Chapter One: Awake, My Soul
The family chapel resounded with music.
Mia McKinley's fingers skimmed over the piano keys. Her horn-rimmed cat-shaped glasses slipped down her nose. A double glissando played one-handed at the interval of an octave. Another musical exercise now. Four thousand notes in the span of two minutes.
Her heavy lidded eyes were vivid in concentration. They were smoky gray, the uncompromising color of thunderclouds that sometimes drifted above the castle. A fan whirred behind her back. It blew some errant hair strands free from the bun that cinched the waterfall of ash blond hair at the nape of her neck. The severe hairstyle lent her fine-boned features a certain dignity, one that matched her long, straight nose and angular cheekbones.
As a concession to the heat wave crushing Greater Virginia, she wore a sleeveless shirt and an ankle-length cotton skirt that draped her body in a graceless heap. The slim silver watch on her left wrist was her single nod to fashion.
Right now the watch said Sophronia was late by three minutes. She'd asked Mia to meet her in the chapel, but now she didn't even have the courtesy to be on time.
Mia's mouth went grim. It was just as well, she decided. No doubt her great-aunt intended to ruminate on the importance of mingling with people, or some other sentimental rot. "You should go out, dear," Sophronia said only last week. "You shouldn't be cooped up, not at your age. Don't you want friends?"
"No," Mia said, and for that honesty, she'd earned yet another lecture.
Awake, my soul, and with the sun...
The old biblical hymn flowed from her fingers. Sophronia and Elias were the religious ones in the family, but there was an odd security in memorizing these ancient phrases once sung by people now long dead.
I may of endless light partake...
Had her mother played this very same piano many years ago? What had she thought about? These were questions Mia had no answers for. She only had vague impressions of her mother that swam out of the miasma of her memories: nothing that hinted at the brilliant Margarethe, vivid and secretive in the pictures Mia pored over in the family albums.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow...
Sometimes when Mia closed her eyes, she imagined a woman with liquid eyes in the phantasmagorial light from the chapel's cross.
"We are God's abortions," said Margarethe. "We weren't meant to live."
Someone cleared his throat. "Hey!" he called out. He slammed his knuckles against the chapel's massive double doors.
Mia hit a false note. She tipped her head down and peered above her glasses, trying to make him out in the darkened chapel, but he was slouched against the doorway frame. Definitely not Sophronia.
"What do you want?" she snapped.
The stranger's posture straightened. "Where's Miss McKinley?"
"Which Miss McKinley would that be?"
"The old lady."
"Then you are badly misinformed. There are two females in the McKinley family, but one is fifty years old, and the other one four and a half. Or do you suppose fifty is a decrepit age?"
"Whatever. Tell me where she is."
"Are you from the funeral home? If you are, turn around and proceed there."
Directly across the castle's front lawn was the mortuary Mia's family had operated for a hundred years, and its parking lot for the mourners to pull in. People often traipsed from the place over to the castle chapel to hold their funeral services because they either liked the idea of their deceased going out in such style or because they didn't have any other religious accommodations.
"And we get the entire castle as a tax payoff because it's supposedly a church," her uncle Morris said. "God bless America!"
The stranger shoved a hand in his pant pocket. "Miss Sophronia wanted me here, and here I am. So why don't you just stop jerking me around and tell me where she is?"
"I can not because I am waiting for her also," Mia said.
The timing struck her as a trifle too coincidental. Sophronia had asked for a meeting here, in this spot from all the places she could have chosen, and now this stranger was claiming she'd asked him too?
"What is the nature of your business with Sophronia? Whoever might you be?" Mia said.
"What is this, a damn interrogation?"
"There is no need to speak like a foppotee."
"You might at least exhibit some grace, for this residence is not your home, but I will kindly overlook your ill-mannered utterance if you will only give me your name, so I may have the dubious pleasure in knowing whom I address."
He cocked his head. "Say again?"
"I am merely stating for the record that I consider your manner of speaking somewhat abrupt and vulgar, but we need not to tilt our jousts at each other, if you will only endeavor to sound more civil, a courtesy that would be greatly appreciated. Now, pray tell, who might you be?"
"Do you always talk like that? All formal and shit?"
"Only simpletons express their sentiments in the rankest of words, and I find that it lowers the public perception of their intelligence, and finally, I consider such language offensive and not pleasing to the ear."
