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art by M.S. Corley

I'll Leave The Light On

***Editor's Note: Adult language, used judiciously***
The boy throwing rocks at the No Parking sign on Tide Street at around eight p.m. (she'd had to work late, and afterwards had made a detour to a convenience store, and then decided to take this way home--pure chance, nothing but pure chance--if such a thing truly existed) was the first coiler Dahyana had ever seen in the flesh, other than Mrs. Millar. And herself. But then, you never really saw yourself. When she was a child, that boy's age or a little older, Dahyana had spent a stupid amount of time staring into a mirror. Mrs. Millar never stopped her, just nodded and said it was hard, wasn't it? "But where is it?" Dahyana would ask. "You said you saw it."
"Of course I saw it. I saw it the very first time I laid eyes on you. I see it now."
"Then show me. Point to it."
"It's not in one place. Come on, you know that. Do you see it in one place when you look at me?"
Yes, she did. When she looked at Mrs. Millar, Dahyana saw the flicker, the glimmer, the little light, on her chin, right on the spot where there was almost, but not quite, a dimple. Dahyana said so, but Mrs. Millar just laughed.
The boy throwing rocks glowed.
He hurled another rock. It struck the o in the No of the No Parking sign with a mighty clang.
"We recognize each other," Mrs. Millar said, time and again. "How do you think I found you?" But Dahyana had been a baby when Mrs. Millar spotted her. Barely walking. No way to protest, except by wailing. She thought she could remember that, being held tight in Mrs. Millar's arms, and Mrs. Millar running, and herself flailing and crying. Dahyana thought she also remembered shouts behind them, but she couldn't be sure that was a true memory.
This boy was at least ten.
He will recognize me, Dahyana thought, as she walked toward him. Or at least recognize that there is something about us that is the same. And besides, I am not going to snatch him up and run. I'm just going to talk to him.
Just talk. Nothing else.
The boy didn't turn around until Dahyana was less than a meter behind him, and then it was just a quick glance over his shoulder.
"Those are a lot of rocks you've got there," she said. "Where did you get them all?"
He didn't answer. He picked up another rock and held it. He glanced at her again, then back at the sign.
"You dented that thing real good. You mad at this No Parking sign, or something?"
"Must've taken you a long time to collect all those rocks."
"I got them from the park."
"Sure. That makes sense. Best place to find rocks around here, I guess."
"Fuck off, lady."
"Okay," Dahyana said. "But first I want you to turn around and look at me. Can you do that? Just for a minute."
"Just for a second."
The boy turned, and threw the rock he was holding at her head.
Dahyana had been expecting this. Mrs. Millar had never apologized for taking her, saying only, "They grow up angry, the ones who are alone. You think you're angry now, I know. Maybe you even hate me. That's all right. You hate me as long as you need to."
"Don't you ever think about my parents?" Dahyana had indeed been angry that day, refusing to practice, refusing to do her chores. "About what you did to them?"
"I know what I did to them. But I also know what they would have done to you. Not on purpose. But they would have made you useless, and you never would have learned what you are capable of."
Coilers had to be quick; Dahyana saw the rock coming before it left the boy's hand. She dodged, and it flew past without touching her.
"Look at me."
He was panting a bit, more from rage than exertion. Angry, oh yes. They grow up angry. Doesn't everyone, Dahyana had retorted. She thought she glimpsed it now, though, the sort of anger that Mrs. Millar meant.
"Imagine there's a house on fire," Mrs. Millar used to say. "But you don't know what a house is, or what a fire is, or how to put a fire out. You smell smoke, but you don't know what smoke is. You hear people screaming, but you're the only one who does. And this happens again and again. And you, you are very strong, but that strength is worthless, because you don't know how to use it. I've seen it, what happens to the ones who are never found. How can they help but want to tear the world to shreds?"
"What did that No Parking sign ever do to you?" Dahyana asked, softly.
"It's not your fucking sign."
"No. It isn't."
The boy was looking at her, despite himself. He glanced away over and over, but his eyes kept coming back to her face.
"You know me," Dahyana said.
"I don't. I've never seen you before."
"I'm not going to hurt you."
"You think I'm scared of you? Fuck you."
"I'm going to teach you."
"You're sick, lady. I'm telling my mom. I'm telling my mom, and she's going to tell the police." He fidgeted; he made a move to pick up another rock, then stopped. And his eyes kept coming back to her face.
My face, Dahyana thought. All those days, all those years, of staring into the mirror. And it was my face all along.
"You see it," she said. "Want to know what I see when I look at you? A glow, a light all over you."
