Shadows of Death

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Diana Ng

I am on an island floating in a galaxy.  The sky is a gradient of pink and purple with tufts of white clouds and clusters of stars scattered about.  There is a giant tree with curtains of green leaves and the tall grass sways as the wind swirls my long black hair around me.  I sit underneath the tree, cross my legs lotus style, close my eyes and begin to meditate.

***

What I was nine years old, my mother taught me all about meditation.  My mother was a scholar and she was fascinated with Hindu mythology.  She often shared stories with me.  One popular belief was that that the god Krishna incarnates in every era to reestablish the spiritual order of the Earth.  Through meditation, the soul becomes part of the collective consciousness.  I never fully understood the meaning behind all that she taught me.

The night that I found my mother’s lifeless body, I dreamt that I was sitting under the tree where I am now.  There was a heavy feeling in my gut.  I sat underneath a tree, closed my eyes and tried to make myself wake up.

A deep voice drew me back into the dream.  “Open your eyes.”

It was a white-haired old woman wearing a long brown robe and carrying a walking stick.

“Child, you are disturbed,” she said.  I began to weep.  She leaned over and placed a gnarled hand on my right shoulder.

“Something terrible is about to happen,” I whimpered.  She looked at me with serenity.  “There is balance in everything.  Life expires and is reborn.”

***

I opened my eyes and looked at the clock on my desk.  It was six in the morning.  The daylight passed over Cyndi in the sleeping bag on the floor.  Best friends since we were six, we often had sleepovers.

Disturbed by my dream, I tiptoed out of my room to find my mother.  My father was away on a business trip and the house felt cold and empty.  I opened the door and light spilled into the dark room.  Heavy curtains were drawn across the windows.  I walked over to shake her awake.  There was no response and I realized that her body was stiff.  Turning her over, I saw that her face was contorted with fear.  I slowly sank down to the floor beside the bed.  Finally the screams burst from my lungs and that was how Cyndi found me – huddled on the floor, shaking.

The coroner could not establish a cause of death.  He said that my mother had lost an enormous amount of blood, but they could not detect any wounds on her body.  It remained an unsolved mystery.

***

My father succumbed to his work and ignored me.  I was a spitting image of my mother, and whenever he saw me, his face tightened with sadness.  Distraught, I roamed the streets of New York City late at night with my close friends.  My father gave me a gun for my seventeenth birthday.  How he bypassed the state and city laws, I did not know, but the weapon stayed hidden in my dresser.

I loved New York City, because it is both open and private.  There is certain anonymity amongst the crowds.  It was always Josh, Cyndi, Lonnie and me—the dysfunctional seventeen year olds.  We went out every night, wandering around brightly lit streets full of bustling restaurants, bars, and drunken people.

Pressed against sweaty, gyrating bodies on the dance floor at different clubs, I was so close to all these people, yet so distant.  It was easy to get lost in the loud music, the clouds of smoke, and the flashing kaleidoscope of lights.

***

My legs are cramped.  I get up and stretch.  The sunlight reflects off a small stream.  I walk over and kneel by the cold water to splash some onto my face.  I feel a heightened awareness of everything around me.  Glancing past the rocks, I see black ants carrying food on their backs in a single file line back to their anthill.  I had once stopped Lonnie and Josh from killing ants with a magnifying glass when we were seven.  Lonnie.

***

Of our group, Lonnie was the most experimental one.  He used many drugs and tried to convince us to join him.  We volunteered at the Lower East Side Needle Exchange sometimes on the weekends.  The exchange was created to prevent the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and other diseases caused by using contaminated needles.  It was dark and smoky inside the Needle Exchange.  Doped up druggies, most of who were HIV positive, sat zoned out on the couches, waiting to fall from their high.

It seemed that most people didn’t care how they destroyed their bodies as long as they could escape from their dark realities.  Josh and I hoped that seeing these people would convince Lonnie that he should quit drugs.  It didn’t quite work.

“Lonnie, there’s more to life than escapism,” I said one day while we were on a volunteer shift.  I poured bleach into a small, opaque sterile bottle.  The bleach was for users to clean a dirty syringe if they had to reuse needles.  I topped off the bottle and handed it to Lonnie so that he could cap it.

