The hourglass door, p.29
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       The Hourglass Door, p.29

           Lisa Mangum
 

  It was no choice and Zo knew it.

  I told myself that Zo had to be lying. It wasn’t possible that he could destroy Dante like he threatened. He couldn’t have that much power. He was bluffing.

  I walked up to him, my body trembling with an emotion I didn’t dare name in case it was fear. I stopped in front of him, studying his hooded eyes, his self-satisfied grin, the black tattoos that marked him a criminal and a traitor. Dante had been marked the same way, but he was the innocent one. I decided my emotion couldn’t possibly be fear.

  “Dante was sent through the time machine because of you,” I said, tasting the metallic tang of truth and anger on my tongue. “You said he was guilty when he wasn’t.”

  I slapped Zo across the face. Hard. My hand flared red, tingling with my righteous anger.

  Zo looked back at me, rubbing his cheek. His grin was still firmly in place.

  I lifted my hand to hit him again, but he caught my wrist. I curled my fingers into a fist, struggling to break free.

  He tightened his callused fingertips around the delicate bones in my wrist. He brought his mouth close to my fist, his lips not quite touching my skin. “Such passion,” he said. “How refreshing.”

  “Let her go,” Leo said, pulling Zo’s hand away while Zo laughed.

  I glared at Zo, rubbing the circulation back into my hand.

  Leo took my place in front of him. “Is that true? Dante is here because you told them he was one of us?”

  “You told them my name. I told them Dante’s,” Zo said, shrugging as though it made perfect sense. “I warned you what would happen if you betrayed us, if you told our secrets.” Zo’s eyes glittered. “None of this would have happened if you had just followed the rules.”

  “That’s not true,” I snapped at him. “This is all your fault.”

  “Fault?” Zo jumped to his feet and trained his furious eyes on mine. “If you want to lay blame, look there, Abby. Look to Leo. We’re all here because of his actions. We’re all paying the price for his cowardice and his fear. I’m just trying to set right what he caused to go wrong.”

  “You lying—” I started, but Leo’s soft voice covered my words.

  “You’re right, Zo. I made a mistake—more than one—but I have been trying to atone for them ever since.”

  “That’s not good enough, old man,” Zo barked, pushing Leo in the chest. “Your apology is way too little, way too late.”

  Leo stumbled back a step. I grabbed his arm to help steady him. “I helped you when you and your friends came through the door. I helped you even though I knew who you were and what you’d done.”

  “And you think that makes you some kind of hero? That we’re somehow indebted to you?”

  “No—” Leo started.

  “Then stop interfering. If you were smart, you’d stay out of my way.”

  He shook his head. “I can’t do that.”

  “I warned you,” Zo said.

  “Stop it! Both of you!”

  Leo looked at me with confusion, Zo with anticipation.

  It seemed like forever ago that Leo had spoken to me about the four rules: the rules to keep me safe. But how could I stay safe while people I loved were in danger?

  I’d thought my way through a hundred different scenarios, trying to find a loophole in the choice Zo had presented me. But I couldn’t see any way out. Valerie was likely still trapped on the bank. Zo was holding Dante hostage. Leo couldn’t go without risking his own sanity. There was no one else but me. In truth, I didn’t have any choice. I didn’t want to make any other choice. Dante needed my help. I couldn’t leave him, abandon him. I didn’t want to. I was his Beatrice.

  “I’ll go,” I said quietly.

  “Abby—” Leo reached for my arm, but I stepped away from him. I had made my decision, but it was fragile and I couldn’t risk Leo talking me out of it. My red-hot flare of anger had faded into an ember of weary resolve.

  “I have to. It’s the only way.” I took a deep breath and took a step toward Zo.

  Victory gleamed in his eyes.

  Then Leo pushed me aside and swung his fist at Zo’s jaw.

  I heard the crack of bone against bone and Zo fell, hitting his head on the edge of the bar on his way to the ground.

  Startled, I looked at Leo, my mouth open in surprise.

