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The Century Room

December 12, 2007 3 comments

The butterfly creaked faintly as Madeline’s aunt pinned it to the page. Around her the great worktable was spread with the evidence of a lifetime of experiments: French crayons, scraps of fabric, broken glass sorted by color — amber, purple, sea green. On the shelves above them, great unmarked leather-bound volumes lurked like incognito encyclopedias. Inside were pressed thousands of blossoms collected over half a dozen seasons. In the shadows below the shelves lay the richly enameled pots in which Aunt Lucy had cultivated her orchids until the day Madeline’s mother died, when Aunt Lucy had carefully arranged almost sixty of the delicate plants in the snowbound garden. Freezing rain had fallen that afternoon, turning the strange blossoms to gems: yellow shot with red, perfect white, furious pink. This was one of Madeline’s first memories.

Madeline sat beside her aunt on a green lacquered stool.

“Does it hurt her?” she asked.

“She’s dead,” her aunt told her, as if that finished the question.

In the wide windows over the table, the sun had been falling steadily down the sky. Now it vanished beyond a stand of black trees.

Madeline slipped down from the stool, and padded off to the Century Room.

*

The Century Room was a library, with fine shelves that stretched to the ceiling on all four walls, broken only by the mouth of a massive fireplace. A bright fire danced over the empty iron grate, as always. Ten thousand books looked down on divans, ottomans, pillows and thick rugs scattered in several inviting groups, exactly as Sarah Laine had arranged them a hundred and fifty years ago. This was because no matter who covered or moved her furniture or how soundly it was fastened, Sarah Laine always put it right back.

She did this with such dexterous alacrity that the hired men of an earlier generation had made a game of it. They had chained the coffee tables and settled great rocks from the surrounding fields on the covered couches to weigh them down. When she convinced them of her strength by shattering the rocks to dust and deftly slipping her prized pieces whole and unharmed from the coiled chains, the men decided to catch her in action. But Sarah Laine would not be watched at work. Time after time, as they tried to keep watch, the men fell asleep for what seemed like a moment to find the room transformed again to her original specifications, their white tarps neatly folded and stored out of sight inside a vast mahogany chest. Finally, one of the younger men came up with the idea to trick her by making a show of leaving and then rushing in again. But when the men turned back the moment after exiting the room, she had already completed her task, although a few of the figurines clattered on the tables, and the candle flames shuddered as if recovering from a great blast of wind. These last details were a matter of long debate amongst the men, some of whom held that they had, indeed, almost caught her in the act, and some who alleged that, as complete master of the game, she was only showing off with the noise and flame.

Today, Madeline picked up a small turquoise bird from the table by the door as she entered. This was one of her favorite games. Depending on Sarah Laine’s mood, the bird might vanish immediately from her hand, or she might carry it a good way into the room. Occasionally, and only because Madeline was family, Sarah Laine wouldn’t return the bird to its rightful place, but would make it swoop and dive and flutter, or alight on the brass branches that supported the burning candles in the wall lamps.

This time, Sarah Laine reclaimed the bird almost in the instant Madeline grasped it. She was in no mood for tricks.

Sarah Laine stood as she usually did, stoking the great fireplace, wearing her favorite blue dress. Her delicate blonde hair escaped in wisps around her flushed face, glowing almost to white in the hot light. Rose sat on the divan behind her, flickering into and out of sight as the flame cast its uneven light on the divan’s pale green brocade. Robert, perfectly solid, read the ghost of an ancient newspaper in one of the far wing chairs, his back to them. He preferred the real books that watched over them from the high shelves, but although he could easily knock them from their places, he had difficulty turning the pages. This was how Madeline had learned to read: turning pages for him as he, in exchange, voiced the stories.

*

Madeline made her way over to the nook she had claimed beside the far fireplace. A cozy bench had been built into the corner of the room and filled with pillows and a small rug that just covered her young legs. From it, Madeline could see everyone.

