Breeders

continued

by Martha Taylor, soulcake@bellsouth.net

Chapter 11

Carol found Mary in the dining room they used as an office. The computer was on, and Sarah Ann was asleep in the bassinet at Mary's side. "Oh, hi hon," Carol whispered happily. "It's great to see you working again."

Mary turned around. "Not really working. Just tinkering with scenes I wrote before the bundle of joy arrived."

Carol was getting a little tired of having to play cheerleader all the time, but she couldn't bear that weary, hollow look in Mary's eyes. "Well, that's a start, anyway," she said, hoping she sounded suitably upbeat. "At least you're easing back into the old routine."

"Yeah, something like that," Mary agreed without enthusiasm.

Sarah Ann began to fuss. Carol moved forward to pick her up, but Mary was closer. She bent down and scooped her up and began to rock her gently, murmuring, "Momma's baby is hungry again? What a greedy little girl."

Sarah Ann grew quiet in Mary's arms, and Carol felt a rush of love as she watched them. Things had been a little scary for a while, but everything really was going to be all right.

And then Mary looked up, still rocking the baby, and out of the blue said, "Carol, what would you think about moving?"

"Moving? Are you serious?"

"Sure. I've been thinking about it a lot lately."

"You have?" Carol said weakly, imagining what a move would mean right now. "You never said anything about it before."

"Until Sarah Ann was born I wasn't really sure. Now I am."

"But why?"

"I don't know why you sound so surprised. We always knew we'd like to move sooner or later. I've simply decided that sooner would be better than later."

OK, Carol thought to herself. We'll take this one step at a time. "Where do you think we should move to?"

"I don't know. Anywhere. Just so long as we get out of Los Angeles."

"Oh, is that all? Just out of L.A.?"

Mary looked hurt.

"Oh, I'm sorry, sweetheart," Carol said hastily. "It's just that this is so sudden."

"I guess I should have said something to you sooner." She shifted Sarah Ann to her other arm. "But I thought the real reason I wanted to get out of here was because I was pregnant and miserable, and once the baby came, it would be OK again."

"And it isn't?"

"I'm sorry. I know this must seem like I'm just trying to be difficult."

"No, I promise it doesn't."

"You're a lousy liar. But the truth is, I don't feel completely safe here anymore. I lie awake at night listening to things and worrying about Sarah Ann, wondering if I would be strong enough to protect her."

Carol felt a thrill of fear. "Protect her from what? Is there something you're not telling me?"

Mary looked away. "You don't hear anything at night?"

Carol smiled weakly. "You mean besides Sarah Ann wanting her midnight snack?"

Mary looked back at her. She wasn't smiling. "I didn't think so. That's why I didn't say anything before now."

Carol suddenly remembered something. "Mary, is this about that night you told me you were hearing things? People walking around under the floor?"

"That was the first time."

"You're still hearing it? And you didn't tell me about it?"

"Would you have believed me?"

"Of course I would have believed you. Mary, love, how can you even ask that?"

Mary cuddled the baby closer. "What I meant was, would you have believed they were real?"

"I don't know, sweetheart. That's not important. What's important is that you're not comfortable here. If that means we have to move, we move."

"Do you ever get tired of being the angel in the house?"

"Damnit, Mary, that's not fair," Carol said softly. "I'm trying as hard as I can. If you won't even be honest with me about what you're feeling, I don't know how I'm supposed to help."

"You think this is just the baby blues, don't you?" Mary's voice quavered a bit, and Sarah Ann began to wail. "Oh hush, honey. You just ate an hour ago." Mary turned all her attention to the baby, lowering her head until her face was only inches from Sarah Ann's. She felt her diaper. "You don't need changing. What's the matter, you fussy little thing?"

Carol smiled a little. "She doesn't like to hear us squabble."

"Oh, so that's it, is it?" Mary kissed the baby's flushed forehead. "Carol and I don't get a personal life anymore, do we, Sarah love? Everything has to revolve around you now, doesn't it?"

Carol stretched out her arms. "Would you like me to take her for a bit? You were trying to write before I came in and stirred things up."

"You sure? She sounds like she's settling in for a good long howl."

"I'm up to it." Carol eased the baby out of Mary's arms and began jogging her gently up and down. She walked to the door and back. "We can start house hunting whenever you want. Just tell me when and where you'd like to go."

"Thank you," Mary said softly.

"And you know you're not in this by yourself. You're stuck with me for the long haul, whether you like it or not." Carol bent down and kissed her. Sarah Ann squirmed warm and alive between them, and when Carol straightened up, she suddenly stopped crying, and her big brown eyes opened wide.

***

Reed Wallace was in a talkative mood that afternoon. He came strolling out of his office while Ginny was working frantically on the billing and settled down into the chair on the other side of her desk.

"Have you ever been to a PK party, Ginny?"

"I'm sorry. PK?"

"Psychokineses. Spoon bending. Alexander Lyons and his wife hosted a PK party last weekend, and it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen."

Ginny sighed to herself. It was the end of the month, she had a million things to do, and all work was grinding to a halt so Reed could talk about spoon bending. She smiled faintly in his direction, but didn't make any encouraging comments, hoping perhaps that he would take the hint and go away.

"So you've never been to one, Ginny?"

"No. I guess not."

"It was absolutely amazing. It made a believer out of me. There are untapped powers in the human mind that we're just barely beginning to understand. Did you know that most people use only ten percent of their brains?"

Ginny knew it was pointless to get into an argument with Reed, especially since all she wanted to do was get back to work, but she couldn't help herself. "Reed, that's just an old wives' tale. It's simply not true. Of course we use all of our brain, that's what it's there for."

Reed bristled defensively. "Well, you should have been there. I could actually feel the energy in the room. We were all standing around in a circle, holding hands, encouraging each other, and it was like there was an electric charge in the air. It was terrific. I haven't felt so alive in years. And then when it happened--there's just nothing like it in the world, Ginny. To see something you thought was impossible happening before your very eyes, and to know it's the power of your own mind doing it--incredible. Simply incredible."

"So what happened? Spoons got bent?"

"The point is, it was our collective consciousness that bent them. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it--hadn't felt it--myself."

It was rare to see Reed so impassioned about something that had nothing to do with cash settlements. "So nobody was touching them?" Ginny asked, thinking of Kate. "They were just lying on a table or something?"

"We were passing them from hand to hand so the energy of our minds could get closer to the metal."

Ginny bit her lip. Her little brother had been a passionate amateur magician as a child, and she remembered that bending silverware had been an early part of his repertoire. But none of his schoolyard audiences had been as gullible as Reed. "So did you have to pay anything for this experience?" she asked at last.

He snorted. "Oh, I get it. You think this was some sort of put on. Well, you couldn't be more wrong. I made a donation afterwards to the facilitator who was there to help us focus our mental energies, but I'm telling you, if you'd seen it, you wouldn't doubt for a minute that it was real." Reed stood up. Ginny supposed he needed to slink off for another cigarette. "How are you doing with the billing? You know it has to be out by the end of the month."

Ginny returned to her work. "Right. I'll get right on it."

But driving home later, Ginny realized that she was glad that Reed had told her about the spoon bending party. It reminded her that simply seeing something with one's own eyes was no guarantee against deception and misinterpretation. Lately she had been far too willing to jump to unreasonable conclusions on the very slightest of evidence. Well, no more. The world was still a rational place, thank god. It was time she started remembering that.

She was crossing the courtyard to her apartment when she heard the sound of a knuckle tapping on glass. Glancing up, she saw Patrick sitting at his kitchen window. He smiled and waved her over. She smiled back and went to the open window.

"Can you come in and chat for a minute, Gin? Sean's been at work all day, and I'm feeling lonely and blue."

"Of course."

"The old sympathy ploy gets them every time. Front door's open. Just let yourself in."

Ginny went around. She had never been in their apartment before. Books were stacked everywhere, overflowing the shelves on every wall, piled up on the floor, even heaped on the cushions of the sofa and chairs. No wonder Patrick was sitting in the kitchen.

It had been a couple of weeks since she had seen him, and he seemed to have put on a little weight, and even looked as though there was some color in his cheeks, though that might have been the red of the setting sun shining in through the kitchen window. "Hey girl," he said. "Have a seat."

The kitchen had a faintly medicinal, antiseptic smell. Ginny sat down across from him at the little yellow formica breakfast table. The table was covered with forms, bank statements, canceled checks, and a savings account book. "If you want some tea or something you can put the kettle on the stove."

