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Donít you just hate it when sisters and girlfriends just canít get a long?




by Nora M. Mulligan



††††††††††† "I want to know what you've done to my brother," said Carol, folding her arms and scowling at the woman who lounged on the couch before her."The police are also interested."


††††††††††† The other woman laughed, a rich, almost silken, sound of amusement."You should not lie to me, Carol, daughter of Helena, because I am more intelligent than you believe.The police are not interested in your brother.If you have gone to them first, they have told you that there is no evidence of foul play, is that not right?"The woman, absurdly named Duse, spoke in a low, almost husky voice with just the trace of a Mediterranean accent that Carol couldn't quite place.Italian?Greek?


††††††††††† "I did go to the police.I filed a missing person report," said Carol firmly.†† "They know he's gone."


††††††††††† "But they will not do anything about it," said the other woman, smiling."He is an adult, and entitled to leave his home and his job if he so desires.Then, too, he has a history, does he not, of disappearing from time to time and then reappearing?They will be unlikely to take your concerns seriously, given Adam's past."


††††††††††† Carol felt her anger rising in her chest.Damn the woman, she thought.How did she know this much?†† What had Adam told her?††† "I know he was sleeping with you. Where is he?What did you do to him?"


††††††††††† Duse sat up, studying Carol for a few seconds."You are resourceful," she said, "to have found me at all.Whom did you ask?His friends?I did not meet them.That was his desire, you understand."She smiled, merely the corners of her mouth rising slightly.Her dark brown, almost black, eyes shone with a deeper amusement."Nor did I visit him on his job.I thought few had known anything about us.And yet, here you are." She gestured around the elegant living room, her wave taking in the whole of the expensive house in one sweep.


††††††††††† Carol didn't feel inclined to tell this woman about the letter she'd received from Adam, two days before.†† "I found you," Carol said."So you had better believe that I can find out what you did to him."


††††††††††† "That," said the other woman, smiling and running one hand through her thick, luxuriant black hair, "I do not believe.Your brother told you about me, did he not?†† But he did not tell you everything, and what he told you is not enough."


††††††††††† "What have you done with him?Where is he?I want to see him, to talk to him."


††††††††††† "Why?" asked Duse lazily."What would you ask?"


††††††††††† Carol's eyes burned with tears of grief or rage or some potent combination."I want to make sure he's all right.I want him to tell me himself that he's all right."


††††††††††† Duse closed her eyes and tilted her head back for a few seconds.Then she opened her eyes and smiled at Carol, and Carol felt she had never hated anyone as much as she hated Duse right now."He told you that he was all right.He asked you not to come and look for him."


††††††††††† Carol clutched her upper arms tighter, furious and afraid at the same time."How do you know what he told me?†† Did you see his letter?"


††††††††††† "No," said Duse, her voice gentle now, "I have never seen the letter he wrote you.But he has told me what he said in it.Why will you not take him at his word?"


††††††††††† "Did you tell him to write that, to get me to leave you alone?Did you think I wouldn't look for him, that you'd be able to do whatever you wanted to him?"


††††††††††† Duse studied Carol for a few seconds."He loves you very much, his older sister who has spent her life looking after him, even when he has not asked to be looked after."She looked down so that her hair, unusually long and thick, fell over her shoulders."Even when he has asked you not to look after him."


††††††††††† "He's my brother.He's my responsibility," said Carol.She could hear her mother's constant refrain during Carol's childhood.


††††††††††† "He is an adult," said Duse, "and he has made his choice.I am sorry that you cannot accept that."


††††††††††† "My brother has disappeared," said Carol, struggling to keep from exploding with fury."He hasn't been home for two weeks. He hasn't been to his job in three.Nobody has talked to him in the last two weeks.Nobody has heard from him."


††††††††††† "Not even you?" asked Duse lightly.


††††††††††† "As you seem to already know, he sent me a letter.I only received it a few days ago."


††††††††††† "It was written much earlier," said Duse.


††††††††††† Carol grabbed the other woman by the shoulders, crushing Duse's flesh in her fingers."Damn you, what have you done with him?If he's alive, show him to me!And if you've hurt him, if you've hurt one hair on his head, I'll -- "


††††††††††† Duse raised her hands and broke Carol's grip with one touch."You will what?Kill me?Have me arrested?Surely you can see how equivocal your position is.I have done nothing wrong.You have come to my house, making wild accusations, screaming, threatening me.You are the one in the wrong here, and the police would see it that way, were you to call upon them."


††††††††††† Carol couldn't understand how the other woman had done it.Duse had hardly moved, and yet, Carol's hands still tingled with pins and needles."You know where my brother is," she said.


††††††††††† "Yes."


