Monthly Archives: December 2016

Belle de Jour

Ix stumbled out of the alley, hand pressed to mouth. The night routine of the red light district had just begun. Clubs had lines forming at the entrances. Conspicuously inconspicuous young men paraded up and down the sidewalk in jackets with hidden pockets. Streetwalkers of many different breeds were planting themselves on a promising corner, sounding off a songbird chime advertising their assets.

The street Ix shuffled down already had a few shifters working. Really, they were too good to know from a simple glance. But that was what made them stand out. They were too good. Ix stumbled by an exotic beast with an elaborate, teased mane that would not have lasted thirty seconds outside a salon in normal circumstances. Ix crossed the street to get away.

Ix took the form of a young, bedraggled woman in club finery, fashionably androgynous. The form’s original owner had boarded a cab a few blocks back, so Ix was in no trouble of collision. Ix did not want trouble tonight.

There was a shifter alighting the steps of a high-class club, bedecked in glass heels and slinky cocktail dress. Un (it had to be Un) was arm-in-arm with a minor celebrity. Ix could not place his blandly handsome face and maintain form. Ix pretended to stumble drunkenly, hand to stomach, eyes to the ground.

The movie star said something. Un laughed musically. Ix wondered where the laugh had come from. The best shifters, the ones that commanded the highest fees, knew how to compose a character rather than copy.

Ix slipped, heel catching on an uneven curb. Unable to help it, Ix looked up.

Un caught and held their gazes for a moment, an eternity. Disgust and shame deformed the other shifter’s face.

Ix made a retching motion and dashed to the nearest alley. Squatting among discarded bottles and candy wrappers, Ix breathed hard. Holding a form was getting harder and harder. Hopefully Un would be borne along by the group, leaving Ix the opportunity to change.

“Excuse me? Miss? Are you alright?”

Ix swallowed. The voice was unfamiliar, but kind. Ix shifted subtly before turning, sucking features from a torn magazine page nearby.

The man at the opening of the alley had “target” writ in every line of his body. Ix could see the bulge of his wallet in his front pocket, no chain. His clear, honest eyes wanted to be lied to. He hunched over, clear concern in his body language.

Ix found a voice that belonged to a DJ serving two clubs down. “Looking for some fun tonight?”

The man straightened up. “Excuse me?”

Ix hastily recovered. “No, no, it’s not like that. I’m a shifter.”

“Oh. One of those. You know, I’ve been here three days and I don’t think I’ve seen a single one of you yet.”

Ix rose to a stand. He had probably seen a handful on his detour to the alley without knowing, but it was best to let him think he had scored something unique.

“You want a good time?” Ix shuffled closer. “I can be whoever. Here, look.”

Ix tried shifting to a sports model but got her muddled with a girl glaring across the street at them. A long, aquiline nose clashed with a rosebud mouth. The man’s eyebrows rose at the sight, but his body language still spoke of an urge to run, find some other entertainment.

“Try me!” Ix gasped. “I can be anything you want! You don’t like girls? Here!”

Ix shifted into the actor who had been on the club steps with Un. Close enough, though his features would not bear close inspection.

The man laughed. “Oh wow. That is a trip.” He paused, tapping a finger on his jeans, looking from the alley to the club.

“How much?”

Ix felt a wash of relief. “Not too much. Fifty for two hours. One-fifty for the night.”

“That’s so cheap.” He sounded almost disappointed.

Ix played the one hand left.

“Fine.” Ix shrugged and turned around.

“Wait!”

Ix stopped.

“I don’t have a whole lot. I was going to hit some clubs. Are you still going to be here in a few hours?”

“I don’t know,” Ix answered truthfully.

The man reached a decision, grinding his fist in his palm. “Okay. I’m game. Is there a hotel, or…”

“I know a place.” Ix stepped past him, taking his hand.

The man danced away, laughing. “Hey! Your hand is cold.”

Ix linked arms and walked, afraid to touch him again.

“May I have your name?”

“Ted. Short for Theodore.”

“Shall I call you Theo?”

He seemed tickled by the idea. “Yeah. Something different tonight.”

Ev was in an alcove with a handful of working girls. Laughter caught in throat as Ev traced their journey with a spiteful gaze. Ix hunched down, praying Ev was not in the mood to expose the charade.

“This is the place?” Theo looked dubiously at the hotel.

“You want somewhere more upscale? It costs.”

“Naw. It’s fine. They just told me the DeRose was the place to hook up.”

“With regular girls.” And the other shifters. Ix was not about to take him into that wasp’s nest.

The room was two flights up. Ix kept looking back to see if Theo was still there. He was strolling along with a mildly bored look on his face.

Once they got in the room, Ix ushered him over to the bed.

“So how do we do this?”

Ix took a breath. The form was beginning to wear, so Ix shifted to a pornagraphic actress whose handbills were plastered over the building across the street.

