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.

Fist-Fighting Shatner on the Acropolis

Foggy Forest UnsplashSebastian Script

Rivi and I are walking along Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. As we go, she is counting the number of turtle heads she has seen breaking the surface of the water.

“Three,” she says.

“We should take a paddleboat,” I say. “Haven’t done that in a long time.”

“Nah. I’m not feeling the call of the waves today.”

“There aren’t any waves. There are never any waves. It’s Stow Lake.”

“Let’s go to the de Young. That’s always nice.” She points at the water. “Four.”

We have been in the park for a few hours today, having walked a meandering path from the windmills on the beach side to the lake in the middle. The day is cool but bright, and I curse myself for not remembering to bring my sunglasses.

“Five. We can get something to eat. Might be a hot dog cart at the Concourse.”

“We can eat in the museum. Hot dog carts are just temping fate.”

“Six.”

Rivi slept over last night, taking the bed while I slept in the chaise. She insisted we have a Star Wars marathon before seeing the new film, but we called an early end to it as she fell asleep halfway through The Empire Strikes Back and crawled off to my room with barely a grunted goodnight as she went. She said this morning that we would try again tomorrow, but it’s not a big deal really.

“Seven. I think I’m going to get a tattoo. Something small. A bird, maybe.”

“You’re never going to get a tattoo,” I say. “You’ve been talking about it for as long as I’ve known you.”

“You don’t know me,” she says. “You just think you do. Eight.”

“You should get a tattoo of a turtle. One for each one you count here today. An ocean of turtles, all over your body.”

She shakes her head. “Too many turtles. I just want one. Maybe on my wrist.”

“Nine,” I say, seeing a small leathery head poking up from beneath a tree root trailing in the lake. “You could get them all in one spot. Maybe right on your throat. I think that would pretty much guarantee your future employment possibilities are right down the drain.”

“Just means you’ll have to support me, you know. You’re going to need a bigger apartment.”

“I’m not your sugar daddy.”

“Of course you aren’t,” she says. “Oh, you’re going to have to pay my way into the museum. I left my purse in your kitchen.”

“Maybe right on your face instead. Turtles the size of tangerines, all over your cheeks and your forehead. Boys dig facial tattoos.”

“Ten,” she says.

“One,” I say, pointing at the sidewalk in front of us. A dead and ant-covered rat is on the pavement.

“Ew,” Rivi says.

“If I see three more rats before we get to the museum, you have to get a tattoo of a turtle on the back of your neck.”

“If I see three more turtles before we get around the lake, you have to get a tattoo of a rat on your ass,” she says.

“Ten turtles,” I say. “The lake’s full of them. Have to make it a more sporting wager.”

She considers a moment, then nods. “Okay, ten. But if we see a dead rat in the lake, then you have to get Popeye anchors on your forearms.”

“Fine. But if we see a rat eating a dead turtle, then you have to get a tattoo of Donald Trump as a tramp stamp.”

“Now you’re playing dirty,” she says.

“You’re the dirty one, with a Trump tramp stamp.”

“Eleven,” she says. “If we see a rat riding on a turtle’s back, you have to get a tattoo on your forehead of me fist-fighting William Shatner on top of the Acropolis.”

We are almost to the path that will lead us away from the lake and toward the museum.

“Twelve,” Rivi says. “One more to go, and you get a rat on your ass.”

“Two,” I say, pointing at another dead rat beneath a nearby shrub. “And you need eight more turtles, not one. No cheating.”

“That’s not a rat,” she says. “It’s a pigeon.”

“A rat with wings,” I say. “Close enough.”

“This is either going to be the best walk we’ve ever taken, or the most anti-climactic.”

“If it’s the most anti-climactic, you have to get a tattoo of Tattoo from Fantasy Island on the inside of your thigh.”

“If it’s not,” she says, “then I get to be the one who tattoos you. We’ll do it prison style. It’ll really, really hurt.”

“If you get to tattoo me, then I get to pierce you, in a location to be determined at a future date, using a potato and a knitting needle.”

“Thirteen,” she says. “You know, we really should do this more often.”

“You’ll look like the illustrated lady if we do.”

“Fourteen.”

“That’s a stick, not a turtle.”

“You counted a pigeon, I get to count a stick.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I say. We have reached the path we must follow to the museum, which leads off down the hill and away from the lake. “We’re going that way now. No more lake for you.”

“We should walk around again,” she says. “Get our exercise in. We’re getting flabby.”

“Uh-uh. We’re going to the Concourse. Your final count is thirteen turtles and a stick.”

“Your pigeon doesn’t count, you know.”

“I’m not worried. Lot of rats in the park,” I say. “There’s bound to be a couple more dead ones on the way.”

