Free Fiction Monday: The Life and Deaths of Rachel Long

When Devon discovers Rachel Long’s music for the first time, it changes him. Her music inspires people. It draws crowds to her, no matter where she performs.

But it draws something else, as well. A longing. A compulsion. A need. And for Devon, Rachel’s music creates an inevitability that he can’t escape, no matter how hard he tries.

“The Life and Deaths of Rachel Long,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here

The Life and Deaths of Rachel Long

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

The fifth time she died, she took the guitar with her. She went down in a haze of smoke and ash, bullets and flames.

And this time, not even the music remained.

 

***

 

My mother claims my grandmother was a good Christian woman, but I disagree. The woman I remember spoke of walk-ins and souls too strong to die. She said that she and my grandfather had “unfinished business” and would meet in another life. The year before she died, I asked her what would happen if she didn’t get another life. “I guess I’ll just have to be a haunt, Devon,” she said, “and wait for your granddaddy’s soul to reappear so’s we can settle things in right and proper fashion.”

My grandmother’s beliefs made more sense to me than my mother’s good Christian ones. Perhaps that’s why I’m the one to chronicle Rachel Long’s life and deaths. I’m one of the few with the foundation to understand the entire story.

 

***

 

The first time she died, she died alone in her apartment: the Emily Dickinson of modern folk music. Someone had strangled her, squeezed the songs out of her talented throat. No one seemed to know who or why she was. It was an enterprising neighbor—the same one who called the cops—who found the sheet music shoved in the belly of her stringless guitar.

The stuff of legend is always difficult to trace. A few years ago, I located a computer record of the first death certificate, a brief newspaper article about violence on the lower South Side which mentioned her, and a photograph of the sheet music. Nothing else remains.

 

***

 

The first time I saw her, I was nearly thirty. My second wife had just left me, and I spent my nights in bars, nursing one drink and the pain in my heart. In the mornings, I saw shadows like charcoal smears under my eyes and frown lines digging into the corners of my mouth. I sold cars then: twelve-hour days at minimum wage unless some sucker came in and took a vehicle off my hands. Days that consisted of cigarette smoke, stale coffee and boredom, punctuated by moments of upbeat salesmanship and cold calls. Not quite the life for a B.A. in Business, but I was good at sales, and I had two alimony payments to make.

I don’t know what made me go to the Wild Hall. I hadn’t been there since college and it hadn’t changed in those eight years. The stage was still tiny: one raised platform with room for a stool, two amps and a mike. The scarred wooden tables clustered together like kittens on a frosty morning, and the patrons—young and old—wore ripped denim, long hair, and no makeup. I had dressed down that night, stonewashed jeans and a wrinkled shirt, but I still wished I had a hat to cover the stylish cut that curled around my ears. The Hall served beer and wine, and as I took my Guinness, I noted that the conversational din had an energy I hadn’t heard in years. The place smelled of pot, popcorn, and clove cigarettes, and that too seemed a welcome change of pace.

I found a wobbly chair in the back corner, no candle on the table, far away from the lights, and waited for the entertainment. I didn’t have to wait long.

She was a tiny woman—five feet and a hundred pounds on a good day. Her face had a Vogue model’s anorexic beauty and her skin had that lovely dark cream color that suggested a large percentage of white blood. She clutched an acoustic guitar to her chest as if she were hiding behind a lover, but she scanned the audience with the calm of an old pro.

“Good evening,” she said. Her voice was husky with hints of some kind of southern drawl. “I’m Rachel Long. I’d like to sing for you.”

The cries of the small crowd almost drowned out her last words. She swung into a fast-paced piece with a guitar part that made the instrument sound like a three-piece band complete with drums. I knew something about guitar; had fancied myself a bit of a talent until I found out that I had more of a knack for promotion of any type. I couldn’t have played this piece, not even in the days when I practiced for eight hours at a stretch. This kind of music belonged to someone born with strings against her fingers and songs within her mind.

The crowd clapped and stomped with the beat, already so familiar with her music that they didn’t have to listen to it, they just had to feel it. I had to strain to hear her husky voice croon the lyrics because all the people around me sang too.

And the songs . . .

