anyway, the first part of the story remains available for all who wish to catch up from there. for now, we'll start anew.
and yes, it does occur to me that i'm going to feel pretty stupid reading that first line come january, but i really don't want to think about that.
Julian gives her a long look and rocks her head back and forth in his hand. She can’t decide if he’s studying her reactions or trying to figure out the fastest way to snap her neck. Maybe both.
“Tell me something,” she snaps, grabbing his hand at the wrist. She feels his fingers tighten in her hair.
“Do you think he knew what he was opening up?”
“I think he thought he was writing a history text. I don’t know what he’s opened up but I know there’s something you’re not telling me.”
“Do you think it was a mistake, letting him in?”
Adela shakes her head, trying to loose his grip to no avail.
“How can it have been a mistake when they got away with something? They didn’t suffer any repercussions from any of this.” Every time she tries to twist or jerk away from him, it seems he’s able to get a tighter grip. She can’t imagine that they’re unseen and unheard. Perhaps this is normal behaviour for the Schooner Bar.
She throws her upper body weight against his arm, thrusting them both back against the back of the semicircular both. She can smell the mold trapped inside, tries to hold her breath to keep it at bay.
“You were the one who wanted to meet tonight,” she hisses. “You were the one who brought the damn book up to begin with. And now you’re treating me like I’m doing something wrong by follow the bread crumbs you keep laying out. I don’t care if I’m not able to turn up anything, but I’m getting fed up with you taunting me along and then pretending like this is all something that’s happening in my imagination.”
Julian slumps beside her, his silvery eyes dead in the bar’s dim light, as if he’s vacated the premises. He stares at her, or rather through her, for what seems like an interminable amount of time. When he finally moves, it’s with an unexpected gentleness that he pulls her close to him and holds her like she imagines one might hold a child, or a precious relic, something fragile and treasured.
“If you were to grant that all of it was a diabolical plan, you’d have to say that Meyrinck is an interesting anomaly. All the others dead and accounted for. How difficult would it have been for a group powerful enough to engineer all those seemingly explicable deaths to track down and kill one man, a man whose roots and history were well known to them. Once you’ve started down the ladder of conspiracy you have to follow its rungs logically. And it makes no sense that all the others could be so quickly and easily accounted for and the last simply allowed to fade into the ether of time. If I were Cronos, I wouldn’t be able to rest until I satisfied myself that he was dead or alive. And if I were investigating Cronos, I wouldn’t consider my research complete until I satisfied myself on the same point.”
With that, he finally relaxes his grip and slumps back against the grubby upholstery. She can see that he’s lost weight since she first saw him, but her mind, in its perverse way, insists on taunting her with the idea that he has lost weight since earlier that day, that he is growing thinner, drawn during the time that they have been sitting together in the booth.
Wearily, he stands up and stares at her, without ever looking in her eyes. “I can’t say I wasn’t warned,” he says wanly.
He shakes his head. “I hope you find what you need, Adela.”
He coughs, a huge, barking chest-heaving cough and wanders out of the bar. The elderly patrons turn their watery eyes towards him as they sense movement, but are quickly drawn back to contemplating the flat, tasteless beer dished out here.
For her part, Adela sits in the booth, trying to decide what to do. She feels cut off here, abandoned, intimidated by the lack of familiarity. Black and white photos, some turned a sickly yellow with age, adorn the walls. Smiling faces of strangers, others here in happier times, when there might have been more to get excited about here. She hates the thought of stepping back outside, into the seedy surroundings and the unfamiliar. She hates being in this place, with its air of imminent collapse. Most of all, she hates the idea of moving, of bringing herself closer to any of the ugliness she sees around her and so she sits, shriveling ever smaller into the patchy velveteen with the funky aroma. It’s the kind of smell she reacts to now, the kind of smell that makes her gag just a little. The scent of bad scenes from which Adam and her uncle have pulled her. This is the kind of place she knows they would not want her to be and the kind of place she doesn’t like to be either. But she’s ended up in them before, always of her own choosing, waiting for that moment when the knights in shining armour arrive.
Slowly, Adela gathers up her oversized purse and shuffles towards the door. She is almost certain that the bartender watches her with an inappropriate intensity, as if he expects her to pull out a gun and rob the place of its few shekels, or as if to catch a glimpse of where she’s going.
The sun has settled far enough down that only its echoes are visible, rose and tangerine light still rippling across the evening cloud cover, arching about the sighing, weary houses nearby. The fading light has changed the neighbourhood, or at least changed the way it feels to Adela, hesitating a block away from the Schooner bar. What looked shabby and dilapidated earlier is now murky black, unified, menacing. With all the cars speeding through, she can’t see a single cab, nor does she have the faintest idea how to get herself out of this area. Few human forms move around her, although she knows they must be there. The radium glow of television sets flickers from a few windows, but it seems abandoned, traffic simply barreling through on its way to more hospitable areas. She’s very conscious of her own raspy breathing, quickening little by little, aware of the pressure of her fingers on the edges of her notebook.
Trying to calm herself, she grabs her phone in the hopes of finding some electronic directions, at least the first steps she should take to find her way home. As she attempts to enter the street name single-handed, still clutching her book, a shadow sweeps up around her, shaking her away from the street and the waning sun and throwing her into a strange, dark chamber with a sharp white light blasting from the side. Her instinct is to try to block the light, which keeps her from seeing anything else and at the same time, she does not want to reveal that she is holding a notebook in her hand.
