, comes book one of a dark urban fantasy series with a distinctly southern flavor. North Carolina folk artist Livia Belane is a soul catcher, trapping demons in her paintings. When a particularly vicious demon escapes and brutally attacks Livia, shocking secrets of her past--and past lives--begin to unfold. Mixing demonology, Cherokee mythology, New Age themes and Biblical prophecy, SOUL CATCHER is grisly, exciting, terrifying and surprising, yet also darkly funny and romantic. Coming in 2010, book two: SOUL HUNTER.
eBook Publisher: BelleBooks/Bell Bridge Books, 2009 Trade Paperback
eBookwise Release Date: October 2009
23 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [446 KB]
Reading time: 266-373 min.
"Four Stars," RT BookClub Reviews "Gripping and unique," Amazon Top Reviewer Harriet Klausner Awards: Smith is a multiple award winner including a 2004 RT Career Achievement Award for her fantasy novel, ALICE AT HEART
Paint them. Trap them. Burn them.
I found those words scrawled in jagged lines on the wooden floor beside my bed one morning when I was seven years old. A jar of my white tempera paint sat open beside them, its contents reduced to a dry, lumpy dough. I was already an avid artist, smearing watercolor scenes of the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina and flowers and portraits of my dolls on broad sheets of cheap paper Momma bought for me.
We lived in Ludaway, a tiny town high in the mountains an hour north of Asheville, not much more than a post office, a grocery store, a gas station and two churches. The kind of town where ghosts and secrets thrive, and unspeakable acts are forgotten or turned into charming legends.
Momma loved my paintings and taped them on the fridge, the doors, and, when I painted a smiling portrait of her and Daddy and my baby brother, Alex, she taped that one on the dresser mirror in hers and Daddy's bedroom, next to Daddy's UNC Tar Heels football stickers and Momma's pictures of her cuddling me and Alex.
"My Livia sees the world in such sweet ways," she told people. "She has a special vision of beauty."
But not that morning. I stared at the strange words, then looked in shock at the crust of white tempera on my own fingertips.
I had painted the words in my sleep.
Paint who, trap what, burn why?
I ran through the house, found Momma standing very still and strange in her oversized sweater and skinny jeans, her bare feet making sweat marks on the kitchen's checkerboard linoleum floor. She stood staring at nothing outside the window over the sink. I pulled her by one hand to my bedroom.
"Paint 'em, trap 'em burn 'em, Momma. What's that mean? Why'd I paint this while I was asleep? I'm scared, Momma."
She recoiled as if I'd spit on her. Then she drew back a hand and slapped me so hard I careened off the Malibu Barbie sheets of my bed. I gaped up at her. Momma did not hit us. Ever. Her gray eyes had gone a color I'd never seen before, like rust. "Momma?"
Without a word she twisted a fist in my long, black hair and dragged me to the front hall. She shoved me into a coat closet of our small, clapboard house. Nearly suffocating among the overcoats and sweaters, I yelled, I begged, What did I do wrong, Momma?
"Conniving bitch," she said in a voice I'd never heard before.
Then she slammed the door shut.
Alex, only three years old, heard me pounding the door. He plopped down outside and jabbered at me worriedly. "Livvy, don' cry, Ize here. Mommy be back. Don't cry, Livvy. Love you, Livvy."
Daddy and his mother, Granny Belane, were off on one of their business trips, buying folk art from the secluded mountain folk, they said, which they resold to galleries throughout the South. They would never have let Momma hit me or put me in the closet, if they'd known. In fact, they couldn't have believed that beautiful, loving, kind, Carly Belane, who composed children's songs on an old guitar and loved to knit, quilt and sew, had suddenly turned into an abusive mother. I couldn't believe it myself. She had changed overnight, as if my words, painted on the floor, were a warning to us both.
While I continued to bang the door she scrubbed the floor in my bedroom and scraped flecks of white paint from the wood until her fingertips bled. She threw away all my paints and papers and brushes.
And then came the sounds of struggle. Of Momma's body slamming against the walls.
I bent my face to the streak of light at the bottom. "Stay here, close to me, okay, Bubba? It's okay. Stay right here next to me."
He wiggled a hand under the door crack, and I stroked his fingers.
The house went stark silent. I heard Momma staggering down the hall. She collapsed outside the closet door, sobbing. "Something is happening to me," she said. "I'm sorry, Livia, I'm sorry, Alex. Babies. My babies. Something is wrong with me. Oh God. I don't know what it is. I'm trying to fight it."
I heard Alex mewl again, "Is all the bad gone, Mommy?"
"All the bad is gone, baby," she answered between heartbreaking sobs. "I'm so ashamed. Livvy, please don't tell Daddy. I swear this will never happen again."
I pressed my cheek to the door. "I won't tell him. I won't tell anyone. It's okay, Momma."
