The Welcomed Rising Tide

Unsplash San Francisco RoofsBoone

“New shoes,” Tina says, turning her feet this way and that, the cherry red leather glowing in the sunlight coming through her bedroom window.

“Very red,” I say. I am in her bed, the sheet gathered around my waist. “Like how much more red can they be?”

“The answer is none,” she says, putting a twist on the obligatory Spinal Tap joke. “None more red.”

“Are you going to put any other clothes on? Or just go out in nothing but shoes?”

“It’s San Francisco,” she says. “Rules don’t apply here.”

I’ve seen Tina undressed many times before in our history together, from seaside hotels to snowy forest tree lines, but there is something different about it these past few days. The familiar curves of her hips, the twist of her waist, the line of her jaw… she’s become a new land, vibrant and alive with possibility, and I feel as though I am exploring uncharted territory, finding my way inch by inch and moment to moment.

She goes to her closet and begins searching though it, the hangers rattling against one another like chimes. Under her breath, she starts to sing Elton John, a tiny dancer in her hand, and I do nothing but keep watching her. Soon she takes out a red T-shirt and black jeans, but rather than putting them on, she drops them on the floor by the bed, then kicks off her shoes and crawls back onto the mattress beside me, not getting under the sheet, but laying on top of it. She puts her head against my shoulder, and drapes one leg across mine.

“You need a haircut,” she says. “You’re starting to look like Nick Nolte’s mugshot.”

“Don’t say anything else,” I tell her. “You’re going to ruin the moment.”

“If we’re going to be seen in public together, you’re going to have to clean yourself up.”

“We’re always seen in public together. We see each other almost every day.”

“Yes, but now there’s sexy sexy involved. When there’s sexy sexy, you need a haircut.”

“I can’t believe you just said ‘sexy sexy.’”

She pinches my arm, hard enough to make me wince. “Don’t make fun of me if you want to keep having the sexy sexy.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I say,

“Lies,” she says. “I’m hungry. I’d tell you to make me pancakes, but I don’t have any mix in the cabinet.”

“How hungry are you? I’ll take you out for breakfast, but you’re going to have to earn it.”

“Don’t try trading pancakes for sex. You already know you’ll take me to eat without me having to put out for it.”

“Might not,” I say. “This could be the one time I get demanding.”

She puts her lips against the spot where she had pinched me a moment before, kissing it better.  “You’re cute when you’re being stupid.”

“I’m cute always. Not just then.”

She kisses my arm again. “Okay,” she says. “Just this once, I’ll trade for pancakes. Don’t let it go to your head.”

Later, when thoughts of breakfast have returned to find themselves transformed into thoughts of lunch instead, Tina says, “I was afraid you were going to walk away from me.”

I am tying my shoes, sitting on the edge of the bed. “What? What do you mean?”

She is on the floor, her back against the bedroom door, dressed this time in more than just her new red shoes. “Last week, after we had sushi. You were going to your car and you were getting smaller and smaller down the street while you walked, and I kept thinking about what if that was the last time we had together?” She shrugs. “I was being irrational. Probably ate some bad fish.”

“I wasn’t going anyplace,” I say. “Just home.”

“But I wanted you to come to my home,” she says. “I didn’t want you to end up going to anybody else’s.”

“There is nobody else,” I tell her.

“I know,” she says. “But I wanted to make sure it stayed that way.”

I stand up and go to her, holding out my hand. She takes it and I pull her to her feet. “So does this mean we’re dating?” I ask.

“Screw that,” she says. “We aren’t fifteen. We are fucking. There’s a difference.” She doesn’t let go of my hand, but puts it above her head as she turns as though we are dancing, then pulls my arm down across her chest as she presses her back against me. We stand quietly together, my cheek against her hair. She smells like a field of clover in summertime.

“Someday,” she says, “the ocean is going to rise up, and the only parts of this city that are going to be above water are the roofs. The streets will be canals, and you’ll be able to dive down to the cars and the buses and search for pirate treasure in the wreckage.” She raises my hand to her lips and kisses my fingers. “I needed to be sure you were going to be on my roof, Boone. That’s why.”

I shut my eyes and picture the sea enveloping the city, gulls lighting on the dead hanging wires of the electric Muni lines, whales spouting along Market Street, sea lions swimming through the open windows of the windmills at the edge of the Park, and Tina and I living on her roof in a house made of driftwood, an island in the center of it all, alone but together.

