Juno Books

An Excerpt From Rags and Old Iron

By Lorelei Shannon

[ Information on Rags and Old Iron ]


July, 1976

AMY STEPS THROUGH THE DOOR. She sees nothing but spots as her eyes adjust from banana-colored sunlight to sodden blackness. Her lungs fill with stale, bitter air and another, more corrupt odor. The little girl takes a step back. Her green eyes go wide with confusion. She reaches out her hand, but she is suddenly afraid. He's still my friend, isn't he? She tries to smile. "Ruh--Rags?" she says in a tiny voice. The sour air snatches her voice from her lips, chokes it wetly and drops it to the ground, unheard.

She looks around. She hates it when he hides from her. She hates it when he pops out and scares her. She opens her mouth to call to him, louder this time.

"Rags!" Her voice is squeaky with fear.

"Yes, baby," he says from the darkness. She frowns. His voice sounds funny, like he has a mouthful of oatmeal.

"Yes, my angel, my precious."

He steps liquidly from a shadow, and she can see him kneel down and open his arms to her. It's all right. He still loves me. He does.

She runs to him. "Baby!" he laughs. "Oh little love..." He brushes the hair from her face, cupping her cheek in his hand, and his skin feels slimy. Her insides squirm. He must have been playing in the pool again. Yucchy. She pulls back and tries to look into his eyes. They are flat and cold, like the eyes of the sharks at Sea World.

That's 'cause it's so dark. He doesn't look like that.

He is picking her up, holding her way up in the air so she can fly, and a pale ray of light from the filthy window strikes his face.

She screams. She begins to struggle, pounding at his hands with her tiny fists.

"It's true! It's true! It's true!" she cries, her voice thin and high. "What Virginia said is true! You're not real! You're a monster!"

His body is shaking. He's crying. I made Rags cry. Amy goes limp, suddenly unsure. She bites her lower lip, tentatively puts her small hand on his chest. "I'm sorry, Rags, I didn't mean..."

He spins her around, tossing her in the air, and light gleams on his long pointed teeth as he laughs.

"I am real, angel. I'm more real than Virginia or anyone else you know. You're going to be real, too, my sweet one, my baby bride..."

And his face is shifting, moving sluggishly like the scum on the surface of the pool, and the little girl's soft features twist in fear because his mouth is too big, and something moves inside it like worms and his fingers are growing longer, flowing through the pink chiffon of her Sunday dress and gripping her skin like the spongy pads of a tree frog--

With a squeal, she kicks out wildly with her hard, black little Mary Jane shoes. They connect with Rags' face and sink in, and it feels like stepping in deep, cold mud. He shrieks and drops her.

She is running. She slips on the black mold that feeds on the ancient carpet and falls to one knee. Squish. Cold wet seeps through her pretty dress and her white tights and onto her shivering skin. She scrabbles desperately for a moment, the slick soles of her shoes refusing to grip. She can hear him right behind her.

She is on her feet again, running, running. Tears stream down Amy's face as she tries to find the door. She blinks and wipes her eyes. It's so dark. Wet moss brushes her neck and she yelps and jerks away, hitting her head on a wall. She can smell him. Sobbing, she ducks around a corner and runs down the hall. Her heart leaps. Ahead of her the room widens; She can see the looming twist of the staircase. The red stained glass in the front door winks at her like a dragon's eye. She runs as fast as her short legs will carry her. She is going to make it.

He laughs right next to her ear.

Suddenly she realizes that he is playing a game with her, that he can catch her any time.

Her shoe strikes something hard. She pitches forward, grabbing at the banister of the spiral staircase. Her fist closes on moss and she lands heavily on her chest. Squish. Gasping, she rolls over and scoots backward across the slimy floor. Her back presses against the door. She grabs for the doorknob and twists, but her hands are wet with slime and she just can't grip it and he is right behind her right behind her. She turns and looks up at him. Laughing softly, he reaches for her with long, ropy arms. Her bladder lets go. She doesn't want to see him any more, so she covers her eyes as he bends over her.

It has to be a bad dream oh please it just has to...

* * *

Whether or not it happened that way, that was the way she remembered it, but only in her darkest nightmares. Mercifully, she didn't remember the rest.

After a while, she didn't remember it at all.

