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Stories about Magnus: She Sleeps | The Way of Things

"She Sleeps"

by Ben Johnson

Magnus stepped quickly through the rainy city streets. Her bitch-stomper Doc-knocks crunched the small stones, and loose crumbs of sidewalk with the nostalgic sound of pea-gravel playgrounds at noon. Despite the fact that they were now thoroughly waterlogged, her assorted black t-shirts and shawls masked her figure from any unseen prying eyes. The cuffs of her faded black jeans were now spattered with mud kicked up from the dingy streets. She muttered a curse with the knowledge that she would now be forced to wash her clothes to get all of the rain's acidity out of them, but this was no time to worry about laundry. She was on a mission, and she was very, very late.

Skidding around a corner, she nearly slipped on a puddle, but her boots seemed to have just enough traction to keep her vertical. A lucky break. She regained her balance with all the grace of Barishnikov and Ginger Rogers' secret love child, and hardly broke her stride as she charged down the street.

Shit, shit, shit, shit . . . she thought in time with her feet.

Magnus was going to be in a lot of trouble.

Simultaneous feelings of relief and dread combated for dominance as she saw her destination halfway down the next block. Short-term preservation genes told her to just try and hide, long-term preservation genes told her to beg forgiveness. All the while she could feel the package bouncing up and down in time with her stride, tugging her down from inside the backpack she wore on her chest in an attempt to keep the contents slightly drier in the angry deluge.

She sprinted into the hotel lobby, barely slowing down to give the electronic door time to slide open in front of her. Her wet rubber soles gave her hell on the polished faux-marble floors, and she skated halfway to the elevators with the watery film on her soles. Then, in the way of so many impatient people, Magnus pressed the "up" call button repeatedly, gritting her teeth. After a full four seconds, she darted towards the staircase, blowing past a random guest just as he was exiting the stairwell. Another lucky break-that ought to get her at least two seconds.

She took the stairs in threes and fours, legs straining, lungs heaving.

Why did that bastard have to stay on the seventeenth floor again?

Clomping up the stairs, leaving a trail of tiny puddles as she ascended, she wondered if she might just be running to her own death. She could turn back now-no, he would know. He always knew. Perhaps he would appreciate her dedication to him, she knew he knew she was going to be in severe trouble for being this late. If anything was going to save her, it might just be her own stupidity after all.

At last, she tore through the door marked with a brass "17," and into the green and orange carpeted hallway. The place smelled of cigarettes, just like the hallways of every non-smoking hotel. Even though her soles were no longer leaving watery boot prints behind her, she was still a dripping mess; it wouldn't have taken a private dick to figure out which way she'd gone. He'd be angry about that too, but what was she supposed to do about it? The sky had been clear when she went in, but by the time she came out it had switched to monsoon season. What was it he always said when she didn't live up to his insanely exacting expectations? "You didn't want it bad enough"?

1701. She tapped lightly on the door.

"It's open," came the opium-den smooth voice from within.

The hotel door opened with a click and the heavy, metal silence of well oiled hinges.

The room was dark, despite the lit table lamp. Were the shadows a foot longer than reason dictated? He walked in from the bedroom, skin the color of night, wearing a short sleeved silk kimono the color of dark sapphires that draped to the halfway point of his thigh. He turned to face her, and folded his long arms in front of his chest, smiling with the luminosity of a newborn nova.

"Nice of you to drop by, Magnus," he said.

This was so not right. Why was he doing this? She must have really screwed it this time. He must be taking his time. Like a cat playing with its food. He was playing with her mind. Should she confront him about it now and get this over with, or should she play along in hopes that he might let her walk away from this?

"I have your package, Marcus."

"I should hope so," he said, turning away from her, and walking towards a black leather arm chair, faced towards the picture window that faced out into the thunderstorm, "You certainly took your time getting here."

There was a timely strobe of lightning and corresponding roll of thunder. Even mother nature understands narrative convention.

"The rain slowed me down. I'm sorry."

"Yes," said Marcus. He turned to look out the window. "You're certainly leaving a puddle there, aren't you. I have some dry clothes if you'd like a change. I can wait out here," he gestured to the bedroom with his left hand, still watching the storm.

She knew him well enough to accept his gifts on the first offer. She might make it out of this yet, and with a new outfit to boot.

"Thank you," she said.

She kept her backpack with her as she entered the bedroom and shut the door behind her. She knew enough to keep her known valuables with her. If she did make it out of this alive, she may as well get paid in something more than a change of clothes.

"Where'd you say those clothes were?" she shouted through the door.

"Closet," crooned the voice from the next room.

She opened the closet and began to rummage through the soft fabrics that Marcus liked to wrap himself in. Mostly robes and pyjamas, and nothing truly black, she noted, slightly dismayed. She was about to voice a complaint when she saw a silk Chinese dress in the back of the closet. Deep red, ". . . Like the blood from the severed wings of fallen angels," she thought to herself with a smirk. She noted that the whole thing was embroidered in gold with delicate kanji characters. She recognised "time," "wisdom," and "destiny" from her "general education lessons" with Marcus. The dress wasn't black, but it appealed to her somehow. Even though it wasn't functional, she could trade it later for something that was . . . after a few nights of clubbing.