“Come on,” I say, turning her around to face me. Last week, she was simply beautiful. Today, she is absolutely radiant. “Let’s go get some pancakes.”

“We’d better hurry,” she says. “The tide is coming in.”

I certainly hope so, I think. I certainly do.

The Belly of the Storm

Unsplash Rainy TreeOlivia Script

It isn’t raining outside Sullivan’s shop, but it looks as though it had been until only a few moments before. The blacktop dimly reflects the light which fell through the heavy dark clouds above, and the narrow sidewalk is layered in a thin sheet of water which still seems to ripple from the drops which had been crashing against it. Great trees line the road, tall and black against the gray sky, and their leaves hang heavy with moisture. Sullivan’s shop is the only building I can see on the street. Everything else in either direction is only trees, stretching into the distance before being lost in the shadowy light.

There are no cars on the road, neither in motion nor parked along the sides, but there are people here and there walking along the sidewalk, slumped over and with heads down, as though expecting the rain to begin falling again at any moment. The nearest one to me is a young woman in a white sleeveless dress, not at all clothed for the weather she is in. Her long black hair hangs heavy over her shoulders, caught in swirls against the pale skin of her arms, like ivy caressing pillars.

“Excuse me,” I say to her as she comes closer. “Can you help me?” She doesn’t acknowledge me, and walks past with no eye contact, her footsteps splashing against the sidewalk as she goes, moving down the sidewalk to my right.

I remember then what Sullivan had said to me inside his shop, before I took the pack holding my belongings and walked through the door: If you turn left and start walking, you’ll reach a white house with a wraparound porch, and a woman who will give you shelter. If you turn right instead, you’ll pass through a haunted place, full of pieces of things which shouldn’t be.

An easy decision. I turn left from his shop and begin to walk. I hear the low rumble of thunder in the distance, but see no flash of lightning. The clouds above do not open, and the rain continues to do no more than threaten to fall.

A second woman comes close on the sidewalk. She is wrapped in a black leather jacket two sizes too large for her and I try again to ask for help. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Could you tell me where I am?”

The woman doesn’t stop, but she slows her pace to a shuffle. I change direction and move along beside her. “What do you mean, where are you? You’re on the street, aren’t you?”

“No, what city is this?”

“Serastanov, of course,” the woman says. “Where do you think?”

“Serastanov? Is that in Russia?”

“Russia?” the woman replies. “Where’s Russia?”

“Never mind,” I say. I point back in the direction I’d been walking. “Where does this road go? Is there a white house this way?”

“Plenty of houses,” she says. “Some of them are white, sure. Some farms. Lots of sheep. Very scenic, if you’re into that sort of thing.”

“How far? The houses?”

“Mile or so.”

I take the backpack off my shoulders and pull the book of photographs out of it, then open to a random page and show the picture to the woman. “Do you know this person?” I ask. “Have you seen her before?”

The woman stops walking now, and looks at me, then down at the book, then at me again.

“Never seen her before. Who is she?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m just looking for her, I think.”

“You think? You don’t know?”

“I am,” I decide. “I’m looking for her.”

“Then keep walking the way you were going,” she says. “The sheriff’s office is on the other side of the farms. Maybe he can help you with that.”

“Really?” I say. “A sheriff?”

The woman nods. “If anybody can help, he can.”

The wind whips up suddenly, casting our hair into writhing Medusa snakes around our heads and threatening to pull the book of photos from my hand. I quickly close it and stuff it into the backpack again. “Thank you,” I say. “I appreciate it.”

“Better go quick,” she says, looking up at the cloudy sky. “This rain isn’t going to hold off much longer.” She looks at me again, and leans in a little closer. “You’re not from around here, right? So I’ll tell you: keep to the road. No matter what you see. You’re safe as long as you keep to the road.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Go quick,” she says again, and then speeds up and walks away from me, while I slow further, and then stop, watching her as she continues on her way. Another rumble of thunder growls from the distance, and a drop of rain hits against my cheek. I reach up and wipe it away.

A mile or so, before I reach the houses, and there will be no escaping the rain before then.

I know that I am already in the belly of the storm.

Perpetual Smug

Unsplash FrogSebastian Script

“In my dream,” Rivi says, “I’m standing outside a blue house at the top of a big hill. There’s a black cat in the yard, and I try to walk around it to look at its face, but no matter where I’m standing, it’s always looking away from me.”

