Water, Flesh, and Stone
enny had loved being an engineer once. She knew it somewhere in the back of her mind, remembered it a little bit, but it didn't seem to mean anything to her anymore. It was something she had once loved, like ballet, or Thomas Alison. It was something that had once mattered. Now—unlike ballet or Tom Alison—it was just something she had to deal with day in and day out.
She had thought that her professional cheer was keeping up appearances, but Russ, her team lead, called her in one Friday afternoon.
"I think I've noticed some frustration from you on the Choe project. Is there anything I can do about that?" he asked.
"I'm fine, thanks."
"I don't think you are, Jen. Your enthusiasm on this project has been way down."
"It's nothing new," she snapped. "It's just another piece of work. I'll get it done on schedule, don't worry."
"It is new. Every project is new," said Russ. "Making a zero-emissions plant they can actually afford—that's different from theory of how to lower emissions. That's why we're engineers, Jen. Because actually making the thing and doing it right matters."
"It's not like they're going to do it right anyway. We'll get some bozo plant engineer who will misread the specs and dump in thirty grams of polymer when the spec calls for thirty milligrams."
He sighed. "We need you to do your part, Jen. That's all. You've seemed awfully burnt out lately, and I'm worried."
"Thanks for your concern," she said automatically. She tried to paste an apologetic look on her face, knowing that was what was called for. "I do appreciate it."
"Oh, God." She raked her fingers through her hair, peering at him from behind her hand. "I am so sorry, Russ. I've been screening his calls on my home number, so I guess he thought at work—"
"It's okay, really. Do you need to take some personal days, maybe go visit family or friends somewhere?"
"No. I'm fine, really. Thanks. I can see where he'd worry you. But I'm fine. I'll call him back tonight and let him know he's not to bother me at work ever again."
"If you're sure," said Russ, not bothering to hide his skepticism.
"I'm fine," she repeated, not knowing what else she could say.
And she was fine. She didn't know what other word she could use. She was not angry, depressed, elated, apprehensive, excited, hopeful, exhausted, amused, or disappointed. She was fine, and that was all.
After work she stopped off in one of the little coffee franchises that had popped up in the last few years. She swung through for a latté and the afternoon paper a few times a week, not often enough that the counter staff knew her but often enough that she knew where the napkins were. It was safely anonymous, the coffee uniformly all right and no better than that. She was almost done with the Metro section when she became aware of someone sitting with her: a woman; small, tidy, graying.
"Hello, Jenny," said the stranger.
"Hi," said Jenny, smiling insincerely. "Gosh, I haven't seen you in forever. What was it, at the—"
"You've never seen me, so you needn't bother cudgeling your brain for when," said the woman. "I'm Jane. I came here to warn you before Halloween comes."
"It's August," said Jenny. A fundamentalist nutjob, maybe? But how had the other woman gotten her name? She'd paid with cash, so there wasn't a credit card receipt to blame.
"You have to have time, or things won't be right with Tom again."
"Oh, Jesus, it's Tom."
"Tom, yes; Jesus, no. The Queen of Air and Darkness has him in her power now."
"Riiiiight," said Jenny, looking around to see if anyone else was catching this. No one was, and the woman was between her and the door. "I do see."
"Okay, you're right, I don't, but if you leave me alone, I promise not to make a thing about it, all right? Tom and I broke up, that's the end of that, and I'm moving on. So I really don't care if he's in a Turkish prison or under the power of the Queen of Whatever-it-was. It is no longer my problem."
"Queen of Air and Darkness. Every seven years she pays a human soul to the Lords of Hell. Fourteen years ago it was my man she was going to tithe to Hell," said Jane. "I stopped her. I pulled him down off his horse and held him to me despite her spells."
"I see," said Jenny, trying not to draw visibly back.
"And when she saw I'd defeated her, she said if she'd known I would do it, she would have taken away my heart of flesh and given me a heart of stone."
"That's very poetic."
Jane fixed her with a beady glare, like an angry little bird. "It's what she's done to you, my girl, so don't fumble for the exits while you force a polite smile at me."
Jenny pushed her mouth out of its habitual polite smile, reflexively moving her lips downwards. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Jenny looked around. She and Tom had been together two years, and she'd never heard a word of this woman. She wondered how they'd set it up. "How did you find me?"
Jane jerked her thumb at the parking lot. "Rebecca's fey-touched. From when I saved her father. She found Thomas first, then you."
