01 March 2015

Excerpt from "Living Beyond the End"

An excerpt from a later chapter of my novel in progress

Campus Life…
Danielle was sitting across from Xander at a table in Tiger Den. Her stuffed tomato tuna salad was barely touched. She was absorbed in the drawing she was laboring over — a portrait of Xander. It was, of course, a stunning piece, his portrait faithfully accurate, down to the blemish he’d tried to comb his hair down over his forehead to hide. Xander, his own decimated lunch sitting on the inside edge of the table, was continuing to hold the pose, himself absorbed in the content of the drawing. Again, there in the background, was the angel-figure… a nebulous, angel-winged silhouette… somehow familiar and… well, just… right somehow.

Barnabas plopped into the booth next to her, just scootching her over in mid-stroke, causing her to make a smudging stain across top edge of the angel-figure. Her head snapped around to him, but her rebuke passed unspoken. Instead, she threw up her hand and waved Annabelle over just before the girl could take a table alone in the corner. Xander slid over to make room for her. She set her tray down next to him, then slid a chair up to the end of the table, before sliding into the booth. As she slid in, Xander thought he heard her say under her breath, seemingly to the chair, “You’re welcome.” She saw him watching her, and made a show of hanging her book bag and purse over the chair back. 

“Great idea, Annabelle!” Barnabas declared. He snatched up his own bag, carelessly dropped on the floor next the booth, and flung it on the seat with a clattering plop. Annabelle gasped and shot him a venomous look. The book bag tumbled, untouched, off the seat and back onto the floor. Barnabas shuddered, went a little pale for a moment, then nudged the bag under the chair with a sneakered toe and slouched in his seat, in a defensive attitude.

“Are you ready for jury, Barnabas?” Annabelle asked before Xander or Danielle could ask about that little byplay. “What did you choose for your monologue?”

“I’m thinkin’, ‘Manfred,’ by Byron.” He muttered belligerently. But, he sat up a little straighter. “I figure, Heatherington’ll go big for it.” 

“Didn’t you do that monologue in Summer Stock?” she continued.

Warming to his favorite theme — himself — Barnabas enthused over his reviews from those performances. In no time, he’d recovered his smarmy cheerfulness. He stood up and struck a pose, delivering the monologue flawlessly, in full voice, right there in the middle of Tiger Den, captivating the entire massive room:

“Thou false fiend, thou liest!
My life is in its last hour—that I know,
Nor would redeem a moment of that hour;
I do not combat against Death, but thee
And thy surrounding angels; my past power
Was purchased by no compact with thy crew,
But by superior science—penance, daring,
And length of watching, strength of mind, and skill
In knowledge of our Fathers—when the earth
Saw men and spirits walking side by side,
And gave ye no supremacy: I stand
Upon my strength—I do defy—deny—
Spurn back, and scorn ye!—
What are my crimes to such as thee?
Must crimes be punished but by other crimes,
And greater criminals?—Back to thy hell!
Thou hast no power upon me, that I feel;
Thou never shalt possess me, that I know:
What I have done is done; I bear within
A torture which could nothing gain from thine:
The Mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts—
Is its own origin of ill and end—
And its own place and time: its innate sense,
When stripped of this mortality, derives
No colour from the fleeting things without,
But is absorbed in sufferance or in joy,
Born from the knowledge of its own desert.
Thou didst not tempt me, and thou couldst not tempt me;
I have not been thy dupe, nor am thy prey—
But was my own destroyer, and will be
My own hereafter.—Back, ye baffled fiends!
The hand of Death is on me—but not yours!”

With a flourishing close of his hand across his face to below his chin, his fist coming to rest upon his chest, Barnabas bowed his head dramatically. The cafeteria erupted with the sound of enthusiastic applause, including Xander, Danielle, and Annabelle. He took an expressively theatrical bow in the cardinal directions. Then, he sat back in the booth, with his normal oozing coolness. He looked Xander in the eye, then landed a smotheringly passionate kiss on Danielle’s lips. 

