1 — Imaginary
“Funny, isn’t it?” sighed Jack. “Being here alone.”
Snuggling up next to him, Jen nodded. She followed his gaze up to where she had known it would rest: Bridgid’s picture of herself, Jen, and Jack: Jen’s gift to Bridgid on her last birthday. Her previous birthday.
The first day of every November for the past twenty years, they had come to clean up the O’Danans’ house, first just the two of them, Jen’s brother Bobby, his wife Morgaine, and Tony, then with some of the greater Kamiyama clan, then with spouses, and children… People had slowly drifted away after a few years — until the previous year, it had been back to just her and Jack, Bobby, Morgaine, and the two last children at home, Bobby and Morgaine’s Brendan and Jen and Jack’s own youngest, Cynthia. Cynthia Bridgid.
Cynthia and Brendan were two months into their first year away at the school now; Cynthia’s letters home were still giddy, but they’d already begun to come more and more sporadically.
The Mountain. Would Jen ever think of the school without thinking of it burning? Without thinking of the ridiculous image of Jack facing down Chancellor Spires…?
(Flame and shadows. Smoke and sulphur.)
Morgaine and Bobby had begged off this year — Morgaine had had a conference in Buenos Aires, and Bobby had explained sheepishly that, with the kids all gone now, it was their first chance for a real trip, a second honeymoon, and of course Jen didn’t blame them, not after all these years. Even so…
It did seem funny — though not at all amusing — being here with just Jack. All these years, and Jen hadn’t noticed it; the steady flood of people laughing and yelling and working had obscured the unutterable absence. But all day, as they were renewing the waterproofing charms on the outside of the house or recasting the self-dusting charm that Jen had learned from her mother as a young girl, she had been overwhelmed by the emptiness of the place, by the utter lack of Bridgid.
It was only here, lying on Bridgid’s bed — staring at her own smiling face, Jack’s, and Bridgid’s — that Jen could feel a spark of her girlhood friend’s presence.
Jack snuggled up against her, his hand finding the no-longer-taut flesh of her belly. “Jen,” he whispered, “It’s been twenty years. Maybe it’s time —”
“No,” Jen said. Definitive as always, though she couldn’t ever say why, though she knew that Jack was being reasonable. But even now, after all this time, a part of her knew, absolutely, that Bridgid was still out there somewhere. Someone so amazing couldn’t simply have died…
As if reading her thoughts, Jack pulled her closer and whispered into her hair, “We searched everywhere, sweetheart, you know that. That morning. For weeks after. There was no sign, and no sign of her has ever turned up. Even if she’d lost her memory, or if she were hiding, something would have turned up.”
Jen shivered, but could not answer him. He had heard all of her arguments before, and had happily supported them. But they both knew that those reasons were far from reasonable — were in fact very Bridgid-like in their reliance on faith over fact.
“No one believes that Bridgid cast the spell that killed her mom. But someone or something did.” Jack’s strong fingers, still agile after all these years, stroked her belly as if she were a colicky baby. “And whatever that thing was outside of the house —”
“ — wasn’t Bridgid,” said Jen. A bloody mass out in the yard, being pecked at by the chickens; Jen had found it when all come up, when Bridgid hadn’t shown up at the Wyvern for her own party , and the sight, the stench had given her nightmares for years.
Jack sighed. “Probably not. But still —”
She rolled swiftly on top of him and stared down. “One more year.”
He peered up at her quizzically.
“If she hasn’t turned up by her birthday, next Halloween,” — her fortieth — “if there isn’t some new clue to where she is, we can put the house on the market. And… And put up a headstone for her. One more year.”
Jack smiled and caressed her ear with his thumb. “You still miss her, I know.”
Jen nodded. It was hard to explain — Bridgid and Jen had known each other since Brigid’s family moved to Elysium, but when they had all woken up from the nightmare of their twelfth-grade year at the Mountain, it had been Bridgid who had held Jen together. As much as Jack had saved Jen — had become her lover, and so much more — Bridgid was the one who brought her back to the land of the living. How could anyone so lonely be so loving and lovely? “She was wonderful. She is.”
Jack’s grin broadened. “She was. She is.” He pushed up onto one elbow and kissed her, and for a few minutes, Jen felt very young, and very alive, and very whole.