We walk down the hill, scanning the grass and bushes to either side as we go.

“Dead squirrel,” Rivi says. “You don’t get that one.”

“Close though.”

“Not close enough.”

As we approach the Concourse, I point at a dumpster behind the bandstand. “And what’s that under there I see?”

“Bag of trash,” she says. “Someone’s lunch bag.”

“Good try. Rat number two. One more, and you’re going under the needle.”

“I don’t know why we do anything together,” she says. “You’re always so mean to me.”

We walk toward the entrance to the de Young, and I scan the ground as though I am tracking Butch and Sundance across the Badlands.

“You’re never going to make it,” Rivi says. “We should just call it a draw.”

“Quiet, you. We’re not inside yet.”

“We’re on the property,” she insists. “It’s close enough to call it.”

“Shut up,” I say.

“Call it!”

We are walking past the small pond at the outside of the museum, the water low, the rocks beneath it green and mossy. A pair of seagulls are standing at the water’s edge, watching us as we approach. When we come too close, they lift up into the air, cackling at us, and flit to the far side of the pond.

“What’s that over there?” Rivi asks suddenly, raising her arm in front of my face and gesturing at the far side of Concourse. “Is that lady naked?”

“Too late!” I shout, and I bat her arm down. I point my finger with triumph at the soggy furry lump floating in the pond, where it had until a moment ago been blocked from sight by the gulls trying to pick it out of the water. “Rat number three!”

“Doesn’t count,” she says. “It’s a mouse.”

“A mouse the size of a dog. That is a rat.”

“You cheated.”

“A rat! I am the winner!” I do a little dance beside the dead rat, something a bit MC Hammer and a bit Willem Dafoe being gunned down by the Viet Cong in Platoon.

“You are the worst winner in the world,” she says. “You should lose just for winning so badly.”

“I get to pick the turtle for the tattoo.”

“Not if I murder you in your sleep.”

“It’s going to be that turtle you’re supposed to draw to get into correspondence art school. Tippy! Tippy the Turtle!”

“I am going to punch you,” Rivi says. “I swear to God I am.”

“Totally be worth it,” I say.

“Forget the museum,” she says. She starts stomping off for the far end of the Concourse.

“Hey, spoilsport. Where are you going?”

“Hot dog cart. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get food poisoning and die. Get over here, dammit. I don’t have any money.”

“I told you I wasn’t your sugar daddy,” I say. “If I’m buying you a hot dog, it’s going to cost you later.”

She holds up her fist and waves it at me. “Five fingers of death, buster.”

“Three words, Rivi,” I say, holding my arms wide. “Trump tramp stamp.”

It takes an hour before the pain in my arm goes away, and I’m sure I’ll have the bruise for at least a week after that.

All I can say is that if Rivi is ever visiting Greece, William Shatner had better stay the hell away.

Barstow

Ladybug UnsplashBoone

Tina sits on the floor of her bedroom, her back against the mattress, the grey parachute hanging above her head. I can see the outlines in the silk of the pieces of plaster that have collected there since the last time she emptied it. I don’t know how there can be any of her ceiling left above her by this point.

“I found a ladybug in here yesterday,” she says. “I have no idea where she came from. I thought it was too cold for them to live in December.” She touches her lower lip, which I know is her tell for wanting to have a cigarette, but I am wrong this time. “She landed right here, while I was in bed. I let her crawl around until she was finished, and then she flew off into the living room. Haven’t seen her since.”

“It’s here someplace,” I say. “Check the windows. It’s probably trying to get out.”

“It’s colder in here than it is outside. She’d have better odds out there.”

“You’d have better odds too,” I say. “Either the cold is going to get you, or the ceiling is going to come down in the next earthquake.”

“This building is strong,” she says. She gets off the floor and lays down on her mattress. “It’s not going anywhere.”

I sit in the ratty chair by her window. I am looking through an old box of photos, which Tina has told me to search through. She wants three images for a triptych she is putting together, and she wants me to find the ones to use. “What about this one?” I ask, turning the photo for her to see. It’s of a woman in a pool of water, a small white house behind her, and a snowy mountainscape behind that.

“That’s Whitney,” she says. “And in a hot spring.” She waves her hand at it. “You’re picking, not me. Find the ones you like the best.”

I set the photo on the windowsill and go back into the box.

“I’m going to change,” she says. “We can go get Thai once you’re done.” She gets off the bed and goes to her closet. “Take your time. There’s no rush.”

I shuffle through a handful of images—an handsome Asian man smoking in a field at dawn, a nude woman holding a blue coffee cup in a dark kitchen—before finding another I like, one of Tina herself in a snowstorm, flakes in her hair and on her black coat, her eyes wide and her lips red. I put it with the first photo, and continue searching.