We are laying in her bed, with dozens of photographs spread out around us. She has been looking through photo boxes, pulling out some, transferring others from one box to another. I have seen myself in many of them, and more full of faces I don’t know.

“I can see my shadow,” she says. “It looks like my neck is three feet long, and curved like a question mark. I keep touching it with my hands, but even though the shadow looks weird, my neck feels normal.”

I sift through a stack of photos, stopping at one that is a close-up of Rivi’s face, covered in large pieces of glitter, like what you’d find inside a birthday card envelope. She is smiling in a mischievous way that I am very familiar with.

“All of a sudden, the yard is full of tiny green frogs, jumping on me, and jumping on the cat. Every time they jump on me though, as soon as they touch me, they turn into little green flowers. There’s a thousand frogs, and pretty soon I’m buried up to my waist in flowers.”

Another photo is beneath this one, of a nude woman wearing a crown of eucalyptus leaves, standing in front of a mirror which I know is the one in Rivi’s spare bedroom. She has a tattoo on her stomach that I think is a mariner’s sextant. “Who’s that?” I ask, turning the photo so she can see it.

“That’s Suzi. You’ve met her.”

“I don’t think I have.”

“You did. At the zoo. Last year, I think.”

I look closer at the woman. “Maybe if I’d met her with her clothes off, I’d remember.”

“We ate overpriced sandwiches with her by the old entrance by Sloat. That fucking seagull wouldn’t quit trying to grab things out of our hands.”

“The seagull I remember. Her, I don’t.”

Rivi takes the photo from me. “Maybe it wasn’t the zoo then. Was it the Asian art museum?”

“Again, I don’t remember her.”

Rivi turns the photo over to look at the back, which is blank. “Weird. I could have sworn you met her.”

“Nope.”

She rolls against me, reaching across my chest to grab a pen off her nightstand. She moves back to her side of the bed and pulls her phone out of her pocket. She scrolls through her contacts, and then writes a number down on the back of the photo, which she holds out to me. “Call her. I think you’d like her.”

“I don’t even know her,” I say.

“She has a sexy tattoo and she lives on a houseboat. What else do you need to know?” She abruptly pulls the photo back. “Unless you’re too hung up on Hannah.”

“We’re not dating.”

“Doesn’t mean anything.”

I reach out and grab the photo out of Rivi’s hand. “I’ll call her. But only because you’re starting to look smug.”

“Starting?” she says. “I never stop.”

A Whispered Insistence

Unsplash Bokeh StreetBoone

“Tell me,” Tina says.

She is in the easy chair in my living room, sitting sideways with one foot on the floor and the other propped up on the arm of the chair. Her dress rides high and her bare legs glow yellow in the light of the streetlamp outside my apartment. The light flickers off and then on again, the wiring faulty, strobing her once, then twice, then being steady once more.

“Tell you what?” I ask.

“About you and Olivia,” she says.

“There’s nothing to tell,” I say.

A lie.

She takes the hem of her dress between two fingers and raises the fabric another inch. “I want to do this,” she says. “With you.” Another inch of skin is revealed. “But I want to know about you and Olivia first.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because,” she says. “Just because.”

“We’re just friends.”

She leaves the dress alone, and raises her hands to her hair. She pulls out a pin, then another, letting them fall to the floor. “More than friends,” she says.

“No. Just friends.”

Another pin. “It wouldn’t matter,” she says. “If you were. Just that you aren’t now.”

“Not now. Not ever. I’m just worried about her.”

“I know you are,” she says. Another pin, and then another. “You seem to be the only one who is.”

“Someone has to be.”

She removes the final pin and drops it to the floor. She reaches her hands into her hair and puts her fingers into it, mussing it, letting it fall around her bare shoulders. “The only time I’ve ever been jealous of you is when you’re talking about her.”

“You don’t have to be.”

“You aren’t in love with her,” she says. It’s not a question.

“No,” I say.

“You haven’t slept with her.”

“No.”

“Have you kissed her?” When I don’t respond, Tina says, “You have.”

“Does it matter?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “Not at all.” She undoes the top button of her dress, just below her neck, then the one below that. “When was it?”

It was in an almond orchard, the trees in bloom, and Olivia was drunk and crying. She kissed me, and I did nothing to stop her. She told me things she didn’t want repeated, secret histories best kept hidden below the black stones. She didn’t swear me to silence, but she didn’t need to.