"No, I'm fine, thanks. What is all this stuff? Are you balancing your checkbook or something?"

Patrick sighed. "It's these fucking Medi-Cal forms. I told Sean I would do them, but Jesus Christ, what a waste of time."

"Oh. Insurance?"

"Once you prove to the State of California that you really are practically destitute they'll kick in a little to keep you from dying on the street. But the paperwork is slow torture."

"Well, I fill out forms all day at work. Is there anything I can help with?"

Patrick brightened a little. "Would you really want to?"

"Sure. Whatever I can do."

"Oh man, Ginny, that'd be great. I've been sitting here all afternoon and between these goddamned forms and feeling like I'm going blind--"

Ginny felt cold. "You're not--you're not really going blind are you?"

"No, not yet, knock on wood. Just seeing things, I think. Maybe it's my mind that's going instead."

She shifted uncomfortably. Patrick certainly had no obligation to be cheerful on her account, but she didn't know what to say to him. She picked up a spoon lying on the kitchen table and turned it around and around in her hands. "So--what have you been seeing?" she asked at last. Anything interesting?"

"Depends on how you define interesting," he said glumly. "I've been sitting here at the window most of the day--the better to spy on my neighbors, you know--and I could swear there's something rustling around in the hibiscus bushes."

"Sounds spooky," Ginny said, trying to joke. "Blue jays? Squirrels? Are you sure it's safe for you to be alone in the apartment?"

"For your information, I'm sure it was too big to be a squirrel."

"So what was it?"

"I haven't the faintest idea."

Ginny peered out the window. "Is it there now?"

"No."

"What did it look like?"

"I never saw it clearly. Just a kind of pale flash between the leaves."

"How big?"

"I dunno. At least a foot long, or high, from the way the leaves were rustling."

"Well, I know what it was. It was one of my Does."

"Deer?"

"No, no. Ghost defendants in legal documents. I was telling a friend of mine at work the other day that I'd always pictured John Does as pale little monsters with crooked legs and too many joints in their arms."

With a smile Patrick said, "Well, from now on I'd appreciate it if you'd leave your work at the office. I've got enough to deal with without your legal boogeymen scaring the daylights out of me."

"Seriously, I bet it was an opossum or a racoon. A couple of months ago I saw an opossum in the garbage bins out back, crouching on the very edge of the bin and rooting around with those little pink hands of his, and I nearly jumped out of my skin."

"Maybe you're right," Patrick said dubiously. Then his face lit up. "Wait a minute, I know what I wanted to ask you. What's been up with you lately? I've been watching for your gentleman friend but I haven't seen him in weeks, unless you've been sneaking him in after dark."

Ginny winced. Patrick's morbid sense of humor was one thing, but this was simply cruel. She tapped the spoon restlessly on the table and wondered what to say.

Patrick must have read the look on her face. He said quickly, "No, no, not Sluggo. The nice fellow Sean met when he returned your skirt. He told me he was a little on the weedy, academic side, but maybe just what you needed."

"I really don't know who--"

"It's no use trying to keep secrets from us, Ginny. The guy with the beard. Sean said you looked like quite the happy couple."

"Oh, him. That's not a guy. That's my husband."

"Whoops! Sorry. I seem to keep putting my foot in it this afternoon. I had no idea you were married."

"It's a technicality at this point."

"The man must have been a fool to let you get away," Patrick said gallantly, making Ginny grin. "Aw, Patrick, I didn't know you cared."

"We mustn't let Sean know. It would devastate him."

"What would devastate me?" Sean stood in the kitchen door, and Ginny realized that Patrick must have seen him crossing the courtyard. "Hi Gin. What's the big secret?"

Patrick gave her a broad, theatrical wink, then said nonchalantly to Sean, "Oh, nothing. Nothing at all."

Sean crossed his arms over his chest. "Believe me, Ginny, you don't want to have anything to do with Don Juan here. He's strictly a love 'em and leave 'em type."

"I appreciate the warning."

"You're always trying to spoil my fun," Patrick sulked.

"What are you doing with our silverware, Ginny?" Sean asked.

She hadn't realized she was still fiddling with the spoon. She held it up. "My boss apparently paid a lot of money this weekend to a psychic who could bend spoons with the power of his mind."

Sean said, "And you're thinking about a career change?"

"Sure. Why not?" Jenny grasped the spoon tightly with one hand and ran her thumb along the neck. "It couldn't be any worse than secretarial work."

But then, to her utter astonishment, the end of the spoon suddenly drooped like a wilting flower. She dropped it with a startled cry, and it clattered on the table.

"That's very impressive," Patrick said, grinning. He picked up the bent spoon and examined it. "But would you mind practicing on your own tableware from now on?"

***

At three a.m. that night Ginny was awake as usual, staring at the wall and thinking that she should have asked Sean and Patrick if either one of them had seen the article about Arthur Drake in the Sunday paper. It was hard to imagine them spending much time with a friend who hunted ghosts.

Caesar had been curled up against the small of her back. She felt him stand up suddenly and go stalking to the foot of the bed. After a moment, he began to purr. Curious, Ginny turned and looked over to see what he was up to.

Patrick sat on the end of her bed. Caesar was butting his head against his outstretched hand, demanding attention. Patrick scratched him behind the ears obligingly, smiling a little. Ginny raised herself up on her elbows. "Patrick?" she whispered, astonished. "What are you doing here?"

He didn't say a word. Ginny rolled over and reached for the bedside lamp, fumbling in the darkness. When she managed to switch it on at last and look back, Caesar was standing alone at the foot of the bed, blinking in the sudden light.

It was bitterly cold in her bedroom. Ginny's teeth began to chatter and goosebumps rose on her arms. She stumbled out of bed, grabbed a housecoat from the closet and wrapped it tightly around herself. Her feet felt like blocks of ice, but she couldn't find her slippers so she pulled on a pair of woolen socks she found in the back of her sock drawer. Then she sat down on the bed again, wrapping herself up tightly in her comforter. She hadn't been so cold since the last winter she'd spent in Boston, more than ten years ago. She remembered coming in from a snowball fight with her brother, laughing, feeling like a kid again, soaked to the bone and so cold that she couldn't feel her fingers or toes.

This was worse. For a few dreadful moments, she didn't believe she would ever be warm again. Then she felt the tears trickling down her cheeks, and the cold passed away as suddenly as it had come.

She went to the bedroom window and opened the blinds. The lights were on in Sean and Patrick's apartment. She dropped the blinds again and got dressed.

Chapter 12

It was a cold, clear night. The waning moon was a brilliant white crescent in the black sky. Standing shivering on Sean's porch, Ginny could see a scattering of the brightest stars. The wind was almost still, just a cold whisper that dried the tears on her cheeks, nothing like the wild, hot gusts of Sunday night. She rapped on the front door again, a little louder this time, and Sean finally opened the door.

He stood looking at her for a moment. He was shirtless and barefoot, wearing faded blue sweats. Ginny had never noticed the shock of coarse gray hair in the midst of his dark curls before. "Patrick's dead," he told her.

"I know."

"I couldn't hear him snoring when I got up to go to the bathroom. I went in and touched his shoulder, but he was already cold." Sean's voice was flat. He might have been discussing the weather.

"Can I come in?" Ginny asked.

He shrugged and stepped aside. Ginny hesitated for an instant, wondering what she was doing here. The living room looked just like it had that afternoon, still overflowing with books. Sean scooped up a stack of paperbacks from the sofa cushions and dropped them on the floor, clearing a place for her to sit. "They're Patrick's, " he said. "He always bought books faster than I could buy the bookshelves to put them on. Looks like I'll finally be able to catch up now."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"You can tell me if you hear of any bargains on bookshelves." He knocked the books off an armchair with a sweep of his hand, scattering shiny paperbacks on the rug, and sat down across from Ginny.

I can't bear this, Ginny thought. Sean was hunched forward, his hands dangling loose and empty between his knees. He looked at Ginny, then down at the floor. "Goddamn him. He's always been a troublemaker. As long as we've been together. Some people never change."

She didn't say anything. She could see down the hallway to two open bedroom doors. A light was on in one of the rooms.

"I've been saving up my vacation time for three years so that I could be with him when he needed me. And then he goes and does this."

"Do you want me to call anyone for you?"

