When Jacob fell asleep that night, he arrived in Rory’s room, just like always—only Rory wasn’t there waiting for him. He was surprised, then he wasn’t. Considering the way he’d left, he could barely expect her to welcome him with open arms, could he?
You’re acting like she’s real again.
He closed his eyes. The damned raccoon. How else could he have known about that strange detail?
“Rory?” he called, searching the room, then the suite. “Rory, please come out.”
He started to feel concerned. He had to find her. He had to figure this out, test her.
Prove once and for all that she’s not real.
He left the room, calling for her down the hallways. When he got downstairs and couldn’t find her, his stomach began to clench, forming a ball of ice as fear stabbed through him. Was she hurt? Was she gone? Had he finally gotten his wish and banished her from his dreams for good?
If you’re not useful, I won’t keep dreaming about you.
Panic flooded his system. Even if she wasn’t real, the thought of living without her touch, without her taste, was almost more than he could bear.
“Rory!” he yelled, rushing outside, scanning the grounds.
He saw her as she was walking up the pathway. She was weeping, looking frightened. When she saw him, she made a strained sob and ran for him. He opened his arms, and she rushed into his embrace. He clutched her frantically, holding her so tight it was a wonder she could breathe. “Rory,” he whispered fiercely against her hair. “I thought you’d gone.”
“Jacob.” She clung to him, burying her face against his chest.
“I’m sorry.” He leaned back, kissing her hard, tasting the saltiness of her tears. “I was an asshole. I didn’t mean it, not any of it…”
“You were right,” she hiccupped. “I didn’t want it badly enough. I thought I was strong enough…”
“You are,” he countered. “You are strong. You’ve made it this long…”
“By doing what?” She shoved away from him, knuckling tears off of her face. “You were right. I was just playing house, wasting time. I didn’t want to face what I was afraid of.” He watched as she swallowed convulsively, her face a mask of shame and pain. “I’m still a coward.”
“No.” He sighed. “You’re not a coward.”
“How would you know?” she asked scornfully. “And why are you even talking to me? I’m not real, remember? I’m just a figment of your subconscious…an unhelpful, useless illusion, at that!”
She turned, ready to head away from him, into the hotel. He looped his arms around her waist, holding tight when she struggled, swearing at him. “Please, please listen to me. I can’t help the fact that it’s hard for me to believe. Would you believe all this, if it were happening to you?”
“It is happening to me!” she spat out, jerking away from him. He followed her through the glass doors.
“If you were me,” he persisted, “a doctor, and you started having sexual dreams about a patient, would you believe that it was someone in a coma actually talking to you while you slept?”
She slowed, and he stepped in front of her.
“You were cruel.” Her eyes were like the moon, silvery and luminescent.
“I know. I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to believe in you. I thought I was losing my mind.”
“You’re still not convinced,” she said. She rubbed her hands over her face.
“I’m close,” he said. “And if you knew what I was like, before I met you, you would understand what a huge concession that is.”
“I don’t know you. For all I know, I invented you.” She looked alarmed, then her face relaxed. “But I know that’s not true. I know you’re real.”
For a second, he was fascinated by her certainty. “How can you be so sure?”
She shrugged. “I just am.”
Her faith humbled him. Even though he’d always prided himself on being logical and rational, for a second, he envied her ability to simply believe, and go with her instinct.
“Where were you?” he asked, putting an arm around her shoulders. “I looked for you everywhere.”
He could feel her shake, pressing tighter against his side. “I was taking your advice,” she said with a trace of bitterness. “I was trying to wake up.”
He stopped, startled. “You were? How?”
“I told you there were things on this island,” she muttered. “Things that frightened me. Well, I went there.”
“And…?” He felt excitement—and, strangely, a little apprehension.
“I’m still here, aren’t I?” she snapped. “It didn’t work. I don’t know how to get myself to wake up. But I don’t ever want to go back there again.”
They headed toward her room, more out of habit than for any specific reason. “Back to the grove,” she said. “When you head down the path, into the rain forest, there’s a small village. Further on, there’s a path that leads into the darkest part of the woods. That’s where it happens.”
“Where what happens?” Jacob pressed.
“Rituals.” She shuddered. “I’m making myself a cup of tea.”
He wanted to keep asking her, but she was obviously still frightened, so he backed off, sitting on a barstool at the counter of her suite’s kitchenette. He watched as she put the silver teakettle on to boil. “You’ve been there before?”