"Lady..." he said, stretching the word out, so that Mia couldn't fail to hear his accent deliberately thickening. "You are a real piece of work."
"I might say the same of you, I think," she said. His belligerence didn't recommend him for whatever task Sophronia had in mind, but who knew what her great-aunt was thinking these days?
Mia unclipped her cell phone from her skirt. "Since I do not find your nature agreeable, I do not wish to continue this conversation any longer, so I will call my great-aunt and see what is delaying her. I am sure you want to conclude your business transaction with her and get you gone, and certainly I wish for that as well."
"Great-aunt? You don't mean-" She heard him draw a swift breath. "Sophronia McKinley is your great-aunt?"
Mia half-lowered her phone. "Yes, she is."
"You don't... happen to have any younger sisters, do you?"
Her eyebrows knitted into a frown. Surely he didn't have any pedophilic fetishes? Her eyes darted to the cameras they'd installed in the chapel. If she shouted for the security detail, someone would come running. Still, they'd let this lunatic into the castle in the first place, hadn't they?
"No," she said.
The stranger took a few steps into the chapel. "Your name. What's your name?"
The real urgency in his voice had her answering automatically. "I am Mia McKinley," she said.
Curiosity got the better of her. "Well what? I stated my identity, and now you may return the courtesy."
The name meant nothing to her, but at least she knew what to call him. Why had Sophronia had summoned him - or had she, really?
He'd taken a few more steps, so he was closer now. "I don't get it. Is this a fucking joke or what?"
Mia's shoulders stiffened. He was still half-hidden by the shadows, but now, she could see most of him.
A tattoo crawled up his neck, stark in its blackness. Channing Phillips had a shock of fair hair bound by a rubber band, but some strands fell free. When he scratched at his arm, a blue sleeveless shirt rode up a bit on his back and exposed a golden expanse of skin. Yet another tattoo, a dark sunburst on his hand.
His eyes were verdigris, almost odd in that face with ears slightly pointed. He had pretty features that erred on the feminine side, but a dash of masculinity from a broken nose saved him. All in all, he looked tough and competent, the defiant tip of his chin screaming trouble. His fingers beat a rapid rhythm against the side of his leg, and only then did Mia see that two of them were bandaged. He couldn't move his little finger.
This common hoodlum was someone Sophronia wanted to see?
"What joke do you think my family is playing on you? You, sir, have not explained the nature of your business with my great-aunt, and if truth be told, you do not appear to possess a strong character."
He was close enough that she heard him snort. "Miss Sophronia said she was looking for a babysitter for her great-niece. She said the girl - that's you, I guess - was pretty unusual, so I'd come in handy."
She caught her breath. What had Sophronia told him? "Mia's a good girl, but she just won't leave the castle. Not even for doctor's appointments, bless her heart." Oh, Mia could imagine it, all right.
"I am not in need of your ministrations," Mia said, standing up from the piano bench. "I am not an elderly invalid, nor am I a small child. The day I feel the slightest desire for a caretaker is when I lose my mental faculties."
"Take it up with your great-aunt, not me." He pointed a finger at her. "And you! You said there were two female McKinleys, Miss Sophronia and a four-year-old kid, but if you're a McKinley too-"
She edged around the piano, her back to the wall, so he couldn't get a jump on her, in case he had that in mind. "I am technically four and a half years old. I was born on a leap year, if you wish to be precise, but in reality, I suppose I am eighteen."
"Do you have to be so goddamn literal?"
"And you do not have to be so profane. Even if you are not religious, this place is still a chapel. Or perhaps you swear because you wish to increase your air of machismo? It is a common phenomenon with teenage boys."
"Oh, that's nice. Instead of a cute little kid, I get a Frankenstein talking dictionary."
"Your use of literary allusion is not correct, since Frankenstein was-"
"Stop! Stop right there. I'm gonna talk to Miss McKinley."
It was with no small relief that she watched him stalk out of the chapel, leaving her in blissful solitude.
Mia slipped into a pew and luxuriated in the sunshine streaming from the windows. Even with the air conditioning and fans working full-time, the chapel still felt too warm because of the massive heat wave outside. It was foolish sitting here, since Channing was sure to run straight to her great-aunt and Sophronia would come looking, but oh God, she needed some peace and quiet first.