She let me out then. Her peculiar spell was over. She begged me to never again say or write the words I'd painted on the floor. I hugged her legs and cried and promised I would not, although I was scared of her and for her. Hard new lines carved her pretty face; she cried and hugged me back. Her hands shook as the three of us ate ice cream in our pretty little kitchen, decorated with Momma's hand-sewn curtains and my innocent artwork, which now looked like postcards from some previous life.
How could I keep myself from painting in my sleep? I tried to shove the fear and confusion deep in my brain and forget it, the way children do. I loved her dearly and wanted to please her. I would not, could not, tell Daddy or Granny what had happened. I didn't understand it myself.
* * * *
Momma returned to normal, or pretended to, when Daddy and Granny came home.
My tall, gentle father, Tom Belane, hoisted me into his arms and danced with me each time I ran to meet him. Then he would grab Momma, and kiss her, and she laughed and hugged him and turned her beautiful, kind face up to his, and he beamed at her with the most romantic look in his eyes.
He'll stop loving me if I tell him about her. Maybe he won't even believe me.
I was intimidated by Granny Belane, but I trusted her. I sat with her at nights on the back porch of our little house, struggling to tell her about Momma, but never able to say the words.
Momma acted as if the closet incident had never happened. But from then on I was always nervous; I stuck close to Alex, especially when Momma was near him. Moon-faced and cheerful, Alex was incapable of recognizing any emotion other than love. What if she went crazy again? He needed protection.
In the gray light of dawn I stared in horror at those new words, gooey and pink, on my bedroom floor. A cake of my pink bath soap lay nearby, one end scraped flat. I looked at my hands, caked in dried pink soap.
Shaking, I snatched off my Smurf night shirt, spit on the floor to wet the pink words, and used the shirt to scrub the floor clean.
Momma had given me a wonderful Cinderella clock for my birthday. From then on I set Cinderella's alarm, and she woke me every morning before dawn. And every morning I got up in the dark, took a flashlight from under my pillow, and checked the floor for words.
I even hid my school supplies in a dresser drawer at night, with my pencils and ink pens tied tight with twine, hoping I couldn't find them in my sleep.
Not that I slept much, anymore.
* * * *
Normal didn't last long. Over the next year or so, Momma began to suffer spells when she was alone with me and Alex. She would forget to cook meals; she would disappear on long walks, even in the worst weather. She would sit at the windows for hours, saying nothing, not moving. She would turn dark, strangely gleeful gazes on us, the way cats watch birds.
Worst of all by far, there began to come times when I overheard her growling at invisible people. At least, they seemed to be people. She talked to them as if they were listening. You can't protect her forever, she said. And, I'll bide my time.
But every time Daddy and Granny Belane came home from their latest business trip, life went back to something like happy. Every time I verged on telling them about Momma's bizarre moments, love and fear stopped me.
As long as she didn't try to hurt me or Alex, I stayed quiet. I learned how to give her a certain look when she got a savage expression on her face, and she'd leave us alone.
I chewed my fingernails to bloody nubs.
* * * *
One day, when I was nine and Alex, five, I caught Momma trying to shove him into the hall closet, just as she'd shoved me. Alex looked bewildered, and was struggling.
I grabbed a green marker from Daddy's office, and a notepad. Daddy used markers to color-code the inventory notes for his folk-art business. I ran back to the hall, where Momma was about to slam the closet door shut with Alex inside.
I swiftly drew a creature with a knotty head and claws, a green horror with its mouth open in a snarl, rows of jagged teeth dripping green drool. I couldn't say why the image of that thing came into my head. It was as if a potent Knowing suddenly channeled my hands.
I thrust the drawing at Momma. "I see you," I yelled.
Momma stared at that drawing with her eyes going furious, then scared, then dark and sad, like mirrors were shifting inside her. She clicked back to normal. Trembling, she looked down at her own hands as if she couldn't fathom being rough with Alex. She jerked the closet door open. "Baby, come out of there."
Alex bounded out, his face pale. "It's okay, Momma," he said, weaving his gaze from her to me. He looked startled but, as always, forgiving. "You were just playing."
I grabbed him and clamped the drawing to his chest, facing outward, like a shield. I glared up at Momma. The old words rose in my brain.
Paint them, trap them, burn them.
But ... who was them?
"I'll keep this drawing, Momma. Just to help you remember what you look like when you're not feeling right."
Momma sagged. "I try to tell the doctor about these ... feelings, but I can't make the words come. It's like a hand around my throat. Oh, honey, I don't want to be taken away from my family."
"I promise you, Momma, I won't tell anyone. Not so long as you behave."
Momma clutched her head in her hands and shuffled to her bedroom, as always, secluding herself behind a closed door.
I hid the drawing of the monster.
Somehow, that drawing would keep me and Alex safe from her.
At least for awhile.
I took to carrying my drawing all the time, wrapped in a plastic clingy sheet from the kitchen. I tucked it into a pocket of my shorts or jeans or, when I wore dresses, inside my panties, even as I slept.