After some time, Jen leaned up from him, grinning herself down at her husband who was looking very self-satisfied there on the lacy bedspread, embroidered unicorns and phoenixes, eagles and dragons gamboling around his head. “You look pleased with yourself, Phalen.”
“Well,” Jack answered, “who wouldn’t, getting to look up at a sight as beautiful as you?”
“Flatterer,” she laughed, pleased. “Want to see more?” Before he could answer or she could stop herself, she pulled the tattered racing jersey she wore for cleaning over her head.
When she could see again, her husband’s face was slack, wide-eyed. “Jesus Christ, Jen. What’s gotten into you?”
She snorted. “Way to make a woman feel attractive!” She wriggled her bottom against him and was gratified to feel him respond. “Want me to put it back on?”
“No,” Jack said, his eyes already narrowing to the predatory gaze that she knew was hers alone. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you like this.”
“Naked?” She popped her bra, releasing the breasts that the years and three children had given her, and wiggled against him again, evoking a soft moan. “You scrubbed my back in the tub last night.”
“That’s not what I meant,” growled Jack, cupping each breast in one long-fingered hand, circling each nipple with a calloused thumb. “Horny as a kid.”
She groaned appreciatively as he played with her breasts. “It’s the bed,” she sighed.
Jack stopped. “The bed?”
Jen felt herself flush and blush. “Bridgid and I… We used to lie here. Talking about boys. Talking about you.”
His fingers began to explore again. “About me?”
Jen began push up his shirt — like most of his shirts, it identified him: Federal Bureau of Magic — Marshal. “She had a huge crush on you, you know.”
“No, she didn’t.”
“Oh, yes, Jack, yes she did.” She ran her fingertips around his nipples and he shuddered. “We lay on her bed here, just the two of us,” — naked, giggling — “and talked about you, what it would be like to be with you.” Each girl touching herself, never discussing. “Her asking me, once you and I were together,” Jen murmured, reaching down with the hand that wasn’t occupied with Jack’s chest and popping the button on his jeans, tugging at his zipper, “what it was like to touch your cock, what it was like to fuck you…”
The cock in question sprang free beneath her. “Can’t imagine Bridgid ever saying cock…” Jack hissed as her fingers closed around his.
“No,” admitted Jen, scooting down the bed. “She asked what it was like to have your penis in my vagina, but she was very fond of the word fuck.”
She touched her lips to the head of that cock and he groaned, as she had known he would — groaned and grasped the brass headboard.
She gave his cock a good, long lollipop lick and reached for her wand. “Keep your hands there, Jack,” she said. His eyes, which had been half shut, sprung wide and met hers. She ran her tongue around Jack’s head again. “Trust me.”
He nodded. “I always will.”
Smiling, she cast a spell that bound his hands to the headboard; this much was a game they’d enjoyed before, now and again. “Umbri,” she whispered, and a blindfold appeared, covering those dark-on-dark eyes.
“Jen!” he gasped, jumping as she took him into her mouth — the one part of her that hadn’t changed since they first got together. “What are you — ? God!”
She tugged his jeans down and off, leaving him at her mercy. Removing his cock from her mouth and putting on the breathiest Irish accent she could manage, she sighed, “Jen’s not here just now, Jack. It’s only me. Bridgid.”
“J-jen, what — ?”
She pulled her hair free of its ponytail and shook it out, letting the free strands trail up his body. “I told you, Jack,” she said, “she’s not here. Only me. And you. And your rather erect penis.” Her hair flowed over his balls and up his cock, and he gasped. “Oooo,” Jen said, still in the more-Irish-than-Irish Bridgid voice, “it’s just as nice as Jen said.”
He panted, his lips working at producing words that did not come.
Grinning, Jen worked her own jeans and sneakers off. “She’s said that it’s quite nice to fuck you too. She likes fucking you very much.” She straddled him, her open, wet sex embracing his erection.
“I like… f-fucking her too!” Jack hissed, and pushed up with his hips, trying vainly to press into her. Jen wasn’t ready to give in just yet.
“Hmmm,” she hummed, remembering her friend’s voice, remembering her calm, lilting tones as she diddled herself, listening to Jen tell her just what sex was like, with Tony, with Jack. “Would you like to fuck me, Jack? Would you like to place that very nice, erect penis inside of me?”
“God, yes!” gasped Jack. “Jen!”