Jenny peered out the window. A sullen girl of about thirteen was watching them from behind owlish glasses and under a blonde fringe. When she saw Jenny look out, she turned away, folding her arms. Jenny remembered herself at that age, a sunny little wisp, still a child in appearance. Not like the girl in the car at all.
"Rebecca thinks you're a malicious idiot," Jane continued, as though she was giving the weather report, "and she wishes Tom would go find some other true love, the sooner the better. You know how omniscient thirteen can be. I've told her that one’s own true loves aren't that easy to come by."
Jenny found herself nodding wryly without thinking. She stopped. "This is crazy. You're crazy. Your daughter is either crazy or screwed up by this weird crap you're teaching her. I don't know why Tom told you about me or what he thinks this is going to do, but I want you to leave me alone."
Jane shrugged. "I didn't expect you'd believe. Rebecca knew you wouldn't. She thought it was a waste of our time."
"Maybe you'd better listen to your daughter, then."
Jane fixed Jenny with a stare that made her squirm. "You're a foolish woman, Jenny Flaherty."
The girl Rebecca came in from the car, untied tennis shoes slopping around her feet. "Are you done, Mom? Can we go now?"
"Be my guest," said Jenny.
"I told you," said Rebecca.
"I have one more thing to tell her," said Jane, standing up. "Then we can go. Jenny, go swimming."
"Listen, lady, right now I don't want to go to the parking lot if you're still in it, much less a body of water."
"You don't have to go with us. But the water should help with the spell. Just—go swimming, all right? See how you feel after that."
Jenny shook her head. Swimming. It was all extremely weird.
Still, she liked swimming, didn't she? Something in her head was telling her that she didn't, she shouldn't, but she distinctly remembered that she used to use the pool at her gym, and that she had switched to the elliptical machine one day and never looked back.
Well, why not? The nagging little voice in her head could provide neither reason nor evidence for why she should not like to swim, and Tom couldn't very well have people at her gym at every hour of the day. If she went early, she could avoid them, and then...then she would know. Whatever it was she didn't know. She decided to go after work the very next day.
Jenny felt awkward in the water, conscious of her body in ways she never was on the elliptical machine. The water was not cold—not blood-warm, yet it had to be cooler for comfortable exercise—but she had to force herself not to climb back out when it hit her butt and again when it came up to her breasts. She took a deep breath and plunged her head under the water.
For a moment Jenny was disoriented. She opened her eyes against the sting of the chlorine, to see which direction the lights were, which way was up. She swam a slow length of breaststroke, trying to get her head to clear. Her instincts shrieked at her to get out of the water, but she clung to the end of the pool, taking deep breaths instead.
When the spinning feeling abated, she swam the return length on her back, not kicking so much as fluttering her toes. And she remembered the woman.
The woman showed up at a wine bar where Jenny was waiting for her best friend Cam—when had she last called Cam, she wondered? The wine bar had half-price nights every Tuesday, and Cam and Jenny sat and bitched about their boyfriends. The stranger was slender and well-dressed. Her dark hair was in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, strands escaping as she sat there sipping her Merlot. She wore a black skirt and smoky hose; she looked, Jenny realized suddenly, like a more glamorous version of Jenny herself.
The strange woman leaned over to her. "Why don't you leave him?"
Jenny started. "What do you mean? I'm sorry—do I know you?"
"No, of course not." The stranger smiled. "But I know that look on your face. Are you sure you wouldn't be better off without him?"
"Oh, I'm sure," said Jenny. "He's—he drives me crazy, I won't deny that. But leaving him would kill me."
"Maybe you're too soft-hearted," said the woman.
"Maybe I am."
"Maybe you should trade your heart of flesh for a heart of stone."
Jenny met the woman's eyes. The air crackled, and she knew, with a tinge of fear, that something out of the ordinary was going on. "Yes," she said. "My heart of flesh for a heart of stone. It's a deal."
Shaking, Jenny pulled herself out of the pool and bolted for the locker room.
The teenager and her mother were sitting on the bench between the rows of lockers when Jenny came out of the showers.
"It's better now after the swimming, isn't it?" said the annoying child. Rebecca, Jenny remembered.
"No!" she said. "Nothing is better at all, thank you, and I think I pulled a muscle in my arm, and if you'll kindly stop interfering in my life, I think we'll all be the better for it."
"Maybe the happier," said Rebecca. "Not the better."
Jenny turned to Jane. "Can you get Kid Oracle out of my face while I get dressed, please?"