††††††††††† "Is he alive?"


††††††††††† "He is not dead," said Duse after a few seconds' thought.


††††††††††† "What does that mean?Don't play games with me!I need to know!"


††††††††††† "Sit down, Carol, daughter of Helena.Sit down and look at me.The chair behind you is a comfortable one.Look at me.Tell me what you see."


††††††††††† Despite herself, Carol dropped into the chair.It was comfortable, so she held herself rigidly on the very edge, refusing to yield anything to Duse."I see a woman in her forties, perhaps her early fifties, rich, spoiled, used to getting her own way.I see a woman who thinks she can get away with anything she chooses to do.I see a woman who's intelligent enough to -- to choose someone like my brother, and foolish enough to think there would be no consequences arising from whatever she's done to him."


††††††††††† Duse smiled indulgently. "Is that all you see?†† Watch, daughter of Helena."


††††††††††† She closed her eyes slowly and ran her fingers through her long hair, separating it into locks, draping the locks over her breasts.She opened her eyes and looked at Carol expectantly and intently, as if she thought she would see something different in Carol.


††††††††††† "You're beautiful," said Carol reluctantly."Even though you're much older than Adam, that must be what drew him.He probably didn't even notice your age.He's like that."


††††††††††† "Is that all you see?" Duse asked again, disappointed.


††††††††††† "What are you looking for?What do you want me to say?"


††††††††††† Duse sighed then and brought her hair behind her, smoothing it down gently."Adam talked about you.He told me of the many times you have rescued him.He said that you consider him a dreamer, a man ill suited for this world, this life.He said that you believe he will never grow up, never be capable of taking responsibility.He said that you look down on him, secretly, and that you tire of saving him, though you constantly rush to his supposed rescue."


††††††††††† "Has he told you about all the troubles he's gotten himself into?Has he told you about how often he got himself evicted because he lent his rent money to some jerk with a sad story and a claim of friendship?Has he told you about the number of jobs he's had and lost?Has he told you about the relationships he keeps slipping into and falling out of?†† How well do you think you know him, talking about 'supposed' rescues?"


††††††††††† "Better, in some ways, than you do.He described you to me, and so when you appeared at my door tonight, I knew who you must be.I could see the righteousness burning in your every line, the practicality on which you pride yourself glowing like a self-imposed halo."She stood, gracefully, and walked past Carol to one of the floor length windows that looked out onto the magnificent garden Carol had seen on her way into the house."Your brother could see things that you cannot.He looked at me and saw what few men have ever seen. And you, even with my assistance, can see nothing in me except an older woman, beautiful but ruthless.You see nothing.You are a child of your age, Carol, and your brother was fortunate enough to be different."


††††††††††† "Was?"Carol leaped to her feet, lunged for Duse."You said he 'was' fortunate enough!Where is he?What have you done with him?Tell me, or by God, I'll kill you!"


††††††††††† Duse stepped lightly aside, so that Carol nearly ran through the window."And then you will never find out, will you?"


††††††††††† "You're not going to tell me anyway!So why shouldn't I kill you?I know that you've done something to him.I know that you've stolen him, and I know that he's -- he's not around anymore."Carol's throat nearly closed at those words.She hadn't acknowledged it to herself until that moment, but she knew, now, that he was dead and she would never see him again.She felt a sob rising like an air bubble in her chest, forcing its way upward.She turned away from Duse.


††††††††††† Duse touched Carol lightly on the back, between her shoulder blades."You may weep before me, Carol.You are not the first."


††††††††††† She's crazy, Carol thought.She's insane and I'm here in this large house, out in the middle of nowhere, alone with her.The touch on her back felt soothing, as if Duse had reached inside Carol and released the sob so that it heated Carol's entire body.†† "Are you saying that you've done this before?" Carol managed to choke out.


††††††††††† "Yes," said Duse, surprising Carol no end."There are many men, over the years, who have joined me in this way.Many, many men."She sighed, and for a second Carol thought it was a sound of regret.When Carol turned to see Duse's face, though, she realized that that sigh had been one of contentment."He is not dead, any more than any of them is dead.And you can see him again, if you can find him."


††††††††††† The sound of Duse's words echoed in the high-ceilinged room."I don't believe you," said Carol.She knew as she said it that she was playing a dangerous game, the rules of which she didn't understand.This woman was probably a murderer, possibly a serial killer of some sort, and probably insane.It was stupid to speak to her as if she were a rational person, and yet Carol couldn't seem to help herself."Why would you tell me where he is?You have to know that I would bring the police here and have you arrested in a heartbeat."