I didn’t think anyone wrote songs like that any more.

Simple songs of simple injustices: the shooting death of a young black man on the South Side; lament for a rape committed in Carster’s Park; ode to mine workers dead in a collapse caused by company negligence; a song to the earth; a song for peace; and a love song about two people who treated each other with warmth, respect and more than a little understanding.

All the while, I tapped my fingers and rocked with the beat, wishing I knew the lyrics that I too could sing along.

When the set ended, and she melted from the stage, I took my warm mug of Guinness, downed a bitter sip and congratulated myself for surviving a whirlwind. She had stripped me down to my idealistic nineteen-year-old self, the one who believed that protests could save the world, that each person who ate the right foods, recycled the right products and refused to pollute the environment would make a difference. The self who got drunk on his twentieth birthday when he realized that he had to survive in the cruel, cruel world, and that somewhere, somehow, he had to choose between principles and getting ahead. Several hundred commissions and two wives later, he doubted if he made the right choice.

I left a tip on the table and staggered out of the Hall into the fresh clean air of the spring night. A car went by, tires swooshing in puddles left by a recent rain. I shivered in the damp chill, wanting to go back inside, but knowing that I didn’t dare. I couldn’t afford to be politicized, to see the life that I had built, to see the emptiness of the world around me. A world that consisted of an expensive bachelor’s apartment in an all-glass high rise overlooking the lake, a job I didn’t much like, and evenings spent in bars listening to people make music of the kind my fingertips once owned.

I went back the next night, and the next, each time staying longer and listening for the meanings behind the words, singing along before I could catch myself and shut off the voice.

I was there every night for the next two weeks—until the night she died.

 

***

 

I had a date that night, a pretty young client who wandered away from my Geo Storms and bought herself a Mazda instead. We had dinner, a drink or two, and I found myself talking about the Wild Hall, about music, about politics. I asked her to join me, to hear Rachel Long, and my date shook her head. She liked pop music and hated politics; she would rather go home. I dropped her off without kissing her—odd because dipping into pretty women on the first date had become an addictive challenge for me. I found myself driving to the Wild Hall, to clove cigarettes, Guinness beer, and my nineteen-year-old ideals.

Rachel was already on stage when I arrived and the only table remaining was a tiny one to her left, tucked against the rough wood wall. I sat there, clutching the cold beer stein against my fingers, and listened to the music wash through me. Her words seemed to have more power than usual—or perhaps I later embellished the memory, thinking the added power in her words gave her death some meaning. I don’t know. I do know that she was singing a new song, a song about love, togetherness and change when a bang echoed through the room.

I looked around, not sure what had caused the sound. People were ducking, screaming, diving under tables. A man in the back stood, a gun clutched in both hands. The light from nearby candles caught his eyes, glittering with a half-crazed passion. His hair was unwashed, his beard tangled and matted. I dove across the room, past cowering people, and overturned chairs, absorbing details as I went. I had to get to him before he shot Rachel, before he stopped her beautiful voice—

and then I realized that she wasn’t singing. And he was no longer shooting. He was staring straight ahead, like a man awakening from a nightmare, and slowly, ever so slowly, he lowered his gun.

I turned. Rachel was sprawled backward across the stage, guitar cradled against her side like a newborn baby. The spotlight illuminated the blood on her chest and face. Her sightless eyes caught me for what seemed like an eternity. It wasn’t until the sirens echoed outside that I realized the darkness between her chin and shoulders was not a shadow; it was more blood, covering all that remained of her throat.

 

***

 

The papers named him Neil Stebbons, a homeless alcoholic with no previous history of violence. He had stolen the gun from a pawnshop the week before and had waited at the Wild Hall for “the right song, the right lyric.” The national press didn’t touch the story, but locally Stebbons dominated the news for nearly nine months, even after his guilty plea eliminated the need for a trial.

I haunted music stores and folk concerts, searching for a voice like hers, a message like hers. I brought out my guitar and found myself picking at it for at least an hour per day. Wife Number One remarried and my alimony payments decreased. I got a new job selling books for a local textbook company at less base pay, but with room for advancement. I also had a travel budget, and by the time Stebbons disappeared from the local press, I had started marking out my sales territory, all across the Pacific Northwest. Someone gave me a bootleg tape (made on a handheld recorder) of one of Rachel’s final concerts and I played it continually as I drove.

