The sucking humidity of the park evaporated the moment the first rose brushed my shoulder. I pushed through the tangles, one hand up to block my eyes from the whipping vines. Thorns crowded in, blocking all the sunlight and tearing at the bare skin of my arms, calves, and back until the curled green leaves were anointed with my blood.
Jon-Jon panted at my back, his knuckles sticky against me where he clutched the belt loop of my jean shorts. “Sorry, sorry, Leyla,” he said again and again. “Sorry.”
I shook my head and caught my cheek against a thorn. It scraped back to my hairline and if it bled, the moisture was indistinguishable from the trailing sweat.
It could not have been more than twenty yards through the brambles before I emerged into a silver garden. Light filtered through flat, gray clouds, pale enough that the flowers had no competition for their startling beauty.
Hedges of crimson berries, violet petals, and wicked green needles provided scant organization for the madness of the roses. Ruby, blush, gold, magenta, mauve, periwinkle, and pink scattered in clumpings and rows like the depiction of a pirate’s treasure. Miniature trees with copper and silver leaves shaded crumbling statues and mossy benches, and behind all of it a castle watched me. It wasn’t a modern building carved into some medieval shape for an extra million bucks, but a delicate pile of worn stone with battlements and arched windows.
In the center of the park. In the center of the city.
I’d never heard anything about it before Jon-Jon tumbled back onto the jogging path, neck bruised and fingers bleeding. He’d cried and I’d used my tank top to wipe snot and tears from his face so that he could talk. So that he could beg me to go back with him. He’d offered me a drooping stem. Bobbing on the end was a rose so full it was almost spherical, its petals blood-purple with teasing scarlet tips. “Like your hair,” he’d whispered.
I’d never seen anything so beautiful, and it was exactly like my choppy, irresponsible dye-job. I imagined bowing at the waist and letting the wind ruffle my hair as it ruffled the petals.
“Are you sure he wanted us back?” I asked Jon-Jon as I stared at the ravenous garden, unable to deny it the admiration it hungered for. When my brother didn’t respond, I forced myself to turn. A wall of black thorns out of some twisted fairy tale boxed me in. Jon-Jon was not in the garden with me. I shivered.
The voice dropped me to my knees in the dewy grass.
“Leyla.” It was gentler the second time and I could see his shadow where it fell over my shoulder and stretched toward the thorn-wall. I stood and faced him.
First he was a black silhouette against the rioting color of his rose garden. I was level with his chest and began to see a tumble of embroidery against tattered velvet. Lifting my chin, I saw his face. I faltered back, arms coming up to cross over my chest so I could clutch at my own elbows as if I might fall apart. None of him fit together, but attacked me in solitary flashes: black, cracking skin; eyes yellow and misshapen; a horn curling from his dreadlocked hair to point at his left cheek. His lips bled slowly where sharp teeth pressed through the skin.
My meager breakfast climbed up my throat and I swallowed, unable to control my contorting expression. I told myself, This creature did not kill Jon-Jon. He might have, with a single swipe from the clawed, gnarled hands hanging at his thighs. My diaphragm heaved and I said, “I owe you. Tell me what you want.”
There was no way to read expression on that horrid visage, and so his silence was more frightening than any scowl or rage might have been. Finally he said, “I want you to visit me. Every day before sunset.”
“For what?” My voice was a trill, an uncertain whisper.
The massive head swept back and forth in denial. “Conversation. Companionship. Silence. Nothing to harm you.”
“For how long?”
I could feel the word building in the air.