  Leo cradled his right hand with his left, pain drawing deep lines on his face. “Go!” he barked. “I’ll take care of Zo. Go, now, while there is still time.”

  “Go where?” I asked, looking over my shoulder at the door.

  “To the bank. Go. Save Valerie. Save Dante.” He placed his good hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. “Set my brother free.”

  I nodded, my blood pounding with adrenaline. I felt the sharp flare of hope behind my heart and grinned.

  Leo fished out the set of keys from Zo’s pocket and nodded toward the “Employees Only” door. “Lock it behind you. And whatever happens, don’t come downstairs. Don’t open the door. Dante’s room is on the left if you need a quiet place to concentrate.” Leo pushed the keys into my hand. “You can do this, Abby. I trust you.”

  I took a last look at Zo, still on the floor, waiting to see if he would move; then I spun on my heel and ran for the door.

  Chapter

  28

  I locked the door with hands that shook. My whole body shook. I could almost feel the passage of time flowing against my skin. Every heartbeat simply counted one more second of the head start that I was losing.

  I took the stairs two at a time. I pushed into the first room on my left and slammed the door behind me. Pressing my back against the wood, I took in Dante’s room with one glance.

  A bed pushed into the far corner. A closet. A bookcase filled with papers, books, and odds and ends. I wanted to look at everything, examine every inch, riffle through his books, open his closet and breathe in the scent of him that surely lingered on his clothes.

  But I didn’t have time.

  I closed my eyes and tried to remember what I had done before to make it to the bank. I thought back to that night in the clearing when Dante had held my hand and . . . and . . . What exactly had he done?

  I tried to reconstruct the night in my mind but kept stumbling over the tactile memory of his hand around mine. How his long fingers twined with mine. How perfectly they fit together. How . . . it was no use.

  I shook my head in frustration.

  What about the night I had dreamed my way there? I laughed in despair. I wasn’t exactly capable of falling asleep at the moment.

  I felt tears prickling in my eyes. Time was running out. If I didn’t figure something out—and soon—Zo would recover from Leo’s knockout punch. And when he did, it would only take him an instant to make good on his promise, and Dante would be lost to me forever. I recognized the irony and grimaced. Dante was trapped in a place outside of time, and yet I still had only so much time to spare before it would be too late. Too late to save Valerie from certain death. Too late to save Dante from the insanity that threatened him every time he set foot on the bank of the river.

  How could we have underestimated Zo so badly?

  I paced Dante’s room, prowling like a caged animal but feeling more like a mouse than a tiger or a lion.

  Maybe that was it. Maybe I should be thinking of how to slide past, slide in, instead of barging in with a frontal assault.

  What was it Dante had said once? That stepping out of the river and onto the bank was like sliding in between the moments of time.

  That was the key. In between. After all, between the notes of song lived the melody. Between the particles of light shone the dawn. Between the words spoken breathed the creation of life.

  Maybe I could slide between . . .

  I lay down on his bed, forcing myself to relax. It was hard—my heart kept skipping beats, slowing down, only to speed up again.

  I tried Jason’s counting trick, then counting my heartbeats in between my breaths. Counting the puls
e of blood in my fingers and toes. Counting the stars I could see from the curved window high on the wall. Counting the spaces between the stars.

  So slowly, too slowly, I felt my surroundings start to fade.

  I kept counting the spaces between, afraid I would lose my own focus, lose track of where I was, where I wanted to be. Afraid I’d lose Dante.

  The silence deepened around me, thick and heavy. I heard a low ringing begin deep inside my inner ear, a straining to hear something. But there was nothing to hear. Not my breath, not my heartbeat, not the whispered numbers that fell from my lips like a prayer. Everything faded away.

  I knew before I opened my eyes that it had worked.

  I could feel the pressure clamping down on my lungs. The silence that had been soft as a winter snowfall turned sharp and painful. Still I hesitated opening my eyes. What if I’d made it, but not to where Dante was? I knew the answer before I even finished asking myself the question.

  If I opened my eyes and Dante wasn’t there, I’d die. I couldn’t survive without him to protect me in this place. Burning fire blazed through my lungs, scorching what little breath remained in me.

