Once upon a time, in New York’s gloomy and perpetually rainy Alphabet City, there was born a girl who was said to be the living embodiment of love.
From the doctor’s first slap, the girl giggled instead of crying and flushed the neighborhood of all its gray. Her smile was a bottomless thing, its roots branching up from her soul, and it beamed so brightly as to cause blindness if it caught you unawares. Her large jade eyes radiated an innocence so pure it momentarily took your breath away. Given her birthright, she was destined to have but one mate throughout her lifetime, and that person would live a charmed life ever after.
Or so the story went.
While an urban legend to most, Cadogan believed the girl existed and based on the age of the story’s telling, surely had to be an adult now. He also was convinced it was his mission to locate the girl and put an end to love, once and for all.
Cadogan worked fingers to the bone for years and all the wealth he amassed selling off his various successful startup companies was spent on all the matchmakers who claimed to have an in with the living embodiment of love. Most were scammers, of course, the rest were simply delusional and bestowed the honor upon the wrong women. Only one woman was genuine. She knew the embodiment’s true identity and so deep was her jealousy that she gladly agreed to arrange a match if it meant obliterating the anomaly from the face of the planet.
When Cadogan met the matchmaker in a single occupancy room off Delancey Street, he thought of all the people he had ever encountered, this woman was the flipside of the living embodiment of love’s coin. Emaciated with a rat’s nest for hair, her features were packed together tightly as if God had pinched her face when she was born and left it to set that way.
“Your fee’s been paid in full, so why haven’t you set up the introduction?” Cadogan asked.
“You’re not ready.” the matchmaker spat the words like a cawing crow. “As long as you wear your true intentions like armor, she’ll dismiss you outright.”
“If I pretend, she’ll spot the ruse instantly. I’m sure she’s developed the ability to detect friendly facades. I’ll approach her as a man scorned, which is the truth, and win her over from there.”
“Interesting. And how do you mean to kill her?”
“Those were not my words. I mean to put an end to love.”
“The difference being?”
“I intend to woo her, make her love me, and when she’s at her happiest moment, I’ll argue with her, break her heart with harsh words and hurtful actions. And I will not let her leave, and I will not stop, not until the shine dulls in her eyes and the smile becomes a rootless tree, and even then I will continue until she withdraws, from our relationship, from her happiness, from the world.”
“That will take years if it ever happens at all.”
“It will. I’m a patient and persistent man,” Cadogan said.
“But I doubt you’re strong enough.”
“Then refund my money and I’ll find her on my own.”
The matchmaker leaned in closer and eyed Cadogan head to toe. His nose was full of her scent, decaying food left to stew in its own rancid juices.
“A deal is a deal,” she said. “So we’re clear, when I make the introduction, my part will be done. Should you fail in your attempts, the fee won’t be returned, understood?”
Cadogan nodded and she led the way out of the Delancey room. Under the cloak of night, they dipped down into a subway station marked, Closed For Restoration. Past the turnstile and empty platform onto the train tracks. Cadogan masked his apprehension as he gave the third rail a wide berth and occasionally peered over his shoulder at the sound of distant train rumblings.
Between stations, they encountered a society of people, homeless and long abandoned by the surface society, who barred their path. Cadogan thought he would have to fight his way through, but the matchmaker had things well in hand. She mumbled something to the leader, a password perhaps, and pulled a tin of potted meat from her handbag and placed it in the man’s bony hand. When he stepped aside, the pair carefully waded through a field of displaced people’s bedding and cooking stations until they finally reached the service passageway that led to a room not much larger than the one the matchmaker used as an office.
In the room were two chairs that faced each other. The matchmaker sat in one and gestured for Cadogan to sit opposite her.
“If this is some sort of trick…”
The matchmaker waived off the comment before it could become a threat. “She will be here, I promise.”
“Why here?” Cadogan asked.
“There’s an interesting story behind that,” the matchmaker said, clearing her throat as she spat a gob of phlegm to the side. “It seems the gift of unconditional love that Everleigh was born with—that’s the name of the woman you seek, Everleigh—the gift that flowed freely from her, the gift that touched everyone within her sphere of influence and filled them with ecstasy, proved too much for most people to bear.”
“Are you telling me people fell too much in love?” Cadogan asked.
“To the point of delirium. It drove them mad. Imagine the feeling when you have loved someone or something in your life, more than anything else in the world, loved it so much that it hurt. Now multiply that by ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million, even. Never any hatred, or indifference, only a love for everything that increases exponentially the longer you remain in Everleigh’s presence.”
“I never considered that.”
“Most people don’t.”
“So what happened?” Cadogan leaned forward in his seat.