Sean shook his head. "I've already done all that. Someone from the coroner's office will be here in an hour or two. Patrick's doctor is out of town, do you believe that? Nothing but hassles. So fucking typical."

His hands were shaking. He clasped them together hard, but his shudders only grew more violent, spreading up his arms. He rocked in the chair in an effort to contain them, his face going white with the strain. Looking around the room, Ginny saw a denim jacket hanging on a peg on the back of the front door. She got the jacket and draped it over his bare shoulders. "It's cold out," she said, feeling a helpless need to explain. "Is there a friend or someone I can call for you?"

Sean took her hand, swinging it back and forth. "No, Ginny. I already phoned my sister in San Bernardino. She'll be here in half an hour or so. You don't have to wait." But he didn't release her hand, and Ginny sat on the arm of the chair beside him in silence. There was a clock on the wall above one of the bookshelves. The second hand made faint clicking sounds as it went around. After a while Sean looked up at her and asked, "How did you know?"

"I saw the light on."

"Thanks for coming down."

She had been calm until then, but now she felt the dreadful ache begin at the back of her throat that always presaged tears, and she asked quickly, "Do you have anything to drink?"

"Good idea." Sean slipped his arms into the sleeves of the jacket and stood up. "I think we still have the emergency bottle of Jack Daniels."

Ginny followed him into the kitchen. Sean produced the half-empty bottle from the cabinet under the sink, where it nestled beside Fantastik, Liquid Plumer and Windex. He saw the look on her face and smiled a little. "I know. Patrick is always making sick jokes about Drano cocktails." The smile froze on his face. He put the bottle down a little too hard and braced himself against the counter. "I thought we had years still." He turned to Ginny, pleading with her. "He was doing so good. How was I supposed to know?"

Ginny stood there helpless and silent as Sean clutched at his hair. "Jesus god, I spent the last day of Patrick's life at the office. I even stayed a few minutes late to finish working on the Bateman account. How could I have been so fucking stupid? Oh my god, Patrick, I'm so sorry--" His voice became an inarticulate wail of sorrow.

"Please stop," Ginny whispered, squeezing her eyes shut. "You couldn't know."

Sean's hands were on her shoulders. "I'm sorry. It just got away from me for a minute. Are you all right?"

"Me? I'm sorry, I'm no help at all."

Sean took a deep breath. "Patrick's probably having a hell of a laugh at the two of us right now. Here, how about that drink." He splashed a generous portion of whiskey into two juice glasses and handed one to Ginny. "Ice?"

"I don't know." She sniffled and wiped her nose with her shirt sleeve. "I don't think I've ever had Jack Daniels before."

"This is the way I do it." Sean knocked back his entire glass in a swallow. He shuddered and slammed the glass down on the counter. With a nervous smile, Ginny followed his example. To her surprise, it went down easily. The rolling warmth followed a moment later. Ginny's eyes opened wide, and Sean laughed. "Good, huh?"

"I don't know exactly," she gasped.

He poured two more glasses. "Then you obviously need another." He sat down at the kitchen table and pushed the second glass over to her. Ginny sat down in the chair Patrick had been in a few hours before. The Medi-Cal forms were still scattered across the table. Her second drink didn't go down quite as smooth. The whiskey burned the back of her throat, and she coughed violently. Sean reached across and pounded ineffectually on her back.

"Stop," she wheezed between coughs. "That doesn't help."

"Sorry."

She sat up, wiping her streaming eyes. "Can I use your bathroom?"

"It's down the hall."

Her head spinning, Ginny got up and made her way back. She filled the sink and dashed water on her face. It was wonderfully cold against her burning cheeks. She straightened up and groped blindly for a towel to dry her face, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her face was red and blotchy from crying, and the hair around her face hung in messy, damp tendrils. She took a few deep breaths, and then she noticed all the water splashed on the bathroom floor.

She took the bath mat draped over the edge of the tub and mopped it up as best she could. There were splashes of water around the back of the toilet and beside the bathtub as well. Had she really made such a mess? She draped the mat over the shower curtain rod to dry and stepped out into the hall.

She thought she heard movement in the bedroom where the light was shining, and she glanced cautiously around the half-open door. "Sean?"

Patrick lay on his side, the sheet pulled up to his shoulder. His eyes were closed as though he were only sleeping. One hand was on the pillow, the fingers curled gently towards the palm. Curiosity overcame Ginny's grief for a moment, and she stepped into the bedroom.

He looked as though death had already taken the remaining flesh from his bones. His cheekbones and the points of his jaw stood out like knobs, as did the knuckles on his exposed hand. The sharp line of his hipbone was clearly visible through the sheet. She was reminded of Beckmann's depiction of Christ emaciated and dead in the painter's terrible Descent from the Cross, the way Patrick's body was all hard angles and unnatural elongations. She had always thought Beckmann had exaggerated. In truth, Ginny now realized, she had simply never seen death before.She turned away.

Then something moved. She whirled back. The bedroom was empty, of course, except for Patrick and herself. She strained her ears, listening. Sean was pacing in the living room. She could hear his measured tread as he walked back and forth. This old apartment building creaked and groaned in the night sometimes, but she had the feeling that it was something more. She stooped and looked under the bed, but saw nothing except all the books piled up in untidy stacks. She got up and backed out of Patrick's bedroom step by step, embarrassed by her skittishness.

Sean smiled sadly at her as she came back to the living room. "You saw him?"

"Yes."

"You should have seen him when I first met him. He would have broken your heart, he was so beautiful."

Ginny sat down on the cleared place on the sofa.

"I'd gone out with some friends one night, and there he was, standing by himself at the bar, acting like he owned the place. His hair was long back then, and I swear to you he looked like something out of a fucking fairy tale. Prince Charming in the flesh. I couldn't believe it when he went home with me. And then I was sure that it would only be for one night. The first couple of months we were together, I was still amazed every morning when I woke up and found him there beside me."

Sean sighed. "He had already tested positive when we met. He told me right up front. I realized later that he was probably looking for someone who would take care of him, but I didn't care. I was just happy that he chose me."

Ginny took his hand. "He was lucky to find you."

"No. That's not it at all. I still feel like I was the lucky one. I guess that sounds crazy, doesn't it?"

"I don't think so."

Sean smiled at her. "Then must be as crazy as I am. "

The sudden knock at the front door startled them both. Sean went to the door and looked out the peephole before he opened it. "Jo's here," he said.

The woman on the doorstep was round and matronly. Her iron gray hair hung in a long braid down her back. She hugged Sean as soon as the door was open, wrapping her arms around his ribs and patting his back. "Oh Sean, baby, I'm so sorry. I got here as fast as I could."

He finally began to weep.

Ginny stood up. She looked away from the two of them, and that was when she saw something pale and low to the ground flash around the open door from Patrick's bedroom and disappear into the bathroom.

She clapped her hand over her mouth to stop the scream. She looked back at Sean and his sister and didn't say a word. When Sean's sister finally raised her head from his shoulder and saw her, she misinterpreted her silence.

"Oh, hello. I didn't see you there," she said, her voice husky with unshed tears. "I'm Joanne." Keeping one arm wrapped protectively around Sean's waist, she extended her arm. After a confused moment, Ginny realized she was waiting to shake her hand.

"I'm Ginny," she said faintly, taking her hand.

"Ginny lives upstairs," Sean explained. His voice was controlled despite the tears streaming down his cheeks. "She came down to wait with me."

"Thank you. That was very kind," Joanne said.

"Why don't you get back to bed now, Gin," Sean said. "I know you've got work tomorrow."

"All right," Ginny agreed quietly, hoping that she would not start crying again. "I'm--so sorry," she said, thinking she sounded foolish. She had already started down the front steps when Sean said, "Ginny, wait a minute."

She turned. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and kissed her. His tears were cold against her skin. "Thank you."

She nodded, unable to speak, and hurried away across the courtyard. Back in her own apartment, she sat in living room with all the lights on and the blinds closed tight. She held Caesar on her lap and stroked his head, talking nonsense to him. He was in a tolerant mood, flexing his claws against her jeans and purring deep in his throat. She couldn't stop thinking about it, Patrick lying still and cold in the apartment downstairs. The other things she had seen tonight seemed hopelessly insignificant against the brutal, undeniable fact of his death.