Her spells got worse. I was outside in the back yard with her that fall, pounding little nails into our wooden fence on which to hang Christmas lights, when she suddenly turned toward me with her hammer aimed at my head, smiling. "Happy Holidays," she said in a voice like a rock grinder.
My heart froze. I didn't know what else to try so I said very quietly, "I've got that drawing on me right now."
Her hand spasmed. The hammer fell to the ground. She looked toward something only she could see. She made that grotesque hissing sound I'd heard before. Her eyes narrowed. She glared down at me. She went back inside.
I sat down on the lawn with the hammer clutched to my chest, and cried.
I felt an invisible hand stroke my head, but the comforting sensation only terrified me more. Maybe I'm turning crazy like Momma. Maybe I would start seeing people who weren't there. Maybe, when I was in a mood like hers, my eyes would gleam with a shimmer like red stars in the dark.
Go away, go away, go away, I told the hand.
And it did, but trailed gentle fingers over my face as it disappeared.
* * * *
I had to reach out to Granny. I had to try.
At night, the fields and farms of our valley spread before us like a broad moat stroked with lines of growth. Behind them, the high, round peaks of the mountains scalloped the blue-black sky. I regarded it as a secret world of terror and wonder, the future, the past, life itself, an untaught Waiting. In the twilight I listened in bewilderment to the muted sounds from my parents' bedroom, the gentle murmurs and laughter.
Was I the only one who saw Momma's dark side?
"Granny," I said on the porch one night, "One day a couple of years ago, I, uh, got this strange notion. And I drew a ... a kind of monster. You think that's weird?"
Granny Belane's hand jumped. She flicked hot, red sparks off her cigarette into the night wind. Suddenly I could imagine ghosts floating down the mountainsides and from the deepest hollows, drawn to those tiny lights. "Have you drawn any more?" she asked.
"No, just the one. But I ... one morning, before the monster painting, I woke up and saw I'd painted some words on the floor."
More sparks shivered off her cigarette. "Tell me."
I looked furtively toward the light in Momma and Daddy's bedroom window, then dropped my voice to a whisper. "Paint them. Trap them. Burn them."
Granny crushed her cigarette on the arm of her chair. She watched the glow as it faded on the wood. I could hear her breathing hard. "Is that why you threw away all your paints and brushes?"
She turned to me in the darkness. Her voice low and hard, she said, "Don't tell another soul what you just told me. I'll buy you some new art supplies. You are meant to paint whatever comes ... through you. You should paint a picture of it, good or bad. It's important. Hide the paintings under your mattress. Don't tear them up, don't throw them away. I'll find out what you're meant to do with them. Do not," she repeated, "tell anyone about this."
"W-What about the first one I drew?"
"You've kept it?"
I nodded shakily. One hand moved to the pocket of my jeans.
"Good. That one is the most..." she hesitated.
"The most what, Granny?"
She took my hand. Carefully she said, "It's a clue to what scares you the most."
Thoughts of telling her about Momma fled before a new and different fear. Granny added more weight to my worries. Her fears showed there was substance to them. I was too afraid to ask more questions.
She bought me the art supplies, and I set them on the desk in my bedroom, and at night I laid on the covers staring at them, trying not to sleep. But I couldn't stay awake forever.
I began to paint in my sleep every night. Grotesque things. Wicked animals. Creatures that didn't exist. Some more human than not. Cinderella woke me every morning, and I cleaned up the spilled paint, the smears on my hands, the brushes scattered on the floor. Shaking, every morning I aimed the flashlight at the newest horror on my art pad.
Then I hid it under my mattress, with the others.
Every time she visited, Granny looked at the collection, her face stone-cold grim. "Good work," she said.
At night I felt the paintings trying to escape from beneath me. I dreamed about them coming to life, like a horror movie I couldn't erase. My bones got tired from trying to hold the fear down.
A soft, kind voice began to soothe me in the darkness. Not really male or female, a mix of both. I stared hard into the shadows each time but no one stood there. Just the voice.
This is where it starts, again, Livia. It is meant to be.
* * * *
The next spring my beloved Daddy stumbled off a mountain cliff. He and Momma had gone up to Ludaway Ridge for a picnic on their eleventh anniversary. While she napped on a blanket, Daddy took a walk with his camera, as he often did, snapping pictures of the waterfall up there.
Somehow, he tripped and fell. By the time the volunteer fire department found him at the bottom of the falls, he was broken beyond fixing.
Momma retreated to her bedroom, her eyes like fractured silver marbles. Her grief was real; I never doubted that. It was why I never suspected her. My own heartbreak colored my view of things. I couldn't think straight. Daddy was gone.
Granny Belane, her eyes hollow with misery, moved in with us, because Momma couldn't care for me or Alex in her grieving state. Late at night I lay on the floor beside Alex's bed, where I took up guard duty after Granny went to sleep, and I heard Momma sob and shriek and mutter in hers and Daddy's bedroom.