The shadow is a living thing, it’s body forming the chamber, huge leathery wings closing around her in a way that seems familiar, being folded back into a pre-eternity, swallowed back into a black womb. She can feel it shudder and breathe but cannot see its face, only the passing sparkle of its demonic black eyes as it leans in towards her, exhaling its hot, fermented scent against her face. She can see just enough of its chalky face to be frightened by its tortured, damned expression and she cries out weakly.
“You need to understand,” the Demon whispers, beginning to dissolve around her, “you’re in terrible danger.”
And as he speaks, the force goes out of him, his wings become shadow and his body recedes into human shape, Julian Baker, anguished eyes pulling at her.
Adela wants to ask him what he means. She wants to ask him why he chose to frighten her with this strange shape-shifting trick, why he didn’t simply tell her when he had the chance, but she can feel how little it matters. He is right. She has brought danger on herself and others, without meaning to or knowing how.
“Come with me,” he pants, “we need to get out.”
He’s pushing her towards the light, towards his car, stopped crazily half up on the curb, lights still on, engine still running, guiding her like a wayward child.
“Hey, you OK?” grunts a male voice from a short distance off.
Adela’s aware of new forms, shadowy figure lurking in the gloom, bodies moving as if bracing for a fight. Julian emits a low, gravelly sound from his chest.
“I said, you OK?” the voice booms.
Julian’s arm slides around her, wraps over her arm so that his hand presses down on the hand with her notebook in it.
“I’m being robbed!” Adela shrieks, twisting violently.
“It’s OK,” Julian interjects, sounding more desperate than she does.
“Man, you better just back off,” another man’s voice growls threateningly. “Take your hand off the lady and back the fuck off.”
“I said it’s nothing,” Julian insists, but complies nonetheless.
“And I said back up, asshole.”
Adela doesn’t wait, simply bolts down the street, moves at top speed for as long as she can, twisting her path at random, men’s voice and traffic sounds chasing after her until she feels herself come crashing through a clear wall, feels herself come out of the space where she has been trapped, a new world opening around her. She wanders deliriously into it, aware of the change but unsure what to think until she’s frozen by a blaring noise out of nowhere.
The car swerves by her, horn still sounding, more voices pouring out at her, angry voices. She’s standing in the street, traffic is flying in many directions and she’s wandered out into it. It would be safer to move backward, she’s less than halfway across, but instead, she pushes ahead- more noise, more voices, more squealing tires, until there it is, where the land drops away below her feet. The ocean. She’s reached the edge of the earth and slides down the rough embankment towards it to rest on the sand.
The traffic still grinds angrily overhead, but it is away from her now. Momentarily safe, her first instinct is to scratch at the sand, to dig a hole and bury the notebook inside, cover it up and waiting for the tide to take it, to destroy it, to erase what has been said and thought and done and to make everyone safe again. She sits next to the rough grave to await the tide, unwilling to risk leaving it to any passing scavengers or agents who might have followed her this far. Wings flap overhead, prepared to descend on her at any moment, circling and waiting for their opportunity. She needs to wait them out.
There is sand everywhere in her, in her skin, her eyes, her hair, not the fine white sand that she remembers from the tropics years ago, but dirty, salty grit, the sand of the city, of this city where she’s found herself, this city that wants to harm her with its secrets.
Did I ask to know?
She can’t remember. Can’t remember how all this came to pass, how her life has suddenly started to slide apart when it seemed so solid. It was Adam. Adam some how brought this on with his travels and his absence and, at the same time, by his monotone presence. But why? How does Adam, who isn’t even here, bring her to an abandoned corner of beach, waiting for the tide?
She knows where the answers are. The answers, those that she has, are beside her, buried alive. She can hear them still moaning, still calling out, still wanting to be complete and she sympathises with the desire.
This is stupid, she reassures herself. I need them.
“Even if you forget,” a doctor has told her sometime ago, “you can’t un-know. It’s all in there somewhere.”
Lazily, Adela paws at her makeshift grave until she finds her book, sullied but still in tact, still bearing the knowledge she has inside her but cannot access. She would like to sit here with her book, waiting for the tide and the sun to show her what to do, but no longer be frightened, she’s aware that this simply isn’t safe. The embankment, so easy to descend in a few seconds, has no path up and so, at length, she stands and starts to make her way long the side of the shore. And the sand becomes rocks, wet rocks that slow her pace to nothing and the rocks sometimes give way so that she has to jump to avoid the water, tugging at her and daring her.
This is it. She’s crossed over and she knows it. The water teases death but she could wander into it and she would float back to land. The cold and rawness in her hands, the spray wearing away the skin on her face, she’s felt those before, wandering at night, wandering in the places that only she can go, before others come to corral her and bring her back to the familiar. She could lay back on the water, holding the book of her mind on her chest and she would be borne to safety and isolation, far away under a sky of indigo and ice green, a perpetual aurora borealis, where everything happens in the distance. And as the stones recede to pebbles recede to sand again, she wonders.