"She still has the heart of stone," Jane reminded Rebecca. "It's just that now she knows it."
"It wouldn't take a heart of stone to object to obnoxious kids getting in your face and your private life all at once," said Jenny. "Trust me on this."
Jane put a hand on Rebecca's arm. "Come on, let her dress in peace. We'll talk to her after."
Jenny thought about dawdling over her clothes, but she knew that Jane and Rebecca would be as patient as they had to be. She slipped on the T-shirt and yoga pants she'd brought with her and joined them in the hall.
"Let's go grab some dinner," said Jane. "We can talk while we eat."
"And I suppose you'd better tell me exactly what's wrong with Tom," Jenny said with a put-upon sigh.
Rebecca glared at her. "You're sure he doesn't have time to find another own true love by Halloween?" she asked her mother.
"Quite sure," said Jane. Jenny thought she saw a smile dancing around the corners of the older woman's lips.
"It's like I told you," said Jane, once they had ordered their enchiladas and Rebecca her tacos. "At the end of every seven years, the Queen of Air and Darkness must pay a tithe to the Lords of Hell. They take a human soul, or her powers are weakened."
"Why Tom?" said Jenny. "He's never been involved with anything occult."
"No, but when he rode before her, he fell," said Jane. "Those are the rules. The mortal men have to fall from their horses for the Queen to be able to take them."
"Tom doesn't ride."
"Usually she uses bicycles these days," said Jane, and Jenny remembered Tom limping in from his morning bike ride once in June, knees bloodied and eyes dazed. The memory woke no special feeling in her but recognition. "The only thing that can save him now is if you get pregnant and pull him down from his horse when he has to ride with her to pay the tithe. Those are the rules."
"But now that you've traded hearts, he's beyond where rules can help you," said Rebecca.
Jenny tried to act patient with the child, but something about Rebecca got on her nerves. "There's nothing beyond where rules can help you."
"No. You're wrong." Jane put a hand on her daughter's shoulder, but Rebecca went on: "You're not going to save him if you just follow rules. You have to defy them."
"I don't have to do anything. He shouldn't have fallen," said Jenny. "If he didn't want her to catch him, he shouldn't have fallen."
Rebecca made a rude, disgusted noise. "You had to take special stupid lessons to be this dumb, didn't you?"
Jane was a little gentler. "Have you never made a mistake, Jenny?" They were all silent while the waiter gave them their dinners.
"I take the consequences of my mistakes," said Jenny. "I don't chase my exes to try to make them do it all for me. I definitely don't send random strangers after them."
"And you don't care if he gets sacrificed to the Lords of Hell?"
Jenny hesitated. "I mean, no human being should—we're talking death here?"
"Worse," said Rebecca with owlish solemnity. "This is the fate worse than death you always hear about."
"Then I don't know what I can do here," said Jenny. "You said it had to be his true love to save him?" Jane nodded. "I don't love him. Maybe it's this stone heart thing, maybe it's not, but I can tell you right now, I don't love Tom Alison. So what do you want me to do?"
"Water wears down stone," said Jane. "And the Queen can't cross running water without human aid. Spend as much time as you can with water."
"That's my job," said Jenny. "I design water treatment systems for treatment plants—ethanol, mostly, these days."
"Well, get out to the plant sites, then," said Jane.
"Half of them aren't even in this country!" Jenny protested.
"Isn't there anywhere you could go?"
Jenny sighed. "Yes. There's a plant just built about thirty miles from town. We may have to change some of the chemical usage to get it to run properly."
"Good. Go out to the site yourself. See what happens."
Jenny couldn't manage to summon any good reasons why she shouldn't give it a try. Engineers—the good ones, anyway—went out to the plants all the time. When she said she was going to check on the plant's progress, Russ looked deeply relieved.
"Probably do you some good to get out of the office," he said. "I know the plant manager will be glad to see you."
But when Jenny arrived, the plant manager was nowhere to be seen, and the workers were gone as well. There was only one car in the parking lot, and she recognized it all too well: Tom Alison's little grey Volvo.
"Tom?" she shouted as the plant door closed behind her with a clang. "Tom, what are you doing here?"
"We're waiting for you," said Tom in a normal voice. She turned. He was standing in the hallway with Rebecca, her smudged glasses winking in the exit lights. Her shoelace was untied.
"What are you doing here?" she repeated, this time directed at Rebecca.
"I'm here to help," said Rebecca. "Tom needs it."
"Your mom shouldn't have let you come," said Jenny.