Some time later she heard a car drive slowly up the street, stop and park out front. She got up and went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of instant hot chocolate, bustling around noisily in a futile attempt to cover up the sounds of the door slamming, and the click of leather-soled shoes crossing the courtyard.

It was nearly dawn when the second car arrived. The engine was heavier and louder. Ginny thought of the workmen of last month and their vans, and felt a shudder of nausea. Doors opened and slammed shut. She heard the creak of hinges, and it was more than she could bear. She turned on the stereo and put on a B-52's CD, heedless of the hour. Just let anyone try to complain. It was still three hours until she had to go to work. An interminable length of time. She considered going in early, but the thought of those quiet, empty offices was chilling. Maybe she should go out to breakfast, find a good coffee shop where she could read the paper until it was time to go to the office.

In spite of the music, Ginny heard quite clearly the squeak of one wheel that needed oiling as the gurney was pushed briskly across the courtyard. She didn't wait to hear it come back bearing its fragile, pathetic burden. She fled out the back door so that she would not have to cross the courtyard, making her way down the dusty, seldom-used rear staircase to the street.

She didn't go to her car, but simply began walking. The eastern sky was red, and the underside of the clouds banked up from the horizon were glowing an unearthly shade of lavender. It would probably rain today. The cars out at this time of the morning still had their headlights on. A pair of doves fluttered up out of a hedge near Ginny, making soft hoots of alarm. She walked quickly, trying to drive away the chill of the morning air. She should have picked up a sweater before leaving the apartment, but she wasn't about to go back.

She saw a gray cat crouched on the front lawn of the large brick house on the corner. She smiled a little and slowed down so that her approach wouldn't startle it. The cat raised its head languidly to look at her, and moved away. Ginny suddenly stopped cold, sickened. The cat was crossing the lawn with dreadful, clumsy hops, hardly raising its hindquarters at all, moving as though its back were broken.

Ginny went numb. The world was ugly and terrible, steeped in meaningless suffering and pain. Anyone who tried to pretend otherwise was either deluded or a fool.

Weeping a little, she made her way across the lawn towards the injured cat with some not-very-clear idea of trying to help it. But as she got closer, an astonishing transformation took place. The maimed animal stretched its powerful back legs and disappeared around the corner of the house and up the alley in a series of beautiful, effortless bounds. It hadn't been a cat at all. It was a lop-eared gray rabbit.

Ginny felt suddenly, pointlessly happy, and she followed the creature into the alley without a thought. She caught a glimpse of it once as it disappeared behind some trash cans, but after she walked a little way further, she realized she probably wasn't going to find it again.

The quiet back here surprised her. The double row of houses screened out the noise of the traffic, and it was so still she could hear the leaves in a scraggly eucalyptus tree rustling as a squirrel leaped from branch to branch. A mockingbird began to sing nearby. "Down the rabbit hole, Alice," Ginny whispered to herself. She was only a few blocks from her home, but she had never ventured this way before. The front lawns of these houses were manicured and perfect, but back here everything was different. Wilder, freer. A shaggy, overgrown lime tree draped branches that were heavy with fruit over an unpainted wooden fence. The limes were so overripe they hung swollen and yellow on the branches, and windfalls littered the alley. Further down, avocadoes larger than softballs had split open on the pavement to reveal the dark green flesh. Clematis and passion fruit vines crawled over sagging chainlink fences.

Ginny was a little amazed to find such a wild, overgrown place in the middle of the city. Unpruned ficus trees had grown into an impenetrable screen, and she could catch only a glimpse of the backyards on either side. The cracked asphalt underfoot was covered with a scattering of gravel and fallen leaves. Most of the wooden fences and stucco walls needed paint. She walked on and on, keeping her eyes open for the rabbit, enjoying the peace and quiet. She felt as though she never wanted to go back to her small, noisy apartment. She would find some place quiet and green, far away from the city. She was tired of the traffic, the neighbors, the street repair, all the racket of too many people living too close together, dying too close together--

She stopped, squeezing her eyes shut. It felt like she was going insane for a moment, the way her thoughts ran away with her like that. When she opened her eyes, she realized she had walked further than she'd thought. The alley must follow a slight curve, for she couldn't see the street at either end, just neglected fences and walls, the overgrown trees, and the glow in the sky visible between leafy branches.

And that was wrong, wasn't it? It was only a half hour or so after dawn at the very latest, and the sky overhead was dark with lowering clouds. How could there be brightness through the trees at both ends of the alley? She tried to orient herself, but her sense of direction had never been very good. The silence in the alley was no longer comforting. She stood still, not wanting to take a step closer towards the light in either direction, and then, with a brazenness that amazed her when she thought about it later, she climbed over a low wooden gate on one side, walked up the driveway past a dark, still house, and reached the main street. Then she turned towards home, walking fast. A light drizzle had already begun drifting down from the dark clouds overhead, and she didn't want to get caught in the rain.

Chapter 13

Work was a madhouse, but Ginny didn't mind. It was actually a relief to spend the day making excuses to the clients Reed was trying to avoid for one reason or another, dealing with doctors' offices who called a dozen times a day to pester about their liens, and all the rest of the hectic nonsense, the misfiled documents and missed deadlines, a FedEx package gone unaccountably astray, the late mail, and the endlessly ringing phone. She was thankful for the distractions. All she had to do was close her eyes, and she would find herself back in Sean's apartment, listening to the second hand tick irrevocably around the clock face while Patrick lay dead in the next room.

She had just gotten off the line with a particularly cranky old client of Reed's who had missed his appointment with the defense doctor for the third time in a row, when Terrie buzzed her again. Ginny picked up the receiver. "Yes?"

"Call for you Ginny. The name is William."

"All right, thanks," Ginny said. She was worried. She couldn't remember William ever calling her at work before, and in her current frame of mind she could only imagine a catastrophe. She punched the button for his line. "William? What is it?"

"Hi Ginny. Sorry to bother you at work. Are you busy?"

Ginny looked around. Her desk was covered with half-finished memos to Reed and herself. She still had most of a dictation tape to get through. It was three in the afternoon, and she hadn't yet had the chance to take her lunch break. Kate had come by two hours before, seen the piles of work and harried expression on Ginny's face, and said, "I'm not even going to ask. You look like you need to talk, but it'll wait. Want me to bring you something from downstairs?"

"Yeah," Ginny told William. "I'm pretty busy. What's up?"

"I don't know if you really want to hear any suggestions from me, but a great opportunity has come up."

"What is it?"

"You remember Maddie and Chuck, don't you?"

Maddie was a friend of William's from graduate school. Her husband Chuck worked as an assistant director. They lived in a beautiful old house in Santa Monica only six blocks from the beach, and had thrown wonderful 4th of July parties every year. Ginny hadn't seen either of them since her and William's separation.

"Well, the guy living in their guest house above the garage is moving out, and they're looking for a new tenant. I told them you might be interested."

"I don't think so."

"Wait, don't say no yet. Have you ever seen the guest house?"

"No. But living above a garage--"

"It's really beautiful, Ginny. They had it all redone this year. Wood floors, big windows on all four sides, a view of the ocean--"

"Really?" Ginny asked faintly. "You can see the ocean?"

"It's not a whole lot bigger than your apartment, but it's quieter, and you'd still have your privacy. They said they'd be able to let you have it for five hundred a month."

It sounded like a dream. "Why so cheap?"

"They'd rather rent to a friend."

Ginny let that pass. She was still getting over the surprised sense of hurt when all the people she'd thought were her and William's mutual friends had abruptly disappeared from her life after their separation. "Do they know I have a cat?"

"I told them about Caesar. They're fine with him. So are you interested?"

"I don't know. Moving would be a lot of work."

"Why don't you just give Maddie a call and talk to her about it? It's such a great opportunity. You'd save a bundle on rent, and you'd be near the beach like you always wanted."

"Maybe I'll call," Ginny said, weakening.

"Great! I'd love to see you settled down in a nice place like that. Do you still have their phone number?"

"I don't think so. You better give it to me again. Um--William, thanks. It was nice of you to think of me."

***

That evening Ginny had to drive around the block twice looking for a place to park, and her building looked gloomy and shrouded in shadows. How tempting the move to Maddie and Chuck's seemed. She imagined palm trees swaying in the sea breezes, herself watching the sun set over the ocean from the living room with the last long, red beams gleaming on the polished wooden floors.