"A glow?"
"Yes. Like every part of you is painted with cool blue fire."
"I only see sparkles," he said. "They jump around on your face. Do they always do that?"
"What? I don't know. I can't see them, myself. Can you see the blue glow you have?"
"You're full of shit. There's no glow."
"I can see your glow the same way you can see my sparkles." Sparkles? Jumping around? Maybe, Dahyana thought, the light is the same in all of us, but we each see it differently. Maybe if the boy looked at Mrs. Millar, he wouldn't see it on her chin. Maybe Mrs. Millar wouldn't see a glow. And maybe she should stop thinking about this, just because she didn't like the idea of jumping sparkles. It seemed so... undignified.
"Leave me alone," the boy said.
"You're feeling it now, aren't you? See, all of us with a light can do that. We recognize each other. The people who don't have lights, and that's most of them, they can't see the lights in us, and they can't tell that we're any different from them. We're just strangers they pass on the street, or live next door to, or work in the same place with. But you and me, we're not strangers."
He was looking at her steadily now. She could almost see the thoughts spinning in his head. He believed her, but it was the sort of belief that a ten-year-old would be ashamed to admit to, like really believing that toys came to life after you'd gone to bed, or that The Old Lady With No Teeth would get you if you were bad. Give him a reason to push it away, and he'd do it with angry relief.
"I don't glow," he said. "You're making it up."
"Are you making up my sparkles?"
"Leave me alone."
"I will. I'll go away and never bother you again, if that's what you want. But I need to show you something first."
"No way."
"I'm not kidnapping you, dude." Mrs. Millar had; Mrs. Millar had snatched Dahyana and run. You'll understand some day, Mrs. Millar had said. You'll understand, when you see a coiler, lost and helpless, and doomed to grow up lost and helpless. You'll feel the same way I did, and the same way my teacher did. And besides, why do you think you're so good at it now? It's because I found you when you were young. The training is much harder when you're grown.
"I'm not," Dahyana said. "I promise. You'll go home tonight to your mom and dad, or whoever. You'll wake up in your own bed tomorrow. And if you want to see me again, it'll be up to you to find me."
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"Think about it," Dahyana said. "Same way I found you. Come on."
That was a good question. Dahyana was, indeed, very good at what she did. Often, when they worked together, she spotted the threads before Mrs. Millar did, and she was certainly quicker at coiling them up. And you couldn't claim they were particularly difficult to find, nowadays. Some days it seemed every other crack in the sidewalk concealed two or three of the little squirmers, and every second or third fallen leaf or discarded wrapper sheltered another. Some days. She looked around, and looked around again, and thought, Oh, please. This is ridiculous. Naturally the threads were easier to see in the daytime, but wherever a coiler was, threads gathered. Mrs. Millar had no explanation for that; it was one of the conundrums of existence. She used to say that if they had all the time in the universe, they could simply stand in one place, and each and every last thread would come to them.
Of course they didn't have all the time in the universe.
But this boy had had ten years or so.
"Where do you live?" Dahyana asked.
"Fuck off."
"Is it around here?"
"You're crazy." He was getting jittery again, eyes darting around, shifting his weight from one foot to another. In a second, she thought, he'd run. "You're a crazy lady and a perv."
"A crazy lady with sparkles?" Dahyana spoke softly, and stood very still. He was spooked, and he had every reason to be. She knew there was no way she was going to get him to accompany her to Greene Avenue, which was better lit, or to persuade him to show her where he lived. That was a pity, because the place would likely have attracted a great number of threads if the boy had lived there long. Odd that, the way the threads gravitated to coilers. Did the threads recognize them as well? If the threads had any sense, they'd wriggle off in the opposite direction as fast as they could. But it wasn't a question of sense or reason. The threads weren't even, probably, properly alive. It was unsettling to think there might be a deep-seated bond between the threads and the coilers. Better to believe it was akin to moths being attracted to flames, not realizing that they were flying toward their own destruction.
The rocks.
"You got those rocks in the park, you said."
"Will you let me look at them?"
"Why? They're just rocks."
"I'm going to put my shopping bag down, right here. Okay? Yeah, crazy people go shopping, too. Surprise. Then I'm going to go over to your rocks, all right? I'm just going to look at them. I'm not going to take them. I'm not going to throw them. I'm just going to examine them. Okay?"
She expected him to bolt; she had already decided that if he did, she wasn't going to run after him. Terrified, he'd be useless. Worse than useless. It was his curiosity that she needed to capture. And through his curiosity, capture him.
Dahyana's hands shook a little.
Capture him.