“I take requests. Anyone you want to see.”

Theo put a hand to his chin. “Let’s see…my ex?”

“Do you have a picture?”

Theo produced a much-folded piece of paper from his wallet depths, fishing past crisp fifties. Ix gripped the picture and willed sun-bleached hair and freckles to appear. Theo crowed and clapped his hands.

“That’s amazing! You only need a photo?”

Ix nodded, trying not to sweat. Truthfully, the other shifters didn’t even need photographs. But Theo didn’t need to know that. Theo was charmed instead of revolted as Ix shifted a form every five minutes. It was going so well that Ix didn’t even remember falling. Life simply went from vertical to horizontal in the space between blinks. The ache Ix had been ignoring spread like a warm blanket.

Theo peered down, water glass ready to douse Ix back to life.

“Hey. You okay?”

Ix wanted to answer truthfully. Instead, Ix took his proffered hand and stood.

“I can do more. Just give me a break.”

Ix wandered over to the sink. Theo sat on the bed, bouncing a little.

“I almost forgot, what do I call you?”

“Call me whoever I am when you call me.” Ix dabbed a towel at features that slithered traitorously from one shape to another.

“But I mean…are you male? Female?”

“Neither.” Ix shut the bathroom light off and walked back into the room, shifting into the blocky form of a local senator. Theo laughed, but it did not made him forget his questions like Ix had hoped.

“So…what do you look like when you’re not…you know?”

Ix sighed. “Nothing. This is all I am. You don’t need to worry about getting anyone pregnant or seeing the ugly side of me. I am who I am in the moment.”

Theo looked slightly melancholy. There were many different breeds of john. The johns with a conscience eventually outgrew the girls, usually after an attempted rescue that landed the object of salvation in the hospital. Ix really hoped to avoid that.

“So, you have sex like that? Do you even enjoy it?” Theo frowned, the bed creaking as he rearranged himself. “Can you make more of you? Sorry if this is a lot of questions. This is my first time, after all.”

The vertigo came back. Ix willed it away and shifted to an underwear model who frequented the club Ix worked at. Used to work at.

“I enjoy it enough. It’s all I can do.” It was too honest, too dirty. Ix needed to steer the talk back to business but it was so hard to shift and talk at the same time—

Theo caught Ix on the way down. “Oh my god. Are you sick?”

Ix couldn’t lie anymore. “Yes.”

“Oh.” Theo looked understandably reluctant. “Is it contagious?”

“Not to you. But the other shifters won’t come near me.” Ix put a feeble hand up. “Please put me on the bed.”

“You know, that’s the first request you’ve made all night,” Theo joked as he laid Ix out on the stiff mattress. His eyes were worried. “You’re sick. So is that why…all the shifting?”

Ix tried to sit up. “I can hold it for long enough. Tell me who to be.” Failing, Ix fell back on the covers.

Theo shook his head slowly.

“Please?”

“Are you dying?”

Ix wanted to cry. Couldn’t. “Yes. Please?”

“I don’t want to make you. Why are you asking?”

“It’s all I can do.”

Grimfaced, Theo sat at the side of the bed, looking down at Ix. Then, with footsteps that fell like years, he went to the television and turned it on.

The box was tuned to a channel that required payment to view. Without asking, Theo switched it to a public channel. A young woman dumped a glass bowl of shallots into a pan and started frying. Ix gasped and claimed her form. The camera shifted over to an old italian man. Ix shifted, struggling with the wrinkles. The program switched over to a map of Naples, so Theo changed the channel. A shopping network. Two youngish women hawked jewelry and perfume in the name of a B-list actress. Ix seesawed between the two of them, switching from blonde to brunette in a stutter. Theo switched the channel. An old technicolor movie. Ix could not name the actress, but she was alone in the middle of a brightly lit church. Ix felt the relief of her smooth skin and clear eyes.

Theo scooted a chair up to the bedside, eyes shuttered. He let the movie play. Ix held the form until the struggle became too much. Suddenly Theo was staring down at his own double.

“Please.” Ix struggled to make the words. “Please stay with me.”

Theo took Ix’s cold hand. “Okay.”

Theo stayed until Ix looked like nothing. Nothing at all.

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How Much is That Doggy in the Window?

It was a dog made out of wood. Some kind of retriever or something. It sat by the wash-mangle and the old coke sign by the doorway of the antiques place. The wood was lacquered, but the lacquer had been allowed to dinge in the decades since.

David bent low to marvel at the craftsmanship. Every lock of fur was represented with a chisel stroke. The dog even had a knotted rope leading from its neck, carved from the same wood. The dog looked wistful in its state of repose, perhaps waiting for an unreturning master.

It was a masterpiece of kitsch.

“Hey, how much is that doggy in the window?” he called to the man at the counter, only half-joking.

The balding man, who looked less small-town hick and more art-school-dropout, barely looked up from counting bills.