The chapel's roof steepled high above her head, so from a bird's eye view, she was just a small flesh-colored dot sitting near the perantique pews. The rest of the church was thrust into darkness, so that whatever June sunbeams seeped through the stained glass windows on the sides muted the place in dull red and gold. It colored the Lord's Table with rainbows: a scarred wooden table that had seen its number of decades, now covered up with a linen cloth hemmed by Sophronia's own hand.
The eastern wall blazed with liquid sunfire: the vitrail cross aflame in its splendor. Spanning twenty feet high and nine feet wide, it had an architectural trefoil at each end. In every bulbed trefoil, a kaleidoscopic pattern swirled: tiny aurulent stars circled by verticils of coquelicot and eau-de-nil against a field of ultramarine.
"Oh, how beautiful," she whispered, gazing up at the cross. The words she'd said thousands upon thousands of times wore a familiar groove into her heart.
When she'd first come to the castle nine years ago, she'd basked in the light's benediction and drawn strength from it. Nothing bad could possibly happen to her here, not with the cross's searing caress on her forehead.
Here was history.
It had once been a simple wooden chapel before the old Lutheran congregation lost the church and land to debt, but when Mia's ancestor Glenn McKinley snatched it up at an auction, he transformed it into a mock castle built in the Scottish Baronial style popular back in the nineteenth century. "Look at me, a poor Scottish man with a castle of mine own," he'd boasted. He even married a figurative princess, the delicate flower of a ruined Southern family, their fortune much changed after the Civil War.
Her cell phone chirped. "Yes?" she said, knowing it would be Sophronia on the other end. Channing had run even faster than she'd thought.
"That was poorly done of you," her great-aunt chided. Like Mia, she'd done without the social niceties. "I didn't ask you to run off our newest employee."
So be it, then. If Sophronia wanted to tackle this matter head-on, Mia was only too happy to oblige her.
"You led me to believe that you would be meeting me yourself. At the very least, you might have told me about this Channing Phillips, so I would have prepared myself in a more congenial frame of mind," she said.
"It shouldn't be a chore to be polite. I have agreed to hire him for the summer, so you'll be seeing a lot of him."
"What kind of responsibilities do you have for him?"
"It's a pity your first meeting was disastrous, but I'm sure you will come to like him. He is after all your age. A little younger, but that shouldn't be a problem-"
"What do you want him to do?"
"Don't interrupt me, Mia. It's rude-"
"What do you want him to do?"
The hitch of silence on the other end confirmed Mia's worst suspicions. She was eighteen years old, despite being born on a leap year, but in Sophronia's eyes, she'd always be that desperate little girl who had sobbed and fainted in that grocery store because the store was a five-minute's drive from the castle.
"You need not say anything," she said. "I comprehend perfectly."
She didn't want to hear any excuses, so she shut her cell phone. Her neck was so tight that she dug into the wooden pew with her fingers. It was either that or scream. She rubbed the skin between her breasts.
Her breath came in short gasps. One, two, three bursts of air hissing between her teeth. She kept her eyes on the cross. Four, five, six.
She was panting for air. The weight pressed her chest, a slab of shame that never dwindled, no matter how she tried. It reached out and crushed her lungs in an iron fist, the fingers curling tight. She couldn't even cry out.
The fist unclenched.
She slumped against the pew. Just for a few seconds, then she was running for the exit. The heat would cook her in a minute, but she didn't care. She kicked her clogs off, trampled the castle's front lawn with her bare toes.
Cars crawled on Westminster Road that took them past the castle, some of the drivers staring at the great vitrail cross visible even from the road. The McKinley funeral home was further down the street.
Beyond that, Mia didn't know the geography. Didn't want to know, didn't need to know. It had been months since she'd left her stronghold.
Glenn McKinley was long dead, but the monument of his pride still stood: a proud, implacable fortress steeped in a century of tradition, its granite exterior warmed by the summer. It had a porte-cochere that intimidated would-be visitors bold or stupid enough to step under the covered walkway's stone roof.
Before they did so, they would look up at the twin crenellated towers, one at each end. Their eyes would trace the uneven roofline interrupted by the towers, linger on the eight corbelled corner turrets, and travel over the granite expanse. Small lancet windows peeked from the towers and turrets, but everywhere else, the windows were square. If Mia twisted her head upwards, she could see the iron cross on the eastern tower's steeple.