She peeled off the layers of her clothing and dried herself off with the spare towel from the bathroom before sliding into the smooth coolness of the silk. Then she balled up her old clothes and was about to open her backpack when the door opened under the firm hand of Marcus.

"Hey! What are you doing? Didn't your mother ever teach you how to knock?" Her mouth could still get the better of her sometimes.

"You'd taken enough time," he paused momentarily, "For the second time tonight."

Shit. "Yes, sir. Forgive me," she mumbled, avoiding his gaze.

"You know that we mortals only get so much of it-time. You know the value I place on the seconds of human life. You know what will happen to you now."

Playtime's over. The cat was going to pounce after all.

"Yes, I know," said Magnus, looking Marcus directly in the face, deadpan.

"Let's have the book, then."

She tossed her damp backpack into Marcus's hands. He gently tugged the zipper, and pulled forth the chapped leather prize from within. The stars of his teeth glittered. Gingerly, he opened the cover and skimmed the first page. His smile brightened more, but when he lifted his head to look back at Magnus, it was as if his focus had never shifted from her.

"Come here. Let me show you something," he said, oozing the gentleness of a fat boa constrictor.

Magnus went to his side and looked at the open page. She hadn't opened it before she came here, Marcus had said he would know if she did, but now she gazed fully at the ancient script that marked its yellowed pages. The language was familiar somehow, but entirely foreign, as if she had learned it in a previous life.

"What does it mean?"

"That is not for you to know yet."

"Yet? But I thought you were going to . . ."

"Lie down, please," he extended a midnight arm in the direction of the bed.

Magnus had no idea what Marcus had in mind, but she was damned if she was going to let him live out some snuff film fantasy.

"Fuck you!" she cried in the way teenagers scream at the gods when they get dumped. She swung a fist at him, which he caught in his other hand, almost as if he had anticipated that reaction.

"Do not think me such an animal, Magnus," he said, "My intentions are pure, I assure you. Now please, if you lie down this will be much more comfortable for you."

There was something in the way he smiled as he released her hand, threatening, but gentle, like the face of a powerful guardian. Hesitantly, she turned toward the bed, still in the military-immaculate state of hotel freshness.

The silk of her new dress squeaked softly against the quilt as she sat down and slid to the middle. Lying down, looking straight up at the ceiling, she felt a quiet numbness beginning to claim her fingers and toes, silently marching up her arms and legs in its campaign of sensory deprivation. Marcus came to the side of the bed, and looked down at her, smiling, but with his lips closed this time.

"Just try to relax," he said.

She wanted to move, but she couldn't feel anything below her elbows or knees, and the rest of her body felt lethargic, like she had been pumped full of NyQuil. Her mind was still fully alert, however, and she tried to scream and thrash, but the best she could manage was a small nudge of her shoulder and a light whimper. The numbness was almost all the way to her torso.

"Shhhhhh," said Marcus, eyes sparkling as he lifted a finger to his lips.

He reached over her and began to undo the buttons on the dress, starting up by her neck. She wanted to bite him, but dared not make any more attempts, lest they be as pitiful as the time before. Better to be strong in silence than weak in revolt. Marcus gently pulled her shoulders out of the dress, went to the foot of the bed, and slid the whole thing off her body in one long tug, leaving her one lost hand of strip poker away from total nudity.

The numbness had consumed nearly all of her flesh, but she could still see as Marcus went over to a trunk at the far end of the room and pulled out a blue bottle, which he uncorked as he came back to her side. He put his fingers over the open mouth of the bottle, and quickly tipped it to splash his fingers with the liquid inside. He reached his hand to a place just below her neck, and although she could feel nothing, she was sure that he was applying essence of whatever-it-was to her skin.

The scent reached her nose before he even pulled his fingers away. It was a miasma of indescribable bouquet, Vicks VapoRub from hell. The smell seemed to pull her other senses along for the ride. Her ears rang and hummed, becoming a white noise pulsated by the blood rushing through her head. Stars were exploding in her eyes as they teared up from the over-powering scent that was starting to commandeer her taste buds as well. Perhaps this was why Marcus had numbed her, however he had managed to do that, if her muscles had been capable of responding, she would have shuddered at the thought of what the smell would have felt like. She saw the dark blurry form of Marcus standing over her. He seemed to be saying something, but it was little more than a low buzz in the flurry of static that was her hearing. It was an odd sensation to have as the last sensation of her life.

***

The first surprise was that she could feel again. The second surprise was that she was on her hands and knees in the middle of a desert--no, make that a Desert--at night, wearing her old street clothes. The third surprise was the seven-foot skeleton, complete with scythe and heavy black cloak that was looming in front of her when she stood up.