“Oh that?” he adjusted his granny glasses. “That’s not for sale. It’s a whatchacallit. Fixture.”

David looked back at the dog. The more he studied it, the more details jumped out at him. The enterprising soul who had sought to fix it with such detail even included a doggy member lying casually between its hind legs. David found himself checking for fleas and laughed.

Karen was browsing the milk bottles. That had been the whole reason for their trip. Karen was collecting them. She was looking between a milky-glass specimen with a broken neck and a faceted brown jug.

“Kare, you have to come see this dog.”

Karen made a noncommittal noise, deeply absorbed in her bottles. It irritated David a little that she wouldn’t peel herself away from her hobby for even a minute when he had been coerced into giving up his morning for this trip.

“Come on. Bring the bottles.”

Karen made another noise. “In a minute…” she said absently.

David stalked back to the front of the store, skirting around milking stools and washboards. The man at the counter was now sorting the vintage button display. The dog sat where it had probably sat for years, decades David estimated. There was something melancholy about it. The dog’s expression—if animals could possess emotions—held a kind of delayed sorrow. It had been carved to wait patiently and mournfully. David thought that was terrible.

“What is this thing, seriously? Was it part of display? The work of a hobbyist?”

The man looked up from his sorting, an ‘I like Ike’ circle in his hand. “That’n? He was carved by Emmet Welch, a few towns over. He liked to carve wood. Probably every cigar-store indian in the county came from his shop.”

David chuckled to himself, squatting down to look at the dog. More kitsch. Indians and cigar stores. Endangered species in this politically-correct, vape-happy society. Serving some extinct function. Just like this dog.

“So what was it,” he continued, running a hand over the neck, “part of a display? Did it hold a sign?”

The counter man looked over, frown lines forming between his eyebrows. “No.”

David waited for more of that statement. Apparently it didn’t exist.

“So why do it? And in such detail?”

The man at the counter semi-turned, intently absorbed in his buttons. “He just wanted to carve a dog one day, that’s all.”

David felt he was being handled like a bratty child. He resented that.

“Really, I’d like to buy it. Or is it some kind of priceless artifact from an artist dead before his time?” Really, David thought antiques were a scam. But maybe if he insulted the man, he’d have to name a price he could be argued down from.

Instead the man set the buttons down with a smack. “That dog isn’t for sale, never going to be. It was evidence in a crime.”

“Oh.” Rather that quenching his interest, it only whet David’s appetite. “What kind of crime?”

“Murder.” The clerk was looking over with undisguised distaste. David felt his umbridge rise at that. He wasn’t a criminal! He was just asking questions. If antique stores weren’t cults, they were doing a piss-poor job of supporting that.

He found Karen squatting by a shelf of moonshine jugs and old irons. Antique places were always disorganized eyesores in his opinion. Would it kill them to stock it like an actual store and not someone’s attic?

“Hey Kare,  you know that dog? Evidence in a murder scene. Isn’t that wild?”

Karen barely looked up from the bottle in her grasp. “Wild, hon.”

“The guy doesn’t want to sell it, but maybe we can bargain him down. I’d love to put it in the front hall, really throw guests into confusion.” David knew he was rambling, trying to yank anything other than a canned response from his wife. “Maybe together we can strongarm him into selling it. Crack his noggin a little.” He chuckled.

Karen mmphed. “In a minute, dear.”

David went back to the front of the store. The man had stepped from behind the counter and was now dusting an elk head that lay conveniently close to the dog. David wasn’t stupid. The guy suspected something was up.

“Listen…”

The man let the sentence dangle for painful, awkward seconds. “Gary.”

“Yeah. Listen, Gare, you can tell I’ve fallen in love with that dog, right? Everything you’ve told me, it’s really piqued my interest. Maybe—”

“Look, son,” Gary interrupted. “The dog’s only out here because storage is full. And I only kept the thing because Emmet wanted me to. He put a lot of work into that dog, and I’ve got a lot of respect for the man, otherwise I would’ve burnt it. I’m not selling it, not lending it, and I sure as shit ain’t givin’ it away. So why don’t you go find your wife and quit goin’ at me?”

David felt his face heat up. It always fled to his ears and reddened them, something he was very self-conscious of.

“That’s no way to make a sale,” he said flatly.

Gary was squinting at him. Like he was a bug on a tobacco leaf. Stupid hick. Why did small town shops always act like customers were a nuisance?

David cleared his throat. “Look, I realize you’re attached to it. But if you just—”

“Son, why ain’t you hearin’ my no?” Gary said, crossing his arms. The feather duster he held in his hands made the gesture ridiculous.

David turned on his heel and went to get Karen.

She was smiling sappily at a flour tin now, not even pretending to be looking for bottles.

“He won’t give me the dog,” David snapped as he walked up.

Karen stood up, puzzled. “What dog?”

“What dog? Have you not heard a thing I’ve been saying? The wooden dog by the door!”