“I need to get some film,” she says. “While we’re out.”

“I’ve got nowhere to be,” I say.

“Sure you do. You’ve got to be with me.” She takes her shirt off and tosses it on the bed. After years of photography together, I’ve seen her in much less than a bra and jeans, so I don’t bat an eye at it this time.

More photos—a woman in glasses wearing a newspaper crown, Rivi with a lollipop in her mouth, a man in a pinstripe suit playing a trombone. I chuckle at the next image, of a large dog sitting miserably inside of a pram, which itself is parked in the surf of the grey ocean. I add this photo to my small pile of usable prints.

Tina puts on a clean shirt and sits on the mattress to put her socks on. “My hair is a mess,” she says, “but I don’t feel like screwing with it.”

“I’m a mess,” I say. “Nobody is going to be looking at you.”

“You do need a shave,” she says. “And some new clothes.” She stands and looks at me. “And a haircut. You’re right. You’re the bigger mess here. I’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“Thanks for your opinion. Go get your shoes on.” She leaves the bedroom, and I look through the box, wanting to be sure of the images I am choosing before settling on my three picks.

A smoking woman shot from below, with carnival lights filling the entire space of the background. A woman I know named Georgia, in profile, her red hair curled back around her ear. A picture of me, standing at the window of an anonymous hotel, peering out into the sunlight, squinting against the brightness.

I remember when Tina took this photo, on a trip we took to Truckee in the winter. She decided to quit smoking while in that hotel, a vow she made to me through the open bathroom door while she soaked in the tub and I watched television from one of the beds. She lasted about two weeks before going back to cigarettes again, and she was irritable and difficult to deal with until she gave in to her cravings.

I put this photo into my pile.

Tina comes back into the room. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

“I’m still looking through these,” I say.

“Finish when we get back. I’m more hungry than I thought.”

“Remember this one?” I ask, and I hold up the hotel photo.

She takes it from me and looks at it. “Oh yeah. Barstow. Right before we left.”

“That’s not Barstow. It’s Truckee. And we just got there.”

She puts the photo on the windowsill with the others I’ve selected. “No, that’s Barstow. I remember those curtains.”

“The curtains? They’re hotel curtains. They all look the same.”

“Barstow,” she repeats. “Come on, let’s go.”

I put the lid on the photo box. “I’m taking this with us. I’m not done yet.”

“Don’t pout,” she says. “I know you want to.”

“I’m not pouting. But it’s Truckee.”

Tina puts her hand against my chest as I start to walk out of the room, stopping me. “Wait,” she says. “Look over there.”

She is staring at the bedroom window, and I look out of it, thinking there’s something outside she’s trying to call my attention to, but I see nothing. Then a slight movement catches my eye, and I see what it is that she’s noticed.

“There’s my ladybug,” she says. She walks to the window and I join her, watching the insect crawling on the glass. It opens and closes its wings a few times, but doesn’t fly away.

“I guess they do live through the winter,” I say.

She unlocks her window and opens it. The ladybug crawls onto the window frame and begins to walk the edge of it, in no hurry to leave the apartment. Tina taps her fingernail on the glass near the insect, trying to move it along into the outside.

“It’s Barstow,” Tina says again. The ladybug crawls onto her fingertip. “You know how I know?”

“How do you know?” I ask.

She leans out the window and raises her finger in front of her lips. With a quick and solid exhalation, she blows the ladybug off, and the insect flies off into the city. “Because that was the trip I decided I might be able to fall in love with you.” She closes the window and looks at me. “Not for sure. Just might.”

“That was three years ago.”

She nods. “I know. I’m still making up my mind.” She reaches out and takes the box of photos from my hands. “Leave this here. You can finish later.”

I don’t know how to respond to this, so I just say, “Okay.”

She puts the box on the bed and then touches my cheek. “You always take things so seriously. Just let it go for once and chill out.”

“I’m not good at chilling out,” I say.

“You chilled out in Barstow. That’s what did it.”

“Did what?” I ask.

“Shut up,” she says. “No more talking. Let’s eat.”

She leaves the bedroom, and I start to follow. However, I stop myself at the door and turn back, taking the picture of myself in the hotel off the windowsill and bringing it with me.

Barstow.

I never would have guessed.

The Way Out is In

Suit Unsplash

Olivia Script

The taste is like cobwebs on my tongue, and it starts the moment I cross the threshold and enter the shed. The light is dim, the window small and coated in a layer of dust and grime, and it becomes more dark when I let go of the door and it closes gently shut behind me. A quiet but insistent sound hovers at the edge of my hearing, like the hum of a distant waterfall.