Often she wandered the hall up to my locked room, then stopping at the open door of Alex's room, standing there for an hour or more, staring down at me on the floor, and him. Alex remained sound asleep on the bed. I remained wide awake, holding her gaze, my eyes strained to bursting, watching her dark eyes recede into her skull. Eventually she would walk back to her room slowly, methodically, her footsteps a metronome.
Eventually, I would doze, my face turned toward the doorway.
One day she didn't get out of bed. She stayed in bed for months. A psychiatrist visited from Asheville, prescribing anti-depressants and other drugs. People said she was heartbroken.
Parts of her were, yes. But the rest?
Granny sent me into Momma's room carrying her lunch on a tray, and I found Momma curled in a corner with one wrist tied with a rope to the leg of her heavy, cherry wood dresser. She lunged at me with her eyes on fire and her teeth showing like a dog's. The rope stopped her like a kennel chain, jerking her up short. She snarled at me, and yet her free hand shoved at the air, pushing me away.
"Go away, run, honey," she gasped between animal sounds. Then she collapsed in a heap. I dropped the lunch tray and ran to get Granny. She would see, she would finally see.
"Mama's having a spell!"
But when Granny rushed into the room with me on her heels, she found Momma up on her feet, wiping the mayonnaise off the floor from my spilled sandwich, gathering the potato chips.
There was no rope.
"Livia gets upset so easily these days," Momma told Granny. "I'm all right. I got out of bed. Felt a little woozy. I must've looked like I was about to faint."
I stared up at her. Was she lying or did she not remember?
Momma smiled down at me sadly. It was her, the Momma I knew. Not a lie.
The other Momma had disappeared again.
That's when I got worse about the drawing and painting. That's when I started cutting myself.
"What's wrong with you, child?" Granny Belane said wearily. "You need to talk to me. You need to tell me what you're feeling, and what makes you so worried all the time."
I shook my head. It was all locked inside me by then, too hard for sharing.
Granny squatted in front of me. Her eyes bored into mine. "You can't run from what you are any longer. You're old enough to hear the truth, now."
"What am I?" I whispered.
"A soul catcher," she said.
Without any more explanation than that, she loaded me into her truck, and we headed for answers on higher ground.
* * * *
There are energy vortexes in the Appalachians powerful enough to conjure Godzilla out of a toilet in Tokyo. The vortexes around Asheville are party central for the dispossessed.
We drove into Preacher T's yard after bouncing over at least two miles of rutted dirt road along mountain ridges only the hawks and clouds could reach. What I saw made me tremble in my jeans and Rainbow Brite t-shirt. I could feel my black braid shivering down my back.
Preacher T had giant snakes in his yard.
They crawled from the carcasses of junked cars; they slithered from the roof of his run-down cabin; they lay in sinister piles, like puppies sleeping, in the dark eye of his barn loft. Some were made of metal car parts; others were linked pieces carved from wood. All were painted in mind-blowing bands of color, the brightest house paint an old man could buy or scrounge from the county dump. All had wide, all-seeing eyes.
And all had a white crucifix painted on their heads.
"Is he plain crazy?" I asked Granny.
"No, he's one of your spirit guides," she said. "You might as well know. He's up here hiding. Or else they'd have killed him by now."
They? My head whirled. They who?
Preacher T wasn't your regular North Carolina fire-and-brimstone preacher; he wasn't a preacher at all. He painted primitive art, folk art, outsider art, some called it. Outsider art bewilders most people, and some seem convinced it's a kind of devil worship.
It offers up a double-dose of doom and weirdness, and some of the artists who create it come off like homeless schizophrenics talking to invisible beings on street corners, preaching the soul's apocalypse. For sure, Granny's folk art cronies painted some bizarre-ass demons and unholy, weeping angels and devil-things. Plus they scrawled incoherent messages on their paintings and sculptures, like warnings encrypted in rambling Bible references.
"Warnings and illumination," Granny said. "That's what this art is about." Postcards from a war zone. Most Wanted mug shots off the post office wall. Illustrations from the programming manual at GoodVersusEvil.com.
That's what I am, I thought. An Outsider artist. Way, way outside.
She locked the door of her big pickup truck and tucked a pistol in her macramé tote bag. "He's not crazy. But he's got the sight. And that makes people think he's crazy. Come on, Livia." She dragged me by the hand through that yard of huge, watchful snakes. "Don't be scared of the beast in its hard form; these hold the spirits of guardians. You can call them angels if that makes you feel better."
I didn't want to call them anything. I wanted to leave.
A huge old black man in paint-smeared overalls rose from a circle of large dogs and green-eyed cats on the cabin porch. Dark tattoos covered his arms and forehead, merging with his dark skin in places. Religious symbols and images from his art hung from every rail and rafter. I stared at spiked creatures with angel wings. They didn't look angelic to me.
The cats perched on old kitchen cabinets like the ripped-out kind you buy at salvage stores. Preacher T had painted them with symbols and strange animals. The disembodied cabinets made a fort around him. Behind him, an open screen door let me peek into a dark room crammed to the ceilings with paint cans, brushes, bolts of canvas, and tools.