As Madeline settled in among the pillows, Rose appeared in the opposite seat. She had evidently been waiting. Rose had died at the age of nineteen, giving birth to Madeline’s father. She always dressed in pale lace and silk party dresses from the turn of the previous century. She considered herself Madeline’s friend.

“Well, dear?” she said, with poorly concealed eagerness. “How has your day been?”

Momentarily contrary, Madeline answered, “Just fine.”

Her young grandmother frowned like a disappointed child and fingered the silk hydrangea at her waist.

Madeline relented. “It’s raining,” she offered.

Rose’s face lit up. “I love the rain!” she exclaimed. “Once a storm came up, but I didn’t want to wait in the garden house. By the time I got home, my dress was in pieces. The gardeners kept finding silk flowers on the lawn!” She had confessed this charming transgression to Madeline a dozen other times. Madeline still nodded.

Weather was a great source of interest for the ghosts because they could not see the world beyond the Century Room’s vast windows. This was a fact none of them would admit. Madeline had found it out by accident one night early in her childhood, when none of them had commented on the ferocity of the weather, despite the blizzard rattling the glass. Already sly, she had led Robert to one of the windows and asked him to tell her what he could see over the velvet half-curtains that obscured her child’s view. He had told her a lovely story: a little girl in an open carriage, a redbud in bloom, a lone peacock wandering the lower lawn. But his description bore no relationship to the great gusts of glittering snow she could clearly see breaking again and again on the high windows.

For a while, this had been another favorite game of hers. Through the bitterest part of that winter, Robert had created a whole set of adventures for the little girl in the open carriage. Sometimes it was adorned with garlands of spring flowers. Sometimes a little boy rode with her. Once the pony spooked and broke into a gallop, the blue ribbons in his mane whipping in the wind as he dragged the carriage and the little girl, who squealed with delight and terror, out of sight down the lane.

But one day, when Madeline had asked to hear about the view out the windows again, Sarah Laine had lifted the velvet that fell across the pane with her own hand. “Why don’t we play a different game,” she said. “What do you see, Madeline?”

A few chestnuts, windfall on the front lawn, and that was all. But Madeline hadn’t dared to embellish what she saw.

*

“Did you go out in the rain?” her grandmother asked.

“It only rained in the morning,” Madeline said. “I sat with Aunt Lucy.” Lucy was her father’s sister, older than him by a year. For some reason, Rose didn’t like to speak of her.

“Lucy,” Sarah Laine repeated. “What was she doing? Building sand castles? Collecting wind?”

“She’s pinning butterflies,” Madeline said. “I help her chloroform them.” Absently, she twisted a piece of lace on the side table. Just as quickly, it lay flat in place again.

“So it’s spring,” Rose whispered conspiratorially. “There will be dances!”

“I’m eleven,” Madeline reminded her.

“But they’ll let you go, and look at the dresses.” Her young grandmother had a voracious appetite for the eternally-changing details of fashion.

“Madeline.” Her father stood in the door of the Century Room, tall and straight as a flagpole, his mouth almost hidden by his well-kept beard, his intelligent gray eyes watery with drink.

“Richard,” Sarah Laine said. “How good to have you.”

In the wing chair, Robert dropped the newspaper to his lap. “Hello, Dick.”

“I hear it rained this morning,” Rose offered.

As he did every night, Madeline’s father crossed the room, took his daughter in his arms, and carried her out, pretending not to hear the voices that rose around him.

*

Madeline had seen her father address the ghosts only once before, almost six years ago, about a week after her mother’s death. Her family’s ghosts and their properties had become part of her life at such an early age that they were simply a fact to be negotiated, like the weather-not a topic for thought or debate. Freed finally from the unfamiliar circus of the wake, funeral and burial, Madeline’s steps had turned toward the Century Room that evening out of habit, not from any hope.

But when her father appeared in the door a few moments later, scanning the room with a sickening mix of lover’s impatience and horror, Madeline was frozen by a new thought: he was looking for her mother.

