Mantra: A New Twist #4
Written by C.D. Lee
Created by Mike W. Barr
Property of Malibu Comics
"A Mirror For Mantra" Chapter Four: The Twilight Caller
"Stand forth, arch deceiver, and tell us
Are you handsome or ugly, in age or in youth?
Man, woman, or child -- a dog or a mouse?
Or are you, at once, each live thing in the house?"
- Sir Walter Scott
A quarter of an hour later I was lunching on hot Cajun chicken fingers while Highlander chomped down Purina Cat Chow with Omega 6. The feline must have been even hungrier than I, having fasted a half-day longer.
The way Mrs. Massey and I worked it out, Highlander must have slipped into the hall and bounded downstairs where the doings of the workmen no doubt piqued his curiosity. The latter wouldn't have paid much attention to a mere house cat, and so when quitting time came they closed the condo, forgetting that their visitor might still be inside. Since the apartment's walls were nearly soundproof, the feline would have been at sea without a paddle.
When Mrs. Massey saw I was finishing lunch, she went off to get her checkbook.
Red flag! Banks didn't cash checks for non-depositors without proper identification.
"Ah, Mrs. Massey," I said, "no offense, but I'd really appreciate payment in cash."
"Tax problems . . . ?" she inquired with a raised eyebrow.
"Hardly! I just don't have any I.D. to show to a bank clerk. My purse was snatched at the bus depot and it had my driver's license, my social security number -- everything, in fact."
Whether she believed me or not, Mrs. Massey went into the bedroom and returned with a handful of greenbacks.
"This about cleans me out until I can get to the ATM," she remarked, "but I can't thank you enough, Eden."
I accepted the currency gratefully. "I'm glad I could help -- but from here on make sure the tiger doesn't go prowling again; I may not be in town for long."
"Don't be discouraged, Dear, you'll get your big break; you're still young."
"Young at heart, at least," I grinned wanly.
Five minutes later I was back on the street -- and very much on my own.
Two hundred dollars doesn't go far in a city like L.A., but I knew ways to economize. For instance, who needs a cab when he can fly? Rent wouldn't be a factor either, not with a castle of my own. As for bathing, I could buy a used swimsuit cheap and hijack the shower at some public swimming pool. I'd have to eat, naturally, but Eden's body didn't crave much and, in fact, it could stand to lose a pound or two.
Fresh clothes being the immediate problem, I found a Salvation Army store with a lot of good clothes in stock. Looking the selection over, I reflected that nothing characterizes an age better than its fashion; modern clothes are ugly and sloppy for the most part -- so unlike the heroic finery of, say, the Seventeenth Century. On the other hand, Late-Twentieth-Century toggery comes at bargain rates; fashionable apparel in Louis XIV's France could, and sometimes did, bankrupt even the landed aristocracy.
When I finally got down to business, it didn't take long to put together a satisfactory ensemble. A year of filling Eden Blake's stilettos had schooled me in the nitty-gritty of what works in women's casual wear. I'd learned enough to know that it didn't have to cost a great deal for an American woman to gad about half-dressed.
Though usually I'd have given anything to have my fellow knights back with me, I always preferred the company of strangers when shopping in a women's wear department. Otherwise, I'd gotten used to such things. But, then, why should I be surprised? By now it was no secret that the body could change one's tastes and aptitudes. My friend Hamath once transmigrated into the shell of a young man and, as long as he occupied it, never seemed able to pass by a funeral in progress without taking a pew. Yaron, who usually couldn't tell beef jerky from chicken wings, once became a fiend for gourmet cooking after a body-switch.
I'd been having similar experiences for a millennium and a half, but none so pronounced as those which had come upon me in the body of Eden Blake. She was, I'd discovered, revolted by black coffee and would absolutely refuse whiskey; a little light wine was about all the alcohol I could managed to force past her bee-stung lips. Worse, her body instinctively rejected certain things, such as the logic of stick-shifts. But, luckily, Eden's positive aptitudes helped me out, too. Computer work and data analysis came fairly easy, despite my spotty experience with the technology. As for disciplines like sword-fighting, well, they remained about the same before and after. Why? Was Eden a natural-born duelist? Hard to believe!
To my consternation, Eden's body seemed absolutely determined to wear outfits that would have made a Byzantine streetwalker self-conscious. I moaned out loud when I first inspected her closet, dead certain that I could never bring myself to wear that kind of stuff in a million years. But just like I'd gotten used to flying, I soon got the hang of miniskirts. These days I hardly think twice about Eden's wardrobe -- though I still dislike the kind of attention it attracts.