"I've been waiting to meet this child a long, long time," Preacher T announced in a voice like a bear. I squinted at him. For just one moment he grew a black-bear snout and fur. "I see the light around her, Jeannie. Maybe this time she'll live long enough to become..."
Granny cut him off with a slash of her hand.
Live long enough to ... live to ... maybe this time I'd live? My head swam.
"She doesn't know what she is?" Preacher T growled.
"Godssake, Preacher, she's only ten. She needs help. I thought she had more time to grow up, but the spirit is already upon her. She's painting them, Preacher. Already. And now the girl has taken to cutting herself. Even when she's got paint on hand, she uses her own blood. She's done lots more paintings since Tom died. The other realms are already afraid of her, Preacher. I can feel them nosin' around."
"Have you got an inkling for the whereabouts of her soul hunter?"
Granny's face darkened. "No, he's lost, and I hope he stays lost. You know what it means when such as her doesn't want her soul hunter to come home. It means he betrayed her some how."
"Well, she gonna need him sooner or later."
Soul Hunter tucked itself in a distant corner of my brain, alongside Soul Catcher, not quite forgotten, but hidden under layers of worry.
Preacher T took my arm in a huge hand etched with words on the backs of every finger. PRAY. WATCH. GUARD. RESIST. He touched the fine cut marks in the cusp of my elbow. He studied me and my scabs a long time. Then he reached behind him, into a pile of whittled amulets, and pulled out an ankh on a leather thong. "This'll do for a start," he said, and slipped it around my neck.
Granny took the necklace off and handed it back. "She wears a cross, see here?" Granny lifted the small gold emblem that dangled from a chain near Rainbow Brite's cartoon face. "Here momma might be upset at un-Christian symbols. Poor Carly's got some mental ... well, she's not feeling too good since Tom died. She gets upset easy. She's always been too gentle for her own good."
Preacher T scowled. "You better find another way then. This ain't no game. The good spirits are drawn to peaceful symbols. This child needs to lure all the help she can."
"What are y'all talking about?" I asked in a low, horrified voice.
Preacher T squatted in front of me. "Livia Belane, you're special. It's a gift or a curse, but you got it, either way. I know you don't understand now, but you will, child, I'm sorry but you will. You got to be strong. There are trials and tribulations for the holy, that's what the Bible and all the other good books tell us. You remember that, whatever happens, it's the spirits trying to push you this way or that. Try to think for yourself and whatever you do, don't stop your painting. What do you see when you paint pictures, child?"
"They're monsters. I've never seen anything like them in movies or comic books. Not even in Star Wars. I'm scared to sleep. I can almost hear them. And when I do fall asleep ... that's when I paint them."
"Those are demons, child. Demons and their helpers. When you're grown up and powerful enough, you'll be able to see them outright. And not just demons. But angels, too. You'll know the difference."
"The things I paint are real?"
"Yes, baby. I'm afraid so."
Did this mean the drawing I'd made of Momma might be a demon?
I backed away. "I don't want to see them!"
Granny grabbed me and stroked my hair.
Preacher T made a soothing sound. "I know, child, but your soul chose this job for you, and it knows best." He looked at Granny. "Has she gotten any messages about her way, yet?"
Granny nodded. "She's been told to burn the paintings."
"Good." He smiled at me. "Now here's what you do, Livia. When you wake up and find that you've painted a demon during the night, you take that picture outside right quick! And you burn it."
He jerked his head toward Granny. "Your grandma'll help you with the chore. But you do it every single time, all right? 'Cause that's your way to send a demon out of this life forever. It's a banishment."
"We'll burn the paintings she's made already and all the ones from now on," Granny assured him.
"Good. What's happening, child, is that you're snaring demons in your art. Like you've set a rabbit trap in the woods, you understand? And once you catch one, don't you set it free again! No, ma'am. You got to banish it while it's trapped in your painting. Right quick."
He was telling a ten-year-old that the light behind the very air we breathe really does hold horrors. And that the green marker thing I'd drawn when I caught Momma pushing Alex into the closet might actually live inside Momma. But ... if I'd trapped her demon already, how come it was still inside her? "Are they always trapped when I paint them? They can't hurt anybody anymore?"
"If you've seen them clear enough. You just a baby, it's amazin' that you even dream 'em clear enough to catch 'em, yet."
"You mean, if my painting isn't good enough then the demon is still runnin' around loose?"
"Well, yeah, but it's like you've put a ol' chain-gang ball on its leg. It ain't able to create as much trouble. It's held back. That don't mean it can't hurt nobody, just that it can't do as much damage as it would if it weren't hobbled by your painting. But I promise you, Livia, as you get older and your vision gets stronger, you'll see 'em better than you ever wish to, and you won't just slow 'em down, you'll trap 'em permanent, and then you'll send 'em to Nothingness. If you don't, they'll kill all who you love, and lots more besides."
Nausea boiled in my throat. Momma had been the last person to see Daddy alive. I gagged. "Did demons kill my daddy?"