She nodded, her eyes looking haunted. “When I first arrived here, I had started to realize this wasn’t just a dream—or if it was, it was the longest dream I’d ever been in,” she said. “I decided to explore the island. Like you, I figured my subconscious was trying to ‘tell’ me something.” She chuckled bitterly. “Every place seemed to be abandoned. Then I went to the woods. I heard music, drums, chanting. I figured it must be what I was looking for.”
The teakettle whistled, and she started. Then she rummaged for a cup, pouring the boiling water over the teabag. Jacob waited patiently.
“There was a woman there,” she said slowly, holding the teacup absently, warming her palms around it. “A tall, beautiful black woman. She had drawn something on the ground. There was an assortment of people around her. The chanting grew louder, and she started to dance.”
Jacob found himself mesmerized. “Then what?”
“She fell to the ground, as if she were having a seizure,” Rory said in horrified remembrance. “When she stood up, it seemed like her eyes had changed colors. There was a goat tethered, and she…” Rory gagged. “She slit its throat, catching the blood in a silver bowl.”
Jacob’s eyes widened.
“The crowd started to pass the bowl around,” she said. “They started to sing. And drink.” She put the teacup down with a clatter on the granite countertop. “That’s when I noticed that they weren’t really people. I don’t know what they were, but they weren’t human.”
“And that’s what frightened you?”
She stared at him. “It was more than that,” she said. “If you saw them, felt them, you’d understand. The feelings were unbelievable. Overwhelming.”
Jacob didn’t understand. The answer seemed to lie there, in that grove. Granted, what she was describing sounded unpleasant, but at the same time, it was just a dream. Nothing could hurt her. “So, you went back there today?”
She nodded curtly. “I saw the same woman, the same…people.”
“Did she kill anything else?”
Rory shook her head. “She was too busy having sex.” She grimaced. “With two men.”
Jacob choked at that one. “Why was she doing that?”
“Because one wasn’t enough?” Rory said. “How should I know? She mentioned something about Erzuli.”
“Erzuli…” Jacob frowned. “Wait. That sounds familiar. I think I remember my brother telling me something about that.”
“She said that I couldn’t leave,” Rory continued. “She said that I’d leave when I die. She offered to teach me pleasure and power. Even offered to share her men with me.”
Now Jacob was riveted. “What did you say?”
Rory paused, then smiled bitterly. “Why? Jealous?”
Jacob stood up, almost knocking the barstool over. “Yes.”
Rory looked at him, surprised. “What if I’m not real?”
“I don’t care.” He closed the distance between them, kissing her hard. “Whatever you are, I don’t want to lose you, Rory. I need you.”
Her smile wasn’t the bitter, ironic smile she’d been showing, the past few minutes. It was the smile he knew, pure and sweet and delighted. “I love you, Jacob,” she breathed, kissing him back.
He froze. He’d never said the words. To anyone. She held him close, and he held her back, tight enough to bruise.
“I love you, too, Rory.” Then he held her close to him.
She melted against him, and he cradled her, carrying her to the bed. They took turns removing each other’s clothing, then stretched out next to each other, just holding each other. She pressed a tiny kiss on his shoulder. He caressed the curve of her hip, then stroked her back in long, lazy circles. They pressed together, warmth seeping between them as their flesh met and melded. He kissed her slowly, and she hooked her leg over his hip, curling around him. He positioned his cock and entered her, slowly, lovingly. They moved like dancers listening to their own private, slow love ballad. He entered and retreated, each movement a litany to how he felt about her. It was gentle and tender and endless.
When they finally climaxed together, shuddering against each other with quiet, breathless gasps, he kissed her again. I love you, he thought. No matter what, I love you.
She fell asleep, obviously wrung out by both their argument and the day’s events. She was curled up protectively. He covered her with a light blanket, stroking her cheek. She didn’t stir.
He got up, got dressed quietly, and left the room.
Go down the path, he told himself, hurrying. Past the village, into the heart of the forest…
He loved her, whether she was real or not. But he still had to find out if she really was real.
He made it past the poor village and headed toward the dark interior of the rain forest. Just as she’d described, he heard chanting and the rising sound of music and drumming. He walked toward the sounds.
When he entered the clearing, he saw the strange figures she had spoken of. They looked like humans, but there was something strange about them. A feeling of foreboding chilled him to his bones. He ignored it.
It’s just a dream, he told himself sternly.
Of course, if Rory was real, then what was this?