Today, though, simplicity ruled: basic underwear, fresh blue jeans, a wine-colored tee. Sensible stuff. For accessories I bought a seasonal jacket, a bathing suit, and a large handbag -- the latter to tote the grooming items and toiletry that I intended to pick up at the next drug store I came to.
That's where I went first, and then, by the time I'd filched a quick shower in the park, it was after four and I wanted to fortify myself with something to eat. The Green Parakeet Cafe, whose counterpart I'd patronized back home, was a welcome sight and its familiarity helped relieve the pressure. But because I was still stressed-up, I passed over the low-cal salad and diet Coke I'd planned on, and let myself be seduced by the steak-sandwich special of the day. I'd knew I have to work off the fat and calories by walking instead of flying, before I made it feel so welcome that it took up permanent residence. Being a woman in fact as well as appearance is something I'm trying to taper into, but being a fat woman is absolutely out of the question. It's not just vanity; I regard the good housekeeping of this body to be something owed to Eden's memory.
Munching absently upon my sandwich, I watched the anonymous strangers passing by outside. Their comings and goings reminded me how alone I felt. Eden had not only left me her body, but also her whole life. I'm grateful to have at least that, because I managed to carried next to nothing over from Lukasz's existence. What I had inherited had taken some getting used to -- the kids, the kin, the friends -- but I'd begun to understand that taken together they added up to that indefinable thing called "home."
But I definitely wasn't home now. Why had this happened? Was this Destiny's way of reuniting me with Eden Blake?
I had been ducking that question all day; I couldn't duck it any longer.
The late afternoon sun shined warmly on me, casting my reflection in the cafe window. I saw myself as others saw me -- a brunette in her early thirties wearing a printed shirt and tight slacks. Sinking feeling! How could I present myself to Eden the way I was? I was no potential lover for any red-blooded American girl. I was her twin sister!
Staring bemusedly into my plate, I wondered whether could I be a man again. Last December, after Archimage had died at my own hands, I'd charged into NuWare, the leading U.S. wetware company, and practically demanded a new cloned body from the owner, billionaire tycoon J.D. Hunt. That borderline psycho reacted to my pushiness first by getting suggestive, and then by siccing his bio-enhanced killing machine on me. I actually did get a new male body that day, thanks to Hunt's ex-enforcer Pinnacle, but not before I'd inscribed Mantra's name on Hunt's hate list. The short list.
My manhood had lasted only a few days, alas. I traded it away for Mantra's powers, not only to save my own life but also Evie's, Pinnacle's, and even Strauss.' The only person I didn't managed to save that day was Eden herself.
No use getting down in the gills again, Lukasz; you've been there, done that. That was then and this is now.
If I became a man again and stayed in this world, I'd have to give up my life back home. Once that would have been an easy choice, but now I knew it to be a tough trade-off -- very tough. I'd made a promise to Eden to live her life for the sake of the kids, and if I reneged it wouldn't be just the kids I'd be giving up, but everything and everybody, even my Mantra powers. The latter had become important to me; they were a source of pride, of control in a life where I seemed to lack control, and they represented the possibility of doing somebody some good, eventually. How much loss was I willing to accept, how much injury was I willing to inflict just for a second chance at loving and being loved?
I shook my head. Stating the case that way didn't make my dilemma any easier. But maybe I was overestimating my importance, exaggerating the protection and security I brought to others. Wouldn't the kids benefit if I put myself out of the picture? I'd been brought up in the Fifth Century; what did I know about rearing kids in this day and age? What kind of mother could a professional soldier make? What kind of role-model is a killer of thousands for an impressionable girl like Evie?
Maybe I needed them more than they needed me.
But what, really, were my choices? I might never be able to find my way home, no matter how much I wished it. -- And the more I thought about such things, the less sure I was that going back was the best possible solution all around.
I suddenly realize that I was unconsciously delaying the inevitable. I'd never find the missing answers in the Green Parakeet. To find the truth I'd have to make connect with the Eden Blake of this world.
I freshened up in the cafe lady's room, tidying my hair with a few pins and a stretch band. A little lip gloss made me look more or less presentable. The final step was the hardest -- paying my respects at Eden's place.
But exactly how should introduce myself? To show up as an Avon lady wearing her face would have been stretching credulity.
My mind kept chucking up one implausible scheme after another. How should I approach her and what words should I speak once I did? I finally settled on a game plan that had virtue of simplicity and then steeled myself for the flight to Canoga Park. The closer I got to my destination, the sillier my playbook seemed to read. By the time I'd touched down in the nearest park it was too late to rethink things. What was the point? Just about every other conceivable option sounded absolutely stupid.
The shadows had grown long and slanting by the time I found myself on my familiar block. "Hi, Mrs. Blake!" my -- Eden's -- neighbor, Mr. Griswell, yelled from his front step.