"Yes, baby. Your daddy is one of your spirit guides. Demons always try to pick off the spirit guides first."
I exploded. "How come he didn't see the demons?"
"Spirit guides can't see 'em the way you can. They can get a feel for 'em, but smart demons can fool a spirit guide."
"He'd fight! My daddy wasn't tricked! He fell off the high falls at Ludaway Ridge. He tripped and fell!"
Granny turned me to face her. "No, Livia," she said in a low, sad voice. "While your sweet Momma was napping, demons lured him to the cliff, and they pushed him."
I stared at her until I thought my brain would melt. No, that demon inside Momma pushed him. It's tricking you, too.
"Can a person have a demon inside them and still be a person?" I whispered.
"Sometimes. Demons can take over fully, or they can take charge just part of the time. Depends on how strong the soul is that's wrestlin' with them."
"How do you get the demon out of a person?"
Preacher T and Granny traded a dark look. Preacher T patted me on the back. "Child, you ain't no demon."
They didn't suspect my point. Good.
Granny grasped my hand. "Do you understand, Livia? Don't be thinking there's something wrong with you. You're on the side of right and good. Okay?"
I nodded. "But if somebody else has a demon inside them, how would I get it out?"
They went quiet for a minute, then Granny said bluntly, "You have to kill the person's body, and then, when the demon shows its true form, you have to see it well enough to paint it quick and then burn the picture before the demon rips you apart. It's a hard trick to master."
"That's why the child needs to find her soul hunter to stand guard for her," Preacher T said grimly.
Granny glared at him and shushed him. "I'm tellin' you, there's got to be a good reason she's alone in this. You can't trust soul hunters all the time, you know that, Preacher."
"That's not how I see it."
My heart sank. I wasn't listening to them anymore. I stood there thinking, I can't kill Momma. I can't. What if I'm wrong about her? What if she's just sick? I gulped for air. "What if ... I paint a drawing of a demon that might live inside a person? What if I burn the drawing? Doesn't that work?"
Preacher T shook his head. "No, baby. You can't banish a soul that's taken up haven in a living body of this world."
Granny stared hard in my eyes. "Don't you worry. We're gonna protect you until you're fully vested in your powers."
My breath shuddered. "Something touched me on the head last year. Something invisible. It ... patted me. Like it was trying to make me feel better. And I've heard a voice at night. Telling me it's time to begin again. It sounds like a nice ... voice."
Preacher T grunted. "Good. You got some friends out yon, child. You can't see 'em yet, but they are fightin' for you in the other realms."
I looked at Granny for confirmation. She nodded. "You don't need to ask a lot of hard questions right now, baby. Just know that you're safe, I swear to you."
No, you don't see what's inside Momma, and I do.
If Momma had a demon in her, I just better hope my drawing of it was good enough to keep that demon on a chain. When I was grown and my powers got strong enough, I'd rescue her from the demon. Somehow.
Still, the thought that Momma might be possessed was too terrible. My brain sucked it deep and hid it in scar tissue. I pulled away then stumbled across the yard, halting in the middle of Preacher T's junk-art snakes. I looked at one of them, banded in white and purple with the white cross gleaming between its black eyes, and my vision blurred, and it seemed to me, it seemed at the time, that the snake pulled back its lips and smiled at me.
Granny grabbed me up, cooing. I went nearly limp in her arms. I felt as if my eyes would roll back in my head.
"The child's heard enough," Granny told Preacher T. She nuzzled my black hair with her cheek. "All you need to do for now is learn and grow," she whispered. "And don't stop painting."
Preacher T came down from his ramshackle front porch, his animals around him. "Jeannie Belane, you protect that child with every spirit symbol you can," he boomed. "I tell you, you do it now. This world is filling up with demons and they're getting worse every day. She's got a job to do and this time, by God, she better live to do it."
"I'll find a way," Granny promised. I was staring at the purple snake again. The one who'd smiled. It smiled again. Wider.
Preacher T looked from the purple snake to me. "She's found her a friend, Jeannie. Good."
He went back inside, and when he returned he pressed a whittled miniature of the tiny purple snake into my sweating hand. At the center of its back was a bored hole with a small metal ring through it. "This little totem's name is Nahjee. That's how you say it. You spell it n-a-g-i. It's Hindu for 'snake.' Those Hindus, they say snakes are wise and know all about rebirth. Snakes shed their skins and start over. Snakes got ancient wisdom. Little Nahjee here won't steer you wrong."
Granny took off one of the many gold chains she wore, stuck its carved quartz pendant in her pocket, then threaded Nahjee onto the chain and clasped it around my neck.
The tiny wooden amulet instantly warmed the skin at the base of my throat.
"You talk to Nahjee," Preacher T said. "She'll listen. And she'll tell you things you need to know."
The snake charm seemed to move against my skin. So warm. Comforting. Strange, for a snake.
Hello, Livia, Nahjee whispered in my brain. I will help you recognize danger, I promise. Because yes, your mother is battling a demon that wants to kill you.
