Excerpts from THE 13TH DESCENT by KY LEHMAN
From Chapter 2
“Come on, Renay! You’re as slow as a wet week,” she snaps. “Right behind you,” I grumble, trying to coax my jelly legs to step out of the car. She bustles us inside and disarms her house alarm. She grabs my hand, leads me straight to the navy blue comfy couch and gestures for me to sit. “Drink?” she asks. “No, thanks.” She goes to the kitchen and gets me a tall glass of water anyway. Then everything goes from strange to downright bizarre when she sits down, squishes in next to me, puts her arm around my shoulders and rests her cheek on my hair. I am wedged in-between her and the armrest: I couldn’t move if I tried, and I honestly don’t want to. Hugs from my one and only aunt are like sunny days in the winter. They are rare. They are warm. They smell of cream and cinnamon. They go by too quickly. And you know you’ll have to wait a while for the next one. “Look at me, Renay,” she gently commands. Bleary eyed, she carefully scans my face and sighs. It seems she is already regretting what she is yet to say. A chill of forewarning forces a shiver: it sets my heart pounding and my legs that have finally regained feeling start to twitch and shake, preparing to run. She senses my panic and holds me tighter, and starts to softly hum a familiar tune that Nanna must have used to calm her down too. Slowly, the dread resides and the warmth returns. My stiff posture thaws allowing me to slump into her side. Realising she has been given the green light, she takes a deep breath and starts talking. Aunt Romey has never been one to beat around the bush. Simple English. No fluff. The bare facts followed by her opinion of them. But this time, the candour I usually appreciate brings with it a realisation that hits me so hard, that, for the first time since the bomb went off, I am relieved the undercooked takeout chicken kept me home that night. Bedtime stories that once lulled me into sweet dreams now leave me feeling cold, heavy and sick. Horrifying truth gives a voice to the intoxicated mutterings of a grieving husband and father. Nanna’s fairy tales. Georgie Pa’s drunken rants. All of the frayed strands and loose ends I’ve obliviously left hanging tangle and weave into the blood stained tapestry that is Aunt Romey’s history lesson. Three versions of the same unfathomable story, each with its own conclusion. The fairy tale ends in hope. The drunken rant ends in fear. And the history lesson will only end with the death of the Three Roses, who my newfound enemies believe are Nanna, Mum and me. Surrounded by the ghosts of our ancestors and their vindicating screams, I cling to the only olive branch within reach. Mum may be on the run, but she is alive and well. But the sinewy little branch is not strong enough to bear the weight of centuries of lost life. It snaps, and I limply fall into large, familiar, bloodstained hands that carry me off into the black quiet.
From Chapter 5
As Mike and I quietly sit on the couch nursing our hot beverages, I decide, for both our sakes, to try and find a restful place somewhere between the peace I know and this peace with no name, at least for a quiet cuppa’s worth. I’m trying. I really am. But it seems that no matter if I’m sitting, resting, or running around like a headless chook, there will be no respite until I ask the one seemingly small, possibly huge, question that continues to taunt me. I gulp down the rest of my still too hot chocolate, losing the deal I made with myself in record time with a scolded tongue as punishment. “Which lifetime has been your favourite?” I blurt out. Mike baulks, coughs, and nearly spits his coffee all over me. I pat him on the back, but he gestures for me to stop. When his coughing fit finally stops, he peeks over at me, grins shyly and shakes his head. “Give it a rest, Ren.” Screw. That. I pipe up. “You said that if I have any questions-” “OK! OK! Keep your crown on!” he says with his hands raised like I’ve got a gun pointed at him. “It was during the nineteenth century. You were a nurse and I was a soldier,” he says, looking everywhere but at me. “You lived to be an old woman and I lived to be an old man. We got a lot done in that lifetime. People still call you the Lady with the Lamp.” He quickly jumps to a stand and turns to leave the room. “Where are you going off to in such a hurry?” “To the bathroom, if that’s OK with you, your Highness,” he answers over his shoulder. As I watch him walk away, I think of me living as an old woman and it hits me. I was once a nurse and a very dedicated one. I remember my privileged upbringing. My parents’ expectations. My expectations. What the poor souls around me were reduced to. Our enemies, foreign and domestic. The constant battles. The wars. The suffering. The pain of life. The peace of death. My distrust of men, bar one. Finding solace amongst amber shards floating in rich brown pools. For a time, he was alone with those eyes wide open in a world that refused to see. His love. Our ongoing affair. Volatile and primal, but good. My body responds in agreement. Apparently, very good. Oh, God... Thankfully, he takes his time coming back, but when he does, he is holding Georgie Pa’s box still wrapped up in paper. Feeling his eyes on me, I look up at him standing before me, and the vision of us half naked, frantically kissing and rolling across the floor flashes before my eyes and also in other places. “Oh, God,” I gasp and wince. “Um...I mean, I completely forgot about that,” I mumble, propelling myself upright to snatch Georgie Pa’s box from him. “So, you do remember,” he says, smirking.
