Meljean Brook


The Guardians - 7


Ash hadn’t meant to frighten the girl. She hadn’t even noticed the little blonde until after the subway train pulled away. The disembarking crowd quickly dispersed, leaving the underground platform empty but for Ash and a few other waiting passengers. In a blue princess’s costume and a plastic tiara, the girl stood next to her mother, clutching a bag of party favors to her small chest. Though her face was turned away and Ash couldn’t see the girl’s smile, she could taste the happiness emanating from her, unsurprisingly sweet.

Had Ash ever felt that much joy as a girl? She couldn’t remember. Emotions must have touched her deeply at some point in her life, because she recognized how little they touched her now—as if her ruined memory hid enough data to compare an After to a Before that she couldn’t recall. And though she knew those emotions were missing, Ash didn’t feel their loss like a hacked-off limb. Even her sense of emptiness remained on the surface, no different from noticing a bruise on her knee and idly wondering when she’d gotten it.

With the same idle interest, Ash observed the girl, who lifted the side of her hem and twirled around her mother as if circling a ballroom. The tiara’s paste jewels flashed beneath the fluorescent lights, and a name leapt into Ash’s mind— Cinderella—but there was something else, an impression just beyond it, like lightning seen from the corner of her eye, like a word at the tip of her tongue.

Her name? No longer idly curious, Ash stared at the girl, mentally replaying that twirl and the flash of light, willing the impression to strengthen into a solid connection, so that she could trace the memory to its source. Was Ash’s full name at the end of it?

Cinderella wasn’t right. Reminded by the girl’s dance, Ash could suddenly recall images from the animated movie, the gliding waltz around the ballroom with the prince, but the connection she sought wasn’t there. Ash was looking for something a step aside from Cinderella. The girl in the cinders and ashes . . . ?

That wasn’t right, either. Not quite.

Why couldn’t she remember? Frustration skimmed over the surface of her mind like a blade over ice, leaving little evidence of its passing. What had happened to separate Before from an After that contained memories, but was still so empty?

Dimly, she became aware that the girl had dropped her bag of party favors to the train platform. Treats and noisemakers forgotten, she tugged insistently on her mother’s hand, her widened eyes never leaving Ash’s. Happiness had changed to sour fear, far stronger than the unease children usually projected when they glimpsed the vermillion symbols tattooed over the left side of Ash’s face. The girl’s distress intruded on Ash’s focus, and the impression of the name she’d been seeking faded.

It disappeared altogether when the mother’s gaze followed her daughter’s. Unlike the girl’s sour fear, the mother’s tasted of bitter cold, like icy sweat against Ash’s tongue.

Dread and terror.

From the tunnel came the clatter of an approaching train. The woman gathered up the girl and set off for the far end of the platform at a stiff-legged trot. The look she threw over her shoulder included bared teeth—the mother protecting her young.

Fear wasn’t just an emotion. Sometimes, it was a survival instinct.

But why consider Ash a threat? Not just the tattoos, obviously. In this part of London, heavy ink sometimes provoked fascination or disgust, but was common enough that it didn’t incite terror.

Ash glanced down, where more symbols marked her hands. Around the tattoos, the skin was tan, not the crimson it sometimes became. Her jeans and leather jacket hadn’t disappeared—and when her clothes vanished, she knew very well that titters and gasps followed. Not fear.

Brakes screeched as the train stopped. Ash’s image reflected faintly in the car windows. Beneath the sweep of blond hair across her forehead, Ash’s eyes shone as brilliantly red as two small stoplights.

Ah. So that was the cause of their fear. Ash wasn’t surprised; when she’d lived at Nightingale House, the same glow had come a few times, and she’d only noticed when the lights in her room were out—and because she’d once terrified a ward nurse making the night rounds.

The hysterical nurse had returned less than a minute later with an orderly in tow, but Ash’s eyes had looked like any other person’s eyes by then.

Glowing eyes, red skin—the changes always faded within moments of Ash noticing them. In the train window’s reflection, her irises had already returned to a more human blue, her pupils were black, the whites white. She glanced toward the girl again, but the mother had hustled past the disembarking passengers and taken a seat. The woman held her daughter, staring at Ash through the window—likely praying that she wouldn’t board the train with them. The girl huddled on her lap, her blue dress twisted around her legs, and Ash’s earlier impression suddenly solidified into a word: Aschenputtel.

Ash’s disappointment was a soft weight, barely felt. Though the first syllable of Ash’s name sounded similar, Aschenputtel was Cinderella’s name, not hers. So she would have to keep searching.

The train began to move. Not so frightened now, the little blonde peeked beneath her mother’s arm and met Ash’s gaze. Brave girl. Ash smiled faintly and lifted her hand in acknowledgment.

Hello, little princess. You’ve escaped a monster who can’t remember her name, or even what sort of monster she is. But don’t worry that I’ll crawl under your bed . . . unless, of course, you have answers there.

The train clattered down the tunnel, taking the girl with it. To avoid further notice, Ash drew up the hood of the sweatshirt layered beneath her jacket, then settled in to wait for another ten minutes. That had been her train, but she didn’t feel impatience any more than she did frustration or disappointment.

Curiosity wasn’t an emotion, however, but a state of being—and so Ash did wonder why she hadn’t boarded despite their fear. After all, frightening a little girl was the least of her sins. She’d also jumped the high gates at the subway entrance instead of paying her fare. Later that evening, she planned on breaking into a dead woman’s home.

Disregarding the girl’s terror hadn’t felt right, however—and Ash spent the next ten minutes trying to decide whether “feeling right” was an emotion, or something else.

A month ago, shortly before had Ash escaped from Nightingale House, she’d slipped into Dr. Cawthorne’s office after midnight and read through every file and notebook that referred to her. Cawthorne knew nothing of Before, not even her name. She’d been committed as a Jane Doe, and in the computers and on the file labels she was called “Mary Bloggs,” a placeholder designation often followed by the date of her admission. That day, during one of Ash’s therapy sessions, he’d written into his notebook: Schizoid personality disorder?

He’d underlined the question mark twice.

After almost three years in the care of his private mental hospital, the psychiatrist still hadn’t known how to classify her. Not that Ash had helped him along. Two years had passed before she’d spoken aloud, and nine more months had gone by before she’d cared enough to wonder who she was and what had happened to her.

Though he’d speculated, Dr. Cawthorne hadn’t figured that out, either.

In his earliest notes, he’d attributed her lack of verbal response to brain damage caused by her persistent febrile temperature—a fever hot enough that Ash should have been hospitalized. Cawthorne’s records didn’t indicate why she hadn’t been given emergency care; he only indicated that her fever didn’t respond to medications

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