I vomited on myself, Preacher T, and Granny.
* * * *
Granny drove me straight to Asheville from Preacher T's home. We bounced along narrow roads that wound around mountainsides like snakes. Everything was a snake, to me. I lay against the truck's passenger door with my face against the cool glass, unmoving. I didn't tell Granny what Nahjee had said.
Granny patted my leg. "Livia, hon, try to cheer up. Souls are like a diamond you can crack open and turn into lots of smaller diamonds, but then merge it back together. We're all pieces and parts of other souls attached to the core of our own. All that matters, Livia, is how much of you is the diamond, and how much of you is a chunk of coal, only fit for burning. I promise you, you have a good mission in life. Your Daddy wants you to do what you're doing. I promise. And your poor, sweet Momma doesn't know anything about all this, and she doesn't ever need to know. So don't you worry about upsetting her."
Pieces. Parts. Diamonds. Coal. What parts of Momma are only fit for burning? My head swam.
* * * *
Asheville is necklaced by the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers. Its back streets are narrow and filled with deep shadows. Its massive and gothic downtown buildings sink their foundations into ancient trails and the lost dreams of Cherokee Indians. Many gilded and violent lives have passed through the streets and the mists along the rivers. And many of those souls were still there.
The city was just starting to recover from decades of genteel poverty, beginning in the Depression. Many shops stood empty; boarded over, many streets were wind tunnels haunted by pigeons and trash.
Granny carried me into an alley where moss clung to damp drain pipes. I looked down woozily at stepping stones set with weird patterns of beads and colored glass. We ducked into a doorway beneath the stained glass symbol of a bleeding moon.
A young woman with long blonde dreadlocks and gold lame' leggings frowned at us over her tattoo machine. She was etching a marijuana leaf on her own forearm. Granny handed her money and they talked in long, hushed words. I didn't want to hear. My eyes drifted over walls of strange designs, fascinated. Nahjee curled tight over the fast pulse in my throat.
Don't look at those, Livia, Nahjee whispered. Some of them draw banes.
I didn't know what a bane was then, but I averted my eyes anyhow. If Nahjee kept talking to me. I'd better listen. Which seemed all right, considering. The blonde woman gestured. I curled on my side atop a softly woven rug on the floor, and Granny undid my long black braid and parted it vertically down the side of my skull, just above my left ear. She plucked the hair one strand at a time. Later, when I had the courage to lift my hair and look in a mirror, I saw a naked strip two inches long and an inch wide.
My brain hummed as the tattoo needle buzzed in my ear. Tiny symbols embedded themselves in me. A cross, a Star of David, an ankh, and other symbols, some so odd that Granny drew them on paper for the tattoo artist to copy.
I was marked now, or protected, or scarred, depending on your point of view.
When I got home I slipped into Momma's room and watched her sleep. Even drugged on psychiatric meds she looked uneasy and sad. But she was Momma, not some other creature, no matter what came and went inside her.
I don't know if you can ever save her, Nahjee whispered.
I laid a hand on Momma's arm gently.
One day, when I'm strong enough, I'll try.
* * * *
We muddled along for the next few years. Momma remained sedated and distant, but except for a few worrisome moments she didn't scare me. Maybe because I could feel my own power growing; every night I painted in my sleep, and then Granny whisked the paintings away and burned them. I began to sense other spirits around me, good ones, their shapes forming in soft shadows. Still, I couldn't yet see the spirit world the way Preacher T and Granny said I would.
I was happy enough just keeping Momma's dark side under surveillance, waiting for the day when somehow I'd understand how to rescue her. Alex continued to be happy, comforting, my best friend. He began to turn handsome, like Daddy.
Then, when I was sixteen, a hiker found Preacher T beaten to death in his high-mountain yard, with all his snakes and his art in pieces around him. A month later, Granny Belane was shot in the head as she filled her truck's gas tank at a convenience store near Asheville.
The sheriff said it was robbery, but nothing was stolen.
They were gone. Both of my spirit guides, wiped out a month apart.
Was I strong enough to survive without them? Was I ready?
On the cold January night after Granny's funeral, I sat at the kitchen table watching Momma wander the room. My skin prickled. From the den came the laser-gun sounds of Street Blaster, a video game Alex and I often played. Even Alex was subdued, now. He sat in the den in his coat and dark, dressy church suit, randomly firing the controls.
"Set your blasters on 'High,' morons," a voice called with a certain mechanical sarcasm. One of the many scripted commands uttered by the game's star character, a smug, sci-fi commando named Leonidas. "Get ready to attack the tri-level dungeon through the portal."
I kept my eyes trained on Momma. "How are you feeling?" I asked, trying to stay calm. Something was definitely not right with her.
She kept her back turned. My stomach twisted as her hands roamed over the thick handles of carving knives protruding from a wooden storage block. My heart raced. I slowly pulled a notepad and a pencil from the pocket of the overcoat I hadn't yet removed.