Chapter One

October, 1989

AMELIA STOOD AT THE MOUTH of the long, dark hallway, one slender hand clutching at her heaving breast. Her other hand held a small baroque no, gothic candelabra. The bodice of her ivory lace nightgown was soaked with sweat. Her pale skin glowed, bathed in the cold moonlight streaming through the narrow window. She breathed in, gathering up her courage. She took one tiny step, then another. Nothing happened. Emboldened, she walked on. Her bare feet were cold on the stone floor.

Her pretty mouth turned down as she brushed away a thick, dusty curtain of spiderweb. A fat, hairy spider dropped down no way I hate spiders A bat flew past with a silken rustle, its wingtip grazing her cheek. Amelia threw up her tiny hand with a stifled scream. She sagged against the rough stone wall, close to tears. She couldn't take one more shock. Not one more. Feeling a vapor coming on, she closed her emerald eyes against the world.

She couldn't escape. Images of dinner with her host flickered across her eyelids like the moving pictures of the cinematograph. She covered her face with her hands. Her mind wanted to dismiss it as a nightmare. But it hadn't been.

She could picture Lord Gareth with perfect clarity, looking at her across the table with burning black eyes. Her heart had pounded so, she could hardly finish her meal. She hadn't found it terribly unusual that he wasn't eating. He had told her that he ate only a very special diet, and she considered it just another of his rather charming eccentricities. She wouldn't have expected less of a real European nobleman.

Amelia opened her eyes, and a single tear slipped diamondlike down her heart-shaped face. Little fool!

When the strange, silent Gypsy servant woman had cleared the table and given Amelia a snifter of lovely apricot brandy, she had felt like a princess. And then, when Lord Gareth had offered his arm and escorted her to her chamber, well...

Amelia imagined him as he had been just a few hours earlier, stroking her hair and confessing his love for her. He had bent to kiss her, and his lips had been soft and insistent and...cold. But that was not so strange, was it? After all, it was cold in the castle. Central heating hadn't been invented yet. Then she had glanced up and looked into the tiny antique mirror she had brought with her and hung on the wall, and saw she was alone. Her arms were draped around empty air. She watched in terror at the tiny depressions that appeared in her throat as he passionately kissed her there.

She had swooned. When she had awakened, she lay in the elaborate canopied bed, and he was gone. Amelia knew then what he was, just as she knew she had to get away. Hurriedly lighting the little candelabra with gargoyles on it, gargoyles are cool, she had crept from her room to search for a way out of the castle. When she found it, she meant to pack her few possessions and leave at first light, before the servants were awake.

She shuddered. When the dawn came, he would sleep, and she would be safe.

A sudden cold wind blew the candles out. Amelia started, and whirled around. He stood behind her, a smile on his cruel, sensual lips. She cried out softly as he seized her around the slender waist and pulled her to him. The candelabra clattered to the floor. His strong, lean body was cold and strangely exciting. His eyes blazed into hers, and she knew what he was going to do.

She wanted him to.

He was so beautiful. He looked just like Frank Langella. He ran his tongue slowly along her neck, and it felt like velvet. She felt herself giving in to him. Her arms slipped around his neck and clutched his spiky blond hair because he looked like Kiefer Sutherland. Her fingers gripped his back as she felt his teeth pressing into her throat. "Oh, yeah," she sighed.

* * *



Amy's eyes popped open. Sarah kicked Amy's chair again and grinned at her like a cherubic hyena. Bleary-eyed, Amy looked around, hoping she hadn't been drooling in her sleep. Satisfied that no one was staring, she yawned hugely behind her textbook, and winced as her jaw gave an audible pop.

Sarah suppressed a snort of laughter and scribbled on a scrap of paper, then tossed it onto Amy's desk. Amy looked at her friend fuzzily for a moment, then read it. "Does that ever happen when you're sucking face?" it said in Sarah's bizarre, backslanted handwriting. Amy grinned and wrote back "Yes, but only when I really like the guy." Sarah smiled lazily and passed Amy the bag of M&Ms.

Aah. Chocolate in the morning. Amy took a generous handful. A crunch, a burst of sweetness, and she was finally awake.

Munching, Amy looked up at Professor Winterbrook. He was looking back at her, his gray eyes twinkling with amusement.