“Lady? Lady are you all right?” It’s a young man, a curious, elfin-looking girl alongside and holding his hand, trying to keep pace with her as she makes her way, bedraggled and dripping, along the shore. “Do you need help, miss?”
Being unsure of them, Adela keeps moving, keeps staring ahead, knowing that the shoreline must eventually take her close to something she knows. It’s night now and the wind off the ocean has picked up. Chilled to the bone, she simply keeps walking until the young couple gives up the chase. Perhaps she does need help, but it’s too late now.
The sand widens, allowing her finally to walk in something dry, but she sinks and slips and it slows her terribly, lets more of the cold get at her, into her, until her legs are so heavy, she has to sit. And sitting is no better, with her legs still wet and her hands and face still exposed. And there is nothing to do but sit and wait for strength to return to her. She’s aware of whispers, whispers and eyes at her back, but she needs to conserve herself, so that she can begin to walk again. Even her own shivering is sucking energy out of her, energy she needs to make it home. Perhaps she does need help.
“Help me,” she pleads in a ruptured voice, “help me.” To no one in particular. “I think I need help.”
The white moon is there, high in the sky now, pulling the waters below, in which direction she cannot tell. Out, perhaps? Although it seemed like it was coming in just a few minutes earlier? Or an hour? How long has she been here, sitting just in this place, hearing the languid waves slap on the shore. Isn’t the water further than it was? But wasn’t she walking in it a moment ago? The moon is high, it’s late, much later than when she started. But how much later?
Well if you need help, she thinks to herself, call someone. Get someone to come and find you. This is her sharp, practical voice, the voice her mind uses to tell her how to get out of trouble, the voice that comes out when she’s been very, very bad or very, very stupid.
Fine, practical Adela. Where exactly do I tell them to come? And the voice is silenced, as it always is when it has run out of answers.
How the hell did I even get here?
“Is that her again?” comes a very sweet voice on the wind.
Two people, a young couple, both blond and attractively windblown approach from the edge of the water. They look down at Adela, the man bending over to look into her frozen eyes.
“Yeah, it is.” He waves a hand in front of her face. Adela doesn’t want to waste the energy it would take to raise her head, but she dully flicks her eyelids up at him. “What should we do?” He turns his head to the girl as he says this. “I don’t think she wants us here.”
“Ryan, she’s hurt,” the girl answers insistently, motioning towards Adela.
Adela is not hurt. She doesn’t remember getting hurt. Rather, she hurts everywhere, but in no way that other people should be able to notice. What can this girl see?
Ryan, the boy, squints in that way people do when they try to come up with a solution. “Well we can call 911 or we can try to take her somewhere ourselves.”
“You mean like a shelter?”
Ryan shakes his head. “No, I don’t think she’s homeless, Jen. Look at what she’s wearing. And that bag- my dad got one like that for my stepmother for her birthday. Cost a fortune.” He crouches in front of Adela and reaches as if to touch her, but she pulls back. “We don’t want to hurt you or anything, but is there some place we can take you?”
Adela shakes her head, although she might need help. If she can just rest and stay completely still, she’ll be strong enough to walk.
“That thing on her head looks pretty bad,” he says to Jen.
Jen leans in towards Adela, studying her. “Wow, yeah.”
“OK, miss, it looks like you got hit on the head with something. Do you remember that?”
Hit on the head? Thing on my head? Adela stares back, wanting more information. Of course she doesn’t remember, but how would he know that?
“Call 911,” Ryan says quietly. “Miss, we’re gonna call emergency so they can take you to the hospital, OK? I think you might have a concussion.”
Adela nods slowly, not that it matters, because Jen is already on her phone. How did this happen again? Ryan looks sympathetically back at her, but backs off slightly, giving her a little more space. Adela would like to stand and run away, but she knows her body couldn’t do it. Besides, she’d like someone to take her home. She’d like to be in her bed again, her overstuffed bed, looking at the moonlight shivering on the glass in the overhead light fixture in the same way that it reflects off this boy’s eyes.
“Adela, what the hell happened?” Lloyd’s mouth hangs open a little as he finishes the question.
“I haven’t looked in a mirror yet, is it that bad?”
“Well it’s not good.”
Adela’s lids are heavy, so heavy she can barely see Lloyd standing a few feet away. He looks like a cutout, a paper doll like she remembers playing with- when exactly? She drops her feet to the floor and slowly starts to push herself away from the hospital gurney.
“Hang on, hang on,” Lloyd mutters, swooping in to steady her. “You’ve had quite a night.”
“They drugged me,” she says bitterly.
“They gave you something to calm you down a little and so that you won’t feel the pain.”
“I can feel pain.”
“Yeah, so imagine how you’d feel without the drugs.”
“Did they tell you what happened?”
“As much of it as they know. Some young couple was hanging out on the beach and they saw you come walking out of the water near the cliffs. An hour or so later, they’d decided to take a walk and while they were walking, they found you again, sitting on the beach.”
“I remember being on the beach.”
“They said they couldn’t get you to talk and you looked pretty out of it, so they called an ambulance.”
“Is there something on my head?”
“A bandage. Right now I’m wondering if there’s anything in your head. People die on those cliffs every year. You have any idea how dangerous it is?”
“No I don’t, because it would never have occurred to me to go running around any ocean-side cliffs at any point in my life.”