††††††††††† "Ah, no, Carol, daughter of Helena, I know something different.I know that if you find him, you will not be able to have me arrested.You may bring the police if you like, but they will see nothing and understand nothing."


††††††††††† What did that mean?Carol didn't know whether Duse was threatening to kill her to prevent her from talking to the police.Carol's skin prickled with fear."All right," said Carol, her voice tight, "tell me where to look for him, then."


††††††††††† Duse gestured out the window."He is there, in the garden, with the other men.He is happy there, as are they all.You may look for him, if it will soothe your heart, because you will not believe me when I tell you that he chose his place, out of love."


††††††††††† Carol gazed into the other woman's eyes.She believed that Duse was telling the truth, though she couldn't have said why she was so convinced.If Carol's intuition were right, then she would indeed be able to find Adam, though it wouldn't be pleasant.The ground had been frozen for weeks.Carol would have no trouble finding the place where he had been buried.


††††††††††† "I told you, he is not dead," said Duse gently."And because you cannot see me truly, you will not see him truly either."


††††††††††† "You let me be the judge of that," said Carol."I'm going to look for him, and you're not going to stop me."


††††††††††† "I do not want to stop you."Duse opened the French door and gestured to the outdoors.


††††††††††† Carol was afraid for a second that as soon as she turned her back on the other woman, Duse would kill her, but she remembered the way Duse had touched her back moments before.No, thought Carol, whatever she's doing here, it's nothing as simple as that.


††††††††††† She walked out into the frosty evening air.The door closed behind her, and when Carol glanced back, she saw Duse standing by the window, backlit, her hair so thick and wild that it seemed to be moving.


††††††††††† A stone path led from the house to the garden.There were no electric lights along the way, but the full moon turned the stones white, except where the shadows of the bare tree limbs crossed the stones.


††††††††††† Carol started walking slowly, but she found herself speeding up.She stopped, out of breath, where the path narrowed, became jeweled rather than utilitarian, a ribbon of mosaics leading between the tortured evergreens and the odd statues.†† She suddenly felt reluctant to enter, afraid of what she would find, suspicious of Duse's motives in sending her here.Images of childhood Saturday night horror movies filled her head, and she remembered how she and Adam had yelled to the characters to stay out of the empty basement, the scary woods, but the characters had never listened to them.


††††††††††† Adam.The memory of him renewed her resolve.She took a deep, shuddering breath, and walked in.


††††††††††† The air felt different there.It was still cold and sharp enough to hurt when she inhaled too deeply, but it tasted strange, musty, with a hint of some forgotten perfume, a spice from an exotic restaurant passed on the street.


††††††††††† The pine trees were unlike any Carol had ever seen before: squat near their bases, then shooting up like young maples, and then branching out here and there, the limbs like arms.The trees hadn't been cut or sculpted to create this effect; they appeared to have grown this way.


††††††††††† She wouldn't have been surprised to see classical style statues, nudes or near nudes, graceful and old-fashioned.But these statues, distributed randomly, were not representational.She looked at the first one, and saw just a block of marble, tall and slim; after staring at it for a while, she thought she could see that it had been carved in some way, some slight alterations made to the block to give a suggestion of limbs, a body, a head.If she looked at it from a different angle, it reverted to mere abstraction.The longer she looked at it, the uneasier she felt.


††††††††††† She had the same reaction to the other sculptures as she walked purposefully through the garden.She couldn't even decide if they were attractive, or interesting.She couldn't tell, half the time, if the sculptor had intended to give them some semblance of the human form.Something would strike her as being like a head, or like a hand, but, upon looking more closely, she would doubt her own evaluation.


††††††††††† She wasn't interested in the sculptures or the trees, but in the ground.She studied that, dropping to her hands and knees from time to time, looking for signs that the ground had been disturbed recently.†† She found nothing.


††††††††††† She lied to me, Carol thought as she returned to the garden's entrance.†† He's not here.He was never here.I fell for it because I wanted to believe that I would find him, that I would be able to avenge him, or obtain justice for him, and I've failed.†† Carol stood staring into the garden, the moonlight creating odd shadows on the sculptures, the trees seeming to reach out for them, and she hated the place, she hated Duse, and she hated herself for her helplessness.The tears that had been lurking in her eyes for most of her confrontation with Duse now slipped out, burning her cheeks on their way.


††††††††††† She would never see him again.This crazy woman had done away with him, and Carol would never find him, never learn what happened to him.She would have only her memories and that letter, that last letter he ever wrote, telling her not to look for him.Adam, she thought, I should have kept in touch with you more, I should have watched out for you, and now you're gone.