“I’m a big screw-up,” he said bitterly.

“Man, if you would just clear your head and do something, then you wouldn’t be a screw-up,” Josh retorted.  We sat in a semi-circle, surrounded by empty bottles, buckets of bleach and gallons of water.  Josh was filling up sterile bottles with water.  After bleaching the syringe, users were supposed to wash it out three times with clean water.

“Look you guys,” Lonnie said, holding a bottle of bleach in one hand and a cap in the other.  He paused.  “I know you’re trying to look out for me.  And I appreciate it.  I really do.  But just let me do my thing.”  He capped the bottle tightly and tossed it into a bin half full of small bottles.
“Guess it’s time to back off,” I said, filling another bottle with bleach.  I wrinkled my nose.  I was getting light-headed.

Lonnie rolled his eyes.  “So how come you’re not out with Cyndi today?” he changed the subject while capping the bottle that I handed to him.

I paused.  “She’s out on a date with Stephen.”

A dark look passed on Josh’s face.  “If he takes advantage of her, I’m going to beat the shit out of him,” he muttered, giving the bottle cap an extra twist.

Lonnie laughed.  “You’re just being the overprotective older brother.  I bet if Madi went out with Stephen, you wouldn’t be saying that.”  I blushed.  There had always been ambiguous romantic undercurrents between me and Josh, but no one ever made a move.

“I’d kill him,” Josh said fiercely.  Startled by his own intensity, he turned bright red.  “I’d kill anyone who hurts my family or friends,” he said quickly.

We continued bantering while completing our task.

Things fell apart when Lonnie overdosed.

***

We were supposed to have a low key hang out at some point.  Cyndi and Lonnie were working on a project for Latin class, so Josh and I picked up some drinks to bring over to Lonnie’s apartment.  We barged in to surprise them but found Lonnie passed out on the couch.

The cooker was tipped over next to the lighter on the coffee table.  The empty syringe was on the floor, a few inches from his hand that dangled over the couch cushion.  Lonnie’s eyes were barely open and his breathing was labored.  Cyndi sat on the floor in the corner, arms around her pulled up knees.  Her eyes were glazed, but her lips were dark red and her cheeks were flushed.  We rushed them to the emergency room.

Dr. Masch said that Cyndi was in shock, but she was clean.  “However, we’ll have to keep your other friend overnight for observation and run some tests,” he said sternly.  The doctor hesitated, as if he had something else to say, but changed his mind.  “Take a seat in the waiting room.  I’ll let you know when you can go see him,” he said gently.

The waiting room was crowded.  It was nearly two o’clock in the morning and injured people were sprawled everywhere.

“What were you doing?  He could have died,” I said harshly to Cyndi.

“I can’t control everything,” she said, folding her arms across her chest.

Josh put a hand on my shoulder.  “Please don’t,” he said tiredly.  “Fighting isn’t going to make him better.”

I glared at him, but then I closed my eyes and sighed.  This wasn’t easy for any of us.  We remained lost in our own thoughts until the doctor finally came out and told us that we could go see Lonnie.

Things were never the same after that incident.  We never quite got the full story as to what Cyndi and Lonnie were doing.  It hurt me deeply that Cyndi had pulled away.  She was my best friend and she had always been there for me in times of need.  What happened?

By the time Lonnie was released from the hospital, it was over.  Cyndi refused to answer my calls and ignored my visits.  Things between me and Josh became awkward.  Lonnie never really recovered and spiraled further down his tunnel of addiction.  He avoided all of us.

***

I turn away from the busy ants and get up to walk along the stream.  It is quiet, except for the occasional whistle of wind across the grass that brushes against my legs.

I miss the way things used to be.

***

After college, I moved to the upper west side.  I did research in a neurochemistry lab while getting my PhD in neuroscience at a local university.  Times were strange.  A recent slew of killings had plunged the city into fear.  Lamiae mimi, they were called – vampire mimes.  These killers slit the throats of their victims and drank their blood.  The NYPD had few leads as to who were involved, but rumors spread that the legends were true.  Vampires really did exist.