Sarah Laine had smiled cruelly.

“Where is she?” her father demanded, crossing to the fireplace to stand before her.

Sarah Laine didn’t answer.

Madeline’s father raised his hands to catch her shoulders, but Sarah Laine only swayed faintly, like a piece of cloth so threadbare that even wind can’t catch it. His fingers closed on nothing.

“Have you seen her?” Madeline asked Sarah Laine eagerly.

“Please,” her father said, begging.

With enormous grace, Sarah Laine had turned away.

*

In Madeline’s room, her father laid her gently on her bed and pulled the lace cover over her with equal parts care and clumsiness, although both of them knew she would need to crawl out from under them after he left, to dress. He never spoke while doing this. But tonight he asked, “Are you warm enough?”

Surprised, Madeline nodded.

Her father took an inventory of the room’s shadows with the watchfulness of a man accustomed to seeing them take shape. He searched for his daughter’s hand under the fine covers, found it, and pressed it through the fabric.

Then he went out.

*

Among the ghosts, death was the only obscenity. Like any obscenity, the deaths of others were gleefully reported, while the details of a ghost’s own death were carefully guarded. This was true even for the children. When Madeline was seven, she had been struck by a sudden curiosity when playing marbles on the oriental rug with her cousin Bernard, who had died at age seven almost a hundred years ago. Bernard, like all the other children, lacked the substance of the adult ghosts. He seemed to Madeline like a movie begun before the house lights were brought down: shadows and faint splashes of color that barely added up to a pale face with huge dark eyes under a mop of straight dark hair that was constantly disappearing into the spines of the leather books behind him.

“You’re seven, too,” Madeline had said, holding a glassy sea green shooter between her thumb and forefinger, like a god momentarily forgetful of a new world she had just called into being.

Bernard nodded warily. She had beaten him at marbles now three times running. This could well be some kind of trick.

But she continued with complete innocence. “Then you must have died when you were seven,” she reasoned. “What happened?”

In an instant, Bernard was on his feet. With one swift kick, the marbles scattered in every direction. Then he turned on his heel and disappeared into the charred stone of the cold chimney.

*

Still, the stories trickled down to her. Some she overheard when two ghosts gossiped together: the eerie accuracy with which Robert had predicted the day of his own passing. Other ancestors who had died of cholera, of heartache, of old age.

The only death which was never mentioned was Sarah Laine’s. She was young, that was clear. Although Madeline would never have dared to ask her age, her figure was still trim, her eyes clear, her hair richly blonde, her back straight. Madeline’s own Aunt Lucy was thirty-eight, she knew, and to Madeline, Sarah Laine and Aunt Lucy looked to be about the same age. If anything, Aunt Lucy might be older: more lines marked her face, and in recent years, Madeline had often plucked strands of gray from her aunt’s thick auburn hair as her aunt leaned over her maps or insects or Japanese paper.

It never even occurred to Madeline to ask another ghost about the manner of Sarah Laine’s death. Even when she wasn’t visibly present, it was clear that she could hear everything. So Madeline asked Aunt Lucy instead, from the safety of her perch on the green lacquered stool. “How did Sarah Laine become a ghost?”

Her aunt didn’t even look back from the needle she was threading. “We’re all ghosts, honey,” she said. “It’s just that some of us haven’t left our bodies yet.”

*

The next morning, her father was gone.

Madeline understood at once. During the first few weeks, she played along out of politeness with her aunt’s assurances that he’d return any day. As summer took the stage from spring, her aunt stopped promising.

Madeline turned twelve that June. Aunt Lucy began to leave her alone in the evenings, to take vaguely described journeys to neighboring houses or the small town that sparkled almost a mile below, at the foot of the long slope their home was perched on. She returned with gifts for Madeline: ribbons, smashed pieces of cake and wilted bouquets, all presented with the sheepish smile of a woman past her prime struggling to recall her own age. None of her offerings made any impression on her niece.