One night in Seattle, after a frustrating meeting with the buyer for the university’s bookstore, I crawled into a dark, dingy bar, the kind of place I had thought existed only on film. Cigarette smoke gave the air a bluish haze and the smell of whiskey had seeped into the old polished wood. I was going to get plastered—roaring, stinking, outrageously drunk—so that I could forget the emptiness that had moved into my stomach on the night I first heard Rachel Long. Sometimes I blamed her for my declining commissions, for my lack of sleep, for the way my hands lingered over my guitar, searching for answers to questions I had never asked before. I hadn’t liked the complacent life I lived before I went to the Wild Hall, but at least I lived it instead of agonizing over it.

I sat on the stool near the bar and ordered a particularly fine brandy, figuring that if I was going to drink, I would do it with style. Two snifters later, the lights dimmed even more and a spotlight haloed a tiny stage I hadn’t noticed before. Someone had moved the piano to one side and covered it with a stained green cloth. The spotlight focused on an empty stool, and I fancied that Rachel Long would sit in it and sing to me one final time.

I turned away from the stage, unable to bear the thought of another musician trying to fill Rachel’s shoes. My finger caressed the rim of my glass, making a small hum. Mixed with that and the scattered applause, I heard the words that I wanted to hear: Good evening. I’m Rachel Long. I’d like to sing for you.

I swiveled so fast that I spilled my brandy. She stood on stage, a little thinner than I remembered, and not quite as beautiful. She clutched the guitar like a lover and the sounds it made sent shivers down my back.

“Who is she?” I asked the bartender.

He shrugged. “They hired her this morning. All they told me was someone was going to sing tonight.”

I picked up my brandy and took a table closer to the stage. She sang all of the songs I had on my tape, in the same order and with a similar precision. Then she shuddered once, lifted her eyes to the light, and began playing the song she was singing when she died.

I had had enough. I pushed my chair back and ran out to the street. The air was fresh with the scents of a recent rain. A homeless man slept against a trash can, his body half-hidden under a soggy cardboard box. Rachel sang about the homeless. She sang about the way people mistreated each other, about the way they should love and care for each other.

I was drunk. I had to be. I wandered down the street to my car and drove back to the hotel. The next morning, I left Seattle early, deciding to forfeit my commission and return to the quiet, familiar emptiness of my home.

 

***

 

I set my guitar aside, placed the tape in an old box, and focused on my job with renewed vigor. Wife Number Two remarried and my income rose. After three promotions, I bought my own house. I became West Coast Regional Head of the Sales, and the only thing that impressed my sales team (besides my sales record) was my talent for tall tales and my staunch refusal to drink.

The women changed too. Instead of one-night stands, I established a girlfriend in each of my major stops. None of these women were the ice-blonde beauties I used to prefer. Sharon, in San Francisco, was part Cherokee. Amita, in Seattle, was from India. Rose, in Los Angeles, was Eurasian. They were all exceptionally thin, and their voices were soft and musical.

I was at Amita’s when I saw the news in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

 

SINGER DIES IN BARROOM BRAWL

(Tacoma)—Popular folk singer, Rachel Long, died Sunday night after a crazed fan stuck a knife in her throat during a fight. The violence erupted shortly after 7 p.m. in Pete’s Tavern while Long performed her first set of the evening. Andrew Slescher, a regular attendee of Long’s performances, argued with an unidentified patron over the lyrics of one of Long’s songs. The argument turned into blows. Patrons tried to stop the fight, but Slescher slipped free, ran to the stage, and stabbed Long in the throat. No other patrons were injured.

Long was a popular attraction at Pete’s Tavern, where she began singing nearly a year ago as a complete unknown . . .

 

I set the paper down and leaned on Amita’s cut-glass dining room table. The room’s honey and roses scent suddenly became cloying. Amita stood across the room, long and luxurious in the satin robe I had bought her for her birthday.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

I opened my mouth to tell her, then thought about how the words would sound. “An acquaintance of mine died,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” Amita said, with all the sincerity of a checkout clerk bidding good day. She grabbed the large silver pot from the center of the table. “More coffee?”