There was also a rising movement of women calling themselves Daughters of Kali.  This cult-like group worshipped the Hindu Goddess Kali, the Dark Mother.  My mother had once told me about Kali.  She is supposed to be a powerful destroyer, but also the creator of life.

 ***

Walking along the stream, I can see my reflection in the water.  I feel weary.

It is odd, how things just pop up in life and how quickly you can lose control of everything.

***

While navigating the maze of people in Herald Square one cold winter morning, I heard someone yell my name.  “Madison!”  I turned around, but only saw masses of people walking briskly in every direction.  “Madi!”  Wait, I knew that voice.

Ducking out of the people traffic on 34th street and 7th Avenue, I stepped underneath one of the forest green awnings covering a store window.  I stood there and scanned the sea of faces for Lonnie.  He found me quickly.

“Good thing you like to wear bright colors,” he said breathlessly.  I glanced down at my red wool coat and smiled.  He looked older and his complexion was pale, but it was Lonnie alright.  I gave him a hug.

“It’s good to see you,” I told him.

“It’s been a long time.  What happened to us?”  He asked sadly.

“Are you free right now?  Let’s get out of this cold and catch up,” I suggested.  I was shivering.

We walked to a coffee shop down the street.  As we opened the door, the warmth and the pungent smell of coffee invited us inside.  To my surprise, Cyndi and Josh were sitting right there.  They looked up when I called their names.   My heart skipped a beat when I saw Josh.  He looked exactly the same as when we were in high school – his dark blonde hair falling over his hazel eyes when it needed a trim.  His long legs stretched out from underneath the table.  Cyndi sat stiffly across from him.

Josh got up to greet me.  He gave me a strong bear hug and patted Lonnie on the back.  We sat down and huddled around the small table.  There was silence for a moment.  Lonnie finally broke it and asked me if I still practiced meditation.

“Yea, it helps me relax.”  My meditation was also the only connection left with my mother – through the collective consciousness.

“It’s a peace of mind that won’t last,” Cyndi said bitterly.  Josh cleared his throat and asked Lonnie what he was doing now.

“I work at the Health Crisis Center,” he said.  “I’m clean now.”

I nearly squealed.  “Lonnie!  That’s great!”  Cyndi snorted.  Ignoring her, Lonnie focused on Josh.  “What about you?  Are you a hotshot banker now?  Got many girlfriends?”  He punched Josh lightly on the arm.  I held my breath.

Josh laughed.  My heart melted.  “I should be promoted soon at the bank,” he replied. “No girl.”

“No girl?  Come on—you’re quite a catch.” Lonnie teased.  He winked at me.  I blushed and realized that I was still holding my breath.

Josh laughed again.  “A very busy catch.  I work over a hundred hours each week!  You can ask Cyndi – her group also sits on my floor.”  I focused my attention on untangling myself from my white cashmere scarf.

“Anyway,” Josh continued. “I’m really glad that you called us to meet up.”

I paused in the midst of tying my hair into a ponytail.  So it wasn’t a coincidence.  But how did Lonnie know that I would be in this area?

Lonnie shrugged.  I noticed that he and Cyndi were avoiding eye contact, but before I could say anything, Josh asked me about what I had been up to in the past five years.  Caught up by his questions and his smile, I forgot about Cyndi for a little while.

***

I didn’t mean to kill Cyndi.

I wanted to find out what had happened to my oldest friend, to see if we could reconcile our differences.  Instead, I stumbled upon her secret.

***

The lab was quiet the week before the holidays.  I decided to drop by Cyndi’s place a few days after the coffee shop meeting.  I had gotten her address from Lonnie.  Her Brooklyn neighborhood was quiet.  Dark buildings lined the street.  I knocked and rang the doorbell, but no one answered.  Kicking aside dry brown leaves on the sidewalk, I debated whether I should leave.  Out of habit, I twisted the knob and to my surprise the door opened easily.  Some things never change.  I poked my head inside the house and looked around for signs of Cyndi.  Shivering, I stepped inside.