I laid the pad on the table.
I picked up the pencil.
Don't make me draw your demon, Momma.
Suddenly the air filled with shadowy forms, electrified.
"Kittycat," a voice shouted. It was Leonidas, the video game character. Kittycat was my screen name.
A video game character was yelling my video game name at me from the computer.
"What the heck?" Alex called. "Okay, Sis, how did you manage to program Leo to say your name?"
"Livia," Leonidas shouted. "Your mother has lost the game. The demon has taken over. Kittycat, your mother is gone forever. Get ready to fight."
The thing inside Momma's body turned to face me, a knife in her hand. An ice-cold breeze froze my skin.
Then the demon hissed and leapt at me.
* * * *
I came to a quarter of a mile away, in a neighbor's rural yard, with my hair in singed hunks around my face and the skin peeling off my burned feet. My feet were bare and blistered. I swayed and hugged myself, kneeling, sobbing, broken, ruined, dazed.
Paint them, trap them, burn them, kill them. Alex, Momma. I'm so sorry.
That's what I was chanting when the sheriff and the paramedics found me.
* * * *
Firemen dug Momma's charred body out of the kitchen, along with Alex's. I couldn't tell anyone the truth; they wouldn't have believed me. That an unspeakably obscene creature had emerged from my mother's physical body, that I had dodged into my bedroom just barely ahead of its lethal grasp. That it had ripped my brother's chest open as he'd tried to defend me, and that the creature vaporized after I pulled a childhood drawing from my pocket and set it on fire with a cigarette lighter.
Nope. Not a believable defense.
Even I began to think I'd only dreamed seeing a demon, that I must be psychotic, though Nahjee kept telling me otherwise. I wouldn't listen, couldn't think straight. The authorities decided I was mentally ill and therefore, innocent of criminal charges. The forensics seemed to back up my claim that our mother stabbed Alex, but also indicated the fire was all my doing.
So they sent me to a psychiatric institution way over in the flatlands of Chapel Hill, where researchers from the university gave me heavy doses of anti-psychotics that still didn't keep me from painting demons with my own blood at night. I willed myself to never see another one in the flesh. Nahjee whispered to me from time to time, her tone sad. Even if you do not allow yourself to see them, they are still there.
"I paint them when I sleep. That's crazy enough," I told her.
Finally, after a couple of years, the doctors gave up, judged me harmless to anyone but myself, and let me out.
They were right. I could only harm myself.
* * * *
I wandered to Asheville and lived on the streets, selling my hand-painted postcards of local scenes. It wasn't so bad being diagnosed as completely, totally delusional. I was used to it now. A highly functional schizophrenic. Possibly homicidal, but innocent by reason of insanity.
Better to explain my weird shit in those terms than to think the things I saw and did were rational reactions to my terrible memories, the questions that would never be answered, the everyday reality. Otherwise I'd end up gumming my oatmeal in a padded room again or dead under a bridge near a homeless shelter. No biggie.
I could handle self-destruction, either way. I tried to kill myself about a dozen times, but my hallucinations kept interfering. Angels, right. Hands that tugged and pulled me away from the gutter. Nahjee soothing, Time will tell. You will find your way again. I just didn't have the guts to off myself in a competent way. I'd have to keep practicing.
In the meantime, I collected tattoos like a squirrel collects nuts. I wanted to disappear under protective symbols so my imaginary friends and enemies couldn't see me hiding.
Soon images covered both my arms from shoulders to wrists. Cherubs, skulls. Momma and Alex's names, and Daddy's, Preacher T's and Granny Belane's. Celtic eternity knots, and Hindu symbols for protection. Barbed wire and daggers. Snakes, lots of snakes. And my favorite line from the 23rd Psalm. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
Many of the tattoos hid scars. Slash marks. A streak of burned skin inside my right wrist, from the fire.
And then there were the piercings: five in the right ear, six in the left. I mostly filled the holes with simple little gold studs. Hey, a girl has to be conservative to keep her professional look, right? Especially at night, when the demons still came.
Over the years I'd tried the obvious solution to stop painting demons in my sleep. I locked myself into bathrooms. Handcuffed myself to beds. Handcuffed myself to men I fucked so I wouldn't have to sleep alone. I sat on park benches all night, playing checkers with the street people, beating African drums, me and the homeless and the stoners and the other lost souls.
It never worked. When I was in a trance I used whatever made a mark. Ketchup, barbecue sauce, mud, soap. Or, deprived of all else, my own blood. Old childhood habits are hard to break. When you're in a trance the surface of your skin parts under your teeth and fingernails like a fine seam. I never felt the pain until I woke up the next morning with a new gash in my arm and something awful and bloody staring at me from the nearest paintable surface.
But I hadn't suffered any more wide-awake hallucinations like the night of the fire. Just the dream-paintings. Nothing came shuffling after me and tried to squeeze between the molecules of my bedroom door.
Nope. I was cured of all that.
But I knew in my heart that the darkness, filled with demons, would continue closing in.