The drumming stopped. A tall man wearing a black hat and suit stared at him. “What are you doing here? How dare you interrupt our ritual?”
Jacob suddenly fell to his knees. His heart seemed to stop in his chest, and he found himself gasping for air.
“Baron Samedi, please,” a woman’s voice purred, and the pressure suddenly abated. Jacob clutched at his chest, taking gulping breaths. He looked up.
A stunning woman, dressed in a scarlet sarong, was standing in front of him. She was beautiful, but there was an aura of danger around her. “Naughty boy,” she said, her voice husky. She stroked his face. “What brings you to my island? I didn’t invite you here—but now that I’ve seen you, I can’t say that I mind one bit.”
His cock went hard in a flash, embarrassing him. She simply laughed, continuing to touch him. When he finally backed away, her eyes flashed—in surprise, he assumed. And anger.
“You’re not one of mine,” she announced, and there was a grumble among the things assembled. “What brings you here?”
“What did you tell Rory?”
“Rory?” She stared. “That…that child called you here? To my realm?”
“Who are you?” he gasped. “What are you?”
“I am Serafina,” she replied, her back straightening, her breasts jutting out proudly. “I am the most powerful vodun priestess to ever live.”
And with those words, Jacob felt a pull, something stronger than he’d ever felt. As she stared at him, he suddenly had the urge to walk to her, to press his mouth on her breasts and her sex, to do whatever she told him to do…
Like a small voice of sanity, he pictured Rory’s face, heard her in his mind. Hanging on to that, he gritted his teeth, staying where he stood.
“Impressive,” Serafina said derisively. “She’s got more power than I thought, to involve an outsider.”
“You’re a dream,” he said. “This is all a dream.”
She shrugged. “So?”
“So you can’t really hurt me,” he said. “Tell me: how can Rory leave this dream? How can she wake up?”
“I’ll tell you what I told the girl,” Serafina replied. “She can’t wake. The only way she can leave is by dying.”
“How did she get here?” Jacob demanded. “Why is she trapped in this place?”
“Do you really want to know?” Serafina walked past him, and he could feel her perfume brushing past him like the whisper of silk. “Look, and I’ll show you.”
She pointed to the ground. There was a drawing, a symbol, formed of some kind of powder. The lines suddenly started to shift and move, like liquid, forming a picture, clear as any television.
He watched in fascination as a younger Mr. and Mrs. Jacquard stood in the same clearing, with Serafina looking the same age, just as dangerously beautiful. Mr. Jacquard scowled, but Mrs. Jacquard’s face showed a heartbreaking desperation.
“Can you help us, Serafina?” Mrs. Jacquard said, in her exquisitely cultured voice.
“I can,” Serafina answered. “For a price.”
“Of course,” Mr. Jacquard scoffed.
“Not money, Henri,” Serafina said with a smile. “The residents of this island know how powerful I am. They come to me because they trust me to help them. I am their leader. But my power needs a wider audience.”
She strode around them, like a cat circling prey. “I will help you have a baby,” she said. “When she is born, you will have a party, inviting your rich off-island society friends. And there, you will introduce me as the reason you were finally able to conceive. You will recognize me, in front of everyone, and tell them of my power and how I helped you. Is that clear?”
“This is ludicrous,” Mr. Jacquard said, starting to walk away. But Mrs. Jacquard held his arm.
“Henri,” she pleaded. “We’ve tried everything else.”
He looked into her eyes. Then he kissed her, his expression more loving and tender than Jacob would have ever thought possible. Mr. Jacquard turned to Serafina. “All right. We agree to your price.”
In the picture, Serafina’s smile was cruelly triumphant.
The picture shifted, changed, then vanished. “They knew the price,” Serafina said, as the picture disappeared. “They broke it. So I cursed the child, as I told them I would.”
“Rory’s here because of a voodoo curse?”
“Don’t sound so skeptical,” Serafina shot back. “You are also here because of voodoo. The fact that you could enter this realm without my knowledge suggests you have some power. But hear me now: if I decide you’re too much of a bother, I will hurt you. Or worse. Stay away from Rory.”
The overwhelming unreality of the moment struck Jacob like a hammer. “You’re adream! Just a dream!”
With that, she reached out, clawing his chest with her nails. He hissed at the slicing pain. Then she pulled back, her fingernails red with his blood.
“Remember me, doctor,” she said.
Jacob sat up in bed, abruptly awake. He reached down. His shirt stuck to his chest. There were red streaks. When he peeled the material away, there were four horizontal nail marks, dragged down his chest.