“My book, my book, I had it with me.”
“You apparently got very frantic when they tried to take it off you. That’s part of the reason they decided to sedate you. Normally they don’t like to do that with head injuries, but they couldn’t get you to calm down any other way.” Lloyd gives her a questioning look. “Your notebook is in your purse.”
Think. She wants to remember. The drugs make her brain sluggish, more sluggish and unwilling than ever. She was on the beach with her notebook and then what? Or what before? “I was scared by something. I was getting chased by something.” Lights shooting at her from the dark, blaring lights. “I really don’t know.”
“You went to meet Julian Baker. Do you remember that?”
Adela smiles and starts to nod, but then fades. She doesn’t remember it. She so desperately wanted to that just for a minute, it all seemed perfect. “Who’s Julian Baker?”
Lloyd starts. “Man, they really did give you a load of those things.”
“I forget things.”
“You’ve been better lately.”
“Have we known each other so long?”
“Adela, do you know who I am?”
At last she can smile. “You’re Lloyd from the record store.”
“Well… small victories.”
“Did I call you?”
“Yes. You wouldn’t let them call for you, either. You were apparently quite adamant that if anyone was going to wake me up at four in the morning, it was going to be you.”
“Four in the morning? Jesus, is it that late?”
“No. It’s after five now.”
“Oh, Lloyd, I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK. I’m glad you called.” He hooks an arm around her waist and the two of them move slowly to the door. “Too bad.”
“That I got hurt?”
“That you probably weren’t in any shape to write things down. I’d love to know what actually happened.”
“Mmm… Me too.”
She has to check her address twice in the cab on the way home. The third time she reaches for her book, Lloyd politely asks if he can hold it and, with surprising unease, she surrenders it. For the moment, she doesn’t want to be burdened with it. Let him carry it for a while, until he can get her home, until he can get them to a place where they are both safe.
Lloyd insists on paying for the taxi when they arrive, but makes no move to get out.
“Would you like to come in? I can make some coffee.”
His lips mouth imperceptible words, but at length, he just says, “Thanks, but I have to go home and shower before I open the store. Don’t want to be frightening people off with my masculine pheromones.”
Adela laughs as best she can. Even her face muscles seem stiff and reticent. Inside, she’s relieved, which she hopes does not show on her face. People have been around her for hours, prodding at her, talking at her, talking about her. Alone seems just fine now. Perhaps Lloyd can tell.
“Wait,” he says as she goes to close the door and thrusts her notebook at her. “You’ll want this.”
As he presses the book into her hand, she feels two of his fingers press quickly, tightly against hers.
“Get some rest and call me when you feel a bit better.”
And with that, he slides away into the misty morning light and Adela is at home again. It takes her minutes of fumbling through her purse to get her keys, not only because her fingers feel the effects of the drugs, but because they seem to be swollen quite stiff, covered in scrapes and cuts. Despite the painkillers, she knows that this hurts.
As she clumsily gets the key in the lock, the door on the other side of the vestibule opens creakily and she is suddenly face to face with a bright-eyed old woman, hunchbacked with age but still strangely vibrant.
“Oh good morning,” she says pleasantly. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
Adela shakes her head, unable to remember ever seeing this woman before.
“Did you have an accident?”
Reflexively, Adela touches the bandage on her head. “Yes,” she answers quietly. “I was at the beach and I slipped on some rocks.”
“Oh dear,” her neighbour answers emphatically. “Are you OK now?”
Adela nods. “Just a few bumps and bruises. Nothing serious.”
“Your friend was here yesterday, but you were out.”
Adela freezes for what seems like a very long time, trying to figure out who the old lady means. When had they met? Was Adam there? Nothing is cutting through the fog. Wherever they connected, it is completely lost to Adela now.
“Lovely man, really, so smart. He came in for tea.” The woman’s grey eyes sparkle with an almost coquettish expression. “Handsome, too.”
Adela tries to return the woman’s keen smile, but finds herself too tired to pretend she gets the joke. Nonetheless, the woman gives her a wink and very slowly starts to bend forward. It takes Adela a minute to realize that she’s trying to pick up the newspaper in front of her door. Hastily, Adela crouches to get it for her.
From inside the woman’s apartment, she can hear the swell of a tinny brass orchestra, something that sounds like it’s coming from a canister, something familiar, music she’s heard before. Even at the door, the volume is higher than Adela would keep it on her own.
“Thank you so much, dear,” the woman says touching her shoulder, “I’ve asked them to leave it on the bench so that I can reach it, but they almost never do.”
As Adela rises, the woman gives her another almost sly look. “I didn’t know when to tell him you’d be back, but he said that he’d drop by again soon.”
Adela nods and vigourously jostles her keys to get in her own apartment.
“Nice seeing you, dear,” the faded voice calls.
“Nice to see you too,” Adela answers, as politely as she can.
She retreats upstairs with purposefully heavy footfalls, wanting the woman to be aware of what she is doing, lest her behaviour, or this mysterious visitor, have cast some kind of suspicion on her. Her apartment seems unmolested, everything more or less as she expects it to be and yet she finds herself almost immediately ill at ease. Something, someone, has been in here in her absence, some strange person’s musk hangs over the place like a mist, she can sense it without even meaning to. It lingers despite the fact that, she quickly discovers, she’s left the bedroom window open, allowing a good breeze to cool the place down to a damp chill. She needs to leave a note for herself to close the window. Is that how a stranger got in? Or did her elderly neighbour let this supposed friend in to snoop around?