I returned his salutation with a raised arm, but declined to stop and chat. I wasn't supposed to be Eden Blake today and it behooved me to act accordingly.
Well, there it was -- number 3047, the homey little ranch-style house that Gus Sr. had bought when he was just married and starting out in business. I already knew that it had a swimming pool in back, built by the young couple at the sacrifice of their small backyard. It gave me a strange feeling to be going home not as myself but as a stranger. At last, sucking in a deep breath, I strode manfully to the bell which I punched with grim resolve. Half a minute later the door swung open and young Eve Blake stood there staring up at me, all forty-two inches of her.
Before I could say, "Hello, little girl," the flabbergasted kid let out a "Yeep!" and ran back into the living room shouting, "Mommy!"
I heard Eden out back in the kitchen, mildly admonishing her daughter for acting silly. Then I heard her approaching stride, which it might have sounded a little different from what I was used to, had I been less nervous and preoccupied.
The door widened and there she stood. I couldn't see my own expression, but felt like I was pumping pure adrenalin; I wanted to throw my arms around her and cover her face with kisses, but I fought the impulse down.
"I'm sorry for my little girl's behavior," Eden apologized. "She's usually very polite. Who's there? How may I help you?"
Who's there? How could she ask that? Didn't she recognize her own face? I had expected a gasp of startlement at first sight of me -- not blandness.
"My name is Lukasz," I muttered, watching for a reaction. This maneuver I hadn't planned, but I suddenly realized it was possible that she might have met the Lukasz of this world. Anyway, I didn't suppose that she was the Lukasz of this world; the sight of her in bed with Gus had taken that possibility off the charts.
Eden smiled pleasantly; my name obviously meant borscht to her. "How to you do, Miss Lukasz?" She then waited for me to state my business. After a few seconds of awkward stammering on my part, the lady of the house patiently interjected: "Excuse me, are you selling something, ma'am?"
"No," I replied raggedly, recalling my cover story. "I heard about you at the Coast-to-Coast store and decided to come over and say `hello' while I was in town. I hope this isn't a bad time."
"Not at all," she replied, fixing her vague gaze upon my left ear. "But I don't quite understand. What did you hear about me at the hardware?"
It was about all I could do to keep my tone light and gracious. "Well, someone said that -- that I strongly resembled a lady who lives in this neighborhood. They gave my your address. I guess I should have called ahead first, but sometimes I'm too impulsive. -- Anyway, the person was right. I can see the resemblance. -- Uh, can't you?"
She smiled, finally understanding my nonplussed behavior. "Oh, of all things! That would explain Evie's scare."
Eden was still looking at me without clear focus. "-- I'm sorry, Miss Lukasz," she said. "What you say must be true, but I can't see anything. I'm blind."
Reactively, I muttered, "I'm sorry. I didn't know. How did --?" My question trailed off. One can't politely buzz a stranger's doorbell and ask: "How did you become blind?"
But Eden met my discomposure with a rueful smile. "A collision three years ago," she explained. "I should consider myself lucky; I was nearly killed. -- Would you like to come in?"
She stood back and I carefully stepped around her, stammering "T-Thank you." Strangers we might be, but I was appalled to hear about her accident, so much was she like my own Eden.
I noticed just then that Evie had been hiding behind the door listening to our exchange. She looked so adorable that I wanted to scoop her up for our traditional "big hug" but didn't dare.
"You must be Evie," I ventured, offering the tyke my hand. "I hope I didn't frighten you."
She grasped my fingers and as quickly dropped them, her wondering stare never leaving my face.
"Is it true, Evie?" Eden asked her daughter. "Does this nice lady look a lot like me?"
"Uh-huh," the seven-year-old whispered. "It's like -- like there's two of you!"
"Did you know that you look an awful lot like your mommy, too?" I teased.
In fact, Evie resembled a finely-crafted miniature of Eden Blake, just like Gus is the very image of his father.
"Well then, come into the kitchen, Miss Lukasz," Eden urged. "I have some coffee perking. -- Do you have a first name?"
"It's -- Sharon."
She offered me a chair and I sat down. At first I wondered whether I should try to be helpful, but Eden's movements displayed a confidence nearly equal to a sighted person's. We had both recently undergone a very distressing life-style change, I realized. I only wished that I could have handled mine as well as she was apparently handling hers.
"I'm used to housekeeping in the dark," Eden suddenly remarked, "but pouring hot liquids is one of the riskiest things I have to do." Even so, she did exactly that, and without spilling a drop of coffee.
We spent the next hour rambling amiably over cookies and java. My look-alike hostess began to wonder whether we shared some common ancestor. I had come prepared for such a question and offered clues that our ancestors had come from the same part of Pennsylvania back in the 1800's. It wasn't hard to rattle off the names of families and towns; my -- Eden's -- mother, had chatted about the Freeman family roots more than once.