“Jacob, I’m really starting to worry about you,” Aaron said, watching his brother warily.
Jacob paced through Aaron’s apartment as if he’d drunk fourteen cups of coffee. He moved frantically, with almost a slight tremble, and his eyes were wild. If Aaron didn’t know how tightly controlled his brother was, he would’ve suspected that Jacob had indulged in some kind of drug or something to get him so wired. Jacob finally looked at Aaron with wild, bright eyes.
“She’s real,” Jacob said firmly. “Rory’s real, and she’s been communicating with me, I swear to God. It’s not a hallucination.”
Aaron sighed. This was what was causing him the most concern. “Just like I told you on the phone, Jacob—she couldn’t possibly be.”
“Listen, I know you think I’m crazy.” Jacob stopped walking, but he tapped his hand against his leg, obviously without thought. “I’ve wondered myself. But there’s just too much that points to this being real.”
“The damned raccoon—the one she rescued when she was five,” Jacob pointed out. “I even knew its name. How could I have possibly known about that? No one in her family told me before she did; it wasn’t in any of the case files. How could I have known about that?”
Aaron shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Coincidence,” he tried, but knew it was unconvincing.
“And her brain wave activity,” Jacob pressed. “All the doctors prior to me failed to create any change in her mental state. Now, with these dreams, she’s showing improvement. And she only has activity when I’m asleep. When I’m with her.”
“You still have no proof that there’s a correlation.”
“She’s real, goddammit!” Jacob roared.
Aaron stayed silent, his body tensed. The brother he knew would never get involved in a fistfight. But right now, Jacob wasn’t the brother he knew, and he looked ready to take a swing at someone, and Aaron was handy. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” he said, keeping his voice mild even as he got out of his chair, fists beginning to ball.
Jacob glared at him…then took a deep breath, collapsing into the couch. He rubbed at his chest, obviously unconsciously. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m not making my case well, acting like this. You must think I’m a lunatic.”
Aaron wasn’t sure if this was real or a ruse, so he stayed standing. “So what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to help me.”
Aaron felt a little twinge of relief. “Okay. I don’t think we want to do anything as radical as antipsychotics, but I can prescribe—”
“No.” Jacob’s voice cut across harshly. “I want you to help me with Rory.”
Now Aaron frowned. “With your patient? How? That’s not my field.”
“I think I know what did this to her.” Jacob paused, his mouth puckering as if he’d eaten a sour cherry. “If you didn’t believe me before, this certainly isn’t going to help matters, but…I think she’s been cursed.”
“Cursed.” Aaron drew out the word.
Maybe I should have him put away for a seventy-two-hour psychiatric evaluation. He eyed the phone, calculating whom he should call and how he would restrain Jacob.
Jacob stood, obviously sensing Aaron’s intent. “Hear me out first, okay?” When Aaron nodded, he continued. “In the dream, she took me to see a dark part of the island, where they held rituals. There was a priestess. A voodoo priestess.”
At the word voodoo, Aaron felt enveloped in ice.
“Apparently, Rory’s parents went to this woman because they couldn’t conceive. She promised to help them, in return for introducing her to their rich off-island friends. If they didn’t follow through with their end of the bargain, Rory would be cursed to live as less than a zombie from the first moment she tried to lose her viginity.”
“Are you kidding me?” Aaron blurted out.
“Do I fucking look like I’m kidding you?” Jacob snapped back. “I know how it sounds. But that’s what I saw, what I experienced. And I need to figure out if this is true or not.”
Aaron felt dread start to rise in his stomach. “What do you need me to do?”
Jacob’s expression was set. “That woman, the one you were seeing…”
Aaron closed his eyes. “Mahjani.” Even saying her name was uncomfortable.
“She’s a professor of that kind of thing, isn’t she? Over at NYU?”
“Comparative theology, with an emphasis on tribal magic and lore, yes.” Aaron sounded defensive. How often had he defended Mahjani’s background to a member of his family, or his elite intellectual friends, by using the overblown job definition?
Worse, how often had he failed to defend her?
“I want you to talk to her,” Jacob said. “I need you to find out if she would be willing to help, somehow. If she even thinks she can help.”
“Why don’t I just give you her phone number?”
Jacob looked at him, askance, and Aaron felt like a coward. Probably because that was exactly what he was being. “After the way you left things,” Jacob said bluntly, “I doubt that saying I’m your brother is going to get her to listen to me.”