From Chapter 8
I am suddenly snapped into the here and now by Mike’s one of a kind knock. “Ren? Are you nearly done in there, because we’ve really gotta go,” he calls from the other side of the bathroom door. I shut off the water, slide open the shower screen door and stick my head through the opening. “Coming,” I squeak. “Meet you at the car in ten minutes, OK?” “OK,” I reluctantly answer. I’m trying to hurry, but it feels like I am moving in slow motion. Now push has really come to shove, I realise that yesterday’s dreams have well and truly been trampled by today’s reality. No wonder my brain has confused rushing with plodding as my hopes, as brightly farfetched as they were, darken into their polar opposites. Getting Georgie Pa off the grog. After hearing about all of this, he’ll probably drown himself in a vat of scotch. Mum is alive, but I have to wait until they say I can see her. They won’t even let me hear her voice. Finding my long lost father, who turns out to be a Father, and a murderer. Finding the bird-man of my dreams, who, not only happens to look and sing like a rugged angel, he is also one of the most popular leading men on the planet, and my own personal favourite at that. And, apparently, I was once married to him! One of the brightest doves who has ever lived...with a Ren? Give me a break... And, even though the pretty bird-man and me are yet to meet in this lifetime, Aunt Romey and Mike seem to be convinced that there could still be something between us. I’d hate to disappoint you guys, but most things end up pretty dead and crusty after two thousand years. That’s a lot of spilt milk under the bridge, not to mention that living the life of a rock star could have turned him into a complete arsehole... Now I understand that when your choices are made for you, the magic of what they once represented vanishes right along with them.
From Chapter 10
Because we have an hour and a half before our next flight takes off, and I can’t bear the thought of another torturous half-a-day trapped in an enclosed space with him this shitty at me, I decide that now is the time to take a stab at breaking the ice: here on solid ground with easily accessible emergency exits amongst all these relaxed, smartly dressed people in this posh boarding lounge, hoping our surroundings will make Mike think twice before getting loud as he has been known to do when he is this mad. I take a deep breath, lean towards him and whisper, “So...with the recent changes and all, what are we supposed to be to each other now?” “WHAT?” he yells, throwing himself back in his chair like he has been electrocuted. “With our new names, what are we to each other now?” I softly repeat, the double meaning to my now regrettable question hanging over my head like an axe. “You’re asking me this, here? Now?” he snarls, glaring at me and breathing heavily. Well done, Ren. That broke the ice, and started an avalanche. My soaring anxiety brings with it uncontrollable trembling, and my eyes become hot and twitchy, threatening to overflow. But, then I remind myself I’d rather be up to my neck in his frosty words than suffer another minute of his cold silence, and that I deserve the payout that’s coming to me. I brace myself and peek up at him, quickly looking straight back down when I see the gutted expression shrouding his once glowing face. It is in this tragic moment that I realise that I haven’t seen his light since he first showed it to me all those hours ago. “Well, um...our new passports say that we’re no longer siblings, so what is our relationship to each other?” I quietly ask, attempting to downgrade my loaded question into an innocent one. “You want to know what you are to me?” he growls and abruptly stands. “Do you?” he seethes as he leans forward, staring me down. “You are my first breath. My last breath. And all of the heartbeats in-between. You are my joy. You are my pain. My one true hope. For God’s sake, Ren, you are the mother of the children I finally realise we will never have.” He inhales deeply through his clenched teeth making a hissing sound. “And, after all this time, you still have no friggin’ idea.” Pinned in my seat, all I am capable of doing is blinking and assisting the hot rush of tears to spill down my cheeks. As he holds his glare, I see the amber flecks in pools of rich brown ripple, flicker, and vanish. I gasp and slowly point up at his changing eyes, shocked and devastated at how that light that allows me to see into is soul has faded too. He gives me a curt nod acknowledging what has gone. He sighs, in what I pray is regret and not relief, and with an indifferent gaze and a distant tone I don’t recognise, he softly and terrifyingly says, “You know what you are to me, Serenay? You are my greatest disappointment.” He pushes away from the table, snatches up his backpack, turns and strides away from me. My panicked heart rips me out of my seat and propels me forward. “Mike!” I scream, tripping over a chair leg and ungraciously falling to my knees. Everyone in the lounge immediately turns towards the commotion I’m making, everyone except for him.
From Chapter 20
Josh’s primal scream tears through the space fast closing between us now he has turned his back on the red cloaks and we are both sprinting towards our fallen and bleeding Benni Dhoo. The pained cry ripping through and out of Josh resonates in the depths of my old soul as my heart pounds out of my chest and my feet pound the earth, pushing them to move faster even though the agonising sounds I am running towards cruelly echo that I will never be fast enough. Josh gets to Benni Dhoo before I do. He drops to his knees and immediately clamps his hands over the blood drenched wound spreading across his father’s furry side. I pull up at Benni Dhoo’s back a few seconds later to see him weakly lift his head, look straight at Josh and shake his head, no. My legs crumple beneath me as the unbearable largeness of that small gesture hits home. “No. I’m not going to let you die. I am not going to let those bastards take you too,” a repentant son vows to his dying father. It is only now that I feel the weight of the Annals in the backpack I’m still wearing. Benni Dhoo tries turn his head further around so he can see me. To save him the effort, I lean forward and over him, and coax his fiery amber gaze to follow mine so his head is lying back down on the grass. With unchanging eyes, he intently watches me as his greying black coat falls away leaving him bare skinned and pink, his sharp teeth blunt into a smile of yielding peace, and his claws elongate into hands and feet of the lanky man he once was. And as his now mortal blood coats Josh’s insistent hands, overflowing and running down the valleys between his protruding ribs and seeping into the earth beneath him, a time weary Nathan looks up at his distraught first born son and breathlessly says, “My love for you and our kin has kept me going all these years. But now, son, your love for me has to let me go.”