The parking place she eventually found was scarcely big enough for her small car, and she held up a lane of rush hour traffic while she struggled to parallel park. The blaring of car horns made her feel flustered and edgy, and she was hardly thinking about Patrick at all as she crossed the courtyard. Mary's baby was wailing, though, and as Ginny pulled the day's collection of advertising circulars out of her mailbox, she thought irritably that the least Mary and Carol could do was to keep their windows closed when their kid insisted on screaming like that.

"Ginny?"

"What?" Ginny snapped, whirling around. She hadn't heard anyone coming up behind her.

"Sorry," Sean's sister Jo smiled apologetically at her. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"No, I'm sorry." Ginny relaxed. "I'm just a little wound up today."

"I wanted to thank you again for sitting up with Sean last night. I'm so glad he wasn't alone."

Ginny gestured meaninglessly, embarrassed.

Jo said, "I won't keep you. But I just wanted to let you know that Sean will be having a party in Patrick's memory Saturday night--Patrick was pretty adamant about not having a gloomy memorial service--and of course we'd love for you to come, if you can make it."

"Of course I'll be there," Ginny said. Across the way, Sarah Ann paused for a moment, and then began wailing anew. That's it, she thought to herself. I'm calling Maddie right after dinner.

Chapter 14

Marc let himself in without bothering to knock first. He pushed the door closed behind himself a little too enthusiastically, and it slammed shut with a bang.

"Is that you, Marc?"

"Nope, vice squad. Get your hands against the wall and spread 'em."

Arthur walked in from the bedroom, buttoning his shirt. His hair was still damp from the shower. "I didn't expect to see you today. I thought you were studying for a midterm."

"Midterm?" It took a second for Marc to remember the excuse he'd given Arthur a few days ago. "Oh, right. I don't think it's going to be such a big deal after all."

Arthur looked at him for a moment with an unreadable expression on his face. Then he turned around and walked back to the bedroom. "I'm just getting ready to go. I don't suppose you want to come with me."

Marc followed him back. "I don't think so."

"I don't blame you. I'm not looking forward to it myself."

"Really I just came by to see how you were doing."

"I'm all right. I'm an old hand at these things by now," Arthur smiled bleakly. "But I still never know what to wear, especially when they call it a 'celebration' instead of a wake. Do you think this is all right?"

"You look fine."

"I remember one service when I showed up in a suit and practically everyone else there was in shorts. I looked like the Grim Reaper. And remember Ted's funeral? I thought it was going to be an informal little memorial service, and you and I wound up being the only people there in blue jeans."

"I've got an idea. Just don't go. Then you don't have to worry about it."

Arthur sat down on the edge of the bed to tie his shoes. "I don't mind if you don't want to go. I already told you that. But of course I'm going to Patrick's wake--"

"Celebration."

"The point is, you don't have to make excuses for not wanting to go." Arthur stood up. "I'll be back in a couple of hours if you can wait for me."

"I didn't bring any of my books over," Marc said. "I don't think I'll wait around."

"That's fine. I understand." Arthur disappeared into the bathroom, then came out and said, "Do you think you'll have time to come over tomorrow?"

"I don't know. Probably not. Things are pretty hectic at school right now."

"All right." Arthur picked up his wallet and keys from the dresser and kissed Marc on his way out of the bedroom. "Give me a call next week when you're through with your midterms."

Marc trailed after him into the living room. "C'mon, this is bogus. Why are you so set on going to this thing, anyway? Until you ran into Patrick at that restaurant last month, you didn't even know he was still alive."

Arthur turned sharply, his expression taut and angry.

"Shit," Marc apologized, "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."

"Good." Arthur said shortly.

"Don't get mad at me just because I'd rather be with you than at a funeral." Marc draped his arms over Arthur's shoulders. "Come on, I know a better way to celebrate Patrick's memory than by standing around eating cheese and crackers and drinking bad wine with a bunch of people you don't even know."

Arthur hugged him back, then gently freed himself. "Are you sure you can't wait? I'll be back as soon as I can."

Marc shook his head resignedly. "Tell you what. I'll come with you. And then after you pay your respects, we're out of there, OK?"

Arthur smiled, pleased and surprised. "Thank you."

"Yeah, right," Marc grumbled. "Just remember that you owe me big time for this."

***

People began to arrive around nine. Ginny huddled on the sofa by her living room window and watched as they crossed the courtyard. All the lights were on in Sean's apartment. Music was playing. The man who lived across the way from her came to the window and watched the activity in the courtyard for a few moments, then dropped his blinds with a clatter.

Ginny was dressed and ready to go downstairs, but she hesitated, wondering if Sean would even notice if she simply didn't show up. He certainly had enough on his mind without sparing a thought for her. She'd seen him from the window a few times this week, in the company of Jo or talking with men Ginny didn't know, but she hadn't spoken to him since Saturday night. She'd been busy at work, and she wasn't getting much sleep nights. The traffic had been especially bad this week, with heavy trucks rumbling up and down San Ysidro at all hours of the night. She lay in bed from three until dawn almost every night listening to the roar.

And last night, of course, had been Halloween. She'd been in no mood to go up and see the parade on Santa Monica Boulevard, but she'd heard it, of course, the howls and shouts of laughter, the falsetto shrieks, the car horns, whistles and noisemakers, and the endless, jangling cacophony of music. It had been a bad night for her. Lying awake listening to the noise, it was easy to think she heard the sobs of the dead mingled with the shouts of the living. More than once Ginny sat bolt upright imagining that she had felt a weight settling down at the edge of the bed. Each time it was only Caesar looking for a more comfortable position, or nothing at all.

When she went out to her car on Saturday morning, she had found the gutters choked with effluvia from the celebration. Beer bottles and condom wrappers, empty vials of vampire blood, confetti, even feathers and bits of brocade. In a strange way the trash cheered her up a little, it seemed such an aggressive affirmation of life.

There was a piece of white paper tucked under the windshield wiper of her car, and for a disappointed moment she thought she'd gotten a parking ticket--the way her luck was running lately, it wouldn't have surprised her. It had turned out to be a flyer advertising a sex club. Five dollars off membership! First admission freewith this coupon! A ridiculously beautiful young man grinned over his shoulder in invitation, his jeans halfway off his butt. Ginny dropped the flyer into the street along with the other trash, but she was smiling.

The first thing that struck her about Maddie and Chuck's place was the peace and quiet. When she turned off the car ignition, the astonishing silence of the neighborhood broke over her like a wave. She got out of the car wonderingly, hesitating even to slam the door shut. She all but tiptoed up the front walk.

Maddie met her at the front door with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Ginny, you're looking so good. Come in, come in."

Maddie was lovely as ever, her short blonde hair swept back from her brow, looking comfortable and elegant in gray leggings and a soft gray wool sweater. "You have to tell me all about how you've been. I'm so sorry we haven't been able to get together before now! Chuck's been busy with the new series he's been working on, and I'm writing my dissertation now, you know--Chuck, honey, Ginny's here."

Maddie guided Ginny through the living room. A hammered dulcimer was set out on the sideboard, and the leather on the overstuffed sofa was the color of a caramel apple. In the kitchen a skylight let in the hazy midmorning sunshine which gleamed on granite countertops. "I've got some coffee on. Would you like a cup?"

"Yes, thank you." It was the first thing Ginny had said since hello.

"Ginny! How are you doing!" Chuck came around from the study in baggy khaki shorts and Birkenstocks. He gave her a hug and a kiss and said, "So tell me all about what you've been doing with yourself."

Maddie handed her a cup of coffee in a cobalt blue mug, which Ginny clutched nervously, hoping it wasn't real Fiestaware. "Do you take milk?" she asked. "I'd offer you sugar but I'm afraid Chuck and I don't keep any in the house."

Of course you don't, Ginny thought rather meanly, but she only said, "Oh, that's fine, I like it black."

"We were both so excited when William said you were looking for a new place," Chuck said. "Maddie and I have been working hard on the guest house, and we've got it looking pretty nice. We'd love to be able to rent to you. You've never been up to see it before, have you?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Well, come on, I'm sure you've got other places to look at. We don't want to hold you up. Saturday is the day to get things done, isn't it?" Chuck opened the sliding glass door to the backyard. Ginny followed him out. The backyard was small but exquisite, landscaped in drought-resistant plants of silvery greens and grays. A little stone path led to the garage at the back of the property.