“Listen, if I had time to research this, I would, but you’ve got a ready connection, and I’m sorry, but I really need you to move past whatever happened with this woman and help me out.” Jacob’s eyes blazed with desperation. “Please, Aaron. I really, really need your help. Just smooth things over with the woman, let her know how important this is, and get her to talk to me, okay? Please?”
It must have cost him tremendously, to beg like this.
“I’ll call her,” Aaron promised, with a sigh. “I can’t guarantee anything, but…”
“Thank you.” Jacob stood immediately, the manic frenzy back on him. “I have to get back. When you get her help, could you call me? Any time, day or night.”
“Listen, I told you, she might not cooperate.” Aaron felt like he was being barreled along on a freight train.
“You’ll think of something.” Jacob smiled, a ghost of his normal, reserved grin. It held a twinge of bitterness. “You’re the charming one in the family, after all. The emotional one.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” Aaron’s response was quick and reflexive, since it was a perennial jab: Aaron, the psychiatrist, the only “emotional” one in a family of rational, scientific medical geniuses.
Jacob paused in the open doorway of Aaron’s apartment. “I owe you,” he said quietly. “You need anything—want anything I have—it’s yours.”
That took Aaron aback, and he laughed nervously. “Well, I’ve always had an eye on that Lexus of yours…”
Jacob dug into his pocket, holding out the key.
“I was kidding,” Aaron said, shaken. “Does this case really mean that much to you, then?”
“She means everything to me.”
The vehement way that Jacob made the statement only made Aaron more worried. But at the same time, he saw a passion…a life that his reserved brother had never shown before. He was making a sort of breakthrough.
He might also be having a psychotic episode, the professional part of Aaron’s brain commented caustically.
Right now, Aaron wasn’t acting as a doctor, though. He was acting as a brother.
After Jacob left, Aaron poured himself a large glass of scotch, taking a few manful sips of the stuff. Like the rest of his family, he was too enamored with control to indulge overly in any kind of mind-altering substance, but the prospect of facing Mahjani, even over the phone, was something that needed a little liquid courage.
He dialed her number from memory—even after a year, his fingers still traced the familiar pattern easily. He realized his heart rate had accelerated, and he swallowed nervously as he listened to the phone ring.
After the fourth ring, he realized that she probably wasn’t going to pick up—that he was going to get an answering machine. He felt a combination of regret and relief, trying to mentally prepare the message he was going to leave: Mahjani, this is Aaron White. I need to talk to you. Could you please—
Caught off guard, Aaron cleared his throat. “Mahjani?”
There was a long pause. “Aaron.” There was no questioning in her voice.
“You don’t sound surprised,” Aaron noted inanely.
She didn’t elaborate. Considering how long it had been since he’d so unceremoniously dumped her, he wondered why she was expecting to hear from him.
Probably something creepy and “hoodoo” and superstitious told her that you were going to call.
“Still the same old Aaron,” she added. “What do you want?”
He had the disquieting feeling that she had read his mind, and he immediately felt guilty—and irritated. “I need your help.”
“My help?” Now she did sound surprised. “With what?”
“With…your background. I need someone who’s an expert in your field. I need you.” The minute he said the words, he flinched.
I need you.
How often had he said that…usually when they were entwined, naked, writhing in his bed?
“You can’t even say it,” she scoffed. “Why in the world would you need help with voodoo, Aaron? Got an enemy who’s giving you trouble? Need to win some pretty,suitable woman’s heart?”
The bitterness dripped from her words like acid.
“My brother is working with a coma patient. He thinks she’s been cursed. He needs to speak to you.” The words came out clipped, hard as diamonds. “If you want to help, fine. Otherwise, I’ll find someone else.”
Another long pause. Then a sigh.
“I see. Fine, then.”
He felt a little victory…until her next statement.
“Find someone else.”
The click was followed by the long blare of the dial tone.
“Shit.” He dialed back. The phone kept ringing…she’d obviously unplugged it.
He found himself getting up, putting on his coat. He’d mishandled this, as he’d mishandled so many other things. But his brother, the emotionally closed, super neurologist, needed help from his kid brother, the “touchy-feely” shrink. If he could get through to Mahjani, he might have a solution to his brother’s problem—and potentially help him stop Jacob’s imminent breakdown.
He walked out the door at a fast clip.
If Aaron knew Mahjani’s number by heart, he also knew it took exactly thirty minutes to get to her apartment.