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MERCILESS BEAUTY, continued

"So, you care about this one, do you? Perhaps I was wrong about you, daughter. I can only blame myself, I suppose. But following me into the dreaming…that was a mistake I can never forgive. If my brother had been in residence instead of foolishly trapped in the waking world, your unlicensed entry would have caught his attention in a moment, and then where would we be, hm?"

"Wh-what do you mean…the dreaming?" Gil asked, puzzled.

"You were just there. Have you forgotten already, mortal? And how then did you think she arrived here from Kansas?"

Gil looked at Carolyn. "I did wonder…"

The figure shook its head sadly at Carolyn. "Too bad. I had hopes for you, daughter. But I see now I had better place my hope elsewhere. My brother will return to his realm one day, and there are other places where your gift would better suit my plans."

She moved forward and looked into Carolyn's eyes,lifted her chin with one hand. "A kiss, then, and farewell." When their lips met, Carolyn's eyes flew open. She tried to break away, struggling for a moment, then seemed to give in. When the woman released her, Carolyn hid her face and slumped to the ground. The woman laughed, eyes sparkling with energy, then turned and walked away. A moment later it was as if she had never been there, and I had an arm around Carolyn, trying to comfort her heaving sobs.

Gil and I looked at one another, then looked away. I was filled with great sadness, but I didn't know why. The wind blew last year's leaves around at our feet, and the birds began their dawn chorus. A moment later a police car came up the road, slowed, and stopped beside us, lights flashing.

We let Gil do all the talking, and he rose to the occasion. He told the story of the flat tire, and the walk over the mountain with such reasoned calm that it even sounded sensible to me. It was the finest acting I had ever seen from him. We were bundled into the back of the patrol car for the short ride to Gil's house, where the officer left us with a friendly warning not to try it again.

Sitting on Gil's front steps, the house still asleep, I glanced at Carolyn, and realized she looked different somehow. Then I knew. Her skin had lost that pale, translucent quality, and had instead a healthy pink glow that I should have found more attractive, but somehow didn't. She glanced at me quickly, fearfully, and I saw that her eyes were no longer that tawny golden brown, but an ordinary pale blue.

"What is it, James?" she asked, voice trembling. Where before it had always seemed low and sexy to me, now it was hoarse and harsh.

"Nothing, Carolyn. Nothing." But I was lying, and she knew it. You might think that, in my callous youth, I was put off by these surface differences, but it was more than that. All the feelings I had had for Carolyn were washed away, leaving me looking at her as if she were a stranger, wondering to myself what all the fuss had been about. She whirled to her feet and ran inside. I didn't try to stop her. Whatever had been between us was over.

Gil and I had little to say to each other; we were worn out. He invited me in to breakfast, and some coffee, which helped a little. A few hours later a sleek, expensive car pulled into the driveway.

Carolyn's father seemed nice enough when we invited him in, though he thought the way to befriend us was to offer each of us several crisp one-hundred-dollar bills for "taking care of my darlin'," as he put it. I was offended, and told him to keep it, but Gil looked at the money for a moment, then put it in his pocket.

"I'm sure my parents will appreciate your generosity, Mr. Ashe," he said, rolling his eyes a little at me.

Carolyn came out, and greeted her father a bit uncertainly. She must have gotten some sleep; she looked better than us. He hugged her warmly, and they went out to the porch to talk. Later we heard her go to the rec room and come up with her bag.

"I'm leaving, Gilly," she called, and we went out to see her off. She gave Gil a kiss and a nice thank you. To me she said goodbye with a false smile, for appearances, but kept her distance. They climbed into the car and drove off. I'm ashamed to admit I felt some relief. She looked back once, briefly, and her eyes were sad. I never saw her again.

Our midnight walk became a favorite story for Gil. When we had repaired the damage to our various friendships, and regular gatherings began once more, I heard him tell it several times in such a humorous style that even I had to laugh. But he always left out the tower, and said we had eluded the guys by staying off the road until eventually they gave up, and the policeman found us. One time I tried to tell him the way I remembered it, and he just sat and looked at me with an odd expression. When I was done, he let me know quietly that I must have been having a hallucination or walking dream. He didn't remember any of it.

I'm not sure why I do, why I remember it so vividly when Gil does not, but there's one more small incident that may provide a clue. As we were sitting in the patrol car listening to Gil explain it all to the cop, I happened to glance up. The raven was perched there, watching. Our eyes connected for a moment, he bobbed his head once, as if to acknowledge our acquaintance, and then glided silently into the woods.

Things change. In the late 70s, the farm fields and most of Sligh Mountain became a massive housing development, replacing rural charm with suburban sprawl, and destroying many of the best-loved places of my childhood. Fortunately I had moved away before then.

The last we heard of Carolyn, which was long ago, she was living in the midwest somewhere, raising a family.

Gil went out to Hollywood for a few years, and had some success — you may find the name Gilbert McKenna in the small credits of 70s TV shows now and then — but never landed the big parts that would have made a career of it. He went back to school, got a teaching degree, and found a good life for himself at a community college near Portland, Oregon.

As for me, I'm a design director for an ad agency in Manhattan. Though I don't get much chance to be truly creative, and haven't picked up a paintbrush in years, it's a comfortable living for my wonderful wife and I, thank you very much, and I have to say I'm quite happy.

I still have the cheap guitar, though, and every once in a while I sit alone in the twilight, picking out the old tunes, and thinking about what happened to us that evening when we walked out of the world we knew, and into the dreaming. That person we met on the road, whose cruel smile still haunts my dreams — was she goddess, demon, nightmare…or something else? The thing that most troubles me is this: what if there's a reason I remember…if it's not over? I fall asleep each evening with a certain vague unease, and rarely see a large black bird without a brief moment of panic. And I never, ever, go into the woods at night.

The End

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