She scrunched herself back from his embrace, picking up her pastels and studiously correcting her drawing. Barnabas smirked at Xander and draped his arm around Danielle’s shoulder. Xander sat fuming, wondering why this peacock was still around, why he didn’t just ooze back into the sewer he slimed out of. 

Suddenly, the glass of sweet tea in front of Barnabas just slammed over, and the liquid shot out of it and all over him. He jumped up, startled and locked a dagger-eyed glare on Annabelle, who was choking with laughter, while Xander sniggered. “You did that on purpose, you psycho!”

The laughter died, “What? Man, she didn’t touch it,” Xander proclaimed. Annabelle just glared back at Barnabas.

Danielle interjected worriedly, “Barnabas… please. It just fell over.”

Barnabas broke the locked glare, turning to Danielle. He breathed out heavily, calling on some deep reserve of self-important cool as he said, “Yeah. Guess I overreacted.” He turned back to Annabelle with a look that was anything but friendly, “Sorry ‘bout takin’ it out on you.” He turned back to Danielle, Barnabas wiped futilely at the wet, sticky mess of his clothes, and said with an affected, sheepish smile, “I’ll catch you later, Babe.” When he was out of sight, the three of them broke into prolonged laughter.

Later that day, Danielle was helping Jenny Lynn at the campus bookstore. Jenny Lynn was graduating high school a semester early, in December, and had earned a full scholarship to good old U of M. She’d come to spend Halloween weekend with Danielle and get her registration and dormitory assignment squared away. But, they’d gotten side-tracked looking over the costumes marked down for clearance. Jenny Lynn, in a Steampunk inspired, sexy, mad-scientist costume with a purple and green lace garter belt and black fishnet stockings, was trying to coax Danielle out of the dressing room. “Come on, Sis, I promise you look awesome…”

“I feel half-naked,” Danielle replied, peeping around the door. “This skirt barely covers my butt… I feel like I’m pouring outta the top!” She finally stepped around the door, and over to the three-way mirror.

Annabelle and Xander, meeting them for lunch, arrived a bit early just at that moment. Annabelle clasped her hands together, like a prayer, in her most animated fashion and said, “Whoa.” Xander’s jaw dropped. He just stood there a moment before realizing his mouth was still open; he snapped it shut and cleared his throat, awkwardly looking for somewhere safer to rest his gaze. Jenny Lynn sniggered and Danielle blushed.

“That’s it, I’m gettin’ outta this get up,” Danielle declared. She ducked back into the dressing room.

Xander cleared his throat again, licked his suddenly dry lips and swallowed before saying, “No, Danny. You look… you looked good… you should get that for the party tonight… really.” 

Danielle called from the dressing room, “Oh… whatever, okay then… if you think so, Xander.”

Jenny Lynn sniggered and elbowed him. He looked down at her in passing and said, “Cute nerd costume, Jen.” He motioned vaguely in Annabelle’s direction, “This is Annabelle. Annabelle, this is Jenny Lynn — she’s one of Danny’s sisters.”

“Oh, yes…” Annabelle put out a hand in greeting, “…the Mathlete.”

Jenny Lynn shook her hand. “Hi, nice to meet you. I like your costume,” she said, unaware that Annabelle wasn’t wearing a costume. “You’re goin’ as a bride of Dracula, right?”

“Umm… sure,” Annabelle replied.

“Cool!” Jenny Lynn turned, looking up and down Xander’s towering frame, and said with a rude snigger, “You should go as a tree, Xan,”

He pulled a face and stuck his tongue out at her as Barnabas joined them, already in his Jekyll and Hyde costume. Jenny Lynn noticed him so obviously that Xander and Annabelle both blushed for her. Jenny Lynn gushed, “Oh! Wow! That’s the greatest Jekyll and Hyde costume ever!” 

Barnabas raised a condescending eyebrow at her, and smirked confidently, “Of course it is, little girl.” Jenny Lynn’s expression fell.