I nodded and closed the paper. My hands were trembling just enough for Amita to ignore them. I promised myself that as soon as I left the house, my investigation of the entire strange incident would begin.

 

***

 

The newspaper accounts were clear enough: Rachel Long, budding folk musician, murdered in her Chicago apartment; Rachel Long, budding folk singer, murdered in a nightclub; Rachel Long, popular folk singer, murdered in a Seattle-area bar. I felt as if I looked hard enough, I would find a Rachel Long in every city in the country.

I even read books on folk music to see if Rachel Long was a historic mythic figure, the kind that young musicians would emulate and try to become. In all my research, I found nothing. Nothing except for one odd fact:

The man who found Rachel’s body in her Chicago apartment was named Neil Stebbons.

 

***

 

By the time I took over a dying rep’s route in northern Idaho, I had started playing Rachel’s tape again. I was driving a Porsche with an elaborate sound system. The cassette deck replayed the tape over and over without any effort from me. Rachel’s voice sounded scratchy and far away, not the rich full sound I remembered from the Wild Hall. I would sing along, my own voice rusty and off-key after years of disuse.

I spent two days in the small town of Moscow, Idaho. Moscow was an oasis of culture set in the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse. Home to the University of Idaho and host of one of the largest jazz festivals in the nation, Moscow had good restaurants, good bookstores, and friendly people. As I sat in an outdoor café, listening to street musicians improvise a jazz riff, I thought about giving up everything—the house, the money, the women—and living there, in that small town, eating vegetarian food and fighting for causes almost no one believed in. The thought seemed so attractive that I scanned the paper for apartments, and did odd calculations on a napkin to see if I could live off my savings.

Then I remembered that I had been listening to Rachel Long on the way into town, and a shudder ran down my back. I only thought about changing my lifestyle when I listened to Rachel’s music. Perhaps she had put some sort of subliminal message in there, some way that she had planned to change the world. Or perhaps a part of me really did want to change.

I left the newspaper and the street musicians and returned to my car. I had finished my work half a day ago, and had been hanging out in the town just because I liked it. I drove to the Best Western on the far end of town and checked out, feeling the same kind of urgency I had felt in Seattle a year before.

Rachel’s voice eked out of the stereo system and I switched it off. I still had other places to go, new accounts to see and a new rep to hire. I wanted to get a new couch for my living room and one of those large-screen, oversized TVs. I had goals and obligations, things I couldn’t chuck for a teenage vision of life in a college town.

The hitchhiker at the side of the road stood out against the checkerboard swatches of rolling wheat fields. She was thin, a guitar strapped over her back, and a green duffel at her feet. I pulled over before I thought about it and eased the passenger door open with my right hand.

“Where’re you going?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, her soft, musical voice sending a chill through me. “Some city where they like music. This town is a bit too small.”

“Get in.” I leaned away from the door and put both hands on the steering wheel. The words had come out before I could stop them and I knew that I would regret them sometime down the road.

She got in, put her guitar and duffel behind the seat, and slammed the door. She was even smaller off stage, the bones in her hands and arms showing like knobby limbs of a starving child. “I’m Rachel,” she said.

“I know,” I replied.

 

***

 

That night, in a hotel room in Boise, she allowed me to touch her guitar. It had the warmth of a live thing. I sat on the edge of one of the queen-sized beds, holding the guitar, and she sat behind me, her arms wrapped around me, her thin hands over mine. She pressed her fingers to the strings, and helped me pluck a tune. I had never made a guitar sound so rich or so fine. We seemed to form a conductive loop: the music flowed from her to me to the instrument to the air and back through us again. The feeling was more than erotic; when she finally let me go, I vibrated with an energy I had never felt before.

“How do you do it?” I asked, setting the guitar down.

She didn’t answer.

I turned. She was asleep on the bed, a rosiness to her cheeks that hadn’t been there before, a glow that had not been present in the car. I caressed her face, then pulled away. She was too young, too fragile to make love to. I didn’t want to shatter the illusion of beauty and magic in a single act of sweat and release.