Karen looked at him oddly. Just great. It was probably some antique etiquette he didn’t understand.

“Come on,” he grabbed her hand and towed her to the front of the store.

Gary was still in the same place and position as he was when David walked away. He raised his eyebrows to Karen. David didn’t like the familiarity of that gesture.

That dog,” he said, tossing his hand at it.

Karen frowned and crouched down, squinting at it. She ran a hand over the fur, tracing the paws with a fingertip. David shot Gary a smug smirk.

Karen stood up. “So it’s a dog. So what?”

David gaped at her. “Are you serious?”

“I told him it wasn’t for sale,” Gary said to her, “maybe we ain’t speaking the same language. Can you give it a try?”

Karen turned to David. “That thing doesn’t go with our decor.”

David felt like screaming. “I know—just—”  he flapped an angry hand as if trying to catch the word he was looking for. “Why can’t I have it?”

Gary was looking at him. David didn’t care for that look.

“Why do you want it?” the shopkeeper said warily.

David looked between the both of them. “Have I gone crazy? Are you asking why I want to give you money?”

Karen was getting a similar look. David really didn’t care for that.

“Dave,” she said, “I really didn’t budget for this. You remember what I said on the way here? A few small things. No more, no less.”

“So? We can cut out the trip to your parent’s place.”

Now they were both looking at him like he was crazy. Good God.

Gary was teetering between a look of concern and mild horror.

“You still ain’t telling me why you want it.”

David ran hands through his hair, catching a few strands on a jagged nail and ripping them out. “Am I on trial here? Why do you want to hang onto it so damn much?”

“I told you why. You give me your reason.”

“You go to hell,” David snapped.

“David—”

“Save it.” He threw a hand up between them. “We always make time for your bullshit bottles—”

“What?” Karen was looking him up and down like she hadn’t seen him before.

“Son, you don’t talk to a lady like that in my store.” Gary folded his arms, shifting into the part of the reasonable authority figure. “Should I ask you to leave?”

“No!” They both stepped back from him. “I want you both to stop fucking with me! Stop treating me like I’m some kind of mental patient for wanting the dog!”

Karen put her hand up to her mouth. Gary murmured something like, “sweet Jesus, not again.”

“Not what again ? Huh? Not what again?” David tried to control his anger, tried not to let them win, but he couldn’t. “Did someone else want to buy your precious dog? Or did they just demand basic respect as a human being?”

Gary backed away. He was shaking his head subtly. “Son, you need to go. I might have to phone the ‘thorities if you don’t.”

David’s vision went red. Karen let out a sharp gasp as he picked up a rusted chisel, putting out a hand like she could force him back with her mind. The storekeeper stumbled back, hands held out before him. As David swung, he saw the dog from the corner of his eye. The dog looked wistful in its state of repose, perhaps waiting for a master that would never come back, or something else entirely.

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The Plutonian Shell

It was a shell. She got one for every birthday. It was a bit of a family joke at this point, “Michelle loves shells.” Truthfully, at this point she did not love shells any more than the next person did. It had simply become so entrenched in their family that she didn’t know how to stop it without kicking up too much of a fuss.

The shell was oddly shaped, looking more like a bit of volcanic glass than the regular calcium structure she’d become used to. When she found the opening, instead of being blush pink on the inside like most other shells in her collection, it was a cobalt hue.

“What do we say to aunt Maria?” Michelle’s mother said.

Maria looked over her cup of punch. “I didn’t bring that.”

“Oh. Well then, uncle Hubie?”

Her father’s brother was too far across the room to confirm or deny, so Michelle shouted thanks and he waved deferentially.

Long after the other presents found homes, the shell fascinated her. It did not look like something that came from any normal beach. She turned it over in her hands, thumbing the jet black exterior, wiping her finger across the jagged blue lip of it. They said you were supposed to hear the ocean inside a shell. Michelle put her present up to her ear and listened. Rationally, she knew what she was hearing wasn’t really the ocean but some internal sound she couldn’t detect unless she blocked out everything else. But it was still one of her favorite things to do.

With the shape cupped snugly over her ear, she heard nothing at first. Then, as if from a distance, she could hear the cries of some creature. Michelle cocked her head. Was it really…yes, she could hear the buzz of life.

Michelle took the shell away from her ear and curved her finger through the opening as much as it would allow. She felt nothing, not even some hitchhiking crab. She put the shell up to her ear again.

Silence. Then, again, the cries of something. They were almost metallic, and she could not place them to bird or beast. The whispering sweep of something scuttling over sand. Then—

Michelle pulled her ear away from the shell as the crash of a wave almost deafened her. She dropped the shell in her lap and stared at it, ready to throw it from her at the first sign of movement.

Eventually her mother poked her head in through the door. “Lights out, sweetie.”

Michelle looked up the shell everywhere, even the book encyclopedia her father doggedly insisted on retaining. Nothing. It wasn’t a cone, it wasn’t a cowrie, it wasn’t even a crab shell.