The walls were white.  Decorations were minimal yet tasteful.  I recognized the statue of Goddess Kali that rested on a mahogany table in the hallway.  It seemed out of place.  Cyndi had always questioned all religious and spiritual beliefs.

I walked up the stairs, my footsteps muffled by the carpet.  The door to her room was ajar.  I walked closer and was about to turn away because I saw her with a man in the bed.  But I stood still when I realized what she was doing.  Cyndi was bent over the man and sucking from his neck.  Blood leaked from his neck onto the white sheet.  Frozen where I was, I dug my fingernails into my palms to make sure that I wasn’t in a nightmare.  She heard my whimper of pain and looked up, her face smeared with dark red blood.

“Hello Madi.”  Hearing my nickname jolted me back to reality.  Her eyes shined brightly.

“Cyndi…”  I began to back away.

“What are you afraid of?” She asked with a smile, her teeth were pink.

“You’ve…killed him…” I said weakly.  I felt sick to my stomach.

Cyndi tilted her head back and laughed.

I ran downstairs and out of the house.

***

I didn’t know what to do.  Confused, I called Josh, but he didn’t pick up.  I called Lonnie and he said to meet him at his apartment.

Twenty minutes later, I got out of a cab and rang the doorbell to Lonnie’s building.  It was a walk-up with no doorman.  He buzzed me inside and I found his apartment on the second floor easily.

“Lonnie I have to tell you something,” I began.  He put up a hand to silence me and motioned for me to walk inside.  I stepped into his small studio.  Wood panels lined the walls.  I followed him into the main living area and noticed a picture of him, Cyndi, Josh and me from high school.  We were at dinner for Lonnie’s birthday and we had huge smiles on our faces.  The picture sat on top of a black end table by the couch.  I sank into the suede couch and he sat next to me.  Lonnie buried his face into his hands and sighed.

“I’m dying,” he said slowly.

My hands flew to my mouth as I gasped in surprise.  “What are you talking about?”

He put a hand on my left shoulder.  “I have AIDS.”  My mind went blank.

“How did it happen??  H-How long have you known?”  I put my hands to my lap and clenched them into fists.

Lonnie cursed as I started to cry.  I leaned into him, burying my head into his shoulder.  He patted my head awkwardly.  “I already have a solution.”

My world was falling to pieces again.

Lonnie pushed me back and tilted my chin up to look at him.  “I want to go somewhere.  Will you come with me?”  I sat up, wiped my face with the sleeve of my sweater and nodded.

We flagged a yellow cab and Lonnie gave directions to the driver as we got into the back of the car.

“Lonnie,” I said. “How long have you known about this?”  I couldn’t bear to say the name of the wretched disease.

He looked out the window.  “The night that you guys brought me to the hospital…the doc told me that I was HIV positive.  I’ve been trying a lot of different treatments, but I don’t think they’re helping anymore.”

I touched his left arm.  “Why didn’t you say anything?  Why did you push us away?”
“It wasn’t supposed to happen that way,” he whispered.

I didn’t know what to say.  The sky was black and the moon looked very far away.  The cab dropped us off in front of a tall, abandoned building by the East River.

***

The building was empty, but the elevators worked.  We rode to the roof on the thirtieth floor and walked out into the open air.  Lonnie headed straight for the ledge and leaned over.

“We’re so high up and the cars are so small!” He turned back.  “Madi!  Come look!”  I walked over reluctantly and peered over the ledge.  I leaned back as the vertigo hit me.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said reverently.  He turned to look at me and I saw the glint in his eyes — the same glint that appeared whenever he had an idea.

“Lonnie,” I said cautiously. “…have you talked to Cyndi recently?”

Ignoring my question, he leaned over the ledge again.  “Dying doesn’t seem so bad.  At least the pain will go away.”  He began to climb on top of the ledge.

“Lonnie!!”  I tried to pull him back, but he shrugged out of my reach.

He stood up fully on the ledge.  “Look at me!”  He waved his arms around.  “I feel like I’m standing on the top of the world!”