Don’t be silly, she chides herself, how would she have let someone in? She doesn’t have keys.
Other than their landlord, Adam and Adela have always had the same arrangement with their spare keys: Cronos offers a service so that their employees can deposit keys and, should they ever be locked out, someone is available twenty-four hours a day, every day, to come to their rescue. The service also finds reliable help- cleaning ladies, nannies, pet-sitters, people to do every sort of work one could want around the house- acting as the guardian for any participating employees’ homes. Adela has used this service since she first moved out, called them in the middle of the night in desperation, depended on them for every person who’s been contracted to come into her home. Never once has she felt nervous about the fact that Cronos has a copy of her house keys. Until now.
Instinctively, she checks to see where her copy of the mysteriously powerful book should be and finds it untouched. The pages remain crisp and there is no evidence of tampering.
“So if this book is so dangerous to them,” she asks herself, “why just let me have it, let me keep it so I can show it to everyone?” Assuming it was even Cronos who were in here. Assuming it was anyone.
“I need to rest,” she growls to no one in particular. She knows that what she really needs is to sleep, because these fears, these persistent fears of being invaded, of being violated without her knowledge, are the sorts of things her doctors have long told her are the result of not sleeping. They’re partly right, of course. She doesn’t think these things so much during those infrequent periods where she’s able to sleep. Then she dreams them.
She can hear the tinny music from downstairs give way to the morning news. Storms are the lead story today. Strange weather we’re having, over much of the country, warnings to people on how to secure their homes, warnings to others to abandon them. This seems strangely far away. These storms always affect other people’s houses.
She should call her uncle. It always seems like he has one house in the path of something. Perhaps it would help to show him that she remembers this. And what else would she tell him? That she’d been reading a secret exposé on Cronos? That Adam had abandoned her, possibly for another woman? That she had spent the night wandering around and been taken to an emergency ward by strangers? That last one, at least, would come as no real surprise.
Adela rummages through her drawers until she finds it among her stash of previous notebooks- the one he brought her in the hospital to get her started again, the one that he handed to her with that shamed, pitiful look that seemed so unlike him, that look that stays with her more than anything else in the months before or after.
“Here,” he’d said, suddenly shy of making eye contact, “they said you hadn’t been writing anything.”
Adam had been there, somewhere, perhaps even in the room with them, although she doubted it. She couldn’t imagine that he would have let Adam see him so cowed, let alone by Adela, who normally couldn’t have intimidated a fly. And even if he had, somehow, been comfortable showing this side of himself, he wasn’t pleased to have Adam around at all. Never had Adam seemed more like the unreliable hired help and Adela wonders if her time in hospital wasn’t extended in the hopes that Adam would simply go away.
“Get writing again,” he’d told her. “Don’t let them tell you what you’re thinking.”
Adela’s notes from this period are often so rushed and crammed in- a reflection of how little time she was given to herself and of her attempts to capture what parts she remembered from having ended up there, a dark space ending in what seemed like a sudden descent of raptors, wings flapping around her ears, claws pulling her away from the hole in which she’d run to ground.
During her time in recovery, she’d hidden her notebook at first, until finally, recorded in emphatic, darker print, her uncle had simply instructed the staff to cease bothering her about it. All her notes about new medicines they were trying and long conversations with doctors and therapists trying either to figure out what was wrong with her or make her believe that there was nothing particularly wrong with her. Frequent visits with her uncle. Less frequent, at least at first, visits with Adam.
A shrill alarm blasts through the voices and for a moment, Adela thinks her heart has stopped. It sounds again.
Another canine growl follows followed by the hissing sound of air and spittle sucked back through clenched teeth. The breaths are tense, heavy but too fast, a guard dog who spies an intruder.
Her accounts of these visits are brief, without detail, perfunctory at first. Later on, after she’d had her surgery, his visits and her notes on them grew longer. They talked about what they might do once she was released. Once again, there was a “we”, a vision of a shared future. When he’d first come to see her, there had been only a present and the idea of a past. After her operations, Adam came more often, until he eventually gathered her up and took her home, even as her uncle’s grey eyes whispered misgivings and safe haven in the background.
And this she somehow remembers as if it were real: a sense of floating home, carried on a cloud of opalescent wings, reflecting Spring colours like the sheen of a soap bubble. She moves with a lightness, a delicacy that is not hers, that takes all weight from her and bears her up, up so that she can barely keep her arm on Adam’s as he guides her home. The sky and the light and the scent of the world wrap in ribbons around her and carry her out of her stygian cloister on to a future free of…
Even now, knees bunched up and hands clasping an old journal as she sits in the geographical centre of her enormous bed, her mind does not want to remember. These unnerving places, like caves in her memory haunted by the rough crews drowned there, are things she can never figure out how to approach. Her memories, such as they are, sit in a rough pile, jagged edges cutting at one another and rubbing against her present.