So I picked up the guitar and retreated to the plastic chair near the curtained window. The instrument’s warmth seemed to have left it and it felt almost brittle to my touch. I played a few chords; they sounded off-key and jangled to my ears. Frustrated, I set the instrument down, and stared at Rachel, too wired to sleep and too exhausted to do anything else.

 

***

 

The sound of a guitar woke me. The large blackout curtains were open, and through them, I could see Rachel sitting on the balcony overlooking the pool. Her feet were braced on the rail and she was almost supine, guitar resting on her belly. I didn’t recognize the song she played and she didn’t sing the lyrics. It almost seemed as if the music flowed through her instead of from her.

I slid out of bed, slipped on my jeans, and walked through the open glass doors. The air outside was cool—the sun hadn’t yet had a chance to add the blistering heat of midday—and goose bumps rose on my bare chest. I pulled over the other balcony chair, a white plastic thing stained with dust, and sat beside her.

“I was thinking—” I said, only semi-truthfully. I had awakened with the thought and hadn’t had the chance to contemplate it fully “—that you need a promoter. I’m doing well for myself. I could afford to take some time, get you jobs, help you work your way to Los Angeles and a recording contract.”

“Fame and acclaim,” she said softly. Her words sounded like part of the vocal track for the guitar piece she continued to play.

I heard the subtle sarcasm in her tone. “And a chance to get your message out.”

She smiled and continued to play for a few minutes. Below, a child screamed as he dove into the pool. Water rose in the air and splattered on the edge of the balcony, cool against my bare feet.

“I think you’re good,” I said, “and I don’t care how—” I stopped myself before I added how strange the circumstances of your existence are “—how long it takes. I know we could get you a measure of fame.”

“And fortune.” Again, her soft words had that edge. She stopped playing, set her guitar down and sat up. “You don’t understand, do you? I am a folk musician. If I play for profit, if I go out into the mechanized world, I become something other.”

“Tracy Chapman, Joan Baez, Michelle Shocked, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary—they all perform and record. How else does a musician sustain his art?”

“The old way.” She didn’t look at me as she spoke, but stared straight ahead as she had when she played. I glanced that way and saw nothing but blue sky dotted by a few very white clouds.

When I didn’t respond, she smiled and picked up her guitar. “I made this guitar a long time ago,” she said. “It has parts of me in it, as does my music. I am a folk musician, a musician of the folk, of the people. My music arises from the people around me and becomes something else for those people, a reflection of dreams, of hopes, of to-bes. The kinds of things that never die.”

“You’re not real, are you?” The question slipped out, sounded strange on that brightly lit morning, with the slender woman at my side.

She smiled and looked at me, truly looked at me, for the first time. “I’m as real as you are,” she said. “I have just found my own inner strength.”

 

***

 

At her request, I left her in Salt Lake City and drove on. In the silence of the car, I sang the songs she taught me and my fingers itched for a guitar made from parts of me. By the time I reached San Francisco, I was shaky and woozy, and a fear had settled in the base of my belly. I knew of a guitar-maker in Santa Cruz, but I didn’t drive down. Instead, I haunted bars and nightclubs, searching for Rachel’s kind of music and finding only snatches of it, floating in the center of a song, at the end of a note.

I went to the library, did more research, and discovered an unsettling fact: Andrew Slescher, the man who had killed her in Tacoma, had owned the Wild Hall when Rachel sang and died there. He had influenced her career in the same strange way that Neil Stebbons had, and like Stebbons, he had killed her in her next life.

That news didn’t stop me from seeing Rachel each time I drove through Salt Lake, although her music made that fear in my stomach grow stronger. I found myself giving away money to homeless people, to charity organizations, to anyone who appeared to be in need. I pushed textbooks on social trends and reforms to my buyers. Still the fear remained. I had been right all those years ago. The little efforts of one person were not enough to make the kind of difference that I wanted to make.

About three months after I had dropped Rachel in Salt Lake, I stopped at the coffee house where she had been playing and felt the fear intensify when I saw the police tape blocking the entrance. Two police cars parked outside. Inside, I saw people moving. A man leaned against a telephone pole, hands shoved into his pockets, watching. Other people stared as they passed by, but they didn’t stop.