“Come back down.  Please,” I said as calmly as I could.  My heart was racing.

“Shhh,” he said, putting a finger to his lips.  He closed his eyes and lifted his face towards the sky.

“You’ll fall,” I said anxiously.  “Get back down here.”  The ledge was barely two feet wide and it was a windy night.

“Don’t you understand?”  He opened his eyes and looked at me.  “Every cell in my body is dying.”  He inched closer to the edge towards the street.

“Lonnie, please come down,” I pleaded.

“You’ll be okay.  You’ve survived much worse.  I’m not as strong as you are.  Never was.”  One more inch closer to the edge.  Time was frozen.  I stood very still, not wanting to risk any sudden movements.

“I won’t leave you.  My spirit will always be with you.”  He looked at me sadly.

“What are you saying?”  It felt like there were a thousand splinters in my heart.

“Five years ago,” he said quietly.  “I made a pact with the devil – didn’t want to drag you into it.  I asked Cyndi to help me – she promised that she could free me from my misery.  I’m sorry Madi.”

“Don’t do this Lonnie!” I cried.  He turned around to face the street.

“Goodbye Madi.”  Without even looking back, he spread his arms wide, tipped forward over the edge and flew down thirty stories.  It must have only been a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity.

***

My cell phone rang loudly while I stumbled inside my apartment.  I picked up to hear Josh’s frantic voice on the other side.  “Madi, have you heard from Lonnie?” he asked anxiously.  “He left me a strange voicemail.”  I was silent.

“Madi?”

I heard noise in his background.  It sounded like Cyndi’s voice.  A feeling of dread seeped into my gut.  “Cyndi promised she could free me from my misery.”  Lonnie’s voice echoed in my mind.

I shook my head.  Cyndi wouldn’t hurt her brother.  I heard a loud crash on the other end.  Then the line went dead.  I looked at my phone and closed my eyes for a moment, hoping for some kind of an answer.  But I knew there were none.

***

After searching frantically through my purse, I found Josh’s business card – he had written his home address on the back.  I also grabbed my gun from the dresser and stuffed it inside my purse.  The cab ride to his apartment was quick and I was oblivious to my surroundings.  I clutched my bag tightly as I got out of the cab.

I tried to look calm for the doorman – he barely paid any attention as he waved me toward the elevators.  I went up to the twelfth floor.  It was actually the thirteenth floor if you counted the lobby as the first floor of the building.  I found apartment 6D and rang the doorbell.  No answer.  I turned the doorknob.  Josh and Cyndi had always shared the bad habit of leaving their doors unlocked when they were expecting visitors.

I opened the door cautiously and stepped inside.  Then I saw the body lying unconscious on the floor – blood pooling beneath the head and shards of glass everywhere.

“JOSH!” I cried out at the sight of the familiar face on the ground.  I had to stop myself from rushing over to him.

There was a figure in a black robe by the window, its back turned away from me.  At my scream, the figure turned around and lifted the hood back, releasing its face from the shadows.  Cyndi was pale, her eyes cold.  “I knew you would come find him.”

I stared at her blankly.  She looked different, yet familiar.  Then it hit me.  “You’re one of the Daughters of Kali,” I said slowly.  There was a rush of blood to my head.  Gripping tightly onto my purse, I took a step closer towards the woman who used to be my friend.

“Why did you do it?”

***

A light breeze blows my hair across my face.  I walk back to the tree and sit down.  I close my eyes and listen to the wind.

“Open your eyes, Child,” the voice says.

I open my eyes slowly.  It is the old woman who had spoken to me in my dreams while my mother was dying ten years ago.  I burst into tears.

“She destroyed all the people I love,” I weep. “I don’t know what to do.”

She says nothing, but hands me something.  It is Cyndi’s necklace charm, the one she used to wear around her neck always.  It burns in my hand.

***

“Cyndi – why?” I asked with anguish. “Why are you killing people?”

“I have to cleanse the tainted blood out of my system,” she said.

“Tainted?” I did not understand what she was trying to say.

“All these killings are because of Lonnie,” she said matter-of-factly.