They would have a fresh start, Adam reassured her in the hospital, her notes recording the pervasive sense of discomfort he showed. Yes, they had been fighting- he never tells her about what- and yes, she had run away, but they’d found her- he and her uncle- and now their proverbial slate could be wiped clean and they would start fresh. Adela, whose slate is perpetually being wiped clean, still doesn’t feel fresh. She can feel the accumulated damage of doctors and nurses prodding and poking and jabbing and cutting so that her insides feel like they are just great knots of scar tissue.
Things would be different, she notes Adam saying repeatedly, which is useless to Adela, who wouldn’t know better anyway. Things must have been bad to make her run, or she must have thought they were. Is telling her that these things will change his way of acknowledging that she might have had her reasons? She doesn’t know and no one seems to want to tell her, even her uncle who seems to wait for the word that he should pack her up and take her with him. Adela tries to record what she’s thinking, but can’t quite come up with it.
“Asked Joe if the people who I was with are OK,” she notes on one page. There is no indication that he gave a response, just a question mark hovering below it, traced over and over, in different pens, at different times. People she was with, who took her in and tried to help her live independently, not realizing the impossibility of the task. Unfocused memories of unlaquered faces gleaming in the summer light, but nothing else- no distinct features, no names, no specific place in geography. Everything imaginary and concrete is equally real to Adela, who writes that for all she knows they might have found her by a highway overpass eating her own hair for sustenance. But there is something of her honeyed memories, golden and sweet, that seems as if they might have been there. She dreams of a place hollowed out by fire, so hot the very air seems to combust. She dreams of her honeyed land as scorched earth and the radiant faces melted into smudgy charcoal. For weeks, this same dream gets recorded, alongside it regrets that her screams bring the night staff running with potions to soothe her fractured mind.
“Did you want to stay there?” she recorded Joe asking her.
No, she supposes she didn’t. She wasn’t one of the honey-people, no matter how hard they both tried to make her feel like one. Even with them there to reflect on her, she was brown and dirty and incapable of emulating their inner light. She wanted to feel that luminosity, wanted to nurture it in her as they did, but she had no spark. She stayed cold all the way through.
Or possibly not. She smiles and reclines into the embrace of a hundred thousand pillows. She was remembering. When had this become so easy?
Strange, though, that her uncle had asked. After he’d arrived to scoop her up and after she’d been confined to hospital, something in him had compelled him to being it up. Something in him was curious to know what she’d wanted on her own, wanted the reassurance that he hadn’t destroyed a real happiness. Whether she told him so or not, her notes following his question make it clear he did not. As much as she might have wanted to be in that place, as much as she admired its sweetness and pure perfection, she could never have said it made her feel at ease, which would have made her happy.
Below her lengthy explanation of this is a single line, traced over several times and crossed out almost as many.
“I couldn’t have kept it anyway.”
“It doesn’t make you any less of a woman,” Adam had reassured her. But Adela hadn’t ever felt like much of a woman to begin with. These new cat scratches of scars don’t change anything for her, although, she notes a few times in the weeks following her release from the hospital that she uses her surgery or her changes in medication in order to justify how irritated she gets when Adam fusses over her every cramp and ache.
“Why am I suddenly an invalid to everyone?” she scribbles in large, heavy letters on one page near the end.
As difficult as she might have been, Adam had stuck with her, had continued to take care of her and be her companion. Alone afloat her giant, tufted bed, Adela lights herself a cigarette and wonders about that and about the woman who’d answered the phone in his hotel room. Had he been playing around the whole time? Had there always been some unbearably sexy thing with a taunting, weary voice hovering on the side? It would have been easy enough, she knows, to sneak one past her, she who was oblivious to almost everything by nature. Even if she’d discovered a clue, she’d have forgotten it quickly enough.
Downstairs, she can hear the radio doling out the morning’s bad news. A great roar, a million voices shouting a single, incomprehensible phrase, follows seamlessly from the end of the hourly theme music. Adela closes her eyes and tries to focus on the explanation. Students protesting across Europe.
“… when a university investigation found that graduate students working as laboratory assistants had been used to administer tests later deemed to be unsafe and that this information was covered up by more than half a dozen universities for as long as ten years.”
Lab techs used as lab rats.
“Furthermore,” the crisp voice continues, “no one seems to be able to say for certain who authorized the tests, how many institutions were involved, or even when these specific tests may have been discontinued.”
Adela buries her face in her pillows, trying to avoid the mixed scent of sand and hospital clinging to her hair.
“Rescue workers have finally been cleared to enter the Indian town near Bangalore where an explosion at a chemical plant followed by a catastrophic failure of the facility’s containment procedures has exposed hundreds and possibly thousands of people to toxic gases.”
The world, Adela knows, is a dangerous, damaged place. She doesn’t want to imagine the faces of the people in that town. She doesn’t want to imagine the fates of the students, forced into unsafe work. She’d like to exist, just briefly, in a world limited to the confines of her apartment, where the most vexing problems are easily solved, even by her. She’d like to be able to ignore the fact that there is an outside world. The bed seems so comforting, such a natural place to hover in blissful stasis.
But the voices hammer away insistently through the floorboards. The bewildering search for a killer after the body of a young American turns up brutally murdered in Prague. The voices bray for her, not just for answers, but for her personally. Adela Landis needs to respond, because somehow she is responsible for all of this misery. Why else would they be so insistent she hear them?
