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Shadows covered most of her face.
"You taste good," said Mance, maneuvering on the pallet so that he could kiss Jonella full on her pillowy lips. Candlelight pierced the angle between his head and shoulder, spawning a crowd of shadows, one of which divided Jonella's face. He wanted to see her clearly; his life had too many moments blurred by confusion.
Each tentative, yet steadily more eager kiss evoked a soft moan from her, and Mance felt the familiar surge of emotion he could never quite understand.
"You smell good, too," he said, touching his nose against her chin and throat and finally against the rabbit fur on the collar of her coat.
He believed that one day he would marry this girl, whom he called Johnnie.
"It's Tanya's perfume," she whispered, the shadows stealing back most of her face.
"It never smells this good on your sister," he said.
"When have you been sniffing around my sister?"
"Oh, Johnnie, hell ... I don't have the hots for your sister."
"Don't you think she's pretty?"
"Not so much as you."
She hesitated. Giggled. Touched his cheek tenderly.
"Just the right answer," she said before pressing her lips firmly to his and tickling him with her tongue.
His stomach showered sparks. Momentarily he pulled away. A bit breathless, he said, "You getting us started, sweet Johnnie?"
"Still wanna marry me someday?"
She shivered and snuggled closer to him on the threadbare pallet they had arranged in the middle of the floor of Guillo House, a long-abandoned Victorian mansion a few blocks from downtown Soldier, Alabama.
"When?" he prodded.
"When we're eighteen instead of sixteen, and when ..."
Guillo House groaned.
A high-pitched whine slithered from the fireplace where no fire burned.
"Only the wind," said Mance.
They had become accustomed to the various sounds of Guillo House: the creaking of floors, the settling of joists, the rattling of windows, many with broken or missing panes, and the keening of the wind whipping around corners, seeking ingress wherever possible.
"Someday this old house will fall in on top of us," she said.
He shook his head.
"And then what?" he said.
"You said we'd get married when we're eighteen instead of sixteen and when ... and then you didn't finish what you were going to say."
She shivered again and buried her face in the cheap fur collar of her coat.
"Tell me, Johnnie," he persisted.
"Nothing," she said. "Keep me warm. It's not easy making out in the middle of January in a haunted house."
"It's not haunted."
"It is, too."
He pulled her closer.
"Listen. Forget about everything but me and you." He reached behind him and moved the candle so that the light would bathe his face and she would see his smile. He brushed at his shoulder-length hair and said, "Let me kiss your rose." His smile was that of a mischievous young boy. "Come on, Johnnie, I wanna kiss your rose."
And he continued.
"If you let me kiss your rose, I'll let you lick my fang."
As usual, his proposition caused her frown to shatter and her laughter escaped like the sound of broken glass falling to the floor.
He rolled up his sleeve. The pale skin on the underside of his right forearm sported a two-inch tattoo: a single, vicious-looking fang, its blue outline intensifying the whiteness of the surrounding skin. Shifting herself, Jonella smiled her sexiest smile and shook her springy, nondescript brown curls. She took his arm. Her gesture was part of the ritual -- a stage before the heavier making-out.
Her tongue flicked against the fang like a serpent tasting its prey.
"Jesus, that feels good," said Mance.
She sucked gently at his skin, raising goose bumps all the way to his shoulder. He lowered his face and softly kissed her cheek.
"Hey, it's my turn," he followed. "Let me have the rose."
She shivered again and raised her head.
"Don't you think it's cold?" she said.
The scowl on her pretty face meant one thing to Mance: nothing more would happen until he had obeyed her veiled demand.
"Damn it, Johnnie, you do something like this every time."
Frustrated, he pushed to his feet.
"I brought a blanket," he added, hoping to assuage her.
"It's not enough. Start a fire. Please."
He threw up his hands. Frustration edged into anger.
"OK, but I'm telling you. One of these days we're gonna burn this old firetrap to the ground."
He located a crowbar -- their protection against intruders, he claimed -- near their stash of supplies: a six-pack of Rebel beer, a bag of pretzels, and his jam box, and began tearing at one of the walls, removing plaster to get at the narrow strips of lath.