I walked over to the man. He looked vaguely familiar, and it took me a moment to remember that he owned the restaurant. He didn’t move as I approached.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Rachel Long.”

Slowly, he turned and looked at me. His eyes were haunted, an expression I recognized. “How did you know?” he asked.

“It’s happened before.” Another policeman crossed under the tape. I wondered if they had removed her body yet, and then decided that I didn’t want to know. I would wait for her to return before I saw her again.

“You knew her”? His voice sounded rusty, unused. It had a musical quality that had almost faded away.

“I brought her to Salt Lake.”

He nodded. I studied him closely. The haunted look had latched onto his eyes, centered in the worry lines on his forehead. Neil Stebbons had had such an expression, only it had been accented by time and deterioration. Andrew Slescher probably had the same kind of countenance. And so, I would wager, did the person who killed her that night.

“You gave her a job, supported her, helped her?” I asked.

“Yeah.” The hands in his pockets balled into fists.

“Then don’t search her out.”

He frowned, glancing at me as if I were crazy—and maybe I was. I was discussing Rachel’s fourth death with a man who was seeing such tragedy for the first time. I was calm, unworried. I knew that she would be back.

“Leave music alone for a little while,” I said, trying to make myself sound a bit more sane. “Just let Rachel ease into the back of your mind. I’ve seen this kind of thing before. You could obsess on it if you let yourself.”

“I already am,” he said softly. “I’ve been dreaming her music, listening to its words, wondering if I should change—you know, give up things.”

“I know,” I said. “But as far as you’re concerned, Rachel’s gone. Let it stay that way.”

A police officer waved from the door and beckoned the man inside. He waved back and turned to me. “I appreciate the talk,” he said. “You’re welcome here anytime if I can keep this thing open.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m Ricky Stubs. Just ask for me when you come in.”

“I will,” I said. I watched him walk, head down, back to his restaurant and wondered what made me refuse to give him my own name.

 

***

 

The waiting began. I sold my house and went to work at the Mission. I joined the city task force on the homeless. I found a small house with a vegetable garden on the far side of Bay Area, and ate only naturally grown, naturally produced things. In my spare time, I took voice lessons.

My voice teacher told me of her return. “There’s a singer you must hear,” he said one afternoon in early summer. “Her name is Rachel Long, and she just started playing at the Wooden Nickel.”

I thanked him and stayed away. I had helped her too, in her last life. She had as much to fear from me as she did from Ricky Stubs.

But she didn’t think so. She showed up at the Mission late one afternoon and found me dishing out a vat of rich vegetable soup to the people shuffling through the line. She had lost her beauty, and she was thin as a famine victim, only without the characteristic distended stomach. Her guitar, slung over her back, shone in the fluorescent light. She waited until I was finished, then sidled up beside me.

“You haven’t come to see me, Devon,” she said.

I took her arm and led her into the office. I leaned against the edge of the paper-covered desk and gave her the only chair. “You know why not.”

She didn’t sit down. Her smile was wistful, almost sad. “You still don’t understand, do you?”

I frowned and waited for her to explain.

Her thin hand brushed mine. “All the very best folk tales have an inevitability to them. That inevitability gives them their power and their strength.”

“I don’t want to hurt you, Rachel,” I said.

Her nod seemed wise. “I know,” she said.

 

***

 

The Wooden Nickel was a coffee shop that served beer and wine, and brought in musical attractions from all over the West Coast. I hovered near the rustic, Old West exterior for nearly forty-five minutes, watching people enter and not leave. I carried nothing. She wanted me there to play out some kind of drama, and I wasn’t sure if I would be doing us both a favor by leaving and refusing to accept the inevitable. Finally I decided that she knew more about mysteries than I did.

I went inside.

The interior was lighter than I expected. The entire restaurant had been decorated in unstained pine. Real kerosene lamps flickered on the tables and walls. The place was full. Rachel stopped singing, glanced at me, smiled and nodded. I nodded in return, pulled an empty seat from a crowded table, and sat in the middle of the aisle. A waitress came to serve me, but I waved her away. I wanted to hear Rachel. I didn’t want anything to disturb that.