The key in my hand is no longer hot to the touch. I put it in my pocket and turn in a slow circle, looking carefully at the interior of the shed. Gardening tools are gathered in one corner, a shovel and rake leaning against the wall. A water hose hangs coiled like a tree snake on a nail by the window, and a workbench with an assortment of tools and a can of nails on it sits by the door. There is a bare bulb set into the ceiling, and I pull the string hanging there to turn it on, but nothing happens when I do.

Rum and molasses. Penelope. Nothing in the shed shines any light on those mysteries. There must be something here, however. Why else would the key unlock this door? It’s hardly a coincidence.

I look under the workbench, and find some paint cans and a few brushes. There is an old calendar from 2007 beneath one of the cans, a treed landscape covered in circle of splattered white paint. Beneath a tarp in one corner, there are two boat oars and a pair of muddied men’s boots.

There is nothing else in the shed. No clues and no answers.

This can’t be a dead end, I think. I look out the dirty window at the well-tended backyard. It can’t. What am I missing?

“You’re so very close now, Miss Flynn.”

I jump and cry out, spinning away from the window and banging my hip into the workbench, knocking the can of nails across the tabletop with a clatter. There is a man standing in front of the wall opposite me, not three feet away. He did not come through the shed’s door. He was not there a moment ago.

“Be careful, Miss Flynn,” he says. His voice is thick and low, like syrup mixed with opium. “Now isn’t the time to let your mind slip away.”

“Who are you?” I ask. The tremble in my voice heightens my fear, and I feel behind me with a shaking hand, seeking a hammer or screwdriver on the workbench to use as a weapon. “How did you get in here?”

“I am Mr. Middlemost,” he says, “and I have always been here.”

I grip the handle of something, and bring it around in front of me: a long flathead screwdriver. The tip is covered in white paint. “You weren’t here,” I say. “I would have seen you.”

“No,” he says. “You wouldn’t have.” He makes no move to approach me, and has his hands in his pockets. I see now that he is dressed in a fine brown suit, handkerchief stuffed artfully in his breast pocket, a tie around his neck. He looks as though he has stepped out of a Savile Row tailor’s shop, arranged and handsome, perfection in cut and line. “The strings weren’t knotted yet.”

“I don’t know what that means,” I say.

“Of course you don’t,” Middlemost says. “Obviously you are meant to, however. The coin led you here, which it doesn’t often do, and the key is even more obstinate, but it still unlocked the door for you. So there’s a reason for you to be here, Miss Flynn, even if neither of us knows what it is.”

“You know about those?” I ask. “The coin. The key.”

“Certainly. I was instrumental in their manufacture, after all. Well, not only me, but I had a hand in things.”

“Who are you?” I ask again. “What’s happening to me?”

Middlemost takes his hand from his pocket and holds it out to me, palm up. “May I have the key please, Miss Flynn?” I hesitate a moment, then take out the key and drop it into his hand. “You may put the screwdriver down. There’s nothing to fear here.”

“I’ll keep it for now,” I say. “I don’t know who you are.”

“I’m Mr. Middlemost. I’ve already told you.” He picks the key up from his palm using the middle finger and thumb of his other hand. “You’re going to think this is magic,” he says to me, and then he casually tosses the key up into the air above him. The key doesn’t come back down. It has vanished somewhere between his hand and the ceiling.

“It’s not magic,” I say. “It’s just a trick.”

“Oh my no. It’s neither magic nor a trick,” he says. “It’s the design of the Everwhere.” He puts his hands back into his pockets. “I know, I know. At this point you think I’m a lunatic. I can’t blame you for that.”

“A magician and a mind reader,” I say.

“I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he says. “I’m going to say something now which is only going to frighten you more, and I’m sorry for that. We’ll get past it eventually, I promise.”

I edge toward the door, screwdriver held higher in front of me. “I’m going to…”

“You’re going to do nothing,” he says. “You’ve come too far to go back now, Miss Flynn. In is the only way out now.”

I feel behind me without taking my eyes from him, trying to find the handle to the door. When I can’t feel anything but wood beneath my fingers, I steal a quick glance over my shoulder, and that is when I see that the door is gone. Where it had been is now only a wooden wall, the same as the rest of the shed. I turn back to look at Middlemost, and that’s when I see that my screwdriver is also gone, and my hand is empty in front of me.

Middlemost is still against the far wall, hands again in his pockets. “What I was going to say, Miss Flynn, is that I have seen the dead girl inside you. I have seen her death, and I have seen the coin in her hand with which she must pay for passage to the Everwhere.” There is a thin whisper of sadness in his voice as he adds, “You see? I told you that would frighten you.”

“I’m not afraid,” I say, but I am. I very much am.

“Keep your coin, Miss Flynn,” he says. “You’re most definitely going to be needing it.”