“Bridgid,” sighed Jen and let her labia run along the length of him.
He groaned deeply. “Okay, okay. Okay.”
“Say my name, Jack. I want to make sure that you want me.”
“God. God.” He bucked and the tip of him just pierced her lips. “Yes. I do. Bridgid. Bridgid. Please. Let me fuck you, Bridgid.”
“Oh, Jack,” laughed Jen, her pulse racing — it was a challenge to keep her voice soft and airy, to keep her friend’s improbable accent — “how nice. I have wanted to fuck you for a very long time.”
“I… I’ve wanted to fuck you. Too. Bridgid.” Suddenly still, Jack’s face darkened. “For a long time.”
“Really?” Jen blurted in her own voice.
“Yes. When we were… When J-jen was with Tony.” He held his chin rigid, his lips barely moving. “Beat off all the time, thinking of her all the time, but she was with… And sometimes, I thought about you. Brigid. About your hair, about your…”
“My?” prompted Jen, and her breathlessness was less and less an act.
“Breasts. Your breasts. The dress you wore to the Christmas dance you invited me to, showed off your…. Thought about fucking…”
“My breasts?” Trembling, Jen leaned forward so that her own pair, of which she’d never been particularly proud, caressed either of his cheeks.
“Yes,” he hissed, turning his head to one side and reaching for a nipple with his lips. When Jen pulled back before he could reach it, he groaned, pulling at the headboard. “And you. I wanted… want to fuck, fuck you, fuck!”
Grabbing his cock by the base, she pressed down onto him, engulfing him, until his balls pressed against her ass.
“FUCK!” he growled, “Jen!”
“Jen’s not here,” she groaned, not able to keep her own low tone from creeping in. Gently, she lifted herself almost entirely off of him. “Bridgid.”
“Yes, Bridgid, fuck! Bridgid,” Jack said, pushing up so that he was sheathed in her again, “want to fuck you, Bridgid, jerked off all of the time, fuck, fucking you, your tits, your ass…”
Now it was Jen who was groaning, and there was nothing airy in her voice. The image of Jack fisting himself was one of her own oldest, favorite fantasies, and knowing that he’d done it thinking of Bridgid, lovely, lonely Bridgid, who had lain on this bed, doing the same thing while thinking of him…
“Bridgid, fuck, Bridgid, fuck,” Jack whispered as their bodies fell into a steady, rolling rhythm, pelvis against pelvis. Jen leaned forward so that her movements and his dragged his pelvis against her clit, and he rewarded himself by capturing at last a bouncing nipple; Jen groaned. An orgasm was bearing down on her, an avalanche of an orgasm, a volcanic eruption, a tidal wave, and she couldn’t have escaped its embrace even if she’d wanted to — which she didn’t. “Oh, Jack,” she sighed, voice airy and breathless once again. “Jack…”
“Dreamed,” Jack grunted. “Fucking you… Bri… Jen. Both.”
“Us both?” Jen howled, ecstatic, and as the orgasm took her, washing her world in light, she saw it — herself and Bridgid interlocked, mouth to cunt, while Jack fucked Bridgid, and Jen licked at them both. Whether the image came from Jack’s head or her own she did not know, nor did she care. She lost herself in the light for a time, and was only brought back to earth when Jack arched up and screamed, his own eruption exploding deep within her.
For a minute or two they lay there panting. Eventually, Jen flopped back off of her lover, her husband. Picking her wand up once more, she released him from the spells that bound him.
Immediately, he wrapped himself around her. Jen knew that some men only wanted to roll over and go to sleep after sex — among others, she knew this from her sister-in-law Morgaine, so the knowledge was all the less welcome.
But Jack loved to cuddle after a good fuck. It was when he was the most vulnerable, the least guarded. It was then that he revealed the Jack that Jen knew that no one else had seen, ever.
Wrapping himself around her, legs and arms, he burrowed into her neck. “Sorry,” he said.
“Sorry?” laughed Jen, still out of breath.
“Telling you…” He sighed. “I was a kid. They were just…”
“Jack,” said Jen, pulling him even closer. “I was the one who started the game. Of course you were, of course…” She knew that Jack felt guilt even now that it had taken him so long to reach out to her — felt that it was somehow his fault that she had dated Michael and Tony, had lost her virginity to their friend before Jack had managed to get his head out of his ass. His fault that he was so uncertain of living that even during their first months together, he hadn’t felt ready for that kind of intimacy.