When he was introduced to her, Barnabas gave only the most perfunctory attention to her. He dropped her from his attention entirely when Danielle came out of the dressing room, still wearing the tiger-ear headband from her costume. He side-stepped smoothly up next to her, flourishing his cloak theatrically, and stroked the tiger costume draped over her arm, “Purr-err, Babe.”

By now, Jenny Lynn was squinting cuttingly at Barnabas. She inserted herself between him and her sister, “Danielle, what’re we gonna do about a costume for Xan?” Danielle let herself be led away to the costume rack again, and Jenny Lynn grabbed hold of Xander’s hand, dragging him along. Annabelle, a humorous half-smile on her lips, watched Barnabas scowling after Jenny Lynn with his own squinting glare.

With another theatrical flourish of his cloak, Barnabas started after them. But his cloak ended up over his head and he crashed into the rack of costumes, causing a godawful crashing tumble of the accessories piled atop the rack. Everyone was laughing at him. Xander asked if he was okay and bent to help him up. Barnabas shook off his help, glaring up at him, with a jerking nod of his head. Jenny Lynn saw Annabelle cover her mouth to hide her mirth, and thought she heard Annabelle say laughingly but softly, “Oh, you are too bad!”

In the end, Xander ended up in an Elvis/Frankenstein combo costume, both because it was all that was left that came close to fitting him and because… well, they were in Memphis, after all — someone had to be Elvis.

That night, at the Alpha Tau Omega Halloween blowout, Danielle, even with black, nearly opaque tights and a strategically draped bit of white organza across her ample bosom, was quite a standout stunner in her sex-kitten U of M Tiger costume. But, to Barnabas’ annoyance, most of her attention was taken up chaperoning Jenny Lynn, who was a big hit with the frat-boys. Barnabas had tired of trying to include Annabelle in his faux-impromptu performances; He was only being nice to her because it was her brother who’d gotten them invited to the biggest and best Halloween bash on campus. She was just a little too good, gaining too much of his spotlight. Her very straight-laced brother, who kept a very close eye on his sister, wore a predictable superhero costume; he was a useful “in” with the kind of people who really appreciated genius like Barnabas’ — these people were his audience.

But, she eventually tired of him and wandered off on her own — to his supreme annoyance. How dare SHE tire of HIM! Danielle had spared him barely any attention, dividing her time between the crowding frat dudes and that mewling little girl. He comforted himself that at least that stuffed-shirt of a walking beanpole, Xander, was as left out of Danielle’s attentions as he was. Another cheerleader costumed co-ed was schmoozing up to him and Barnabas let her lead him off to perform for her friends.

Jenny Lynn and Danielle were in a circle of the nicest boys  — check that, the nicest men! Jenny Lynn compared them and thought None of the boys at school ever talked with me like this. But, she was tired of a bunch people she didn’t know and looked around for Xander, asking Danielle, “Sis, where’s Elvis-stein?”

Danielle, also tiring of the frat boy attention, excused Jenny Lynn and herself, and said, “Let’s go find him.” 

They started across the room and Jenny Lynn spotted Annabelle. “Oh, wow! Annabelle’s talking to somebody who looks just like Johnny!”

Danielle looked where Jenny Lynn indicated with a tug on her arm and went pale and weak. She stood stock-still, staring and moaned, “Oh, my God…” 

Her knees buckled and Jenny Lynn grabbed her under her arms, Annabelle forgotten. She called out in frightened voice, “Xander! Oh Xander! Help!” She looked around for him and nearly fainted herself when she saw the guy with Annabelle — looking straight at her — just fade away.

Suddenly, Xander was there and swept Danielle up in his arms, pushing through the crowd to one of the sofas along the walls. As she was stirring, he laid her gently down. Chafing one of Danielle’s freezing cold hands, he asked, “Danny… you okay? What happened?”

She looked up at him and clung to him, “Oh Xander! He’s here! He was talking to Annabelle!”

“What?” Xander asked. “Who’s here?