“Last year,” I tell Tina. “Just once. It wasn’t a thing.”

“I know it wasn’t,” she says. Another button. “I know you. I’d know if it was.”

We’d left the orchard and I’d driven us back to the city. Olivia, sobered by then, had me stop at the beach before taking her home. She was still living with Christopher then, and I understood why she didn’t want to go back yet. We walked the shore for an hour without the need for talk, and when at last it was time to leave, she refused my offer to let her stay the night at my apartment.

Tina moves in the easy chair and sets both her bare feet on the floor. Her dress is unbuttoned down to her navel and hangs open slightly, not enough to allow the light from the streetlight in, but the shadows reveal more than they hide. “Do you want this?” she asks me.

“Yes,” I say.

“Tell me you want me,” she says.

“I want you,” I say.

She rises from the chair and steps over to where I sit on the sofa. She bends at her waist and puts her hand on the back of my head, then brushes her lips softly against mine, like a summer breeze slipping across my skin. “I’m a rainstorm,” she says. “Against your window.”

I don’t know how to respond to this, so I try to answer her with a kiss. She moves her head back out of my reach, but keeps her hand on my head.

“I’m a crown of daisies on your head,” she says, curling her fingers in my hair. “A field of wheat dancing in the wind.”

“I want you,” I say again.

She lowers herself to her knees in front of me, and with her hand still against my head, pulls my lips down to meet hers. Her hand slides down over the back of my neck, and her breath runs like a current into my lungs. She pulls me forward as she lowers herself further to the floor, until she is on her back, and I am half on top of her, my hip against the hardwood, one arm and leg draped across her.

“Tell me again,” she whispers.

“I want you.”

She pivots beneath me, moving me onto my back, and she is on top of me now. Her hair falls across my face as she leans her lips in close, kissing me again, before pressing herself fully against me and putting her head against my shoulder.

“I want you,” she murmurs. She puts her hand on my hip, then slides it up and under my shirt. “I want you.”

“Tell me again,” I say.

The streetlamp flickers again, once and then twice.

“I want you,” she says softly, a whispered insistence.

The light goes out.

It doesn’t matter if it comes back on.

A Library of One

Books UnsplashOlivia Script

“What is this place?” I ask. “What do you do here?”

Instead of answering, Sullivan turns away from me, there on the other side of the glass counter, and reaches for an item on the shelf behind him. He sets it down between us and folds his arms, not speaking. It’s an old wooden fishing lure, an eyelet at the top where the line would be tied, and a barbed hook at the bottom.

“Is that for me?” I don’t pick it up. I’m afraid to touch it.

“No,” he says. “It’s not yours.”

“Whose it it?”

“A madwoman,” he says. “I don’t know her name. I don’t know when she’s coming for it. But she’ll be here eventually.” He leaves the lure on the counter, and beside it sets down a small spool of blue thread. “This one belongs to a smoking man. He has a cancer in his liver, but he doesn’t know it yet.” Another item goes next to the others, this one a swatch of yellowed wallpaper the size of a playing card, and Sullivan’s hand shakes slightly as he pulls his fingers from it. “This one belongs to a woman on fire. I don’t know anything else about that.”

“What is this place?” I ask again, the words escaping my lips in a ghost of a whisper.

He still doesn’t answer, but from under the counter, he brings forth another object, which he gently sets on the counter between us: the Japanese coin I found inside the envelope Arthur gave to me, a thousand years ago. As I watch, the glass beneath it begins to cover in frost, an inch-long halo of ice surrounding the coin.

“This isn’t yours,” Sullivan says. “But you gave it to yourself.”

“I wrote myself a letter,” I say. “Or at least I think I did. The coin was in the envelope.”

“I don’t know who this belongs to. A woman, I think. Made of smoke and shadows.”

“In the letter. I told myself to find someone named Penelope. Is the coin hers? Does it belong to her?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know names. I just know who belongs to these things. Names mean nothing.”

“Penelope,” I say again. “Rum and molasses.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. It was in the letter.”

“Take the coin,” Sullivan says. “It’s not yours, but it doesn’t belong here either. You need to carry it to where it needs to go.”

I put my index finger on the coin and slide it across the counter toward me, but I don’t pick it up yet. The coin doesn’t frighten me like the other objects here do. I’ve held it for weeks now. I am used to its oddness.