Michelle turned it over and over in her hands. The shell did not look like it had come from a regular beach. No, it looked like it had come from a Plutonian shore. That was something she’d read in an Edgar Allen Poe story and had troubled her ever since. What did a Plutonian shore look like? Well, Pluto was cold and dark. So the beach was probably black sand. So black it shone blue under the light of the moon. No sun, not ever. Just a moon, maybe even two, providing cold light to an even colder shore.

“Where did this come from?” Michelle asked her mother, “could I call them and ask them something?”

Her mother was eyeing the flour heaped in a measuring cup. “It was uncle Hubie, we settled that.”

Michelle didn’t think it settled, not at all, but she said, “so can I call him?”

“About your present? Don’t be rude.”

“I’m not being rude. I want to thank him,” Michelle lied.

Her mother rolled her eyes and dialed the phone. Michelle knew he answered when mom’s fake hospitality smile contorted her face.

“Hubie? Hi, it’s Lonnie. Listen, Michelle just loves your present and—” she started pacing. “Yes. She’s already got it up in her window. And the shell—” she stopped, nodding. “Yes, the shell you got her. Really? Well then, I guess we were wrong.” She took the receiver away from her face and mouthed, ‘it wasn’t him’ at Michelle. Michelle nodded, though she’d long guessed that. She dutifully received the phone and thanked her uncle for his present.

“Now can we call the person who gave this to me?” she asked, holding the shell aloft.

Her mother frowned, first down at the shell, then at the batter half-formed in the bowl.

“That will take a while, sweetie.”

It took one and a half hours. Nana had been away from her house on a walk, Michelle had to play musical phones until she found her. Aunt Trisha was away at lunch with her cell turned off. Her father’s friend Josh worked at an office with at least two other Joshes. As Michelle made calls, her mother stirred her batter and a tiny frown line formed between her brows.

“Sweetie, why are you so concerned about the shell?” she asked.

“I just can’t figure out what kind it is,” Michelle said, “I can’t find it anywhere online.”

Michelle’s mother said, “oh, sweetie,” like she’d done something wrong.

Michelle looked over her present in the privacy of her own room. The shell stuck out like a sore thumb in her collection, dwarfing the tiger cowrie that sat beside it. Only the conch beat it for size, as well as weight. Michelle hefted it in her hand and realized how light it was for a shell that size. Maybe it wasn’t a real shell at all, but some kind of sculpture?

Hesitating, she lifted the shell up to her ear again. Yes, the sounds of a beach were present. The metallic cries of a bird or beast. The dry scrape of something heaving itself across sand. A thousand and one unidentifiable noises. She tried to imagine the shore that generated those sounds, a dark beach full of squirming, writhing life. Sea birds with dinosaur eyes that lived on sheer cliffsides. Crabs the size of a man, venomous blue and foaming at the mandible. Large, white worms that bored into rocks, waiting for the unsuspecting to pass by so they could strike.

On a whim, Michelle put the shell up to her eye. She knew that it was just a shell, a cast-off home for an invertebrate. She’d done her fifth grade science report on them, after all.

Peering into the blue depths of the shell, something moved.

Michelle’s heart skipped a beat. Without thinking, she clicked off her desk lamp and plunged the room into darkness.

Yes, she could see movement. She could see dark waves licking an even darker shore. Birds flying out from a cliffside home and kiting higher and higher on sea drafts. The sickly fingernail of a moon illuminating something churning the sea just beyond her range of vision.

“…it’s not like it came with a card,” her mother was saying as Michelle crept to her parent’s room. “No note, no wrapping paper, it was just there.”

Good, they were talking about the shell.

Her father sighed. “She’s alone too much. Too much time to obsess over that damn thing.”

Ire sparked in her chest.

“She didn’t even have school friends over for her party. What kind of girl has a birthday without any kids her age?”

Michelle wanted to scream, ‘you’re the ones who invited all your friends!’ But no. That would net her a punishment for eavesdropping.

Michelle crept back down the hall as her father started in on her supposed antisocial nature.

The shell was where she’d left it, sitting between a sand dollar and a turban snail. Michelle picked it up and cradled it in her hands. Reluctantly, she brought it back up to her eye.

The beach was very vivid. It was like she was peering through a window, not a shell. If she stretched out far enough, she could touch the bronze dune grass that grew nearest to her.

Michelle found she was reaching out her hand and stopped herself. The shell remained glued to her eye.

The dance of life on the beach was revolting as it was entrancing. A lopsided crab fed on some kind of carcass until one of the birds descended, hammering at the shell until it broke. Some creature she couldn’t see clearly dragged itself along the sand until a worm slithered out from the rocks and speared it with a set of tusk-like bristles. A seabird dove to the water, overtaken at the last second by something that lunged up and swallowed it.