  I felt a kiss pressed to my mouth, rough and perfunctory. Dante never kissed me like that. His kisses were soft and sharing. I opened my eyes—and recoiled when I saw V leaning over me.

  He pulled away from me but kept his hand clamped around my arm.

  “So nice of you to join us, Abby,” Tony said from behind him, a malicious twist to his lips.

  I looked around quickly. The churning flood of the river surged close by us but there was no sign of Zo. Not yet.

  No sign of Dante, either, but then I saw a shape a short ways in the distance next to the river. A lithe, willowy figure stepping lightly, bending low, reaching out, reaching up. It looked like she was picking nonexistent flowers, or perhaps dancing. The person turned and I saw her face clearly.

  Valerie still wore her deadly nightshade dress, though without the gloves or her shoes. The darkness of her dress hurt my eyes. The bright emptiness in her face hurt my heart even worse.

  When she saw me, she danced barefoot over the flat ground of the bank until she had reached V’s side.

  “You brought me a doll to play with!” she said, clapping her hands together like a small child. “Oh, she’s pretty. I like her hair.” She frowned. “I hope I have some dress-up clothes to fit her.” She twirled, her arms extended high above her head. “I wonder what I should name her?”

  She saw Tony standing nearby and ran to him, asking him if he had any ribbons in his pockets.

  I locked eyes with Tony, horror clogging my thoughts, blurring the edges of my vision.

  “What have you done to her?”

  “Oh, it’s not what we’ve done to her, it’s what the bank has done to her.” Tony shrugged. “It turns out not everyone is as well suited to visiting here as you are. Valerie’s mind seems to have cracked under the pressure.”

  This must have been the “slight snag” Zo had mentioned so casually. I felt my hate for him flare up in a welcome pain. I would make him pay for this. For everything.

  I shook free of V’s grip and took a step toward Valerie, unsure of what I could do to help, but knowing I couldn’t stand to see her like this.

  A sharp report cracked behind me and I turned to see Zo standing on the bank. Fury surrounded him like a storm. Heat fairly crackled off his skin. He rubbed his jaw, and I suspected it had already healed from the blow Leo had given him.

  My heart sank. I had almost made it. I’d beaten him to the bank, but not fast enough.

  Without breaking his gaze from me, Zo barked something in Italian to V, who nodded and grabbed Valerie by her arm.

  “Oh, are we going to a party?” she asked. “I like parties. Should I bring my dolly?”

  V walked her to the edge of the river and shoved her in. She was gone midword.

  I hoped she landed somewhere—some when—safe.

  “There. That’s done. Now we can get down to business.” Zo stepped to the side.

  I finally saw Dante. He was crouched on his knees, his hands covering his face, shaking with barely controlled emotion. Rage? Sorrow? Fear? It was hard to tell.

  “Dante!” His name burst from my lips automatically. I took a step toward him, but Tony grabbed me and held me back. His hand cut off the circulation to my fingers.

  “He can’t hear you, Abby.” Zo walked toward me, a dark light in his eyes, his casual cruelty replaced with something more focused. “In fact, he can’t do anything here. Not unless I say so.”

  “Let him go!” I demanded.

  “We all have our little tricks here,” Zo said, ignoring me. “Did you know Dante can see the future? It’s too bad he didn’t see this coming. V has an uncanny sense of direction here. And Tony swears he can hear echoes of the past.” He smiled coldly at me. “My little talent here is that I can enhance emotions—grant pleasure or pain.”

  Zo pointed a finger at Dante and then flicked it upright. Dante’s head snapped back as though it had been tied to a string. Zo curled his finger and Dante’s neck bent backward, straining to obey Zo’s command even though he couldn’t move another inch.

  I shivered to see Dante’s throat so exposed, so vulnerable.

  Zo dropped his hand, and Dante’s head followed suit.

  I tried to catch his eye, to make sure he knew I was there, but Dante wouldn’t—or couldn’t—look at me. He hid his face behind his hands, his black chains stark against his pale skin.