"So our four heroes have gotten themselves into a rather nasty situation, ay, Miss Sullivan?"

"Um, yes indeed," said Amy, blushing. There was a ripple of laughter through the classroom.

With a half-smile on his thin face, the professor continued. "They thought to ambush Dracula, but he slipped easily through their fingers and ridiculed them into the bargain. Would you be so kind as to read what he says to them?"

"Certainly," said Amy, swallowing her chocolate. She flipped through the book looking for the right page, angry with herself for not paying attention. Good job, girl. Let's just show our favorite professor what a brain stem we are, shall we?

After an agonizing few moments, she found it. Amy didn't look over at Sarah, because she would be wearing that "What a feeb" expression that always made Amy crack up. Instead she coughed once, and began to read.

"You think to baffle me, you -- with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher's."

Amy's voice cracked, and Sarah snickered.

"You shall be sorry yet, each one of you! You think you have left me without a place to rest; but I have more. My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side."

Amy frowned. Her skin had begun to feel prickly and hot, and her stomach felt cold and heavy. She deeply regretted eating three greasy doughnuts for breakfast. She wiped her forehead and continued. "Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine -- my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed."

Amy squeezed her eyes shut as a wave of nausea hit her hard. Dizzy, she gripped the sides of her desk.

"Didn't you forget something?" Amy opened her eyes, and the room lurched. Professor Winterbrook was looking at her.

"What?" she said, too loudly.

He smiled. "'Bah'! You forgot Dracula's 'Bah'!"

The class exploded with laughter. Amy's skin cooled as if washed by water. The nausea was receding as quickly as it had come. She laughed too, a little shakily. She pushed shaggy blonde hair from her eyes and sat up straight in her chair.

"Now Doctor Van Helsing concludes from this episode that Dracula is frightened," said the Professor, fixing her with his pale eyes. "Do you agree with him, Amy?"

Yeehah, I get to impress him. "No," she said without hesitation.

Professor Winterbrook had come around the podium and was standing in front of Amy's desk. "Would you like to tell us why?"

"Well", she said, "Just losing a little money and a free shot at Mina wouldn't make someone like Dracula afraid. Just piss-- um, irritated. How could four Victorian geeks frighten someone who's immortal? This was a man who once commanded huge armies. I think--" Amy's throat went dry. Oh shit. She was queasy again. "I think Dracula thought they were pathetic."

The professor smiled. "I would tend to agree with you. However, I did not notice Jonathan Harker or Quincy Morris eating live chickens."

The roar of laughter from the class hurt Amy's head. Sarah held up a note that said "Van Helsing Would!" Her grin faded as she saw Amy's expression.

Amy lurched to her feet just as the bell rang. Her chest was tight, and her breath was coming in shallow gasps. The room turned amber, and Amy pitched forward. Then Sarah was there, helping her out the door and into the cool hallway. Amy slumped against a Coke machine, fighting the urge to vomit.

Professor Winterbrook peered out the door, his wide, pale forehead lined with concern. "Are you ill, Miss Sullivan?"

Amy mustered a smile. "Just something I ate, Professor."

He scowled. "Stay out of the Student Union Building, Miss Sullivan. Some of that food was fresh when Dracula was a first edition."

Sarah laughed. "Don't worry, Professor, I'll take her home and bleed her." She wrapped her arm firmly around Amy's waist and pulled her away from the machine. "Come on, spewpuppy."

They lurched across campus, their arms around each other like children. Sarah had a deadly look for anyone who stared or laughed.

Amy's mouth was watering with nausea. Droolin' like a dog. How very charming. The warmth of the day was making it worse; making Amy feel like she was submerged in water or something else the temperature of her own body. Amy squeezed her eyes shut, trusting Sarah not to run her into a tree. She felt a little less sick hiding behind her own eyelids.

About halfway to the parking lot, Amy began to breathe more easily. She felt a wave of cool pass through her like a kiss. Her stomach unclenched, and it was pure heaven. She tipped her head back with a sigh, and a drop of sweat slid down the back of her neck. Amy shivered.

Sarah took her by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes. Amy smiled; Sarah looked like a worried Muppet. Amy touched the sleeve of Sarah's worn Social Distortion T-shirt. Her friend's arm and side were drenched with Amy's sweat. Goddam Arizona weather. It's autumn, for shit's sake.