The ghosts had noticed no change in Madeline: the first sign that led her to suspect that they were not her friends. She was thinner. She smiled less. On rare occasions, her eyes were red. Inevitably, the ghosts repeated the same stories and requests. Still, they were her only companions. Each night, terror of the house’s empty rooms, devoid of all souls but her own, drove her back to the Century Room.

*

One night, after Aunt Lucy had left her for the evening, Madeline entered the Century Room to discover her father standing just inside the door, as if he had been waiting for her.

She realized what had happened before she even reached for him.

“How did you die?” she asked quietly.

“Madeline,” he said, kneeling down beside her. “I want you to leave this house. Do you understand? Tell Aunt Lucy, but you go even if she won’t.”

Madeline didn’t ask him where because she knew he wouldn’t have an answer. When she didn’t respond, her father tried to take her shoulder, but his hand only pushed through it, giving her a deep thrill of sorrow.

“Do you hear me?” he asked.

“How did Sarah Laine die?” she whispered.

For what might have been the first time in his life, her father looked at her with full recognition. “She’s a suicide,” he said, after a moment. “She can’t remember why.”

As he said this, the fire in the great fireplace winked out, as if clapped suddenly between two giant hands. The flames of candles in the chandelier and wall lamps grew to enormous height, long bands of fire streaking up through the ceiling and into the night. Books began to tumble from the highest shelves. The curio cases shattered. Figurines and shards of glass began to spin through the room in several small tornadoes. Her father vanished. The furniture moaned in agony. Behind her, Madeline could hear the door scraping closed .

She darted back down the dark hall into the den, where a pair of candles burned on the mantel. She yanked the curtains from the windows, dragged them onto the rug, and dropped the candles onto them. Then she stepped into the front hall. On the table by the door, her aunt had displayed the blue and black butterfly under its glass dome. Carefully, Madeline gathered it against her ribcage and went out, leaving the front door open.

When she was halfway down the hill to town, she turned back. Great columns of light shot up into the night from the Century Room, which belched white smoke. Orange flame leapt greedily from all the windows of the den, and eager outliers had already begun to caress the frames of the windows above them. The front door was still a gaping patch of darkness.

Inside the butterfly’s dome, something tapped on the glass. Madeline shuddered and lost her grip on it. For a moment she scrabbled blindly in the wet grass. When she lifted the dome to the moonlight again, the butterfly’s dark wings beat frantically inside.

She smashed the glass against a stone and the butterfly rose between the jagged sides and vanished in the night.

by Carey Wallace

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Categories: Insecta Tags:

The Strangers Club

November 11, 2006 3 comments

“I wish I could stop dreaming,” the bartender said moodily.

As it had all afternoon, light rain tapped without much interest on the high, narrow windows above the rows of colored bottles, windows that, by night, went almost invisible, given away only by faint stars, to anyone who dared look that high.

Ina was alone at the bar in the otherwise empty club, the only place in town which had yet begun to feel familiar to her. This was the first time the bartender had spoken to her in hours.

“I’m sorry?” she said, warily.

“I wish it would stop raining,” the bartender repeated, like a man with a long practice in wishing for things he knew he would never see.

*

A new spy, working for the first time, has all the same advantages as a newly minted coin, or a blank page: no identifying features, no marks or blemishes, and, most important, no history. For that single assignment, a new spy is still what every other spy strives for the rest of their lives to be: nobody.

For a handler, the moment is enormously tempting. To send an unknown into a foreign embassy, a rebel group, a smuggling ring, to send someone who, even in the course of their true history, might actually be a cleaning girl, a student at the university, a country boy looking for work on the docks of a strange city, unrecognized by anyone they meet, is a rare opportunity. In most cases, however, the rarity of the chance is balanced with the new spy’s lack of experience, and the risk both to them, and to any significant operation, should they fail their first test.

But now and then, someone takes the chance.