“He was HIV positive,” I said slowly.  “But what exactly did you two do?”

“By the time he found out that he was HIV positive, it was too late,” she said bitterly.  A faraway look entered her eyes.  “Lonnie knew what I was – I am not sure how he knew.  He asked me to help him- to save him.”  I did not tell her that Lonnie was dead.

“What do you mean ‘he knew what you were’?  What are you talking about?”

“I drink fresh blood to stay alive,” she said simply.

“Vampires aren’t real.”  I slowly inched closer to the shadows in her line of sight.

“Josh freaked out at first when he saw me drink blood from a squirrel.”  She looked down at his body for a moment.  I searched my memories for any signs that could have pointed to this insanity.  How could I have missed this in all those years?

“You can’t blame Lonnie for all these people you have killed.  You couldn’t have gotten HIV from drinking his blood, unless you had some type of open wound inside your body…”  I paused.
She ignored my logic. “At first I only drank blood from small animals that were not missed.  I needed the blood to replenish what I lost every month.  It I didn’t have blood, I would become weak and fragile.”

“This is outrageous—“

“I can’t explain it,” she said, turning to look at me.  “But I thought I could help Lonnie.  He wanted to die and I needed blood.  It was the perfect trade.  I just didn’t know that his blood was bad.”  She gave me a desperate look.  “Madi, I didn’t want to kill all these people, but She told me that the only way to rid my body of the tainted blood was to kill and drink fresh blood. “

My hand slipped inside my purse and I grasped the cold handle of the gun.  “Did you have anything to do with my mother’s death?” I asked softly.  Was it possible that Cyndi had killed her while I was dreaming?

She looked away. “There are some things that can’t be explained.  Kali told me what had to be done.”

“Cyndi, you can’t just blame a god for your actions.”  I took out the gun and pointed it at her.  She smiled.

“Oh Madi.  You of all people should understand,” she said patiently as if I were a child.  “Put that gun down and listen to me.”  Her heavy robe fluttered around her as she walked over to the red armchair and sat down.

I kept the gun steadily pointed at her.  “What exactly should I understand?”

“The night you found your mother’s body—“ Cyndi’s voice faltered.  “I had asked her about Kali…while you were talking to Josh.”  She looked down at his body.  “Josh really did love you.  He always did,” she said.

“Cyndi, where are you going with this?”  I asked impatiently.

“Your mom gave me some stuff to read,” she continued.  “I found several mantras for Kali—.”  She looked up at me.  “I was desperate.  I thought that maybe if I prayed to her, She could help me overcome my sickness.  That night, I had a dream and She spoke to me.”

“You’ve been doing this since we were kids?” I asked incredulously.  “Did you tell my mother?  There’s no way she would’ve helped you.”

“She helped me.  But I had to pay a price.”  Cyndi turned away from me.

I was shaking with anger.  “Was my mother’s death the price?  It wasn’t enough was it?  Is this why you killed Josh too?  Did you know that Lonnie killed himself tonight?  Right in front of me!”  My voice rose and it was hard to breathe.  I dropped my purse and placed my left hand on the gun to steady my grip.

Cyndi stood up.  “Lonnie should’ve died five years ago.  I started the Daughters of Kali to see if there were others like me and I became the Second Mother.  But Kali controls everything.”
I took a deep breath.  “You never answered my question.  Why did you kill Josh?”

A look of fear crept into her eyes.  “Josh was possessed by Siva, Kali’s husband, to keep me in check.  When I tried to break away from Kali’s influence, Josh – Siva – tried to kill me.”
“No,” I whispered.  This was too much.  “You’re lying!”

“Siva killed your mother and he threatened to kill you too, if I didn’t do what Kali wanted.”  Cyndi’s hands clasped together in front of her.  “Maybe it would have been better if Siva had killed me,” she said sadly.

“No!  Stop it!”  I cried.  I pulled the trigger.  Recoiling from the shot, I fell back.

***

The necklace charm burns my hand.  The old woman is gone.  My hand is wet.  I realize that tears are falling from my eyes.  I mourn.

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