You'll understand one day, Mrs. Millar had said. You'll feel the same way I did.
Dahyana squatted beside the small pile of rocks the boy had collected from the park. Despite the fact that he'd hurled a few of them at the sign--and one at her--there were more than a dozen left.
He was already curious, under his fear and his anger. That was the only reason he hadn't run off yet.
All over the world, there are people like us, Mrs. Millar had taught her. We are few, but we are all members of the same family. They teach you in school about genes, don't they? Probably it has something to do with that. We all have a gene, or a group of genes, that the rest don't. Or our genes got switched on, while those of the rest of the people didn't. Or it could be something else entirely. I don't know. But you feel it, don't you?
Mrs. Millar rarely touched her after Dahyana was six or seven, but that time, she reached out and took both Dahyana's hands into her own. You can feel it, she said. You can smell it. You can even taste it, can't you, a bittersweet flavor puddling in the middle of your tongue when you wake up. We are the same.
Dahyana turned over a rock, and another one, and another one. Bits of dirt clung to a few of them; the boy had expended some effort selecting exactly the ones he wanted, instead of picking up the first rocks he saw lying on the ground. Certain stones calling to him more than others, and the kid neither understanding why, nor able to come up with anything better to do with what he'd gathered than fling them at a street sign. She took a blade of grass from one rock, and from another peeled off a thin strip of cellophane that might have come from a cigarette packet. She scraped off a small crumb of earth, and set these things on the sidewalk. Then she added the three threads she'd found among the pile.
"All right," she said. "Now come over here."
"I'll go away after you take a look."
"You move back first."
"Sure." Dahyana straightened up, brushed off her knees, and retreated several paces.
Curiosity. And the smell of her, as well. That was working on him, too. Mrs. Millar hadn't been wrong about that, or about the flavor Dahyana had found filling her mouth some mornings. The boy's face was anxious, uncertain, but he moved forward, and gazed down at what she had laid out on the sidewalk.
"What are those things?" he said at once.
"You tell me. They were hiding in your pile of rocks."
"Hiding? That's bull." He leaned back, his weight on the heel of his right foot. "You took them out of your pocket."
"You were watching me. You know I didn't."
"Shit!" He jumped, but he didn't run. "It moved! One of them moved!"
"They do that," Dahyana said. She could remember the first time Mrs. Millar showed them to her, put a couple of them in with a group of other objects: a paper clip, a crayon, some plastic beads, a pair of dice. Just like the boy, Dahyana had spotted the threads immediately.
"They're all moving!" And still he wasn't running. He wasn't moving closer to them, but he wasn't running away. And he glowed. He glowed such a strong, brilliant blue Dahyana found herself glancing around to see if anyone had noticed. But the street was empty; no one was looking out the windows of the apartment complex across the way. And she knew, of course, that even if someone had been, that person would have registered nothing more than the two of them, talking.
"How many are there?" she asked.
"Are you sure? Not two? Not four?"
"All right, then. Now let me show you what we do with them. Will you let me do that? I'll have to come up close to do that."
"Are they alive?"
"We think so. They feel alive, when you hold them." She'd said we deliberately, hoping he would catch that word.
"Like... worms? Like bugs?"
"We call them threads." She moved, slowly, to the small space on the sidewalk where she had laid out her test. He wouldn't run now, she thought, not unless she made a serious blunder, pushed him beyond his tolerance. The first time Mrs. Millar had made her hold a thread, Dahyana had started to cry. And by then, she had been with Mrs. Millar for over seven years.
"What do they do?"
"They crawl. They burrow. And sometimes they get inside people."
"Inside people?"
"Yes." She squatted, forearms on her knees. "That's bad for them, and bad for the people, too. They can't exist very long inside a person. And a person with threads in them gets sick."
"Sick how?"
"Different kinds of sick, depending on where the threads wind up. You'll learn all about it, later. If you want to. But the threads can't hurt us, not you or me, or other people like us. Now let me show you what we do."
The boy was silent. She looked at him. Scared. Teeth set, fists clenched. She couldn't blame him. She'd been afraid, too, the first time. And the second. And the third.
"Look." Dahyana picked up one thread and laid it on the palm of her left hand. The thread twitched, then reared up. She had always wondered if it hurt them, to be coiled. Mrs. Millar said it didn't matter, that the end result was what counted, but Dahyana still wondered. She hoped it didn't.
"Your sparkles," the boy said. "They're getting bigger."
Another surprise. Mrs. Millar had never mentioned any such thing. And Dahyana had never noticed Mrs. Millar's light changing when she coiled a thread. "Just watch," Dahyana said.
