There was a blare of music, something with a lot of horns, then a burst of static so intense it made Babs’s head spin. Behind the white noise lightning crackled and spat.
“I didn’t turn that on,” Kate said. “I promise I didn’t.”
“I believe you,” Babs told her. “What’s a little more surprising is how it can be on without any power.” Though of course she had already surmised how this was possible. We will give the reader enough credit to have figured it out on their own as well, without any protracted explanation.
Babs walked slowly toward the radio, a big wooden cabinet model with fretwork speaker panels in the front and some rather nice Art Deco styling. She’d spent pleasant hours fiddling with its Bakelite knobs while trying to tune in dancing music or some dramatic program. Now she gave serious consideration to finding a hatchet and chopping it to pieces.
The poor radio was not to blame, though. She knew it. It had been commandeered. As she watched the lighted tuning dial flicker and saw the needle glide back and forth across various wavelengths, she tried to think of what to say to the spirit of the storm.
“Go chase yourself,” came immediately to mind. Instead she drew herself up to her full height, inhaled sharply, and said, “You are not welcome here. We—”
“KaTe,” the radio squealed. The voice was enormously loud, sharp with feedback, liable to blow out the speaker. It warbled and quavered, a kind of patchwork sound as if it were made up of snippets of words stolen from various frequencies, pasted together like a ransom note made of cut-up newspaper headlines. “kAte,” it said, “I lOvE yOu.”
The young woman turned her head away. Her glowing eyes, Babs saw, flickered to the same rhythm as the radio’s dial.
“kaTE,” the voice said, with a plaintive wail, “wE wEre gOInG tO Be sO HaPy tOgEtheR! doN’t i hAVe A riGhT tO bE haPPY?”
Babs reached for the power switch, knowing it would probably do no good. Not that she got the chance to find out. A thin snake of electricity burst from the radio’s dial and snapped at her fingers and she had to jump back before it could bite her.
“KAte, yOu kNoW mE. i’M a niCe gUy.”
“They all say that,” Babs said, grabbing Kate’s arm and spinning her around. “Tell him to go away. Tell him you don’t want to be with him.”
The young woman nodded and hurried over to kneel by the radio. “I changed my mind,” she said. “You need to—to let me be.”
“buT yOu ProMisEd,” the radio whined.
“She’s only fifteen,” Babs insisted. “She hasn’t even finished school, you crumb!”
“KaTe,” the radio screeched. “kATe! i dEserVe haPpiNeSs!”
“You deserve a sock in the jaw,” Babs told it.
“gEt aWAy frOM hEr, katE. cOme tO Me oR i’Lll—” but then something, perhaps a vacuum tube, exploded inside the set and the voice crackled out of existence. Smoke leaked out of the fretwork and Babs had to act quickly, grabbing up a vase full of cut flowers and dumping it over the burning radio.
In the silence that followed, Kate’s face had set into an expression of grim determination. She looked at Babs with burning eyes that had no fight left in them.
“I have to go,” she said.
Babs grabbed her shoulders. “He’s got no claim on you,” she insisted. “Don’t tell me you want to be with him, because I don’t believe it.”
“No,” Kate said. “I don’t want to. But don’t you see? He isn’t going to stop. He’ll keep throwing lightning bolts at this house until it’s burnt to the ground. He’ll chase me to the far ends of the earth.”
“Like baloney he will,” Babs insisted, and she tried to take the young woman’s hand. She barely stopped herself in time. Kate had torn off her welding gloves and was busy pulling apart her rubberized dress.
The message was clear. She was going to meet her pursuer, and she didn’t want Babs to try to stop her.
“Thank you for everything,” Kate said, and then she walked out of the room, clearly in no hurry but unwilling to listen to anything more Babs had to say.
The flapper stamped her foot in thwarted rage. Then she scrunched up her mouth in thought. There had to be a way to fight back. There had to be a way to save the young woman.
She closed her eyes. Remembered when she’d been that age.
There was a time—
Reader, forgive a quick flashback. The present author knows it is a vulgar device, a favorite of the worst kind of pulp author, and its use should be restricted to the potboiler and the penny-a-word serial. Yet perhaps it will help explain Babs’s state of mind at that particular moment.
There was a time, in a pond outside of the fairy-tale city of Prague, when a mother and a daughter had come to sharp words, and many things were said that would be regretted later. There was a great deal at stake.
Freedom, for one. The right to a life that didn’t involve so many frogs and drowned boys. A life beyond combing one’s long, silky hair by the side of the water, waiting for a wanderer to happen by and get a glimpse of cloistered beauty.
“This is who we are,” the mother said. “This is where we live. For fifty generations, it’s been so. There is no other way.”
There had been a pair of scissors, stolen from a human house, and long locks of red hair left on the pond’s mossy bank, forgotten, unwanted. A sacrifice to the god of MORE.
“How could you want more?” the mother said. “The pond is lovely, when the moonlight touches its silver surface. The night air is cool on wet skin.”
There were footprints in the mud, leading away.
“You’ll be back,” the mother said. “You’re not tough enough to make it out there. You’ll be back.”
Babs opened her eyes. She was back in Grimbly Hall, it was 1927, and she had a problem to solve.
Had she possessed sleeves, she would have rolled them up.
Lightning struck the house, blast after blast that turned the windows a stark white and threw everything else into shadows. Babs reeled on her feet, her ears pummeled by the noise.
On the table the bell jar rocked and wobbled for a moment. Slid close to the edge. Inside the sodium elemental threw its small body against the glass, again and again.
Babs ignored it. A weapon. She needed a weapon. There were plenty in the billiards room, but those were unlikely to hurt a storm cloud. Surely there was something better—yes. She remembered she’d seen such a thing, recently, but where?
Of course. She hurried back to the library. Knowledge may be the greatest armament, and the pen might be mightier than field artillery. The only book she was interested in, however, was the History of the Canadian Civil Service. She pulled at its spine and the bookshelf slid open, revealing the secret passage. She hurried inside.
She had no time to figure things out. This was going to have to be a brilliant stroke of improvisation. Babs was old enough to know just how often those worked out, but she had no more options. No more time.
Armed, she dashed up the stairs. She knew where Kate was headed, of course. Where else would you go to reunite with a storm cloud? At the very top of Grimbly Hall was a cupola that had been turned into an observatory dome. Ducking under the brass telescope, Babs found the door which led to the roof. It was swinging on its hinges, battered by wind and rain.
Behind her, far below, she heard a crash and the sound of breaking glass. She didn’t worry about it. She stepped out onto the flat roof of the house, onto rain-slicked tarpaper. Autumn’s leaves and a little of winter’s snow remained up there, making the footing treacherous.
Mostly, though, the roof was wet with rain. Cold water.
Well, for a rusalka, a water spirit, that wasn’t exactly a problem.
Babs kicked off her shoes and wiggled her toes in it. She felt strength flow up her legs. Every rain drop that spattered her face was a little more power, a little more energy.
Not enough, of course. Above her, her enemy stretched from horizon to horizon, a vast, formless face. A pair of electric arcs flashed inside the clouds up there, suggesting two love-sick eyes the size of ocean liners.
Thunder burst all around Babs. Wind lashed at her, trying to drive her back. She would not be stopped.
“Stop!” Kate shouted. Her eyes glowed exactly the color of the lights in the dark sky. “Don’t come any closer! I won’t let him hurt you.”
“I’m not ankling on this,” Babs called back.