Her eyes skimmed the sprawling lawn. Morris had left the funeral home and was striding towards her.
"Did you know about Channing Phillips?" she said, when he reached her side. By now, he would have heard. "Did you know?"
Morris angled his head, so that they faced each other. They had the same fine-boned structure and coloring, but his features had blended better than hers. He was a striking man, handsome even by Mia's limited standards.
"No," he said.
Mia's eyes ran over him. His shirt was open at the throat, no jacket or tie, but once he returned to the mortuary, the polished veneer would return. That was Morris, a diamond with so many different facets.
A mortician by trade, Morris was the picture of compassionate professionalism, but in his soul lurked a sleepy-eyed charmer and a cynic. Mia had once thought of him as her fairy-tale rescuer who'd brought her out of the darkness that had surrounded her mother, but he was only ten years older.
She knew what her uncle was, but she didn't know him.
"The truth, Morris?" she said.
He nodded at the mortuary. "Yes. Sophronia hired Phillips without even telling Elias. He didn't know either."
Accepting his word, Mia rubbed at the spot between her breasts. "That uncouth boy is my babysitter. Babysitter! What can Sophronia be thinking?"
Morris never removed his eyes from the funeral home. "I tried to talk to Sophronia, but she wouldn't listen. She thinks you need someone around, especially now that Tanise isn't here anymore."
The mention of their old housekeeper clenched Mia's stomach. Tanise had been a dear, dear friend and a confidant, and her little daughter a delight, but they were now living with Tanise's new husband. Now they were going on family vacations and visiting their new relatives, places and people Mia would never see.
"Phillips is coming back tomorrow," Morris said when she didn't speak. "Sophronia's paying him to be here four times every week. He'll get here at nine o'clock in the morning and leave at three. He'll drive you anywhere you want to go, run errands for you, whatever you want him to do."
She'd have that stranger trailing after her six hours... no, make that twenty-four hours a week?
Mia closed her eyes. She couldn't and didn't unleash her temper here. It wasn't Morris's fault - Sophronia ignored his opinion as well.
"And Elias agrees with Sophronia," she said. Elias was Sophronia's older brother, technically the family's patriarch, but when it concerned Mia, he let his sister take over. He wouldn't step in, would he.
She didn't realize she'd said that last bit aloud until Morris said very gently, "No." What else had she expected?
The mortuary was the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes. For a place that made a profit off death, the U-shaped ranch-style building was humble at first sight compared to the castle, the brown roofline squatting low from the sun. The large, overhanging eaves and the simple trim reinforced the modesty - no elaborate architectural tricks, Elias had decreed. In the front, there was a grand entry foyer with an extensive porch that invited a person to step inside.
For a crazed moment, she wanted to run away from her family, the castle, and the funeral home. Her apanthropinization.
Where would she go?
She was one of the strange, much-talked-about McKinleys residing in a castle built in the 1800's, the ancestral home stuck smack dab in the middle of four popular intersections, right next to a funeral home, with drivers constantly slowing down to stare or snap pictures. Like it or not, this was her fate.
Pressure welled up in her chest, until she could no longer sustain it, and she cried aloud. "Why, Morris? Why?"
Why am I so different? Why did the cup pass my way?
Morris didn't pretend to misunderstand. "Because it's how you are. It's your particular brand of hell."
Her mouth twisted in a smile. "And do you have your own hell?"
Unlike her, he wasn't nesiote. He'd gone to college and graduated with a master's degree. He'd traveled with his friends in Europe, and even now he went out on frequent dates with women - there was surely a list of scintillating career choices he could have, other than working at the family-owned funeral home, but deep inside, Mia knew with absolute certainty that Morris stayed here for her sake. Tanise was gone now, and if Morris went too, Mia would be alone in the castle with only Elias and Sophronia.
"Yes." Morris's smile was just as crooked. "Those religious people - what do they know? Hell is about living with your what-ifs."
They stared at the mortuary again. Channing Phillips was invading her life tomorrow, and there wasn't anything she could do about it. There wasn't anything Morris could do about his what-ifs either.
AUTHOR NOTE: Sometimes you have to gamble with your writing, and for me, that's what this story is. I hope you guys will join me for this journey with the characters Mia, Channing, and Peregrine. I think they're tremendously fascinating :)