Pure instinct had been driving Annie onward for nearly three days now. Her decision to resume her artistic endeavors had come from someplace inside her that she did not understand. The muse was an essential element of her existence that lived almost as a separate force from her normal self. And even though she realized on that same elemental level that she could not stay here at her father’s home, that she would soon have to run, she could not curb the impulse to fill her remaining days here putting paint to canvas.
First she’d gone about the business of preparing the room, much to Greta’s dismay, and then she had begun her quest.
The picture she painted had come unwittingly from a place inside her that seemed separate from her conscious self, which was no surprise. Annie’s paintings had always been instinctual. Nothing about her art had ever been contrived. She could no more visualize her next creative work than could she visualize what the end of the world would look like. She’d simply begin to paint, and when instinct told her to stop, that was that, the work was complete, resulting in art that defied categorization, complex yet elemental, abstract yet detailed, all without a trace of self-consciousness.
So it came as a complete surprise when she realized that, dead center of her chaotic creation, she’d painted an ordinary object. She stood back staring at her handiwork, cocking her head from side to side, frowning and fretting. After a few moments of careful consideration she came to the conclusion that there had been something at play here besides instinct, simply because she had no memory of painting the object. Geometric shapes were not a part of her mind spectrum. They never had been, and there was no reason to believe they ever would be. No, something external had acted upon her during the creative process that caused her to paint an object that looked curiously like the point of an arrow, or perhaps a spear. She couldn’t be sure. It was realistic in every detail, so realistic in fact, that it seemed three dimensional; as though it had been photo flashed onto the canvas.
Written in black letters beneath the object, were the words: Eye of Hell.
“What in the name of God?” Annie breathed, as the spearhead morphed into a small crimson pinpoint and began to grow, chilling her bones to the marrow. Startled, Annie backed away, for now the object looked like an eye, and out of the eye, a dark object arose and took wing, growing, flailing as it went, like a black bed sheet gone awry from a clothesline in a windstorm. Instinctively she ducked, to avoid the object flying straight at her. She screamed and hit the deck as it missed her by a hair’s breadth. The object circumnavigated the large room several times before dissipating into what looked like fragments of black confetti floating slowly downward onto the canvas-covered floor. The fragments settled all around Annie and became static. When she reached out and tentatively touched one of them with the tip of her finger, it crumbled to ash.
Annie remained on the floor for a long moment, breathing laboriously, her heart pounding. She waited, wondering what the hell had just happened here. She pinched herself, thinking she might have fallen asleep and was in the midst of a dream. “Ouch!” she said, realizing that this was absolutely real.
It only took Annie a few more moments to suspect the truth of what was happening here. The madness of her youth was beginning all over again. A magical thing that seemed to change shapes at will had visited her time and again when she was growing up. It took on many forms, sometimes a man, sometimes a bird or a bat, sometimes fragments of dark matter that flailed like little winged monsters, their purpose never clear. She remembered the secret whisperings, and fragments of dreams, long twilight sleeps between fever and exhaustion. Her years with Doug had brought a measure of sanity to her life because it was so normal, because he was so normal. But she’d always known she wasn’t normal, and so had Doug.
That’s why Annie needs constant love and reassurance, Doug had told her father on that day that now seemed so very long ago. You’ve allowed that thing to steal her soul. Doug’s accusations had enraged Annie to the point of violence, even as she’d suspected their truths. And in place of whatever had been stolen, her soul, something had been substituted, a weight, a burden, a living tumor that grew inside her like a cancer.
“Who are you?” she asked in a trembling voice, unaware until now that she was sobbing. “What do you want? Why can’t you just leave me the hell alone?”
You know me, child, a voice answered back, inside her head. Probably better than you know yourself. You’ve always known me.
“No!” Annie said, heaving herself up off the floor and circling the room, trying to pinpoint the exact location of her antagonist. A rage was building in her even as her distended belly began clenching with cramps. “Why don’t you show yourself, you lousy coward! Let me see what sort of monster terrorizes little girls!”
My identity is no secret, love, but you refuse to see me for what I am.
“You’re nothing! You’re a ghost, you’re confetti! Worse, you’re shit!”
I am Lost, Forsaken, Forgotten. I am your mother and your father, your breath and your life, your birth and your death.
“Get out of here,” Annie cried. “I want you to leave me the hell alone.”
Your father is trying to betray me, but I cannot allow him to do it.
“Betray you?” Annie said. “How? Why? How does he even know you?” Her belly was really clenching now, she was bent over clutching it, spasms wracking her.
See the power I have over you, love?
“You have nothing to do with me!”
Oh, child, you are so wrong. It has been such a long road from where Edmund De Roche and I first crossed paths. You see, long ago your father and I struck a bargain.
His immortality for my mortality. His soul for my heart. If you will allow me I will show you.”
“Show me? How?”
Inside your head.
“You stay out of my head.”