"It's only a two-car garage, I'm afraid," Maddie apologized, "But there's room in the alley for your car, and it's very safe. There's a neighborhood watch patrol, and of course we hire a private security company."

Maddie and Chuck trotted up the wooden stairs that climbed the side of the garage. Ginny followed at a more moderate pace, careful of her brimming coffee cup. The little apartment was beautiful, just as William had promised. The living room had windows on three sides, and through the western window Ginny could indeed see a thin, gray sliver of the Pacific Ocean.

"It is a little short on closet space," Maddie said. "There's only the hall closet here, and the little walk-in closet in the bedroom."

"It really is beautiful," Ginny admitted softly.

"Well, we'd love to have you, we really would," Chuck said. "You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find trustworthy tenants these days. Did you know the last guy we rented to stole the bathroom fixtures when he left? Unbelievable."

Maddie said, "Where are you living now, Hollywood? I'm sure this is much quieter."

"Yes, you're right. The quiet is the first thing I noticed."

Maddie took her arm confidentially. "William told us you had a bad experience recently at the apartment you're living in now. I just want to let you know that you'd have all the privacy you want here, but if you ever need anything, all you would have to do is sing out, and Chuck or I would come running."

Ginny freed her arm, humiliated. "William told you about that?"

"We're your friends," Chuck assured her. "And William's just trying to look out for what's best for you, you know that, don't you? He feels so bad about what's happened, you can't blame the poor guy for wanting to make sure that you're safe."

Ginny walked quickly into the next room, and pretended to admire the view from the bedroom windows. The north and east facing windows looked out on the backyards of houses much like Chuck and Maddie's, lush with rosemary, aloes and agaves growing in terraced rock gardens. There were fishponds and ornamental shrubs, ivy geranium and trailing bougainvillea. It seemed as though there couldn't possibly be any shadows or secrets in a neighborhood like this. She felt quite certain that Chuck and Maddie were never troubled by nocturnal work in the sewers, and Halloween was probably celebrated only by children.

She turned to Chuck and Maddie, standing watching her from the bedroom door. "I ought to sleep on it before I make a decision. Can I give you a call tomorrow?"

"Of course, of course," Chuck said. "I'll even let you in on a little secret." He glanced sideways at Maddie. "Can I tell her?"

"Oh, go ahead."

"Well, after William said you might be interested in taking the apartment, we got him to tell us when your birthday was, and last night Maddie and I did your horoscope. Now, it wasn't a complete reading, since William didn't know the exact time of day you were born, but it was close enough, I think. And all the signs are that your moving here would be a good, good thing for all of us."

***

Downstairs, Ginny saw Carol come out of her and Mary's apartment and cross the courtyard to Sean's. There, that was the perfect time to go down. At least she could talk to Carol if she didn't know anybody else there.

The small apartment was crowded with men clutching clear plastic cups of beer, talking and laughing. A few smiled and said hello to Ginny as she made her way through them looking for a familiar face--where on earth had Carol gotten to? She could feel herself beginning to sweat a bit with nervousness. The crowd of strangers reminded her too much of that nightmarish date with Kevin, and when she saw Jo's gray braid across the living room, she made for it as if it were a lifeline.

"Jo?"

"Oh, hi Ginny." Jo turned from the two men she was talking to and smiled so warmly that Ginny was suddenly glad that she had come after all. "Do you know everyone?"

"No. To be honest, I don't know a soul."

"Oh, well, this is Peter, Franklin--" Jo indicated the two men she had been talking to. "That's Mitchell and Ross; the guy over there by the bookshelves is Ferrol--and this is ridiculous, isn't it? Instead of trying to introduce you to everybody all at once, why don't I just direct you to the booze and then let the chips fall where they may?"

"Ok. I'm no good at names anyway."

"You and me both. Well, the mixed drinks and wine are in the kitchen. The keg's in the bathtub. And if you need to actually use the bathroom, be sure and lock the door. These boys have no sense of privacy, believe me."

Ginny laughed. "All right, thanks."

"I think Patrick would have approved," Jo said, looking around at the noisy crowd. "The way I always heard it, he was the party animal. Sean just went along to run interference, since there was no telling who Patrick might decide to bring home otherwise."

Franklin, a slender man with a receding hairline and a sardonic smile, said reprovingly, "Now Jo, are you speaking ill of the dead?"

"Oh, mea culpa. I'm sure Patrick would really want to be remembered as a model husband and solid citizen."

"Don't laugh. Did you know he voted for Bush in '92?"

"You're joking."

"Cross my heart," Franklin insisted. "Fiscal responsibility first, Patrick always said."

"This from a man who never opened a savings account in his life."

Peter's hair was also thinning, and his waistline was beginning to thicken. He put one beefy arm around Jo's shoulders and said, "Well, at least Patrick had the sense to stick with a good thing when he found it. Sean was so great for him. You didn't know Patrick before he met Sean. He was wild and moody and he could be bitchy as hell, I'm telling you."

"It went both ways," Jo said. "He was good for Sean too. Being with Patrick gave Sean the guts to finally come out to Mom and Dad. Sean's such an honest person, it just made a world of difference to him, not having to lie or pretend anymore."

"How did your folks take it?" Peter asked.

"Oh, they went ballistic, of course. You notice they're not here tonight. But I think they're making progress. They even invited Sean to come spend some time at home if he needed to get away from everything for a bit. I think he's going to take them up on it." Jo took a deep breath, and tears brimmed in her eyes. "I don't know what Sean's going to do without him. Hey, Ginny, c'mon," she went on with a sudden briskness, "Let's get you something to drink."

Carol was in the kitchen, along with Sean and half a dozen others. Ginny hadn't dreamed that the apartment could hold so many people. "Hi Ginny," Sean said, giving her a kiss. He was very drunk. "Thanks for coming down. Are you meeting everybody all right?"

"Jo's been introducing me."

"My sister, the social butterfly," he grinned. "Ginny, I got a brand new bottle of Jack Daniels for you. Hasn't even been touched yet."

"Would it hurt your feelings if I just had a wine cooler or something instead?"

"A wine cooler? I'm wounded to the heart." Sean thumped on his chest for emphasis. "Besides, I'm sure there's not a girl drink like that in the place."

"Uh-huh," Jo was unimpressed. She swung open the refrigerator. "Would you prefer 'Wild Berry' or 'Tangerine Dream' Ginny?"

"The berry flavor sounds great, thanks."

"Sean, I'm going to go relieve Mary at the baby watch so she can come over for a little while," Carol said. "You'll let us know if you need anything, won't you?"

"Thanks Carol. But I'm sure you two have quite enough to do without looking after me, too. I'll pester Ginny if I need anything."

Carol said, smiling, "OK, then, Ginny, you let us know if you need anything."

"How's Sarah Ann doing?"

"She's a handful, just like you would expect. I'll let Mary tell you all about her." And Carol made her exit, leaving Ginny with one less person to talk to.

"Oh, I almost forgot one thing," Sean was saying to Jo. "Where's that footstool?"

"It's probably still in the living room, right where you left it."

"Oh, right." Sean lurched away into the living room, Jo close at his heels. Since there was no one else in the kitchen that Ginny knew, she trailed after them.

With some help from Jo and the other people standing around, Sean managed to climb up onto a low footstool. "Your attention please," he said, flicking a fingernail against his glass for emphasis. No one paid any attention until Jo turned off the stereo, and someone bellowed, "Hey, you girls shuddup for a minute."

"Thank you," Sean said gravely. "I have one last informal bequest to make on Patrick's behalf. Arthur's still here, isn't he? Arthur, where are you?"

"He's right here," said a young voice. Ginny looked over. It was Marc, the kid who had come up with Patrick and Sean the night of her disastrous date with Kevin. He was waving one hand in the air, his other arm draped around Arthur's neck. Ginny saw that she had been right about the newspaper story--it was the same Arthur after all.

"Arthur," Sean was saying portentously, "Based on everything Patrick told me about the very special relationship you two shared way back when, I feel certain he would have wanted you to have these."

And after a suitably dramatic pause, he produced a pair of shiny steel handcuffs from his coat pocket and held them aloft.A chorus of laughter and appreciative oohs went up. Arthur smiled faintly and shook his head. Marc came bounding up to claim the handcuffs. "Thank you, Sean. I promise to see they're put to good use."

More laughter. Ginny was just thinking that she would finish the rest of the wine cooler and make her own escape when Mary came up beside her and said, "Boy, I'm glad to see you here, at least. Has the whole evening been like this?"