*

Alex Arlin was responsible, depending on which reports she read, for the deaths of hundreds or thousands of men. Ina’s government understood that. In some cases, he had actually acted in cooperation with them. They weren’t interested in vengance, or even simple punishment.

They were interested in a secret.

It wasn’t Alex Arlin’s secret. It was a woman’s—a dead woman’s. But Alex Arlin, who had been seen making a visit to her apartment in the week before her death, almost certainly knew it. In fact, at that point, it would have been almost impossible for her to keep hidden. What nobody knew was whether or not he had understood the significance of what he had seen.

The woman, before her death, had masterminded the theft of one of the government’s most cherished experiments. After her passing, no trace of it had been found among her things. There was a chance that the experiment had failed, at the mercy of an amateur, in which case there might, in fact, be nothing left to it. But if it had fallen into other hands, it could prove deadly to the innocent, and dangerous to the nation.

The experiment was a light, but an enormously bright one, contained without an obvious energy source or filament in a glass jar about the same size as a quart of peaches. Because of its strength, and the heat it generated, disguising it completely would have been dangerous, if not impossible. What was its purpose? That wasn’t relevant to her assignment, Ina was told. A light that bright had some obvious military uses. But, one of her handlers intimated, it was possible that President Rivi might simply have become interested in manufacturing his own stars.

In any case, if the device had been in the dead woman’s home when Alex Arlin visited, it must have attracted his attention, whether or not he understood what he was seeing.

Ina’s task: to make him tell her a secret he might not know he was keeping.

*

“A painter,” Alex Arlin repeated. By this time, he was an old man, but handsome, blue eyes bright in his sun-darkened face. A little less than half his black hair had gone true white, still curling despite the close cut. A broad scar shone on the back of his left hand, which at one time must have been cut almost in half.

Ina nodded.

“And you paint..?” When she didn’t go on, he added: “Lost horizons? Rain?”

She smiled. “It doesn’t always rain.”

“You are new here, aren’t you?” he said, nodding to the bartender as he placed a drink before her.

“I don’t know if I’m new, or just a visitor,” she said.

For the first time, she could see, she had his attention. Like any good spy, he looked away, now that he was interested. “That,” he told a blue bottle of gin, “may prove to be one of those enduring questions.”

*

Deliberately, she never asked him what had brought him to the city, in the same way that, until she kissed it, she never mentioned the scar on his hand. Was he a lover of art? Where had he traveled?

That first night, he told her the story of his earliest journey, as a young man, begun with his closest childhood friend, who had died on that trip, he told her, after falling three hundred feet down the side of a mountain, distracted by an indescribable sunset. Using rude torches and the sound of his own voice, Arlin had held off the mountain lions for that endless night, and at dawn begun to drag his friend back to the village at the foot of the mountain, a journey that would take him three days, the last parched with thirst due to his miscalculation of how much water he could afford to throw away in order to bear his friend’s weight.

Ina was fascinated. She had spent a week before her arrival immersed in his true history, and knew that the year he was now describing to her he had actually spent, along with several others, in the belly of a prison ship, the only imprisonment to which he would ever submit, and one which ended along with the lives of half a dozen sailors, who were unable to swim the short distance to land when the ship finally exploded.

The story he was telling her now, however, had none of a liar’s attention to detail or dramatic flair. He told it simply, even haltingly: an old man who had finally found someone to listen. Had some other old man told it to him once, at some other club, in a similar fashion? Had he heard it from another young man, even one of his victims, days after it happened? Or was it one of a hundred secret histories he might have created from the rags left to him in his own mind, while he was trapped in the belly of that ship?

“And did you leave him there?” she asked, when he seemed to have finished.
“I had to,” he said.

For a long moment, the two of them gazed at each other, without speaking.

*

“Ina,” Petren broke in breathlessly. “Will you dance?” Petren was a soldier, from her country, too tall for his uniforms, with eyes as big as a child’s, and still overjoyed, as he had been at their first meeting, weeks before, to see a girl from home in the foreign city.