It was coldly fascinating. Michelle found goosebumps raised on her arms and legs. She wanted to stop watching, but she couldn’t. What was this shell, really? Maybe it wasn’t the shell of anything at all. Maybe it was the container for this beach, this cold world lit only by moonlight. Maybe it was a key she’d inadvertently turned, and now the doorway was swinging wider and wider. The line of thought was like a stretch of freezing water she couldn’t stop herself from wading deeper and deeper into. The seabirds screamed their metallic din and the waves crashes deafeningly and she was turned like a piece of driftwood or sea glass and made smaller and smaller and smaller…

 

Her mother knocked on her open door. “Michelle? Baby, it’s morning.”

The bed was empty, rumpled sheets cast haphazardly over the mattress. Michelle’s mother frowned and pulled the sheets back.

“Todd?” she called.

Michelle’s father, tie half-knotted, came trotting up.

Michelle’s mother gestured to the bed. “Look at this! She left black sand everywhere! Where is she? You go find that girl and tell her this is not how we leave our beds in the morning. Where is she?  Don’t tell me she’s off with that stupid shell again.”

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The Interloper

“Of the hobbies I’ve picked up recently,” Whitford said, swirling scotch like it was brandy in his glass, “can you guess which one happens to be my favorite?”

Ben Hanson, seated across from him in the penthouse’s biggest armchair, sighed and tapped his thumbs together. “Let me guess…would it be photography?”

Amy Grant (the former Mrs. Grant) stood at the bay window, slick silhouette picked out by the last slanting rays of sunlight. Her comely face was arranged in a frown.

“Exactly right!” Whitford slapped a stack of glossy papers down on the table. “It all started once I rented the little place across the way. Only the 27th floor, nothing so grand as this, but my new telephoto lens more than makes up for it.”

Amy made a snorting sound like the intake of a water jet. Ben ran fingers through the hair at his temples.

“I have to say, though, that a close second favorite hobby of mine has to be people-watching. The little lady who goes to the corner shop every afternoon. The gentleman in the corner suite who practices tantric meditation. Your late husband, my dear Amy.”

“You really like drawing this out, don’t you,” Amy said dryly, slinking from her place on the wall. “Can I tip you to get to the fucking point?”

“Such vulgarity.” Whitford clicked his tongue. “And from such—”

“She has a point, Whitford. We all know what’s on those photos.”

“And what is that?” Whitford drained his scotch and licked the taste from his lips.

“Something you seem to think is worth money.”

Whitford drew back in mock-horror. “How gauche! And with a lady-in-mourning present! I would never make such vulgar demands on such a young widow. Such a young and comely—”

“That’s enough,” Ben said crisply.

“Is that umbridge? Now? From you? I’ve been watching for quite some time, and not only when the late Mr. Grant was home, and let me tell you—”

“I fucking bet, you overeducated pervert.”

Amy, drink in hand, sidled over to Ben as if their conversation wasn’t even happening. She picked up the photos with an almost bored look on her face, sipping as she paged through the stack. Her face slowly drew into a knot of confusion.

“What, just because I didn’t take classes in the age-old art of defenestration you feel—”

“This isn’t funny,” Amy said abruptly, slapping the photos back down on the table.

“Funny? My dear Amy, it isn’t—”

“Okay, look, you clearly photoshopped these, and no cop in the country is going to give you the time of day.” Amy shoved the pile over. “Get out. You’re insulting my intelligence.”

Whitford turned a bit red. “Let me illuminate this for you, former Mrs. Grant.” He whipped out a square magnifying glass. “In this particular specimen, note the form of your husband on the balcony, just so. Now note the figure of your dashing young paramour coming out—”

“Yes, and what the hell is that?” Amy tapped the corner of the photo.

Puzzled, Whitford spun the paper around. In the corner of the photo, so indistinct it almost seemed a mistake, was a shadow that resembled a hand nearly the size of the window it sat upon.

Whitford frowned. “I didn’t…was that there when I developed?”

They spread the photos out on the glass top of the table. Besides a clear timeline of Mr. Grant being helped off the balcony by his former secretary, there was a blurry something that looked very much like a long man with spidery hands and feet traversing the building just beneath that.

Whitford squinted. “I was so focused on the central drama that I didn’t…”

Ben and Amy were looking very carefully at him. “So you say you didn’t add that?”

Whitford looked up. “No. Why would I? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Ben looked over his shoulder at the balcony door, as if the answer lay that way. “Well, I never saw anything…”

“You wouldn’t have.” Amy was studying the photos intensely. “It was at least a story beneath your line of vision.”

Whitford looked from one photo to the next. “So, you say you’ve never seen this thing before?”

Both interlopers shook their heads.

All three turned to the balcony door.

“Suppose it’s out there now?” Ben asked, rising from his seat. “What’s it doing? And why?”

Amy gripped his lapels. “Don’t you dare.”

Ben eased her fingers off. “Don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to hurl myself off the edge.”

Whitford half knelt, watching over the back of the couch. Amy gripped her elbows, chewing the insides of her cheeks.

Ben slid open the balcony door and stepped out. The night breeze was a constant current from the edge of the safety partition. He slowly paced the width of the platform, carefully peeking down and around to the building below. He rested a hand on one white rail.

“Well,” he said, “it’s not—”

The rail moved.

As Whitford and Amy gaped, a great, round face rose above the wall separating the balcony from empty air. It was flat and white and had full, black eyes like something that lived deep in the ocean. Its mouth, invisible when closed, opened like a great cut full of darkness.

A hand encompassed Ben’s torso and he was yanked, screaming, from the balcony.

Amy dropped her arms. “Ben? Oh my god, Ben!”

Whitford moved. He scrambled over the couch and slammed the sliding door so hard it bounced. He re-shut it with shaking hands, sliding the lever lock until it clicked.

The face and hand were gone from the balcony, Ben with them.

Amy pressed face and hands against the glass. “What the hell? What was that? I meant, what the hell even was that?”

Whitford, face white, drew back to sit on the couch again. He looked at his shaking hands as if he didn’t know what they were, rubbing them together.

“I think,” he said once he found his voice, “we should phone the police.”

Amy opened a tortoiseshell case. Inside were white, slim, filterless cigarettes. She took four tries to light one and drew the smoke in shakily.

“Yeah? And what? Tell them what?”

Whitford’s face had gone quite blank. “Tell them…there’s something large on the outside of the building. They’ll bring firetrucks. Guns.”

Amy snorted. She crushed the already-spent cigarette like an insect.

“And in the meantime, what? Can it get in here? How the hell didn’t you see it all those weeks of voyeurism? Why are you—”

Whitford’s gaze had drifted past her face. She followed it to the bay of windows behind her.

The thing on the building pulled itself along smoothly, like a skeletal shark swimming past their aquarium. Once it reached a certain point, it settled. Then, without any kind of warning, it slid into the colors of the night cityscape beyond it.

Amy’s color fell. “Oh you have got to be fucking kidding me.”

Whitford rose. “We should call—we need to—that isn’t—”

Amy held up a finger capped in a bloodred nail. “It’s on the window.”

“And?”

Amy made a quieting motion with her hand. The late Mr. Grant had a wallful of bladed weapons above the penthouse’s faux-fireplace(far away from where it would have helped with the late Mr. Hanson, Whitford noted.) Amy took off an impressive polearm, grunting with the weight. She looked to Whitford and motioned with her eyes.

Whitford looked to the window and back, shaking his head. Amy made another, more emphatic look. Whitford pressed himself back into the leather of the couch.

Amy rolled her eyes and dragged the weapon to the window, making a neat gouge in the wooden floor. The windows were the kind that opened slanting outward, so as to discourage rain. Amy pushed one open, scanning the scenery outside the window. Determination knit every muscle in her body, her red hair cascaded past her shoulder. Whitford admitted she made quite a lovely sight, standing with the eternal firefly glow of the city around her, moon floating just above her shoulder.

Then the moon opened its eyes and before Whitford could even shout, Amy was snagged by the thing’s hand. She had time to make a breathy little yelp before the thing started pulling. The opening was not quite big enough for her, but eventually she came through.

Whitford could hear the glass shatter on the pavement, or imagined he could. There was now a gaping hole where the window had been. He had urinated sometime in the past minute. All rational thought had fled.

With a slowness borne of utter terror, Whitford rose from the couch. There was no movement from the window. Backing his way down the front hall, Whitford nearly yelled when he felt something solid behind him. It was one of Grant’s hideous statues. Now in possession of slightly more of his faculties, Whitford crept sideways to the front door.

No movement from the penthouse.

Whitford let himself out, holding the knob so that it barely clicked. The hall to the elevator was bare and empty. As he waited, Whitford leaned his forehead into the wall and thought in scattershot.

The penthouse—evidence?—drink—saliva—DNA. He slapped his forehead. Extortion—no—nothing written—confrontation—deaths?—accident—murder-suicide—

The door chimed like a cherub as it opened to admit him. Whitford slumped against the wall and allowed himself time to breathe

Car—safe?—underground parking—drive away—think—regroup.

The elevator slid like silk down ten floors. Then it stopped.

Whitford frowned, pushing the B1 button. No response. He pressed the call button. No answer.

Whitford pounded on all the buttons, heart hammering. It didn’t matter what floor he got off, he would take the stairs.

The elevator car rocked. Whitford stopped pressing floors. The clack of the plastic buttons halted and let him hear another noise, one far more subtle. It was the guitar-string thrum of a steel line being plucked, the unmistakable sound of something descending the elevator cable and coming closer and closer…

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The Automatic Writings of Lydia Hai Huang

I have only ever known one automatic writer, and that was Lydia Hai Huang. She was a public servant for thirty-six years before a stroke downed her, three more took her speech and mobility. I can still see her clearly if I think hard: lying in bed with her immaculate blue cardigan, hair trimmed into a pageboy bob, skin wrinkled as ancient parchment.