“Jack, sweetheart,” she cooed, “I’m glad. Glad to know you knew how sexy she was. Glad she…” Absurdly, tears seemed to be pushing their way up. “Bridgid and I, we… We. She would ask me all of these questions about you, about sex, and you, and…”
She willed him to complete the sentence in his head, to get it, but that wasn’t Jack. He lay there, still, silent and patient. It infuriated their children sometimes — as it had infuriated Jen when her mother finished every sentence for Jen.
Jen took a deep breath. “And we — she, but me too — we would, um. Play with ourselves.”
That got a reaction. “Really?”
“Hmmm. Right here. I thought you’d like that part.”
“Did…” She could feel his cock jump against her hip. Jerk-off. “Do girls do that? Together?”
She snorted. “Do boys?”
“No! Not that I know of, at least.” She could feel his lips bend into a grin against the side of her head. “Wish I could have seen that!”
“There’s a shock!” Jen snorted, pushing him. “You know what I wish?”
Again, moist weight pressed up in her throat. “Well, wish she were here, of course. Wish she’d been at our wedding, and the World Championships, she’d have loved that. Knowing the kids. Having kids…” She began to cry in earnest. Jack’s fingers stroked her chin. “Hell, sex. This. She wanted… I wish she had got to fuck…”
After a moment, Jack whispered, “You mean, she never did? Not with Tony?”
“No!” laughed Jen through the tears. “Was driving her crazy — well, crazier than usual. She was all for it, but Tony… the poor son of a bitch thought he’d pushed me too fast, and he was trying to do it right.”
Jack nodded. “He really cared for her.”
“Hell of a lot of good it did either of them!” Poor Tony. It had taken him years… She shook her head and laughed again. “She used to tell me these elaborate fantasies, how she was going to ‘cross the threshold.’”
“Sounds like she wanted someone to cross her threshold, if you ask me,” Jack joked quietly.
Jen snorted and swatted him lightly. He had never allowed himself to be much of a twelve-year-old boy, and so on the rare occasions when his adolescent side made an appearance it was always a bit of a shock. “Someone,” she giggled, still sniffling. “Tony. Gabe. You.” I want to feel him inside of me, she’d groaned… “She had this whole idea that it should be like some sort of Druidic rite, which I thought sounded quite kinky. A charmed circle and candles.” A bronze calyx for the blood — earth and metal to contain the power. The whisper beneath the whisper of Bridgid’s flesh sliding over her own flesh….
“Out under the stars, no doubt,” Jack said, and Jen could hear an echo of her own love for long-lost, lonely, lovely Bridgid. “The Devil’s Knob, or the Grey Forest.”
“No!” Jen snorted again. “Kinkier and more boring. Down in the basement, to contain the power released!”
They both chuckled. “Which basement? At your folks’ place?”
“No, silly! Who’d want to cross the threshold down with the potatoes and daikon, and Mom’s boysenberry jams and apple butter?”
“There’s an image. Wouldn’t have stopped me, though,” Jack said. She swatted him again and they both laughed. “Anywhere with you is paradise. Where then?”
“Here, of course. Silly!”
“But there’s no basement here.” He sounded bemused.
“Of course there is, Jack, come on.” She giggled, and then sighed. “Bridgid’s dad’s workshop.”
“Jen,” Jack said, slowly. He sat up and peered down at her, his obsidian eyes bright in the fading light of the autumn afternoon. “We’ve been cleaning this place for twenty years. A whole team of marshals went over this place from the ground up. There wasn’t any basement.”
Jen sat up. “It… was off-limits.” She and Jack stared at each other. “I didn’t think…”
Both of them bolted from the bed and scrambled down the circular staircase, Jen naked, Jack in only an old, sweat-damp t-shirt, but each clutching a wand.
They reached the ground floor and Jack began to stalk around, searching for an entrance. Jen tried desperately to remember the one time Bridgid had shown her the workshop — it had been right after Mr. O’Danan’s death. They had been nine.
Scooting the kitchen table to one side — it had never been so clutter-free when the house had been inhabited — and pulling up a rug, she revealed a circular trapdoor made of flagstone.