The strangers club was just as it sounded: a club for any visitor or sometime resident of the city who didn’t belong in any of the more respectable establishments for various professions, military men, university graduates. Petren, of course, had a soldier’s club of his own, but since he had met Ina, her first night in the city, in the course of his long, blissful crawl through the town’s various watering holes, he had made a habit of returning to the strangers club, which welcomed all comers, to lead Ina tenderly and with great clumsiness through national dances neither of them really remembered, after which he would cling to the bar, and wax nostalgic about the girls, the skies, the bread of the country they had left.

This time, Ina hesitated. At once, Petren noticed the old man, and, with a drunken southerner’s decorum, raised his hand to his head, a gesture of respect.

“No, of course,” Alex Arlin said. “Please, dance.”

Ina glanced at him, but he was looking, not at her, but at the young soldier, measuring him with disinterested but chilling precision.

Quickly, as if throwing herself in the line of fire, Ina rose to take Petren’s hand, and led him through the maze of cheap tables scattered between the bar and the dance floor.

*

Moments after she took her accustomed seat at the bar the next evening, one of the girls whose bright dresses flashed turquoise, emerald, silver, gold, red, like rare birds among the drab crowd, appeared at her elbow.

“Mister requests you join him,” she said.

For a moment, the two of them regarded each other. The girl couldn’t have been older than seventeen, her skin and features flawless beyond her blue dress, her eyes already dead.

Then Ina inclined her head, and the girl pointed.

Arlin had taken one of the cavernous half-moon red leather booths, obscured from view by great swags of gray velvet, lit only by a small but dauntless candle which cast gargantuan shadows over the dark paneling. The booths lined the back wall, until they were interrupted by the dance floor, which ran on up to the stage that occupied the far corner. From his booth, Arlin could see everything: the bar, the dancers, the diners, the door, and the crowd, of less than a hundred, most faces, even after a few weeks, already familiar to Ina: the professor; the prospector; the ambassador’s son; the disgraced theologian and his plain young assistant; the white-haired lesbian; the men of indeterminate business with their diamond pins; the pretty, ferocious boys; the eternal girls.

“I like to consider myself a patron of the arts,” Arlin said when she stood before him.

For the first time, she smiled at him; then, at his gesture, sat down.

Alone with him in the booth, she was suddenly overcome with the shyness of extreme youth. Struggling to regain herself, she gazed out at glittering brass instruments of the band, its strains slightly muffled by the velvet.

“You painted today,” Arlin said.

She nodded.

When she didn’t speak, he continued. “And what did you paint?”

“If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have to paint it,” she said, and looked back at him.

He glanced away, clearly displeased.

A smell like bourbon, lime, and smoke, which might have been his cologne, hung in the close air around the table. In the dim light, years dropped away from his fine face. His solid hands were scarred but still strong. One of the best ways to gain trust was to tell a secret of your own.

“It’s just the horizon,” she said. “In the afternoon. I say they came from my imagination, but they’re all the same: just the place I grew up in and haven’t gone back to.”

“You can’t, or you haven’t?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

With perfect assurance, he took her hand in both of his. A small blue flame lit up at the bottom of her heart, turning to gold as it brightened and spread, as if consuming paper.

*

The next day, she really did begin to paint, a vice she had never before indulged in, smearing a clumsy ocean horizon across a small canvas-covered piece of board she had found on the back shelves of the corner store, daubing in a gaudy sun, and then wiping the whole thing away with turpentine, leaving no evidence but the pigment caught in the crevices of the canvas.

That night, Arlin examined her hands. “Sky,” he guessed, at a crescent of pale blue that followed the curve of her cuticle.

She nodded.

He turned her palm over and found traces of grey. “The sea,” he said.

She shook her head. “No.”

On her other hand, he discovered the cadmium red of her unsuccessful sunset, and glanced up, in question.

“Flowers,” she said. “On the mountain.”

*

It was later that week that he began making confessions.