"I don't know. I just got here. How are you doing?"

Mary shrugged. She looked better than the last time Ginny had seen her, but there were still dark circles of exhaustion under her eyes. "Motherhood's turning out to be a full-time proposition. I don't think I knew quite what I was getting into."

"I don't suppose anyone does," Ginny said. "Maybe they wouldn't do it if they did."

"How do you explain all the women who have more than one kid?"

"Selective amnesia?"

"Nice try, Ginny. I think I'm probably just not a very good mother. 'Scuse me. I'm going to catch Sean and pay my respects so I can get back to Sarah Ann." Mary laughed shortly. "As much as I complain, I still get antsy when she's out of my sight for more than five minutes."

"Well, there you go. It sounds to me like you're a wonderful mother," Ginny said, trying to be encouraging.

Mary shook her head and moved away through the crowd toward Sean. Ginny turned to go back to the kitchen, and found herself face to face with Marc. He was still holding the handcuffs.

"Hey, I know you," he said.

"Yeah, the damsel in distress," she said more sharply than she'd intended. "I'm sorry. I don't think I was sober enough to thank you that night. It's Marc, isn't it?"

"Marc it is. I don't remember your name."

"Ginny."

"Well, the pleasure was all mine, Ginny. No thanks needed." He jangled the handcuffs. "I wish I'd had these on hand when we threw that creep out of your apartment. I would have made him think twice about beating up girls. You OK?"

"I'm fine. And I haven't been a girl for a long time."

"Marc, put those things away," Arthur came up and took the handcuffs away from him. "Don't you know it's rude to brandish manacles at social functions?"

"Tell Sean, not me. Arthur, you remember Ginny don't you?"

"Yes. How are you? I'm afraid you're not seeing either one of us at our best tonight."

"I guess that makes us about even," Ginny said. "You certainly weren't catching me at my best when I first met you."

"Fair enough." Arthur smiled kindly. "Had you known Patrick for long?"

"It seems like hardly any time at all. I can't believe he's just gone like this--" Ginny felt herself beginning to choke up, and quickly changed the subject. "I saw the article in the paper last Sunday. Was that right? Are you really a ghosthunter? I thought that was only in the movies."

"Wait a minute," Marc said. "What article?"

Ginny said, "It was in the Sunday Times. There were pictures, and it described cases you had investigated."

"I don't believe you, Arthur," Marc complained loudly. "How could you not tell me about this?"

"Is it my fault if you don't read the paper? And the stories were very exaggerated. They were based on initial witness statements, not on what I eventually found, or in most cases, didn't find."

Marc wasn't mollified. "Well did you at least save me a copy?"

"No, I'm sorry. It didn't occur to me that you'd want to see it."

"Oh, right. I know you were just hoping that I wouldn't hear about it."

"I cut out the article, if you really want to see it," Ginny said hesitantly.

"Thank you, of course I'd like to see it. See, Arthur? That's what normal people do. They save newspaper articles about people they know. They don't squirm around and pretend the whole thing is one big embarrassment."

"I'll know better next time."

"Yeah, like I really believe that. Do you have the article handy, Ginny? I'd love to see evidence of Arthur's fifteen minutes."

Ginny shrugged, thinking this was the excuse she needed to escape from the party. "Of course. You can come up with me if you like."

"Don't go away, asshole," Marc kissed Arthur quickly. "I'll be back in five."

Chapter 15

Marc knelt on Ginny's living room floor and tried to make friends with Caesar. He wasn't having much luck. Caesar circled him at a wary distance, his ears flat and the hair on his back standing up in a ridge. "Does he bite?" Marc asked.

"Sometimes. He also scratches, but he'll usually hiss first to warn you."

Marc drew his hand back. "Sweet cat."

"He's nice when it suits him. Usually when he wants something from me."

"Oh, a typical guy, huh?"

Ginny smiled. "I didn't say that. I'm sorry, I could swear I put the clipping right around here somewhere."

She continued to shuffle through a week's worth of junk mail and coupons in the wicker basket where she usually tossed such items on the off-chance she might need them again. "Maybe I stuck it on the refrigerator. Just a minute."

She went into the kitchen and looked at the clippings pinned up with refrigerator magnets. They were mostly yellowing Doonesbury cartoons and notices of shows and gallery openings that she planned to go to but somehow never did. The story about Arthur wasn't among them. How embarrassing if she couldn't find it after all this. She stood in the kitchen for a moment longer, wracking her brains. She clearly remembered cutting the article out. What had she done with it?

When she went back into the living room, Marc had untied one of his shoes and was tempting Caesar with the tip of the shoelace. Caesar crouched only a foot away, his belly pressed to the carpet and the very tip of his tail twitching with the suppressed ecstacy of the hunt. His pupils suddenly dilated. Ginny started to warn Marc to be careful, but Caesar had already pounced.

"Shit!" Marc jerked his hand away and put his knuckles to his mouth. Caesar went bounding away down the hall with his tail in the air. "I thought you said he would hiss first," Marc complained, sounding betrayed.

"You were playing with him. That's different. Are you all right?"

Marc looked at the back of his hand. "Has he had his rabies shot?"

"Of course he has. How bad is it?"

Marc held his hand out to her, pouting. Caesar had torn four white scratches up the back of his hand and across his knuckles. Blood was just beginning to appear in bright red beads.

"Oh no. He really nailed you, didn't he? Hold on just a minute. I've got peroxide."

She went to the bathroom and came back with a box of cotton balls and a brown plastic bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Marc eyed her suspiciously. "Will it sting?"

"No." Ginny dumped peroxide onto a cotton ball, then swabbed the back of his hand.

"Oh, Jesus." He jerked his hand away from her. "You liar."

"Alcohol would have hurt worse."

"Did I ask for a comparative analysis?"

"Let me finish cleaning it. The scratches will heal a lot faster. Believe me, I know."

"I'm sure you do, living with a monster like that."

Marc reluctantly held his hand out again and she wiped the blood away, ignoring his theatrical hisses of pain. "There you go. It'll do better if you don't bandage it."

Marc regarded the parallel pink lines critically. "Oh well. At least I'll have a souvenir of the evening. I don't suppose you've found that article yet, have you?"

"No, and I don't know where I could have put it." Ginny stood up and began looking around the living room again.

"Oh, I get it. I get the picture. You lured me up here just to feed me to that man-eating beast of yours."

"Oh wait--" Ginny had just spotted the slightly ragged edges of newsprint protruding from the pages of the John Grisham novel she was reading. She opened the book and found the article folded in quarters to mark her place. "Here it is."

"Hey, great." Marc took the paper from her, his scratched hand suddenly forgotten. "A full page? This is so cool. I can't believe Arthur didn't even tell me about it. He's such a flake sometimes. Look, a picture and everything. He looks pretty good, doesn't he?" he asked, holding out the picture for her approval.

Ginny smiled at Marc. "Very handsome."

Marc read from the caption under the picture. "'Most respected ghosthunter on the West Coast--declined to be interviewed--'" He looked up at Ginny. "Makes him sound mysterious, doesn't it? I think he should start going around in a tuxedo and tails like Harry Houdini."

"Or in baggy sweatpants like Bill Murray," Ginny said.

"Oh, don't even start. When I really want to bug him, I come up behind him and start doing the Ghostbusters theme. He hits the ceiling every time. Does it mention Lil?" he asked, scanning the article.

"Who?"

"She's the psychic Arthur works with."

"No, I don't think so."

"Probably just as well. She's a C.P.A. Her boss might think twice about that kind of notoriety."

Marc settled down to read in earnest. Ginny went into the kitchen and put a kettle of water on the stove to boil. She came back and said, "I'm making lemon tea. Would you like some?"

Marc stood up. "Oh, no, I'd better be getting back. Can I borrow this? Maybe you could write down your address for me, and I could mail it back to you after I make a copy."

"Just keep it, really. It's the least I can do after Caesar mauled you like that."

"Thanks at lot. You'll let me know if your cat starts foaming at the mouth won't you?"

"I think you've seen Ole Yeller too many times."

"Nah, I was thinking of Cujo."