††††††††††† Perhaps the tears blurred her vision.Perhaps a slight breeze swayed one of the pine trees in the far section of the garden.Carol saw something shift, ever so slightly.The house was behind Carol.The movement couldn't have come from Duse.Without knowing why, Carol ran to the other end of the garden, where she had seen, or thought she'd seen, something moving.


††††††††††† Everything was still as stone. For a second, the moonlight cast strange shadows on the sculpture before her.A second later, the sculpture was again a tall block of marble, with few signs of human working, but in that brief glimpse, those shadows had given it an expression like Adam's when he was absorbed in something he enjoyed, a video game, his favorite music.Carol caught her breath in hope, and then released it slowly.


††††††††††† "You must love him much," said Duse, quietly, from behind her.Carol whirled around, startled and frightened.She hadn't heard Duse approach."You cannot see me truly, but you could find your brother.Of course, he called to you, and that made it possible, but it was your love that showed him to you."


††††††††††† "What are you talking about?" Carol asked her heart pounding and her voice thin with fear.She was not, at that moment, afraid for herself; she felt, oddly, afraid for Adam."Where is he?Tell me what you've done to him!"


††††††††††† "He is here," said Duse.She caressed the statue, her fingers gentle and knowing."He wants you to see him, and he does not want you to be afraid.I will try," she said to the statue.She turned to face the statue, and ran both hands over its surface, and as Carol watched, she thought of a lover exploring her beloved, and the image brought her goose bumps.


††††††††††† Seconds later, a veil seemed to lift between Carol and the statue, and she gasped, in horror, in amazement, in awe.No longer was it a block of marble, abstract and odd.Adam stood there, perfectly captured in stone, his eyes wide with wonder, that little smile curling around his lips.†† He didn't look at Carol at first, but at Duse, and Carol had never seen Adam with such an expression.She had to stare at him for what seemed like an age before she identified his emotion: adoration, love beyond anything she had ever known him to experience, beyond anything she had ever experienced herself.


††††††††††† "Adam," she whispered, and the air blurred as with a fog, and when it cleared, he was looking at her, smiling sheepishly, the way he always did when she caught him doing something dangerous or stupid."My God, it's you, but it can't be you, it can't -- ď She reached out a hesitant hand and touched his arm.It was marble, cold and smooth.


††††††††††† As if her touch had broken the spell, the statue now appeared as she had first seen it: tall and slim, suggestive but not representational, a block of stone barely touched by the sculptor's art.


††††††††††† "He is with me always," said Duse simply, "and I am with him.He will never die, any more than the others will ever die.They are together, the ones I love, the ones who love me, who have seen me truly.†† It is what he wants."


††††††††††† "No!" Carol screamed.She felt as if something had broken inside her chest, and now she had to explode.She threw herself at Duse, hitting, clawing, as if she were a wild animal who would tear the woman to pieces with her fingers and teeth.


††††††††††† Duse was stronger than Carol expected yet again. She caught Carol's hands and brought them to the statue, where she held them, touching the marble.


††††††††††† Carol's head filled with memories of Adam, as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, all his moods, all the things he did that frustrated her, all the things he did that endeared him to her.Her love, her anger, her frustration, her resentment, her pain, combined and flowed through her, out through her fingers, onto the stone.


And then she felt his response: her head filled with his memories of her, their childhood companionship, his resentment of her interference mingled with his gratitude for her help, and the overpowering, breathtaking wonder of his meeting with Duse, his love for her, his closeness to her and to the other men here and in the other gardens Duse tended.


††††††††††† She felt then her urgent need to save him from this, to bring him home to his old life, to the real world, but as she tried to send this feeling through to the stone, it turned cold and hard again.


††††††††††† She dropped her hands and stepped back from the stone.There was no evidence of Adam there, no sign of the personality that had just touched her, but she knew.


††††††††††† "Do you see," asked Duse gently, "why I told you that the police would find nothing here?"


††††††††††† Carol couldn't trust her voice."I want to go home now," she said shakily."I have to go home.I have to get out of here!"


††††††††††† "Of course," said Duse."I will show you the way."


††††††††††† "No," Carol said quickly."No, I know the way.I can find my own way home."Suddenly she was more afraid of Duse than she had been when she thought the other woman was a psychopathic serial killer.Her throat tightened with the imminence of panic.


††††††††††† "Very well," said Duse, the beginnings of a smile touching her lips, her eyes."Safe return, Carol, sister of Adam."


††††††††††† Carol turned unsteadily and began walking toward the exit from the garden.She wouldn't allow herself to run until she had reached the lawn proper.Then she knew she would throw caution to the winds and race for her car until her lungs burned and the world blurred in her vision, but not yet, not while Duse was still watching her.


††††††††††† She had reached the garden's exit when she heard the first tiny hiss behind her.