This won’t hurt, I promise.
“But I don’t know . . . if I . . . can,” Annie said, her resolve weakening even as her contractions began to subside. She remembered things in her head from years ago, things she never wanted to relive, and she was suddenly wary, certain somehow that this would be just another of those terrible, terrible nightmares.
Of course you do, love. It’s easy. Just open your mind and let it flow.
“No!” she said, but the entity was a stealthy bugger and he was inside her before she could utter another protest.
Laid out before her was the image of a muddy battlefield with two huge armies clashing. These men fought like titans, their weapons spears, arrows and swords, and they wore uniforms of some long ago campaign. The image zoomed to an area near the battle’s left flank on the bank of a silt-filled river. Here a wounded soldier struggled to lift himself to his feet. Blood covered his face, and his armor was pieced in several places. From these wounds more blood oozed. There was something familiar about the soldier that made Annie uneasy. She tried to make out his features but there was too much blood to see him clearly. In his struggle to lift his body from the muck the soldier’s hand sank beneath the silted surface. When he pulled it back it contained an object. Seeming confused as to what it was, the soldier washed the object in the river’s flowing waters and brought it up close to his face. Recognizing it for what it was, the soldier drew his arm back as if to fling it far out into the currents.
Just then, a figure approached from behind, not walking exactly, but gliding just above the blood-soaked battlefield. The figure was cloaked in a hooded robe and, from Annie’s vantage, could have been a simple monk from some ancient religious order. Annie could not see the face but something told her that she was looking at the entity that now held sway over her thoughts.
Sensing the close presence of another individual, perhaps an enemy who wanted to finish him, the soldier lowered the hand that held the object and twisted around for his sword.
In that instant Annie recognized the soldier.
“Daddy?” she said, unaware until the word was out of her mouth that she’d spoken it aloud.
Yes, child, said the collector of souls. Only he cannot hear you. I am allowing you to witness an event from a very long time ago. You are seeing across space and time to another reality.
“I don’t understand any of this,” Annie said.
You see, child, I had been searching for the object since the day I was exiled to this earth, with little success, and here, a soldier of no importance on a battlefield forgotten by time, plucked it from the silt of a river. He did not want it, so, feeling charitable, I struck a bargain with him. In exchange for the object the soldier would survive the war and go on to found a great family dynasty. He would enjoy wealth and luxury and a very long life. But there was one condition.
“What condition?” Annie asked.
When the time was right he would produce an heir who would produce an heir. The time is right now, love . . . The collector stopped talking, allowing his words to sink in.
Annie’s eyes flew wide open in surprise. “No fucking way!” she said curling her body forward, hugging the roundness of her belly, protectively shielding it from the creature’s scrutinizing eye. “You’re not touching my baby.”
We shall see, child. We shall see.
“Tell me why the time is right now?” Annie demanded. “Why not five-hundred years ago? Why not two-hundred years ago? Why does it have to be now? Why does it have to be me?”
Simple, love, said the creature. The father of the child had to be just the right one, and Douglas McArthur was not born until thirty-five years ago.
“So this is what mine and Doug’s lives have been about?” Annie moaned. “We were born to serve your twisted purpose?”
Purpose, yes, twisted; well, that is a matter of opinion.
“You tricked me into coming back here,” Annie said. “You destroyed my house, you killed my husband and now you want my child? Dream on asshole, you’ll get nothing more from me.”
Ah, such a hot-headed child. You always have been, little Annie. But I’m afraid petulance will serve you no purpose this time. You no longer have the will to resist my persuasions.
“Oh yes I do.”
And how will you prevent me from taking what is rightfully mine?
“I’ll kill myself. That’s how! And I’ll take my child with me!” The words spat from Annie’s mouth before she could stop their expulsion.
You would kill your own child?
“Before I let a monster like you have it, yes! Doug’s gone and without him I have nothing left to live for.”
On the contrary, love. You have everything to live for. The child needs a mother. Someone to raise it and love it, someone to teach it manners, grace and respect, see that it is properly educated so that it can become what it is meant to become. You are the only one who can do it. Tell me that you will, Annie?”
Annie felt her resolve weakening. She knew the monster was right. She could not kill the child she’d dreamed of having her entire life. When the time came she would birth it, raise it and do well by it. This was an incontestable fact. There would be time to steer it away from the collector’s persuasions. She was sure of it.
With renewed assurances of Annie’s acquiescence the collector ceased to be in her presence. Annie felt its departing like a void in her consciousness.
She lay on the canvas-covered floor for a long time thinking about her child and grieving for the lost love of her life, cursing fate for dealing her such a twisted hand. In time a litany of thoughts began to form and find their way to the private place inside her mind, the three-lock-box of secrecy where no one was allowed to go. Not even the collector. She knew now what she had to do and she needed to get on with it.
So she heaved herself up off the canvas-covered floor and headed for the shower, all the while formulating her plan.