"I don't think it has to be a big fire," she said, "Just enough to take off the chill."
Mance stacked some old newspapers onto the grate and then heaped the strips of wood on top of the paper and lit the small pile with a cigarette lighter.
"Did you hear that scratching sound?" Jonella whispered.
"It's Sting," said Mance. "He's probably hungry and thirsty."
Shaking back his long brown hair, the young man lifted a white rat by the tail and set it in front of the flames. The rodent, squeaking in rapid beats, promptly raised itself on its back legs and sniffed the smoky air.
"I don't think it was Sting," said Jonella. She had removed her coat, and Mance was disappointed and not a little irritated that she had stopped there.
"Of course it was. Here, look, you feed him junk and he'll stop fussin'. Watch."
Into a grimy saucer he placed a pretzel and then poured a third of a beer around it. The rodent immediately ceased its tiny racket and plunged into the snack.
"I just don't think it was Sting," Jonella mused as she studied the shadow-strewn wall behind her.
"Who was it then -- Jason or ole razor-fingered Freddy?"
"No. I think maybe it was 'Eleanor'."
Mance continued building the fire; he didn't like her otherworldly tone of voice -- it definitely sent out the wrong vibrations when he had his heart set on kissing her rose.
"Something tells me that was her name. You know, the woman I've always imagined staying in the upstairs bedroom. She was very sad. Something tells me she was very unhappy. But I don't know why. I call her 'Eleanor' because that was the name of the woman in that old paperback your Uncle Thestis gave me to read. I think the title was The Haunting of Hill House, and it was written by some woman."
"All of Uncle T.'s books are strange."
"'And whatever walks there walks alone,'" said Jonella, moving her fingers to animate the wall with new shadows.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Mance was trying to get a rein on his frustration as he stoked the fire. Sting munched contentedly on the pretzel and lapped at the beer. The wall above the fireplace creaked and popped.
"About the ghost," Jonella replied absently, "or ... or whatever caused Eleanor to drive her car into that tree at the end of the story and kill herself."
"You shouldn't read books like that."
Mance noticed that she was wearing her black sweater, his favorite, and while it hugged her body deliciously, it also concealed the rose.
"Such a sad woman. The Guillo House woman, I mean," she murmured. "Do you think we'll ever know her story?"
"Will I ever get to kiss the rose? Got a pretty good fire going."
Jonella brightened. And in one swift motion she tugged herself free of the sweater and smiled at him, and the glow of the fire seemed to burnish and bronze her skin. And there was the rose -- a tattoo about the size of a quarter -- resting innocently just above her left breast. A lesbian friend of Sparrow, the Vietnam vet who ran the pawnshop and soup kitchen downtown, had been the tattooer for both the fang and the rose, and she, in the judgment of Mance and Jonella at least, had created works of art.
At the sight of Jonella's breasts, Mance went to his knees and shuffled toward her.
"Would you look at this, Sting," he said. "This is our woman."
An erection bulged his jeans. He reached out to cup her left breast, and then he began to angle his lips down at the rose. But his lips never met skin. A whoosh and thrum filled the air; a loud clatter traced across the roof just above them. Jonella shrieked and covered her breasts. Syncopated cooing sounds filtered down from the ceiling like a heavy fall of dust.
Mance wheeled around; Sting circled his saucer nervously.
"What was that?" said Jonella breathlessly.
"Pigeons," Mance returned, a little shaken himself and not completely certain he was correct. "The fire probably excited them. Maybe I got it too hot. Better let it burn down," he added, turning to glance at the flames, which were already diminishing.
"I'm sorry, Mance, but I just don't think I'm in the mood for this." Jonella pulled on her sweater and ran a hand through her hair.
"Aw, damn, Johnnie, come on."
"My mind's not on it."
"The pigeons have flown off ... they won't make any more noise."
"It's not the pigeons or nothing like that."
He edged closer to her and tried to hold her hand. She jerked it away.
"Why'd you have to quit?" she said, her jaw assuming a hard line.