  I gasped as I realized I’d seen Dante like this before. The first time I had traveled to the bank, the first time I had looked in the river, I had seen this exact moment. Was it possible? Had I really seen the future back then? I ground my teeth in frustration. If only I had looked a little further downstream, maybe I’d have seen how to stop Zo.

  “What do you want?”

  Zo grinned over sharp teeth. “I want my life back. And lucky for me, you are the one who can give it to me.”

  “I can’t—” I started, but then stars sparked in my vision as Zo slapped me across the face. I felt my lips start to swell and tasted blood in the corner of my mouth. The ringing in my ears sounded even louder in the deafening silence around me.

  “Don’t be stupid. It’s you. It’s always been you.” Zo trailed his fingertip down my cheek. “Because you, sweet Abby, are special.” He shook his head sadly. “All that time wasted on your useless friend, when I should have been pursuing you.”

  I recoiled from his touch, turning my head away.

  Zo glanced at Tony, who immediately stepped to flank V, who was guarding Dante at the edge of the riverbank behind us. Zo moved closer, intimate. “I’m surprised Dante didn’t figure it out. Or maybe he did, but it was too late. You bring part of the river with you wherever you go. Even here. But of course, there’s no time here on the bank, is there?” Zo spoke to me like I was a small child and I bristled at his tone. He saw my discomfort and grinned. “It’s like oil and water—the river and the bank will never mix. But here you are, sweet Abby, with your special touch of time, and something’s got to give.”

  A light bloomed in Zo’s dark eyes, and I turned to see what had entranced him.

  A slender bridge spanned the river. The path lacked railings or supports of any kind; I wondered if anyone could realistically cross that narrow walkway without falling off. The bridge arched high above the river, and I shuddered to think of falling from that height. I followed the curve to where it ended on the other side of the river and my breath froze in my body.

  At the foot of the bridge was a flat black door, freestanding in the void. Even from here I could see the markings on the door: stars, a wave, a shell. An hourglass in the middle, the top bulb empty while a mound of sand completely filled the bottom bulb. Three narrow slots where the hinges would pivot, allowing the door to open to the past or the future.

  The void shimmered along the edges of the door frame like water. I couldn’t concentrate on it
for long without my eyes starting to well up against the unnaturalness of it all.

  My whole body flashed cold. My teeth started to chatter and I shook so hard I could feel myself vibrating in Zo’s hand. I had seen this door somewhere before.

  “Ah, Abby,” Zo murmured, “it’s perfect.”

  I shook my head and looked away. “It’s horrible.”

  “It’s the way home,” he said.

  Tony and V exchanged a hungry grin above Dante’s head.

  “You can’t go back. You were sent through the time machine for a reason and you can’t go back. Any of you.” I knew I was babbling, mixing truth with lies, but I couldn’t seem to stop the words from spilling out. Anything to keep from looking at the door.

  “Leo may have said that, but we both know he has been keeping secrets.”

  I looked helplessly at Dante, wishing he would stand up and stop Zo, but if he knew the door was there and what Zo planned to do, he gave no sign.

  “You can’t open it,” I blurted. “The door is missing a piece—”

  Zo tightened his grip around my arm, a feral smile peeling back his lips. “You mean this piece?” He held out his hand, and Tony placed the three-pronged brass machine into his palm.

  He gripped the two ends of the machine and pulled. The long side grew longer like a blade being unsheathed. Longer and longer the hinge unfolded until, instead of a compact letter E, the hinge had expanded to be tall enough to fit the empty notches carved into the door.

  No one else seemed to hear the clear high note that shivered like a bell in the flat air of the bank. I heard the beginning of a quiet melody playing deep in my ear. It was a melody Ialmost recognized, a shiver just on the edge of my memory. I was sure I had heard it before. But where? When?

  “Do you have any idea how special you are, my sweet Abby? You can come to the bank alone; you can summon the bridge; and I think you can open the door.” Zo neatly telescoped the machine back into its small, portable size.

  “No,” I said, shaking my head and trying to take a step back. “I won’t do it.”

 
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