"We might be distant cousins then," Eden postulated brightly.
My mouth being full, I nodded, but then, mindful that she couldn't see my gestures, I swallowed and replied, "That's right. Small world."
But spinning fantasies about myself gained me nothing; I wanted to learn how Eden lived in this new world. The more the young homemaker revealed about herself, the more I appreciated how much she was like the woman I had intended to marry.
"What's your son's name?" I inquired after a casual reference to him.
"Gus. He's named after his father. It gets a little confusing sometimes, but the oldest sons in his dad's family have always been named August. -- Well, they have from about the turn of the century, anyway. He and his father aren't home right now. They went fishing up in the mountains."
A fishing trip? That didn't jive with what I knew about August Blake. Trying to get Gus Sr. to go anywhere or do anything with his children was like asking the mountain to go rapping-tapping on Mohammed's chamber door. Had his wife's blindness called forth certain sterling qualities hitherto discovered in Mr. Blake? Exactly how well Eden was faring in this `saved' marriage of hers?
"So many fathers can't make time for their kids these days," I probed "Your Gus must be quite a guy."
She squirmed and I remembered how personal questions always made Eden turn shy. "I guess he is," she said with a light flush. "I wouldn't trade him in for a new model, anyway."
Eden's avowal, even allowing for her modesty, sounded sincere enough. I suppose that I had wanted to hear that her marriage was on the rocks and that she'd soon be available. -- But, on the other hand, I also felt relieved -- for Gus Jr.'s sake especially. The boy I knew was an angry, moody child, hurt deeply by his parents' divorce. His attitude was made all the worse by his father's indifference since the separation. It hadn't always been that way, or so I understood. Maybe emotional distancing was Gus Sr.'s way of expressing his own hurt after the break-up, which had been Eden's idea, not his.
The boy's mother had been trying hard to help him adjust before I'd come blundering into her life. Her work wasn't half done and now he was my responsibility, sink or swim. Gus came across as a hard kid to love, actually, but for her sake I wanted to see him set upon the right track. -- It all seems so easy on the TV family shows, but nothing I tried ever seemed to get to the source of the ache.
Eden became more relaxed and convivial the longer we chatted; after all, we shared a lot in common. In many ways this Eden was identical to the person I'd known and loved, but there was, at the core, a major difference which I could not overlook.
I had only come to love Eden Blake, really love her, during those months when we were sharing the same body. We had merged, like two thoughts in the same head, neither of us able to keep secrets from the other -- not even the most intimate and discreditable. She had come to know who and what Lukasz was, what he had done to stay alive and to justify the life he lived, and I had discovered the soul of Eden Blake. The love we shared was not based on superficialities, as most people's are; it was born of an intimacy more complete and all-pervasive than any ever experienced before by two people.
To think that Eden had known all, had fully comprehended what I'd done to her, and yet refused to hate me. We had shared months of danger and adventure, had discussed matters of gravity, had concocted great plans; we had embarked upon desperate projects and dared daunting obstacles. If our desires had been met we would have now been man and wife, never to separate again.
Fate had been unkind to us. I tried not to think of the recent past while I was with Mrs. Blake, lest my voice break.
Anyway, I had other things to think about -- important things. At first I had seen the similarities between this Eden and mine. Now I saw the differences. Everything that had made my Eden special and unique was missing. This Eden Blake had never shared with me what the other had shared. As the minutes ticked on I realized more and more that she could never exactly replace my Eden.
I suddenly found myself wanting to get away, to go off alone somewhere and be sad. Finally, having staying decently long, I suggested that I was taking too much of my hostess' time.
Eden didn't dispute this, but thanked me for my visit, expressing the hope that we actually were distant cousins.
"Thank you, Mrs. Blake," I said, rising. "This is the best welcome I've ever have had in a new city." I hoped she couldn't hear the tremble in my voice.
"Just a moment, Sharon!" she exclaimed, and sent Evie off to get the camera. "I just have to have a picture of us together, to show the two Guses and Mom."
"Certainly, if you'd like," I replied.
While we waited for Evie to return, I realized that Eden had made no reference to the "apparition" in her bedroom the night before. Well, that was to be expected. She had seen and heard nothing herself, and all Gus saw was a bright light. By morning he had probably shrugged the whole incident off as nothing but a dream.
The little girl now rushed back with the Kodak and her mother talked her through the simple procedure. Then, Eden having posed the two of us side-by-side on the sofa, the flash in our faces recorded a strange moment in the history of two universes.
Continued in Mantra: A New Twist #5
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