"Quit? Quit what? Oh ... oh, I see what it is. You're still upset about me quitting school. Well, that's tough, because I'm sixteen, and in Alabama I can quit school and I did because it was useless and boring as hell and I'm glad I quit. So's now I can work more hours and we'll have money one of these days to get married."
"I don't think you should have quit and neither does your Uncle Thestis."
"Johnnie, it's none of Uncle T.'s goddamn business what I do. He can sit up there in his hole of a room with his silver cup and his jars of marbles and all those old stinking magazines that are rotting and he can rot right along with them for all I care. The weird ole fart."
Jonella seemed mildly shocked and resolutely angered.
"You told me once that your Uncle Thestis was the best friend you'd ever had, and I think it's a crying shame you've let something like this come between you. You know how important he thinks a good education is. You've disappointed your parents, too."
"My parents?" Mance felt his anger heating up while the fire in the fireplace -- and in his jeans -- continued to dwindle. Sting, unnerved by the tenor of their exchange, climbed up his master's arm and sought refuge beneath his long hair. "Are you serious? My parents haven't cared what I did for a long time. Not since ..."
"Not since Karen was killed? I know. I've noticed that. Your Uncle Thestis has, too. Your big sister must have meant an awful lot to them."
"Her death turned them into zombies," Mance said, his tone bitter. "You wanna know how pathetic they've become? Right before Karen's car accident they had this trip all planned to the Great Smoky National Park up in Tennessee -- it was supposed to be the honeymoon they couldn't afford to take when they first got married. Well, they still haven't taken it. Claim they can't leave Scarlett's -- as if their nothing of a restaurant would fold up without them around for a few days. They're going to decay and die just like this whole fucking town -- they don't give a shit what happens to me or anything else."
"I don't think that's true. They know that if you don't finish school, you'll never get a decent job."
Mance freed one of the beers, popped the top angrily, and listened to the dusty echo of her words before taking a sip. Guillo House was locked in a crouching silence. The fire burned low.
"I've a got a decent job -- couple of them, in fact, and you know it. Loading trucks at the beer warehouse is good money, and if Boom -- your son-of-a-bitch of a brother-in-law -- would get them to bend the rules down there, I could drive one of the trucks this summer. I pick up a little work at Austin's furniture store and at Fast Track's lounge -- I make as much as some guys who're supporting a family. And you're earning money, too."
Jonella shook her head and looked squarely into his eyes.
"I'm not going to work as a waitress in your parents' restaurant for the rest of my life. Mance, you and I deserve better than fly-by-night jobs. It would be just like Tanya and Boom. I see what they have. It's nothing. I don't want to end up like them."
"Maybe I'll join the army," said Mance, scooting around so that he could lean his head against the wall. He heard Sting's protest and then glanced again at the dying fire. "Be all that I can be. They have training programs."
"Join the army and be another Sparrow?" said Jonella, incredulous.
Slamming his beer down, Mance spoke through gritted teeth.
"Sparrow's the way he is 'cause he got sprayed with Agent Orange over in Vietnam. There's no wars these days 'cept safe little bombing missions over deserts. The army would be safer than walking the streets of Soldier at night."
His anger relented a notch. Neither spoke for a few moments. The scratchings and skitterings of Guillo House seemed to inch closer.
"Here's the thing, Johnnie -- we gotta get outta this town. It's bad for people. Look what it did to Punch. He was the best black policeman Soldier's ever had and the town was ready to string him up by the balls for something I'd swear he was never involved with."
"I think maybe that was racial," said Jonella.
"But that's my point -- Soldier's got no respect for people. It's like ... it's like a big, ugly wound that never heals."
They fell silent again, and the walls of Guillo House shifted and moaned, and downstairs a hunk of plaster thudded to the floor, and beyond them, somewhere among the many dark and empty rooms, they heard a faint growl.
Jonella stood up and put on her coat; her eyes registered exhaustion and a touch of fear.
"Some of us have another school week ahead of us tomorrow, and I have to stop by Scarlett's and pick up my check. Tanya buys groceries on Monday."
Mance reluctantly nodded, but his attention was drawn to a darkness calling through the years of secret emptiness which Guillo House had jealously guarded.
Copyright © 1991 by Stephen Gresham