She held a finger over the thread, not touching it. She circled her finger slowly, clockwise, and the thread began to coil, sinking down into her palm, wrapping itself up in itself, until it was merely a dot in the center of her palm. "This is the easy part," she said. "You see? You see how it curled up? Tighter and tighter, smaller and smaller?"
"Is it still moving?"
"No." That wasn't always the case; sometimes, especially with the larger threads, you could still feel a quiver even after they'd been coiled. But this one was quiescent.
"Is it dead?"
"No." She'd asked the same thing: Are we killing them? Is that what we do? And Mrs. Millar had said: We're sending them home. They don't belong here. We open a little door, and we flick them through.
Dahyana did not entirely believe this. When she used the light, it did feel like she was pushing the threads somewhere else, but she had never been able to catch a sense of what that somewhere else was. Nothingness, maybe. At least the threads made no sound, or no sound that she could perceive. If they screamed, she couldn't hear it, and that made it easier to tell herself that Mrs. Millar must be right.
"Keep watching. This is the hard part. You feel tired after this."
She'd never felt that the energy, the light, emanated from her face. When she opened the little door--which was an analogy, a metaphor, or something like that; there wasn't any real door, though Mrs. Millar always liked to call it that--Dahyana felt a tingling in her skin, and sometimes an itch on her back or on the soles of her feet. She opened the little door now, and the tingling sensation rushed over her. The boy gasped. She put her finger down on the coiled thread, and concentrated. This was a small one, an easy one. Only a moment's effort, and when she lifted her finger, the thread was gone.
"You turned gold," the boy said.
"Yeah. Just for a second."
Mrs. Millar had never mentioned that, either. Perhaps it really was the case that while all coilers recognized each other, each one's perceptions were different. Dahyana gazed at the boy. Curiosity, interest--those were uppermost now, holding down fear and the urge to flee. She had him. She knew it, and the certainty of it made her stomach knot.
They grow up angry, the ones who are never found, Mrs. Millar said.
All right, but so did a lot of people.
What we do is important, Mrs. Millar said, and Dahyana could not contest that statement. The threads that got inside people grew, swelled, killed slowly and painfully. Once, when Dahyana had been a teenager, Mrs. Millar had brought her to a hospital. Their visitors' badges were fake, created by the friend of an acquaintance of a connection. "That one," Mrs. Millar had whispered into Dahyana's ear. And on another floor, "That one, too." And another floor: "That one." And of course the doctors couldn't do anything; they didn't even know why their patients were dying. Important, yes. Inarguably.
But lonely. So very lonely.
You'll understand one day, Mrs. Millar had said, over and over. You'll do the same thing.
"Do you want to try?" Dahyana asked the boy.
"To do what I did. Coil up the thread, and send it home."
"Is that what you do?"
Dahyana swallowed. "Yes. And you can do it, too."
"No way. I can't do that."
"Yes, you can."
"How do you know?"
"Because coilers recognize each other. You and me, that's what we are. We're coilers."
"I think you're full of shit," said the boy, in a small voice.
Dahyana picked up the second thread, laid it on her palm, coiled it, and eliminated it. We do kill them, she thought. Never mind what Mrs. Millar says. It is killing. They don't belong here and we have to do it, but we shouldn't lie to ourselves. I won't lie to this boy. When he's a little older, I'll tell him the truth.
"One left," she said. "How about it?"
He shook his head.
"All right." Dahyana took care of the third thread, pulled in a long breath, and stood up. Damn. A touch of light-headedness. But then, she hadn't eaten anything since lunchtime. She waited a moment, and it passed. The knot in her stomach, though, was still there. "When you're ready, when you want to, you come and find me. I'll teach you."
"How can I find you? I don't even know your name."
"The way I found you. By the light." And the smell, and the taste; they were connected now, whether the boy wanted to acknowledge it or not. "You will walk out of your home one day, and start walking, and when you stop, you will be outside my door."
"You will," she said, and a tremor went through her.
"Fuck you."
"Fuck me," she agreed. "See you soon."
Dahyana picked up her shopping, and walked away. She half-expected the boy to throw another rock at her, or scream obscenities, but no projectile came, no curses. She walked on.
He would come. In a day, or two. A week. A month.
And he would not go home again. Oh, for brief visits, perhaps. But he was no longer the child of his mother and father. He was hers, the same way that she was Mrs. Millar's. She hadn't snatched him out of a stroller, but in the end it amounted to the same thing.
"But where do you live?" the boy called.
"You'll find me," she called back. "I'll leave the light on."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 14th, 2013
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