The polished accent of a professional reporter articulates the latest facts: a young man’s body turned up in a street in Prague in the early hours of the morning days before. Even now that they know he was an American vacationing there, there is precious little information and the tension between boy’s family and the authorities is palpable. The shrill voice of the mama bird cuts to the forefront.
“Our son was not involved in any sort of criminal activity,” cries the bereft mother. “He was a good boy. He cared about the world, about all the people in it and he wanted to discover it first hand.”
“A collection of trinkets has been laid near the entrance of the café where Albert Salmon worked and today, a group of his friends gathered there to commemorate the short life of a young man filled with a passion to make the world a better place,” interjects the cold voice of a professional journalist aping sympathy. “One young woman, a friend since childhood, remembers that sense of justice.”
“Albert was never about what was going on in his life,” comes the tear-choked voice of a young woman, “he was all about how to make things better for other people. He just wanted to get to see everything and understand everything. He was starting an international relations program in the Fall and all he’d done since high school was work and travel to other places to get to know them. There is nothing he could have done to deserve this.”
“Jesus,” she mutters, reminded, as she always is, of one of her few childhood memories: an elderly woman assuring her adoptive mother that she was damned to Hell because of her strange mental defect. It’s a shard, out of context, because what kind of horrible person would even say that to a woman with a young child?
The phone shrieks again.
“Hello?” Her own voice is surprisingly raspy, as if she hasn’t used it in days. Is that possible? Has she been up here by herself for days? There is a long, noisy pause on the line before the person on the other end seems to snarl a little.
“Hello?” Adela repeats, a little alarmed. “Who is this?”
A distinct throaty growl, like a hideously distorted recording of a laugh, rises from the receiver. It’s a sound from a nightmare, something that’s crossed through the fog of the unconscious and into her previous safe bedroom.
“Who is this? What do you want?”
If Adela were someone else, she would assume it was some kid playing a prank and hang up. But there is nothing in the call that sounds like a prank, nothing that makes her think for a moment that this person isn’t calling to snarl at her.
And for a moment, they both stop, both hover in breathless silence, broken by a brisk rattle of a fist on the front door. Cautiously, Adela advances to the edge of the staircase and peers around the corner, barely cognizant of the raspy breathing that’s resumed in her ear, but all too aware of the rabbit-beat of her heart as she tries to deal with a two-pronged assault on her privacy.
Through the pebbled glass of the door, a shadowy figure raises his arm and raps again, firmly but not violently.
“I have to go,” Adela mutters distractedly into the receiver, realizing as she says it how bizarre what she is saying would seem to anyone watching.
She presses the release, but keeps the phone cradled in her hand as she crouches down, trying to make out the figure at her door. She’s certain it’s a man, which rules out Louise, whose wild wreath of hair would likely be recognizable even though distorted. It seems to tall and too squared in the shoulders to be Lloyd, who always seems to be a little slouched when she thinks of him. But how reliable is that? Faces, bodies, the forms of other human beings have a strangely malleable character in her mind, like warmed wax, shaped by the simple touch of trying to recall them.
There’s another muffled sound from downstairs, like voices shouting, but from a great distance and the stranger turns his head and responds. He’s having a conversation with the voices from the other side.
The neighbour. It hits her that he’s speaking to the neighbour, the old lady next door with the constantly blaring radio which accounts for the cacophony of voices. She’s spoken to the lady, recently. Before she went out? When she came back? Adela touches her head, which is aching and is surprised by the rough edges of the bandages that she’d forgotten.
The doorbell, more obnoxiously loud than the phone or the knocking, sounds.
It was this morning she talked to the old lady. It was when she got home and dragged herself upstairs. Her neighbour knows she’s here, which means that this stranger now knows that she’s up here, cowering in the shadows from his intrusions. Adela winces at the thought of how often she’s been like this, shrinking away from others, from the world as a whole, petrified and sniveling like a runt child, how it must irritate all those who have been forced to face the world for her. There’s no one else here now. And so she descends the stairs and opens the door slightly.
“You see,” comes the light, weakened voice of her elderly neighbour, “I knew she was at home.”
With the sunlight cracking through the fog behind the windows of the foyer, it takes a minute for Adela’s visitor to come into focus. At first, what she sees is a slender form, dark like ebony wood with bristly light hair. But it’s not what she sees that first strikes her as the immediate sense of familiarity and unease she feels. Some almost imperceptible scent curls off him like smoke and dusty leather and dead leaves, dry and acrid.
“This was your friend who was here yesterday,” the old lady explains sweetly.
Adela steps back a little from her door, but pulls it a little further open so that her eyes can draw a bead on the figure before her. And as she does, she feels herself grow even more puzzled at the angular, lantern-jawed smile of a longtime friend beams back at her. It is a face she knows, but not one that makes her feel like smiling. Rather she tilts her head in curiosity.
“Oh dear,” he says politely. “How on earth did that happen?”
“Poor thing hurt herself,” volunteers the neighbour. “down at the beach.”
Her guest smiles solicitously and nods to the door adjacent. “I’m glad I’m here to take care of things, then. Thank you again for the tea yesterday.”
Adela begins to back up the stairs as her apparent friend invites himself inside.
“Please,” he begins, holding his hand up as if to motion her to stop, “I’m sorry if you don’t remember meeting me.”