HELLO.

"I'm dead, aren't I?"

IT WOULD SEEM SO. YOU KNOW, EVERY TIME SOMEBODY COMES HERE, THAT'S THE FIRST THING THEY SAY. I GREET THEM, TRY TO MAKE THIS WHOLE PROCESS JUST A LITTLE MORE FRIENDLY, BUT THEY ALWAYS WANT TO FOCUS ON THEIR CURRENT CONDITIONS.

"Gee, I can't imagine why."

REALLY? HOW VERY CURIOUS. I WONDERED IF IT MIGHT HAVE HAD SOMETHING TO DO WITH MY APPEARANCE. TELL ME, DO YOU THINK IT WORKS?

"You are certainly the nicest looking death I've ever met."

YES. WELL, I SUPPOSE YOU'LL BE WANTING TO HEAD OUT ACROSS THE DESERT. THAT'S WHERE EVERYBODY GOES.

"No chance of going back then?" Magnus said, turning to look out at the black sand of the midnight desert that seemed to go on forever in all directions.

I'M AFRAID NOT. JUST OUT INTO THE DESERT.

"What's on the other side?"

There was no answer. When she turned to look, Death was gone.

"What to do, what to do?" she said aloud. "Firstly, how did I just talk to death without pissing my pants?" A short pause, "Perhaps, being dead, I don't have any piss to piss with. Well, having established that, one direction looks as good as another."

Magnus struck out toward the... well, there wasn't a horizon, what with the afterlife not being curved, but if it had been, toward the horizon she'd have struck. For spans of timeless time, her bitch-stompers kicked up the black grit of the Desert. It didn't feel like she was getting anywhere.

Magnus sat down in the sand, flopped backwards, and gazed up into the star-lit non-heavens. She tried to remember her life, but it was like trying to remember a dream. Perhaps she had always been walking this desert, and her so-called lives were just the dreams she had when she became tired of walking. She began to remember other lives. Magnus had once been Herman, a West-coast logger who helped fight the bosses when they tried to stop them from forming a union. Ajalae, "the mad desert woman" of Egypt, when she had come into life with memories of the Black Desert. Lucas, soldier under Alexander the Great, who died in the arms of his beloved Victor. Thousands of deaths.

Thousands of lives.

But that would mean . . .

There was a way back! But could she get back into her old body? As far as she could remember, Marcus hadn't done anything nasty to it. She would have to try though. Marcus would pay for this. Nobody but nobody killed Magnus and got away with it.

"I want this," she said, gritting her teeth. "I want this!"

A woman possessed, Magnus tore into the sand with both hands, digging down into the netherworld. Death had said that everybody walked into the Desert. Maybe she could burrow through it.

Spans of timeless time passed, and Magnus had made little more than a dip in the dunes. Although still not the slightest bit tired, Magnus was frustrated. Even wanting really hard wouldn't help her dig through infinity.

And then Magnus had a thought. It was one of those little thoughts that only strikes when you are so desperate for ideas that your mind finally gives up on reason, and turns to madness like the one-too-many-times betrayed woman enters a lesbian bar. Magnus cackled. It all seemed so simple now.

Which, in fact, it was.

***

Magnus sat straight up as she awoke on the hotel bed. Marcus had crossed her arms over her chest, and she found she had to tell her muscles to relax themselves before they would drop. She was only slightly surprised to discover that her fingernails were caked with black grit.

She was still too scantly clad to appear on basic cable, but could move again, and all of her senses were functioning normally . . . no, better. She felt strangely aware of her surroundings. The filament in the light bulb in the lamp near the bed was about two hours away from burning out, there was a loose thread on the quilt that could undo all the seams if pulled correctly, and her red and gold Chinese dress, which had been neatly laid out on a stuffed chair, seemed to be calling in Marcus' voice for her to put it on.

Fully awake, despite having recently come back from the dead, she jumped off the bed and took up her dress, under which a lay a note written in Marcus' handwriting.

Magnus,

Congratulations are to be yours. You have fought the good fight, and died the good death. I'm certain you have many questions, all of which will be answered in due time. If you need me, dial the pager number on the back of this note, and I will come to you. In the mean time, two friends, Thomas and Morgan are waiting for you in the next room. They will take you somewhere safe, with others who will help you. On behalf of all of us, I welcome you.

-M

All of this was very strange. It was still hard for her to understand exactly what she had done, back there, in the Desert. Death had told her to cross the Desert, but she would never have thought...

All she had done was close her eyes and take one step to the side. Part of her knew this wasn't possible, but another part of her, an older part of her, a part of her that seemed to recently have learned how to talk above a whisper, told her that she had just done it.

Magnus put on her dress, and slipped the note into her backpack as she stepped into the next room, where a Native American business man in a suit and a dark-haired woman in jeans and a white blouse sat on the leather couch, and looked up expectantly at her as she entered the room.

"Nice to see you're finally Awake," said the man.

"Yes, it is," said Magnus.