“There’s something else,” Sullivan says. From beneath the counter, he produces a small black leather book, thin in width, and tied shut with a red ribbon. He puts this down next to the coin.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“That’s for you,” he replies. “You have to take it.”

I don’t reach for it. It rests on the glass between us. “You made the man in here before me take the giraffe statue.”

“I did,” Sullivan says. “But I did him a favor.”

“A favor?”

He nods. “People who don’t take what’s theirs… Miss Keeper sees that they come to bad ends.”

I glance down at the little book, and then back up at Sullivan. “Who’s Miss Keeper?” I ask.

“She one of them. The Uninvolved.”

“Like Mr. Middlemost,” I say, thinking of his handsome features and fine brown suit.

“Yes, just like him. Beautiful and sly.”

“They aren’t uninvolved at all, are they?” I ask.

“It’s better if you don’t ask that question,” he says. “Much better.”

I don’t pick up the book, but I do reach down and untie the ribbon holding it shut. I open the cover and flip slowly through the pages. The text is in a language I can’t read, something from eastern Europe perhaps, full of crowded consonants and curved accents, but I have the feeling the words are not what’s important about this book. There are photos pasted to the front of every other page, some square with smooth edges, some with jagged sides and looking as though they have been torn out from larger images. Each photo is of the same woman, thin, light brown hair, eyes that hold something below their surface that I can’t quite identify. I don’t know her, but there’s a familiarity to her that unsettles me.

“Who is she?” I ask.

“It’s not for me to know,” Sullivan says.

“Will I find out?”

“Doesn’t matter if you do or don’t. You still have to take it.”

I trace my fingertip along the edge of the photo the book is open to. The woman in the picture is holding a trio of balloons, and walking along a foggy roadside. She is barefoot and unsmiling. A pair of headlights shine dimly in the distance, but the car itself is invisible in the fog.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” I say.

“You’re taking the book,” Sullivan says. “Then you’re going to have to leave my store.”

I look up from the photo and at Sullivan. My eyes are warm and I feel as though I am going to start to cry. “I’m so lost. Completely lost.”

He leans forward on the glass counter and puts his hand over mine. “Outside my shop is a road which goes two directions. If you turn left and start walking, you’ll reach a white house with a wraparound porch. If you knock on the door, a woman there will give you food and shelter, though she might ask for something in return that will be a devil’s bargain. If you turn right from here instead, you’ll pass through a haunted place, full of pieces of things which shouldn’t be, and they’ll demand a price for your passage. Not your little coin. Something much more precious than that.”

I slide my hand out from under his, and he pulls his arm back. “I want to go home,” I say.

“The way out is in,” Sullivan says, and I remember when Middlemost said the same words to me, back in the dim light of the shed. It feels like months ago, but it was only days. “It’s always in.”

Without giving myself time to think about it, I close the book and take it in my hand. I pick up the coin in my other hand and feel the familiar coldness from it making my palm tingle.

Sullivan bends behind the counter for a moment, then straightens and sets a small blue backpack on the glass. “Your things are in there,” he says. “Clothes, keys, the things from your pockets. You can’t come back in here once you leave, so you’d better take them with you.”

“I need my shoes,” I say weakly. I don’t want to set foot outside the store.

“In the pack. The clothes you have on, you can keep those. If you’re going to the woman’s house, put your own clothes back on first. You’ll need your own skin on to be safer there, not mine. But if you’re going through the haunted place, keep on the ones you’re wearing now. The things there are clever, but not very smart, and a little bit of a disguise might help you get to the other side faster. In there, faster is better.”

I open the backpack to take out my shoes, and find a plastic packet of white socks on top of everything else.

“You’re going to be doing a lot of walking,” Sullivan says. “I thought you could use them. They’re a gift. You don’t have to take them.”

I take my shoes out of the backpack, but leave the socks inside. Before I zip the pack shut again, I put the photo book inside as well. “Am I supposed to thank you?” I ask. “Not for the socks. For the rest of it.”

“You’ll have to decide that later. Some people thank me. Some curse me. Nothing for you is clear at the start.”

I put the pack over my shoulder and step away from the counter. “This isn’t the start,” I say. “This is definitely not the start.”

The bell over the door chimes as I open it.

However long it rings after I shut the door behind me, I have no idea.