“Johnny!” Jenny Lynn intoned, “I saw you talking to Johnny!” she accused Annabelle as she and Barnabas joined them. “I saw him… he just faded away! I saw him!” Danielle buried her face in her hands and Xander put his arms around her, looking to Annabelle in confusion. Barnabas, gone very pale himself, and several of the onlookers edged away from Annabelle. She looked around and up at her brother approaching determinately and turned and fled, crying.

Danielle said, “Xander, she’s scared and crying, and she ran off alone!” She jumped up, driven by an urgency she couldn’t explain, and hurried after Annabelle, just ahead of her brother. Xander and Jenny Lynn followed close on his heels. Barnabas dithered a moment, then followed too.

They trailed Annabelle through the crowds along Midland Avenue, up Brister Street, and back over to Patterson Street before they lost her when she jumped on a bus headed for Beale Street, just pulling away from a stop. Annabelle’s brother said, “My car’s parked along Midland… she’s probably headed to Miss Polly’s on Beale.” He led the way back to Midland, “I’m Jeremy, by the way.” Xander introduced them all to him. “What happened? Who was that fellow she was with before this upset? What did he do?”

Not knowing how to answer, Xander and Danielle exchanged mutually pensive glances as they arrived at a modest BMW convertible. The car was hopelessly blocked in by half a dozen double-parked cars and a couple of partiers were passed out in it. They all, even Barnabas, felt a driving urgency to find Annabelle, to reach her and protect her. “I’m parked off Highland, in front of the apartment,” Xander said, indicating Danielle as he added, “We live on Windover Grove, back in Central Park.” 

“We’ll never get up Highland,” Barnabas put in, “The street party has it blocked off for three blocks!”

“We can cut through housing across Watuga and Norriswood, over to Central, and over from there,” Jeremy said. He led them across frat house lawns and backyards, and through the Highlands apartments compound, behind and west of Richardson Towers dormitories, across the grounds of the Third Church of Christ Scientist to Central. The crowds were dense there, so he led them across and around behind The Laurels, and out onto Cowden, where the streets were finally clear of all but a few costumed partiers wandering home before the midnight crush. 

With typical youthful impulsiveness, they all crammed themselves into Xander’s Mustang, racing through traffic toward Beale Street. As much as they hurried, the usually twenty minute drive took twice as long. By the time they pushed through the crowds around Rum Boogie Café, they had been more than an hour and a half in pursuit of Annabelle. Danielle knew the bus took upwards of forty minutes on a good day to go from U of M to Beale. She told them it must have taken twice as long on a night as busy as Halloween; they must be just behind her.

Miss Polly’s Soul Café was packed, but the host at the door recognized Jeremy and said he’d not seen Annabelle. Jenny Lynn held on to Xander’s rhinestone studded sleeve in a vice-grip, overwhelmed by the crush of the bustling crowd. They all stepped back out onto the sidewalk, looking up and down the street for any sign of her. Xander suddenly felt cold deep down to his bones, and Jenny Lynn let go of his sleeve, gripping onto Danielle’s arm. Everyone looked up at Xander’s towering, trembling frame, to his washed-out pale gaze. He was looking across the street in the direction of Flynn’s. He moved like someone possessed through the miraculously parting crowd and across the street. The others struggled to follow him, catching up as he turned down the alleyway between Flynn’s and the Black Diamond. 

As they caught up with him, they saw Annabelle struggling against someone at the end of the alleyway. A mind-numbing, wailing scream erupted around them as a sudden rush of roaring light and wind and sound flowed away from Danielle and Xander — it seemed to come directly from them. Jenny Lynn stumbled back away from them, into Barnabas. He found himself, unaccountably moved to hold and console her. Something enraged and winged-seeming descended on the man attacking Annabelle. The man went flying through the air, flung with a sickening thud and cracking sound against the opposite building’s wall; he slid nervelessly to the ground, leaving a trail of blood down the wall.

by D. Denise Dianaty
©31 October 2014