Sarah's eyes never left her face. "You OK, woman?" she asked quietly.

Amy grinned. Better but still feeling like she could use a double shot of Pepto. "Yeah, I'll live. Can we sit down for a minute?"

Sarah guided her to the edge of the huge, pink, ugly fountain in the plaza; the centerpiece of Arizona State University's doubtful landscaping. They sat on one of the low cement benches, and Amy let out a shuddering breath. She looked at her feet for a moment, considering hanging her head between her knees. Nah. Salvage whatever tiny shred of dignity you have left, babe.

Amy raised her head and turned to smile at Sarah. Sarah's mobile cherub-face was solemn, even tense. The expression made her look like somebody else.

Amy leaned in nose to nose with her and copied Sarah's expression. "Lighten up, silly, I'll live. It's just a massive breakfast rebellion." I hope. Damn, I really don't need a case of the stomach flu right now.

Sarah laughed and pushed her away. "Anytime you're ready, mutant," she said, dipping her cheap imitation Wayfarers in the fountain and cleaning them on the dry side of her T-shirt.

Amy looked over her shoulder at the enormous circular pool with its pathetic spurt of water in the middle; much ridiculed and frequently vandalized. She remembered seeing it full of sky-blue suds one morning last year, and smiled.

Her eyes narrowed. There was something dark in the water, right behind Sarah. God knows what it is, she thought. People throw all sorts of crap in here.

She watched the thing as it rose to the surface. It was a chunk of sickly gray-green algae, probably dislodged from the pipes beneath the fountain. Amy grimaced, thinking of water gushing through corroded, slimy piping, being pumped into the fountain. People were always playing in it, cooling their feet and even their heads. Was there algae like that in the drinking fountain pipes? The lump of green bobbed in the water, bumping against the fountain wall.

Something squirmed inside it.

Amy hung her head between her legs and was suddenly and violently sick.

* * *

She sat in her room, staring at the red stain on the baby-shit orange carpet. Koolade, she thought. Or tomato juice. Or blood. They just better not try to make us pay for it when we move out. Once, in a fit of perversity, she had drawn the outline of a body around it in purple chalk, with the stain where the heart would be. Morbid bitch.

Amy snorted. What the hell was wrong with me today? She shook her head. At least I feel all right now. More or less.

It had taken her an hour to convince Sarah that she really was OK. The girl had been about to cancel her date with Mick, for God's sake. "Just what I need," Amy had told her. "A bored and horny woman staring at me and thinking about her boyfriend's butt." Sarah had finally relented, but not before taking Amy's temperature (which was normal), fixing her some Tummy Mint tea and clucking over her like a curly-haired Italian chicken.

Amy closed her eyes and leaned back on the pillows. Guiltily, she wished that she had let Sarah stay. Yeah, right. What's the matter, you wuss? Scared a big bad lump of pond scum's gonna getcha? Better stay away from the complex pool. Amy started to laugh, but then she pictured the tiny pool with its gray water and occasional green foliage, and her stomach flip-flopped.

"Dammit!" Amy slammed the side of her fist into the wall. Tears of pain stung her eyes. "What's wrong with me?" she hissed. Cradling her throbbing hand against her breast, she curled up into a tight little ball. Eventually, she slept.

* * *

...Running through the swamp. The ground sinks beneath her feet. Panic. She struggles onto a mangrove root. She slips. Skins her knees. She stands up, steadies herself on the slippery tree trunk. She wipes her hands on her pink party dress and runs. The swamp is hot, fetid. It smells like Grandma's compost heap. Something wet and soft strikes her face, covering her eyes. She shrieks and claws at it, but the moss curls around her head like the tentacles of a squid. She pitches forward. She lands face down in the rancid water, instantly thrashing like a grounded fish. She struggles to get up, but something warm and heavy presses on the back of her head, forcing her down. As her lungs begin to burn and heave, the moss slowly and insistently wriggles into her mouth and nose...

* * *

Amy's screams echoed through the empty apartment, her fists entwined in the sweat-soaked sheets.

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Copyright © 2002, 2007, Lorelei Shannon. All Rights Reserved.

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