She had become all voice and guitar. Her songs were different, more militant, with talk of struggles even after death. The haunted look I had seen on Ricky Stub’s face was also on hers. The messages of love and hope were still there, not as an end, but as a salvation. Only love and hope survive, she sang, for in them lies the best of us.

The crowd sang with her on the songs they knew, clapped with the ones they didn’t. Finally, a woman in a long print dress stood up front and began to dance. Others stood and swayed too. The waitress tried to stop them—saying something about fire code—but no one listened. I stood on my chair so that I could see Rachel. The fear had returned to my stomach, fear for her, and I glanced around the room, looking for familiar faces. I didn’t see any. I clenched my hands into fists and trapped them under my arms. My hands were the only weapons I had. I wasn’t going to free them to hurt Rachel.

The smell of smoke started it. Two kerosene lanterns had fallen to the floor. Maybe the dancing had loosened them or maybe it was deliberate. All I know is that someone screamed and people ran as little rivulets of flaming kerosene ran across the floor. Rachel kept singing, the words lost in the screams.

I ran for her, but the crowd caught me, moving me toward the door in their panic. I pushed against them, reaching for Rachel, alone on the stage floor, her guitar in her hands. Her voice lilted as she sang. She did nothing to save herself, smiling as if she were receiving an ovation. My feet swept out from under me and suddenly I was on the floor, protecting my head as people stepped on me, over me, around me. In a stampede, anything on the floor got trampled to death. Rachel and I both would die. I tried to pull myself up, but couldn’t. Smoke filled my lungs and water streamed from my eyes. The room had grown unbearably hot. I crawled toward the stage. Flames danced at the edge of it, licking Rachel’s feet. Finally, a hand reached under my armpit, yanked me to my feet. Ricky Stubs pulled me against his left side, his right hand still clutching his gun. I struggled against him, but he was stronger. He pulled me into the fresh air and held me there as I gulped it like water. A fire crew had arrived, but behind me the building had already become an inferno and all they could do was splash water from outside.

Ricky stayed beside me until I could breathe easier. “Why?” I whispered.

“I owe you,” he said. “I should have listened to you.”

I shook my head. My throat felt raw as if the fire had gone inside and destroyed it. “No,” I said. “Rachel.”

“Oh.” He sat on the wet ash-covered curb, dangling the gun from his hands. “I couldn’t get her out of my head.”

 

***

 

The fire burned too hot to retrieve Rachel’s body. No one else died. They took me and about 100 other patrons to the hospital and they took Ricky to the police station at his own request. The next morning they let me out, with a caution about overdoing, and some cream for the minor burns I sustained on my arms and legs. I didn’t go home. I went to the Wooden Nickel instead.

The familiar police barricade surrounded the still-smoldering ruins. I hugged myself as I stared at it and remembered the night in Boise as she showed me how to play the guitar. Neil Stebbons had found her guitar in Chicago and his desire to hear her music again brought her back, just as my desire brought her back in Moscow almost a year before. Each return ate up more of her, and yet she continued to give. Only this time, no one killed her. Her personal cycle had ended. All that remained of Rachel was a scratchy tape made on a hand-held tape recorder. Something other. Something not folksy at all.

I took a plastic bag and a metal gardening trowel from the car, then I climbed under the police tape to the edge of the ruins. I stepped lightly toward the spot where the stage had been. Then I scooped up charred and ash-covered wood, and placed it in the bag. I was tampering with evidence, but I didn’t care. I climbed back out, got into my car and drove to Santa Cruz. I stopped in front of the guitar maker’s and asked him to teach me how to make a guitar.

He did. And I use that guitar every night, as I sing for the people in the Mission. I watch for half-crazed eyes, knowing one night I’ll see a face I recognize, a haunted face that wants to silence me. I may let it try, knowing that it won’t succeed.

My grandmother would probably say that Rachel Long has walked in and replaced my soul.

But she would be wrong.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Invitation To Murder, edited by Ed Gorman, Dark Harvest, 1991
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2017 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Brian Chase/Dreamstime

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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