“I do know you,” Adlea responds dully, tightening her grip on the railing.
“You don’t remember my name, though.”
“My name is David. We met at Moebius. And at the restaurant upstairs. We had dinner together with my friends Chris and Daniel and your friend-“
“Louise.” Adela pictures herself drinking beer, two young men playing chess. Louise. “One of your friends- he and Louise…” Adela can’t think of a polite way to express it.
“Yes, although I promise you, he’s harmless to her.”
“Is he harmful to other people?”
“I suppose everyone is under the right circumstances.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel frightened?”
“No,” David answers quietly. “It’s the last thing I want to do. Quite seriously, he’s been trying to get a hold of Louise, but hasn’t been able to. He was worried he’d done something to offend her.”
“And he sent you to talk to me?”
David shakes his head again. “I assure you, I’m only here to speak to you. No ulterior motive whatsoever.”
Adela is still apprehensive, but also curious. “Come upstairs then.”
She turns and walks up herself, seating herself primly in one of the living room’s smooth velvet chairs. David glances at the sofa, but remains standing in the doorframe.
“Is your head OK?”
“Yes, I spent the night at the hospital, but they released me. I’m just a little banged up.”
“How did it happen?”
“I slipped on some rocks along the waterfront.” Uncomfortable talking about her midnight excursion on the beach, the mad, hallucinatory images flitting through her mind of what happened there, she adopts as firm a tone as she can muster. “But you came here to see me about something.”
“Yes, although I’m not quite sure where to begin.” For the first time, he looks slightly flustered, edgy. “I just… When I met you- when we first talked- I was quite impressed- you seem to know a lot…”
“I’m getting this all wrong.” He seems legitimately to be struggling to find words, like he’s speaking a foreign language. Something of Lloyd’s disdain for him, distrust of him, hovers in her memory.
“While you’re trying to get that figured out, can I ask how you knew where I lived?”
David smiles and seems to regain his footing. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you don’t remember that.”
A tight knot jerks into place in her stomach. “Remember what?”
“You were at Moebius by yourself one night. You’d had far too much to drink and possibly more than that. The bartender couldn’t get you to leave even after they’d closed- so I helped him get you home. I hope you’ll forgive me, but we had to check your wallet to get your address. I hadn’t realized who you were until then.”
“Who I was?”
“Adela Landis. I knew your first name, but I never connected it with your father. Or your uncle, I’m sorry- he is your uncle, right? Joe Landis?”
“Yes.” Adela wishes he’d sit down, if only so that she weren’t forced to look up at him like a student towards her teacher.
“Did you know I used to work for Cronos?”
“A lot of people have worked for Cronos over the years.”
“You’re avoiding the question, but fine, it was a bit pointless. Better for me to have said it straight: I worked for Cronos when I first came out of university. I was actually kind of a prize- top of my class as a metals engineer.”
“Cronos likes those sort of prizes. They get a lot of them.” Adela purses her lips, the way she’s seen other women do, expressing a sense of indulgent superiority. She’s already becoming lost in the thicket of this man’s conversation and she’s fairly certain he hasn’t come close to the difficult part yet. But perhaps pursed lips and slightly arched brows will be enough to fool him.
“That’s right, I forgot. You worked in the Human Resources department for a while.”
Adela feels her mask crack, feels as if something is literally breaking over her face, exposing the inside of her brain. Yes, it’s true, when she was very young, one of the jobs her uncle had given her was in the human resources department. She knows this, although she can’t remember what she was doing, for how long, or even exactly when it was. But when he says it, something in her knows it to be true.
“How… how did you know that?”
“I kept in touch with some people after I left. I understand that there were quite a few of them who were sort of fascinated by your charms… from a discreet distance.”
Adela shakes her head a little.
“I doubt it would be anyone you knew well. Just the sort of typical fascination with the boss’s daughter- or niece in this case. Although I suppose you were more like a daughter. Your story was kind of a company legend.”
“Well, there were people who had been there a long time and stories get passed down. And it’s an interesting story, after all.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not really comfortable talking about this with you. And it’s more than a little unnerving to have a near-complete stranger show up at my house and start reciting bits of my past like he’s been following me around for years.”
David made an awkward little bow. “I’m very sorry to have offended. Please be assured that it was unintentional. I’m a bit of a student of Cronos Corporation, that’s all. And as such, the anecdotal history of the company is something I’ve paid more attention to than most.”
“Is that what brought you over here? You’re interest in Cronos?” Adela suddenly feels something uncomfortably familiar: the sensation of being a science experiment, or a lab animal. Something to be poked and observed. A physical pain, a burning as if her blood is turned to lava, shoots up from her throat to the top of her head, propelling her out of her seat with the force of a rocket. The pain is enough that she wants to collapse, but she stays standing and conscious and panting, audibly, for breath.
“What is it? Can I get you something?” David asks with what sounds like real concern.
A few minutes, or seconds, or perhaps longer, when Adela is able to breathe and think more clearly, she is faintly surprised to find herself back in her living room, a little damp with sweat, supported by David’s wiry arms, his round grey eyes fixed on hers.
“Are you back?” he whispers.
Adela nods, too frightened of the pain coming back to ask him for his perspective on what just happened.