“Nothing like a good story, eh?” The corners of the matchmaker’s mouth curled slightly. “Everleigh’s parents, immune to her gift, fearing for their daughter’s safety as well as their own, moved in the small of the night to parts unknown, somewhere far removed from society at large, and remained in seclusion.”
The matchmaker stopped talking. Cadogan waited, thinking she paused for dramatic effect, but after nearly ten minutes of silence, asked, “Is that it?”
“All the true bits. The rest is apocrypha. I figured that wouldn’t interest you.”
Cadogan shrugged, his disinterest unconvincing, “Since we’re here…”
“Well, the way I heard it, the family managed to get along fine. True, they were isolated but they were also together and safe and Everleigh’s constant state of happiness helped the situation be less stressful. Their lives remained uneventful…until the day their daughter reached puberty.
“On the fourteenth day of the second month of her eleventh year, Everleigh began growing distant, her once innocent eyes darkened and the luster faded from her smile. The gift once thought to be good was slowly transforming from its former sham and ruse into the corrupt curse it truly was.”
Cadogan’s brow knotted. “So she’s not actually a child of love?”
“Why would you think that? Everleigh is the physical embodiment of love. At birth, she was the love that was new and innocent and when she entered womanhood, she became the other side of love, the dark side none of us admit to feeling or acting upon.”
“Well, whichever side she represents, when I make her mine, I will cause it to wilt away to nothingness.”
“Do you have an alternate plan?”
“Should she find out what you are attempting, is there a fallback?”
“The only way she would find out is if you tell her…”
“Oh, I won’t have to tell her anything…you already have.”
It took Cadogan a few moments to piece together her meaning. “You’re…?”
The matchmaker spread her arms wide. “The genuine article.”
“A hag? Not at all what you expected? It’s the only bit the urban legend got wrong. I was born an ugly child, but people viewed me through the eyes of unconditional love, so my looks didn’t matter.”
“You tricked me!”
“How? Hello, Cadogan, I am Everleigh, pleased to meet you. Consider yourself introduced. Now, live up to your word,” Everleigh said as she moved from her chair and sat on Cadogan’s lap. “Woo me and put an end to love. I dare you.”
Cadogan wanted to push her off…but perhaps he hadn’t really wanted that at all. Up close, Everleigh wasn’t that horrible to look at. Her mottled skin was actually clear and smooth. Her nose once bent and crooked, appeared aquiline now. Her lips, full and delicious. Her build, athletic.
“Something the matter?” Everleigh asked.
Cadogan’s heart beat in his throat. “What are you doing to me?”
“Giving you a taste. I can control the power now. Love, hate, passion, jealousy…to greater and lesser degrees.”
Cadogan tried to scowl but his face wouldn’t cooperate. “What are you going to do to me?”
“Offer you the opportunity to become my mate,” said Everleigh. She climbed off his lap and drew her power back into herself, allowing Cadogan to see her in her true form again. “If legend is to be believed, a charmed life awaits you.”
“And if I decline?”
“Then you join the loveless,” Everleigh gestured toward the door.
“You mean the people we passed…?”
“Men and women, not much different than yourself, unable to deal with heartbreak or rejection. Selfish people who, being denied love, sought to prevent others from experiencing it.”
“But why do they remain here living like rats in a sewer?” Cadogan asked.
“They were unable to fulfill their supposed heart’s desire of removing my influence from the world and refused my offer of companionship. Once you turn your back on love, what else is there?” Everleigh drained the dark room entirely of love and let him ponder the notion as he sank deep into loneliness and wallowed in abandon and despair.
After an eternity of brooding silence, Cadogan spoke up, “I…accept your offer. I will become your mate.”
“And will you woo me, make me love you, and when I am at my happiest, will you break my heart and make me withdraw from the world?”
“That I will indeed, even if it takes the rest of my life.”
“Challenge accepted,” Everleigh shook the man’s hand firmly.
The contract sealed, Cadogan put his plan into effect by telling the living embodiment of love his story. Of the woman he loved, that he did nothing to deserve but was blessed with nonetheless. Of their happiness together. Of the sharp knife of cruel fate that cut their time short. Of the anguish that swallowed him whole the instant her body was committed to the ground.
And when his tale was through, Cadogan pulled her into his embrace and kissed her with every ounce of his intent, and Everleigh was forced to admit she felt a slight tingle. They battled for years in this game of hearts, each giving as good as they got, and if he actually succeeded in putting an end to her, it was with kindness. Despite the competition that continued to their dying days, the couple wound up living happily ever after.
Oh, and they had one child, who was said to be the living embodiment of peace…but that’s a story for another day.
Happy Valentine’s Day!