“Twenty years,” Jack gasped, “and you never mentioned — ?”
“I thought you knew!” Jen shouted, aware that neither of them was truly angry — that fear and horror that Bridgid could have been here all this time… “You said you and the others searched!”
Jack nodded, a grimace twisting his features. “Brody cast a Dezvalui. So there couldn’t have been anyone here.”
Jen heard the awful comfort in that statement. “Anyone alive.”
Jack nodded grimly and reached for the recessed ring. The trapdoor wouldn’t budge. After he cast an unsuccessful Unlocking Charm, Jen said, “Maybe there’s a password.”
Jack frowned, then smirked. “Cacodaemon,” he said, and pulled. The door remained frozen. “Duh.” Still nothing.
Jen rested her hand on his shoulder. “Shouldn’t we call for backup, Mr. Marshal?”
“Probably.” He took a breath. “Do you want to wait, Ms. Journalist?”
“No,” said Jen, thinking how ironic it was that she carried that title, which was Bridgid’s by right. “I want to know.”
Jack nodded again.
She nodded back. “It was her father’s workshop,” Jen pointed out. “Bridgid Elizabeth,” she said, and there was a sigh of released air as the trapdoor popped up slightly. Taking a deep breath, she reached for the ring.
Jack put his hand on hers. “I’ll go first; you cover my back.” Jen began to argue, and then nodded. He was the federal marshal for the territory. After a brief, tight smile, he continued, “Watch for any movement, but don’t cast any spells unless something looks threatening — then we stun and run, okay?”
Again Jen nodded.
“Don’t touch anything. Stay right behind me—”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Federal Marshal, sir,” Jen grumbled.
Jack kissed her. “If she’s… If there’s anything… difficult to look at, don’t feel like you have to. Remember — that room’s been closed for twenty years.”
Again she nodded, and now she was thinking of Bridgid’s stories of two-thousand-year-old curses in dark Anasazi tombs. “Yes, sir.”
He kissed her again briefly, then stepped to the opposite side of the trapdoor. “Open it on three,” he said. “One. Two. Three…”
She raised the door, her wand clutched tight in her free hand. She was only aware that she’d held her breath when nothing happened and she began to breathe again. The open trap was a silent, black void.
“Ilumina,” Jen whispered, and her wand cast a beam of bright light that illuminated the long set of stairs that she vaguely remembered climbing half-way down with her friend all those years before.
“I told you not to cast anything!” hissed Jack, but when he tried to glare at her, she stuck out her tongue, and he laughed. “Fine, now just watch my back.”
“My favorite pastime,” Jen muttered, and the glare he gave this time savored more of exasperation than anger. Shaking his head, holding his wand before him, he stepped slowly sideways onto stairs, which creaked, but otherwise held.
The shadows wavered and stretched in her wandlight as she climbed down behind him, making it difficult to make out the space into which they were descending. The near wall glittered, and looking closely she saw a wall full of stoppered phials and jars that reminded her, once again, of her mother’s root cellar. Most of them seemed empty, or all but — the contents slowly evaporated over the decades. One or two larger ones seemed to have something floating in them, and Jen looked away, not wanting to see what they contained.
She realized as she looked down that her husband was staring up at her, his lips twisted in a kind of distracted smirk. “What?” she whispered.
“I prefer to watch your front,” he said, smiling.
She rolled her eyes. “That’s because you and your children gave me a fat ass. Bastard.”
“Nope. I like your ass too.” Very pleased with himself, he backed away from the foot of the ladder, giving Jen room to step down to the stone floor.
It was cold down here — logically enough. Peering into the corners of the room, she stepped closer to him, warming herself against his back.
“There,” he said, and Jen gasped, craning her neck to look around his shoulder.
Just past the center of the room lay a circle of dusty, melted candles, just as Jen had known there would be. Just as Bridgid had said she would arrange them, a circle of flame to protect and contain.
In their midst, kneeling before the shards of what looked like an enormous egg, peering through what seemed to be a magnifying glass, an expression of wonder frozen upon her face, was Bridgid.
“Fuck,” said Jack, who never swore.
“Fuck,” echoed Jen.
As naked as Jack and Jen, Bridgid was as white as marble in Jen’s wandlight, and as unmoving, and Jen thought she had never seen anything so beautiful.
Or so horrible.