"I'm not alone. You and Tom will take care of me. Besides," Rebecca added with an eloquent grimace, "I'm not a baby."
"Oh, God," said Tom. Rebecca glared at him. "I should make you go back to the car."
"You never should have brought her in the first place, Tom. What were you thinking? This is so typical of you. You never think anything through, you just rush in and hope that I'll be there to save you."
"No one else can, this time," he said.
"And whose fault is that?"
Tom looked at her steadily until she looked away. "I can't help that I love you."
"You could have helped—” Jenny took a deep breath. "You could have helped how you treated me, though. Whether you listened." She felt odd, as if her head was floating. "I think I should sit down."
She made her way to the control room, Tom and Rebecca trailing her like ducklings. She flopped in the plant manager's chair. "I don't even know why I came here."
"To get your heart back," said Rebecca.
"I'm not sure I want my heart back."
Tom just looked at her. She had to look away; he always used the puppy eyes on her, and it worked too often, and she was not going to fall for it again.
The sound of the boilers distracted her from her train of thought long enough to realize that she had to think it: her heart of stone—the water rushed through pipes above her head—her heart of stone was melting.
"Damn," she said. And then, louder, "Damn!" She had begun to care about her work again, and to notice that the water sounded wrong. She leapt up. The boiler started to rumble and hiss.
"What's that?" asked Rebecca.
Jenny looked around. The boiler gauges all shot up simultaneously. "Damn," said Jenny. "Run!" She grabbed Rebecca's arm and shoved Tom ahead of them. They made it out the door as the boiler started to screech and rumble. They crouched in a hollow on the far side of the parking lot while the building exploded into flames.
"Keep going!" Jenny shouted. "The fire will spread from here!"
As they ran, Jenny pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911, then her boss. There was no answer at the office, and in the middle of the voicemail, her phone went dead.
"Jen," said Tom, looking over his shoulder again and again, "I'm no chemist. Is that color normal?"
The flames sparkled and swirled in all colors of the rainbow, but predominantly a deep crimson, nearly maroon. The water in the boiler was escaping as steam—too late, Jenny thought: the running water had already freed her. "Not normal, no," she panted. "That's her doing."
Rebecca stopped. "She's going to make it come after us. A fortuitous accident, inside the rules of her own power."
"Can we do anything but run?" Jenny asked, but she was tempted to keep on anyway and let the girl stand there and be burnt if that was what she wanted.
Rebecca bit her lip. "If I can use you two and your bond like power from my parents, maybe." She held a hand out to each of them. Tom grabbed her and held on. Jenny hesitated. Rebecca closed her eyes against the impact.
At the last minute, Jenny thrust her hand roughly into the girl's. She felt something sticky, like a toddler's grip, and the last of something hard crumbled to dust inside her as the world illuminated itself in scarlet.
The last explosion knocked all of them to the ground. They picked themselves up, dazed. Rebecca held the halves of her glasses, and Tom's right hand dripped blood. Jenny's ears were ringing, but nothing like they should have been with the size of explosion. She shook herself.
"All right," Jenny heard herself say. "I'll do it. All right. But things have to be different."
Tom stroked her hair with his uninjured hand. "I think it's safe to say they will be."
Rebecca grinned, clutching her broken glasses, and Jenny gave her a fierce, impulsive hug. "I'm glad you came after all. So glad."
"Your heart of flesh is back," Rebecca mumbled into Jenny's chest.
"For better or worse, I suppose it is." Jenny let Rebecca go. The child took two steps back and then fell over her shoelace, gasping. Jenny turned.
There was a soot-smudged figure stalking across the wreckage of the lawn. As it neared, Jenny could see that the Queen of Air and Darkness no longer looked much like Jenny herself at all. The soot should have made her look ridiculous, but it did not; instead, she looked like beautiful vengeance personified.
Jenny found her voice. "It's not Halloween yet."
"No," said the Queen.
"And if you could just kill me outright, you'd have done it in the first place. But I'm none of yours."
"Not yet. But when you fail on All Hallows, you will be. You will be like foam on the waves when I have finished with you," said the Queen. "You have not won him yet, my girl."
"No, but I will," said Jenny. "And you know I will, or you wouldn't have offered me the heart of stone in the first place."
"Maybe if you could have saved him, you wouldn't have taken it. You agreed to the trade, you know."
"I know." Jenny took Tom's hand, careful of the cut. "But I know better now. And if I don't, I can keep learning."
The Queen smiled. "You'll have to."