A young man from one of the continent’s southern states was seated alone at a table opposite their booth, just one of countless who would spend a night in the club’s embrace, before disappearing forever. Ina and Arlin had both gone silent watching him, caught by something in the way he watched the girls go by, eager but terrified, as if they were true angels, who might destroy him with a glance. In another life, Ina might have sat down with him, at least long enough to make sure he had a companion for the evening.

“Those die like men,” Arlin said.

Ina turned to him. “You’ve seen it?” she asked.

“A train full of them,” Arlin said, without reaching for his drink or her hand. “All fighting to push their friends through the windows.”

From her training, Ina knew this to be true. Hundreds of soldiers had died there, without ever reaching the front. She looked at him in astonishment, which she hoped he might mistake for innocence.

*

It became obvious to her almost immediately that these weren’t slips, or missteps on Arlin’s part: they were distinctly confessions, unbidden by her, often unconnected to the thread of their conversation. He offered them without apology or explanation, but with details so lucid that in the few cases that his accounts conflicted with her government’s intelligence, she was inclined to doubt it and not him.

He was haunted by faces and hands. Again and again, he named them: a face emerging from the smoke, only to fall back again, or framed in the flash of a blast before it vanished forever; hands clinging to wood or metal, even as blood seeped from them, or guns, flags, cigarettes dropping from them.

Sometimes the stories filled in gaps in his known history: a summer he spent in a room he’d carved from ice on the other side of the world; a network of treehouses in the vast forest that spread south of her country’s capitol; a one-man submarine he’d commissioned over all the engineer’s protests, which accounted for a decade of his disappearances, before it was scuttled or stolen by a pack of children from the docks of a neighboring nation.

He told her these stories as if she were made of stone, simply naming the events, as if at the request of some unseen questioner: a list of crimes so audacious that they would have made him a hero had they been committed in the service of any single nation.

Every few days Ina began another imaginary painting, chose between dawn and sunset, second-guessed herself, began again. Then the two of them sank into silence, watching the small world of the club spin by beyond the velvet.

And then, each evening, he kissed her eyes and left.

*

Ina never stayed long after him. In those small hours, alone on the starlit streets, she saw and heard all kinds of things she couldn’t be sure were real: the shadows of cats which turned to children and then, in an instant, back again; women in white who seemed to glow like the dead; flocks of angels or birds which blotted out the moon but were gone in the instant it took her to look up at them, and footsteps that seemed to follow her everywhere she went.

Back in her apartment, she tuned her radio in the dark to the proper station, decoded the instructions in her head, and then, at random, listened to the gentle voices of the children reading strings of numbers over the shriek or whine of noise codes in other languages.

*

When she awoke, Arlin sat in the winged chair at the window, as featureless as a shadow against the blinding sunlight that poured through the glass behind him. A dead man lay on the floor beside her, his throat neatly sliced, his hands clenched like claws in the rigor of early death, his blood an even oval on the pale wood beside him.

Ina observed him unflinchingly, then sat up and looked at Arlin.

“What do you want from me?” he asked.

“Anna Poe,” she said. “The light in her apartment.”

“I helped her take it to the roof,” he said. “I imagine it’s still there.”

“Thank you,” Ina said.

Arlin rose to stand beside her bed, and reached over the dead man to cup her face in his hand. “I didn’t kill her,” he said. “I haven’t killed anyone for years.” He dropped his hand and looked down at the dead man. “You might call him one of my—loyalists.”

“He told you,” Ina guessed.

Arlin shook his head. “I recognized it,” he said. “As soon as we met.”

Ina’s heart awoke suddenly, beating at twice its normal speed, as if it alone might be able to save the rest of her body.

By now, Arlin was at the door. “You can take care of this?” he asked, glancing down again.

Ina nodded, holding her hands and face steady with enormous effort.

Arlin smiled faintly. “You’ll do fine,” he said.

by Carey Wallace

Categories: First Time Tags: