An Unsettled Cloudiness

Camera UnsplashBoone

“What am I looking at?” Tina asks.

“Look closer,” Rivi says.

We are all sitting at my kitchen table. Tina peers at the screen on the back of Rivi’s camera, staring at the picture there, a photo of Rivi’s bedroom from yesterday at three in the morning.

“I don’t see anything,” Tina says.

Rivi gets up from her chair and comes around behind Tina. She points her finger at a spot on the screen, and I know what it is she’s looking at: a blur in the flash-blown photo, a smear in the air, hovering directly over the foot of her bed.

“It’s a reflection,” Tina says.

“It’s not a reflection,” Rivi tells her.

“Look at the mirror,” Tina says. “I can see your camera in it.”

“So can I,” Rivi says. “It’s not a reflection.”

I have another sip of my coffee. I know what Rivi is going to do next, because she did the same thing to me after she snapped the photo. She’s going to zoom in on the blur, and then trace what she sees there with her fingertip: the tilt of a chin, the curve of a nose, the line of an arm trailing down and into the mattress. I can only see it when she points it out to me. It’s like cloud watching in a rainstorm.

“I still don’t see it,” Tina says.

“You’re just not trying hard enough,” Rivi replies.

My phone is on the table next to my coffee cup. I spin it slowly under my fingers, waiting for a reply to the texts and calls I have made since last night. I am becoming more convinced that I am not going to receive one.

“Here’s her hair,” Rivi says. “And her face is here.”

“It’s a smudge,” Tina says.

Even though I lost the details of the blur in the photo as soon as Rivi stopped tracing them, the image in my mind became more clear as time went on. I pick up my phone and dial it: voicemail again.

“I think you’re imagining things,” Tina says.

“Well, Boone believes me,” Rivi says. “Don’t you, Boone?”

“Sure,” I say. “Sure I do.”

My plan is to finish my coffee, and then get into my car and drive. Tina and Rivi can come if they’d like, or they can wait here for my return, but either way I’m going. I can be at Olivia’s place in half an hour. I know where she keeps her spare key.

“You should spend the night,” Rivi says. “See it for yourself.”

“I’m not going to see anything,” Tina says, “but I’ll stay over if it’ll make you feel better.”

The blurred curls of hair hanging across a cloudy shoulder. The misty line of lips, parted as though in the middle of a whispered plea for rescue.

Half an hour’s drive.

The image in the photo looks so much like her.

It’s been days since I’ve heard from Olivia.

Half an hour, and I’m afraid of what I’ll find

Whiteout

Mountain Snow UnsplashOlivia Script

I am in the falling snow.

Behind me, the door in the shed hangs open, and I can see the workbench, and the cans of paint on the floor, and the dusty window in the wall. Through the glass, the sun shines brightly, and the sky is cloudless and blue.

On this side of the threshold, the snow drops from heavy gray clouds, falling onto my head and shoulders. It spills through the open doorway, and makes a small ridge just inside the shed. A mist forms along the door’s frame, where the cold air from here slides against the warmer air from the other side.

And then the door shuts.

I can’t pretend that I’m dreaming. I don’t think that I’ve lost my mind. I have to believe that, or I won’t be able to move from this spot in the snow.

It’s very cold outside.

I don’t know where I am, but I know that it’s not the Bay Area. On either side of me, tall granite cliff faces rise up, easily a hundred feet into the air, the walls sheer and pocked with thick layers of ice. There is no wind and no sound other than my breathing, and the snow lays thick on the ground, more than covering my feet, and creeping up my shin. I can’t see the sun through the clouds, but the day feels late, even though it is still morning on the other side of the door.

I look back at the shed, and I notice now that there is something unnatural about its architecture. It doesn’t stand apart from the rock behind it, but instead appears to be constructed going through it, as though a hole the exact size and shape of the shed had been cut into the stone, and the building had been slid precisely into it.

I’m not surprised to see that the door has disappeared. Where it was, there is now only the wooden wall of the shed. There is no going back through it.

I can’t stay here. I’m wearing sneakers and jeans and a T-shirt. Already I am shivering, and if a wind should pick up, it’s going to get much worse very quickly.

There are two directions to go, and neither looks more promising than the other. Both lead off in opposite direct lines from the shed, nothing but rock and snow to see, until the paths are lost in the dim light.

You can be afraid later, I think. Now you have to move.

There is no point in making a decision as to which way to go, so I just start walking in the direction I’m already facing. I look back over my shoulder as I trudge through the snow, and in only a few minutes of walking, I completely lose sight of the shed. I try to keep calm by telling myself that I can always turn back if I need to, but I know that all that will come of me retracing my steps is that I might ultimately freeze to death going backwards instead of forwards.

If this was a movie, this would be where I’d hear something howling in the distance. But there is still nothing to hear other than the sounds of me pushing heavily forward through the snow.

It’s getting darker. This means it’s also getting colder. If the light goes out completely, there’s no telling what’s going to happen to me.

No. It’s very obvious what’s going to happen. I’m going to die.

Now a wind rises up from behind me, and the falling snow comes down at an angle on my back, instead of straight down on top of me. I clench my jaw to try to keep my teeth from chattering, but it is a barely effective attempt at control.

I never should have met Arthur for coffee.

I step into a hidden hole and fall forward, landing hard on my hands and knees. I am more startled than injured, and the snow saves me from any scrapes or cuts, but the wind takes the opportunity to blow harder. My shirt rides up high on my back, and a layer of icy flakes drop across my bare skin. I scramble upright as quickly as I can and try to shake the snow out of my shirt, but it’s already dissolving from my body heat, leaving me both cold and damp.

I could go back to the shed, I think. Maybe I can break down part of the wall and get back inside. I don’t turn around, however. Going back now would be the same as just laying down in the snow. If there’s a way out of this, it’s going to have to be found in front of me.

Ten minutes pass, and then another ten. My body is completely numb except for my feet, which now feel coated in broken glass, and the pain from each step threatens to drop me to my knees. I tell myself not to think about frostbite, so of course I can’t push it out of my head. I’m not going to lose any toes though, I realize, because I’ll freeze to death before having to worry about anything being amputated later.

Five more minutes? Another ten? I have no idea. I have stopped shivering now, and this worries me more than anything so far. My legs are heavy as the stone walls that fence me in, and the urge to sit for a few minutes with my back against the granite is growing stronger. Just five minutes. Just to catch my breath.

Five minutes will be the same as forever.

I keep walking.

And walking.

And walking.

And then I am looking up at the sky, watching the flakes coming down, and I don’t know how long I have been laying in the snow, but it covers me from head to toe like a frozen shroud. I give a low animal cry, and put all my energy into rolling onto my side, then pushing myself unsteadily up to my feet again. Everything hurts now, every muscle, every joint. My head is a nest of icicles, and every breath is liquid oxygen pouring down my throat.

I walk.

I stumble.

I fall.

The snow begins to cover me.

I see the stars ahead of me, dim and steady.

I close my eyes.

Stars? What stars?

My eyelids are heavy, and opening them is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but my frozen lashes painfully peel apart, and I look to see the stars that are shining off to the side of me, glowing from inside the cliff face to my right.

Not stars. Lights. Lights in the rocks.

I am frozen to my core, carved from ice and frost. I am a statue, motionless and captured in time. I am a ship’s figurehead, broken free and trapped at the bottom of a dark arctic sea.

Lights in an opening in the cliff face.

I haven’t the strength to get to my feet.

But I have just enough to be able to crawl.

At the Edge of the Continent

Holding Hands UnsplashSebastian Script

“I should take a trip,” Hannah is saying. “Someplace far away. Darjeeling, maybe. Someplace where the air is spicy.”

We are walking outside the zoo, and the air is not spicy here. It smells of eucalyptus and salt air.

“I want to be in one of those hotels that you see in the movies,” she continues. “Old wood on the walls and a balcony overlooking a marketplace.”

“How about Fresno?” I ask. “Fresno is exotic.”

“Fresno is an armpit,” she says. “Don’t be a putz.”

She has work this morning, and so we are here walking in the dawn, the sky a rich and dark blue, the chill working under our coats and trailing its nails along the goosebumps on our skin. She called me at three in the morning, and asked if I would go with her. As she talked, I heard the sound of an old typewriter clacking in the background, but I didn’t ask her why. I didn’t remember seeing one at her house, but that didn’t mean anything.

She has a sprig of baby’s breath in her hair, and I don’t ask her about that either. She looks tired, as though she hasn’t slept at all. I wonder if I look the same, since I didn’t go back to sleep after she called me.

There is an empty fishbowl in the bushes by the sidewalk. Hannah stops to look on the ground beneath it, looking for any fish that might have poured out from it. There aren’t any to be seen.

“Gulls probably got them,” she says.

“Wonder how it even got here,” I say.

“People do strange things. Very little of it makes any sense, really.”

“I had a fish once. Rivi bought it for me, one of those beta fish. Nasty little things. I hear they’ll eat each other if you put two of them in a bowl together. Anyway, it only lived about two weeks. I don’t know if that’s all they get, or if I killed it somehow. I’m not very skilled at keeping anything alive other than myself, and sometimes that’s a miracle anyway.”

Hannah stops and stands on her tiptoes, trying to see inside the fence around the zoo. “Do they have penguins here? I can’t remember. I’d like to see some penguins.”

“Yeah, I think so. Don’t you have to work today though?”

She sighs and puts her feet flat on the sidewalk again. “Maybe some weekend then. I’m restless, Sebastian. That’s all.” She pats her hair gently, making sure that the flowers are still there. “I should have slept last night. I feel useless. I really need some coffee.”

“We can get some. I’ll take you to work if you want. What time are you out? I can pick you up after too.”

“Five usually. I can probably get out early if I pull some strings.”

“Stay until five. I can be there by then.”

We continue walking west, toward the beach side of the zoo. In the middle of Sloat Boulevard, on the median, the Doggie Diner head is on the pole where it’s been for as long as I can remember, and across from that is Pasquale’s Pizzeria. “Remember when we got a bucket of spaghetti there and ate it on the beach in the dark?”

“I remember we couldn’t keep the sand out of it,” she says. “God, wasn’t that the night we went to the Pink Floyd laser show?”

“Yeah, it was.”

“Jesus, we really were just kids. Do people still do that? Is that still a thing?”

“Don’t ask me,” I say. “I’m not a kid anymore.”

“You should be,” she says. “Getting old sucks.”

I don’t tell her that I remember everything about that night. Her jean jacket and white cotton skirt. The walk from the parking lot to the place we sat in the sand. Wanting to hold her hand. Not knowing how to do it without making a fool of myself.

“Listen,” she says. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Picking you up after work.”

“After that.”

“No plans,” I say.

“Let’s do something ridiculous then. Let’s come back here and eat spaghetti on the beach.”

“You haven’t slept. You’re not going to want to be awake after work.”

“I can sleep when I’m dead,” she says, and then she smiles darkly at me when it occurs to her what she’s said. “I am a master of inadvertent black humor.”

“A black belt in black humor,” I say.

“Take me to the beach tonight,” she says. “I don’t care how tired I am. It’s important. Important to me, anyway.”

“Okay. We can do that.”

We come to where Sloat connects with the Great Highway, at the edge of the continent, and now, here in the present, I reach out and take Hannah’s hand. We stand for a moment on the street corner, as the sky grows brighter and the sea wind twists our hair into knots. When the light changes, we cross and head down to look at the water for a few minutes, while we have time to not care about responsibilities and traffic and jobs, and deeper worries are but monsters under the bed, vanishing when the sunlight spills in through the bedroom window.

I squeeze her hand, and she squeezes mine in return.

I don’t feel the fool at all this time.

The Blood and the Smoke

Piano UnsplashBoone

“There’s a ghost living in my apartment,” Rivi says. “I woke up last night and she was in bed with me.”

We are having lunch in Chinatown, dumplings and roasted duck. Tina was supposed to join us, but she texted us to say she was on a mission and wouldn’t make it. She didn’t say what her mission was.

“She was curled up like a dog on my feet,” Rivi continues. “She had smoke where her eyes were supposed to be.”

“You were having a dream,” I say. I pick up a dumpling with my chopsticks and take a bite of it.

“Maybe,” she says. “But all my dresser drawers were open when I got up this morning, and my underwear was all over the floor.”

“You have a ghost with a lingerie fetish.”

“And I heard piano music all night long. Not very loud. I thought it was the neighbors, but now I’m not sure.”

“Now you’re just creeping me out,” I say.

“It was absolutely creepy,” Rivi says. “I haven’t seen a ghost since I was a little girl. He was Chinese. He had a red scarf on, and bloody fingers.”

“Jesus, Rivi. Were you living over an ancient burial ground or something?”

“Don’t joke about it,” she says. “There are ghosts all over the place. You just don’t know they’re ghosts, because they look like regular people, just walking around.”

“Eat your dumplings,” I say. “Before they get cold.”

“Look out the window,” she says, pointing with her chopsticks. “See that woman there? In the red dress? Why couldn’t she be a ghost? Nobody is looking at her except us. She could just disappear right in front of us, just like smoke blowing away.”

“That’s a weird logic to live by. So anybody who isn’t interacting with other people on the street could be a ghost? What if there are two people interacting? Maybe they’re both ghosts.”

She nods. “Could totally be. I don’t see why ghosts can’t have friends.” She eats a piece of duck, chewing thoughtfully for a few moments. “The ghost in my room was very pretty. Curly hair, a young face. Really creepy eyes though.”

“I still say you were dreaming.”

“I’m going to sleep with my camera tonight,” she says. “Maybe I can get a picture of her. I wonder if she’d even show up in it.”

“That’s vampires. Vampires don’t show up on film.”

“It’s a digital camera. Do you think that makes a difference?”

I have a sip of our hot tea. “No idea. Take her picture and we’ll see what comes out.”

“You don’t do a very good job of sounding like you believe me,” she says.

“Only ghosts I’ve ever seen are in the movies. Even if you got a picture of one, I’d think it was just a problem with your camera.”

She picks up a dumpling. “So the only way you’ll believe me is if you see one for yourself?”

“Probably,” I say, nodding. “Best odds are for that, yes.”

“Okay then,” she says. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“Wait, what?”

“Obviously you’re going to have to spend the night. Bring your jammies and be at my place by eleven. Maybe she’ll come back and sleep on your feet instead of mine.”

“I wasn’t really…”

“Do you have any other plans for tonight?” she asks.

“Well, no,” I say.

“Perfect. It’s a date.”

I look out the window again, trying to find the woman in red, but she has vanished. Like smoke, I think. To Rivi, I say, “Going to be the weirdest date I’ve ever been on.”

She smiles. “Stick with me. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The Middlemost Exception

Lightbulb UnsplashOlivia Script

“In is the way out,” Middlemost says again. A subtle current of air drifts through the shed, and motes of dust spin through the beam of sunlight coming through the window. I can detect the faint scent of the sea, although we are miles from the shore. “You have questions,” he says. “Now is the time to ask them.”

“Who are you? Why am I here?”

He opens his arms and gives a slight bow. “I am Mr. Middlemost, as I have said, and you are here simply because you must be.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You had the key,” he says. “You have the coin. Even if I were opposed to it, I must show you the path.”

“The path to what?” I ask.

“To everything, of course. From here to there and perhaps back again. To the place the letter you wrote to yourself comes from. Oh yes, I know about the letter, Miss Flynn. I know Arthur gave it to you.”

“Do you know what it means?” I ask. “Do you know who Penelope is?”

“Certainly,” Middlemost says. “I know everything that comes down the path.”

“Then tell me who she is. Tell me what I’m supposed to do.”

He leans against the shed’s wall and puts his hands in his pockets again. “Ah, now that is something I can’t do. You may meet more of us in the future, Miss Flynn, and you should know that we are not made to answer questions, nor to interfere with the weaving of things. We are the Uninvolved, you see. We do not assist. We merely watch.”

“But you said you are going to show me a path.”

He smiles and dips his head slightly. “Well, there are exceptions to every rule.”

“None of this…”

“Makes any sense,” he finishes for me. “I know. You are convinced that I am either a madman, which is always a possibility in any case, or that you yourself have lost your grip on things. I’ve been in this position many times, Miss Flynn. This may be new for you, but it is old hat for me. Things are quite simple at this point. You are going to doubt the truth of what I’m saying here, right up until the moment you see it for yourself.”

“Then show it to me. Show it or leave me alone and let me be crazy. I’ve got things to do and this is wasting my time.”

Middlemost laughs. “Exactly, Miss Flynn. Exactly.” He steps away from the wall, smiling, and waves his hand at the door behind him, a door which was not there a moment before.

“In is the way out,” I say quietly.

“Indeed it is. You want to ask me what’s on the other side of that door, but it’s not for me to say. You want to ask me what you’re supposed to do, but it’s not for me to tell you. This path is yours, Miss Flynn. You have no choice but to take it.”

“I could stay here,” I say. “Break that window out and leave.”

“You could, but you won’t. You’ve already opened the door, in every way except by your hand. Leaving it now would be unthinkable to you.”

“You don’t know what I’m thinking.”

“I know your sort, Miss Flynn. If there is a path, you must see where it leads.”

One of us is crazy, I think. Or both of us are. Middlemost moves further away from the door, leaving a clear passage for me to approach it, which of course I do. The knob is brass, unpolished and dull. I put out my hand, then draw it back before it touches the metal. The air around it feels strange, warm and full of low vibrations.

“You won’t see me on the other side, Miss Flynn,” Middlemost says. “At least, not in the beginning. Perhaps later, if our threads are meant to cross again.”

I reach for the doorknob, expecting it to be warm to the touch, but the metal is cool. “If this leads to the backyard,” I say to Middlemost, “I’m going to kick your ass.” He makes no response, and when I turn my head to look at him, I see that he is gone. The missing door in the other wall has returned, but I find that I don’t care.

The way out is in.

I open the door and step through.

It’s not the backyard I cross into.

It’s something else.

Something else entirely.