Lydia resided in the same hospice where my great-aunt came to rest after a car accident. The stroke had left Lydia with limited mobility. The thing she could move the most was her left hand, and boy could she use that hand. I would watch her write, no pauses, no hesitations, while her dead left eye drifted mindlessly in its socket.

Lydia’s convoy to the material world was the executor of her will, a woman named Helen Mears. Lydia had no children, and her siblings were either dead or back in China. I don’t know if they were lovers or acquaintances, but Helen doted on her like a sibyl at a temple. Helen was the one who introduced me to the writing. She had overheard me speaking Polish to my aunt and assumed I could read Cyrillic characters. My curiosity turned to fascination when I examined page after page of dense scribble, all coming from a woman who could not lift her own head.

Lydia had not received much in the way of education. Struggling with the language barrier, she barely managed an associate degree in accounting. Yet foreign languages would pour from her pen without cease. Helen said that Lydia always wrote. When she took the writing utensil away for the day, Lydia’s hand would remain twitching and jerking on the covers, inscribing invisible characters on the air itself.

Yes, Lydia was in an article or two. Fortean Times. Nexus. Small publications of dubious reputation. All these articles helped to do was further push away the skeptics who accused Lydia of faking the severity of her disability. I heard it all. Lydia was a closeted eidetic learner who absorbed books when supposedly on her own. Helen was the one who really did all the writing. The supposed writing was just gibberish.

I will tell you(and you don’t have to believe me) that I watched her carefully inscribe line after line of Greek letters and then took those pages to a linguist, who dated them as mid-sixteenth century.

I don’t know how Lydia felt about her gift. She was non-verbal, due to the stoma in her windpipe. Half her face was perpetually slack. Sometimes I wondered if Lydia was even present in her body, if she wasn’t just a conduit, a hollow tube for spirits to whisper through.

I don’t know what was on a few of the papers. Most were translated as best we could manage. I was a poor college student at the time. Helen had only a little money from the estate, as well as a small stipend from caring for Lydia. Some papers must still be moldering in Helen’s storage, awaiting a knowing eye.

I do remember one of the rare English writings. It was a woman from Maine on her way to an arranged marriage. It was a babble of her day-to-day thoughts, musing on her life and her future husband and the world around her. It ended abruptly when her ship crashed, the writing turned into a panic loop about the rocks—the boat—the rocks—the boat. It’s my understanding that most of the writings were like that: simple, stream-of-consciousness narratives.

Not the last ones.

I came in one day, bearing my customary tupperware of soup for Helen. By this time we had formed a sort of team with a few others: a linguist from the college, an old acquaintance of Lydia who was an amateur polyglot, a semi-professional historian. Lydia was wearing a thick mohair sweater and three blankets. I remember she was breathing erratically, and sweat was spotting her face. I remember asking if she wasn’t uncomfortable under so many heavy layers. As a response, Helen put the back of my hand against Lydia’s cheek. It was clammy.

Lydia wrote in a sharp, angular alphabet that looked like viking runes. Almost as soon as her writing neared the bottom of the page, Helen would swap that paper out for a fresh one. She had been writing nonstop for three hours, they told me, in a flurry that they had never seen before. Her temperature was slowly dropping with every letter.

I took the few pages they gave me to the university, in what had become routine for me. I learned it was in old Turkic script long before I even knew what was on the paper. While I was waiting for translation, Lydia died.

The pages I handed over were from the point of view of a fisherman on the shores of the Aral sea. He spoke of men who had arisen from the sea, lead by a golden madman, of a new religion that spread like a sickness among his fellows. His increasingly frantic words described the clouds boiling, hot rain that smelled of dead fish filling the lake. He pled the end of the world on the very last page.

When I went to retrieve the other pages, that was when I learned of Lydia’s death. Helen was investigated by APS for her role in the demise, how she waited until the bitter end before fetching a doctor.

Was she culpable? She cared for Lydia much, in her own way. I, like everyone else, can’t speak much for Lydia’s quality of life. Perhaps she wanted this, wished for this every day she was stuck inside tabulating other people’s finances. Perhaps she begged for something mystical and special to strike her, even if it came in her last days. Perhaps the skeptics were right, and death was merely an end to Helen’s manipulations. All that we have is on those pages, that question that is her parting gift to the world.

The last few pages were almost nonsense. They were like the beginnings of hieroglyphics, pictographic symbols whose context had long since become extinct. When Helen went to trial, the papers disappeared forever. Maybe they are in a safe. Maybe they have been destroyed by something ignorant.

Lydia was pronounced dead at 6:08pm. Her lungs were full of salt water.

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