After he had gone, Ginny poured the tea and settled down with her novel. From the noise in the courtyard it sounded as though Patrick's party was still going strong. Ginny thought that Jo was right--Patrick would probably appreciate all the commotion in his memory. Caesar was in high spirits, prancing stiff-legged around the apartment and pouncing at imaginary prey, then looking over his shoulder at Ginny to be sure that she was watching him. "You're a very bad cat," she scolded him. "What am I going to do with you?"

She read for the next hour, engrossed in a world of law firms that bore very little resemblance to Reed Wallace's. Downstairs she heard people beginning to leave. She was about to get up and get ready for bed, but then Caesar jumped into her lap and began purring extravagantly, so she sat for a while longer, scratching him behind the ears and thinking that maybe she wouldn't move to Maddie and Chuck's after all. The guest house was beautiful, and Chuck and Maddie were both very nice people, but seeing them again this morning, she realized that she simply didn't like them very much. And hadn't their neighborhood been a little too quiet? She could picture herself sitting up in that lonely guest house night after night, with no sound at all but the waves, perhaps, and the New Age music floating up from Chuck and Maddie's windows.

Someone came running up the stairs and knocked on Ginny's door.

Caesar leaped down in an exaggerated panic and disappeared into the bedroom. What now? Ginny wondered, a little exasperated. "Who is it?"

"Hey, sorry to bother you. It's Marc."

She opened the door. "Yes?" She saw the look on Marc's face and immediately asked, "Is something wrong?"

"Arthur didn't come up here, did he?"

"No."

Marc turned around. "Damn him." He turned back to Ginny. "And you haven't seen him?"

"Not since I left the party. What's wrong?"

"I can't find him."

"Can't find him?" Ginny wasn't sure she understood. "You mean he's not at Sean's anymore?"

"Right. It was so crowded, I didn't realize Arthur wasn't around until people began to clear out."

"Did you see him at all after you left here?"

"I'm not sure, but I don't think so. Damn him. I'm going to kill him for wandering off like this." He was struggling to maintain a facade of annoyance, but his eyes looked very young and scared to Ginny.

"Maybe he just went home early," she suggested.

"Not very likely. I drove."

"You're sure he couldn't have gotten a ride with someone else?"

"Without even telling me? No way," Marc said irritably. "And no, he didn't go home with someone else either, so don't bother to ask."

"I'm sorry."

"No, I'm sorry." Marc stalked to the end of the landing and back. "It's those fuckers downstairs, all giving me these pitying looks. They just think Arthur skipped out on me. Well, he didn't."

"OK," Ginny said. "I believe you."

"I didn't even want to come tonight, but Arthur insisted, and then this goes and happens."

"Wait a minute, nothing's happened. It was pretty crowded in that apartment. Maybe he just took a walk to clear his head. "

"Yeah, I guess so. Maybe." Marc smiled unhappily. "Sorry I bothered you." He turned and started down the stairs. He looked so alone that after a moment Ginny said, "Marc, wait."

"What?"

"What are you going to do? You're not going to drive home without him, are you?"

"I probably should, shouldn't I?"

"I didn't say that."

"Maybe you're right. Maybe he just took a walk. I guess I'll go take a walk too."

"Here." Ginny picked up her keys and locked the front door behind her. "I'll come with you."

"It's not your problem."

"How about if we just go around the block and see if we can find him?"

"All right." Marc jammed his hands into his jeans pockets and turned away. "Thanks."

***

The street was empty and quiet. The street lights made everything look crisp and strangely precise, but the shadows under the pepper trees and palms were impenetrably dark.

Then the light changed at the intersection half a block away, and a handful of cars spilled down San Ysidro. Their headlights momentarily lit up the shadowed places under the trees. The cars went by all in a bunch, even though it was past midnight and the streets were practically empty otherwise. L.A. drivers seemed to prefer traveling in packs, like wolves. Ginny was glad she hadn't let Marc come out by himself, even though she suspected she was meddling in something that was none of her business. It would probably turn out to be some kind of lovers' quarrel, and the last thing Marc and Arthur would need was her standing around like a chaperon.

Marc glanced up and down the street, which was once again quiet and still. "What would he be doing out here anyway?"

Ginny only began walking, since she had no answer for him. Most of the houses were dark, but some had motion-activated floodlights that turned on as she and Marc went by. When they turned off again, the shadows seemed darker than ever. Another pack of cars went by. There was no one out on foot but her and Marc. The only sounds were the dull, distant roar of traffic, and the click-click of Ginny's loafers on the sidewalk.

They passed the alley where Ginny had seen the gray rabbit the morning after Patrick's death. Marc stopped for a moment, looking up the shadowy black lane.

"He wouldn't have gone up there, would he?" she asked.

"Not unless he's an even bigger idiot than I thought," Marc grumbled. "But maybe we should check it out, just in case."

It was the last thing Ginny wanted to do, but she walked beside Marc through the alley without saying a word. The pavement was treacherous with potholes and loose gravel. Although she had remembered the alley as long and winding, she and Marc reached the end of it after a two-minute walk. When they were on the main street again, she turned and looked back down the alley. She could see straight down it to the street lights at the far end.

"This is ridiculous," Marc said impatiently. "Even if he is out here, we're not going to find him like this. Let's go back."

***

Sean's front door was open. Light spilled out into the courtyard, along with the loud, sharp sound of male voices and laughter. Ginny said, "You want to check one more time? Maybe he's come back."

"Yeah, all right. I'll just be a minute." Marc crossed the yard in a few long strides and disappeared into Sean's apartment. He returned a few minutes later. From the slump of his shoulders Ginny knew he hadn't found Arthur. "Nah. He's not there," Marc said. "But this one guy told me he saw Arthur leaving a little bit after I went up with you, so it sounds like he's been gone maybe an hour." He made an abrupt, angry gesture. "Fuck, man. I hate this."

Ginny had a thought. "Have you looked behind the building yet?"

"No. Why would he be back there?"

"Well I don't know, but it's worth a shot, isn't it?"

She led the way through the narrow passage at the back of the courtyard. It was hard to see once they got away from the lights of the courtyard, and the voices from Sean's apartment fell suddenly silent. The recycling bins loomed blackly against the cinder block wall at the rear of the property. "Arthur?" Marc called quietly. "You're not back here, are you?"

Something scuffled in the darkness, tiny claws on asphalt. "Aw shit," Marc groaned, sounding miserable. "What was that?"

"Mice, probably. I know the downstairs tenants have problems with them sometimes." Even though Ginny tried to sound nonchalant, she was aware of an unpleasant, crawly sensation around her ankles as she made her way to the laundry alcove at the corner where there was a light. How terrible it would be if she should suddenly feel the brush of fur, or even worse, tiny hairless paws--

"Ah, here it is." Her groping fingers found the light switch. Two hundred and fifty watts blazed out, momentarily blinding her. She looked away. As the spots faded she thought she saw a flash of movement, just there behind the small, screened access panel to the crawlspace under the building. She looked more closely, blinking, but if there had been anything there, it was gone now.

Maybe she ought to move to Chuck and Maddie's after all. This place was really beginning to get on her nerves.

"Well, he's not back here," Marc announced unnecessarily. "Look, Ginny, I really appreciate your help, but all this wandering around in the dark is pointless."

They walked back to the courtyard. Ginny said, "If you think something might have happened to him, then maybe we should call the police. You use my phone."

"Nah, the truth is I was acting like a jerk all evening. Maybe Arthur finally got sick of it and took off." Marc sighed. "Well, good for him. He takes too much shit from me as it is." They stopped at Ginny's stairwell. "Thanks again," he said. "Sorry about all the bother."

"It wasn't any bother. Take care," Ginny said unhappily.

Marc shrugged and headed for the street.

Ginny started up her staircase, then reeled away, gagging. The enclosed stairwell reeked of vomit and human excrement.

Marc rushed back to her. "What is it?"

"I don't know," Ginny lowered her voice. "I think someone's on the landing outside my apartment.

Marc caught a whiff of the stench from the open doorway. "Oh, man. Must be a homeless person or something. Here, I'll go up."

"Wait," Ginny grabbed his arm. "Maybe we should just call the police from Sean's place."

"I never knew a girl so eager to call the cops," Marc joked humorlessly. "If it's just some bum, do you really want to see him locked up for the night because he chose the wrong place to get in from the cold?"

"I guess not."

"Wait here."

Marc covered his nose and mouth with his hand and started up. Ginny pressed the sleeve of her shirt over her nose and followed him. Around the corner of the landing, a man lay huddled against Ginny's front door.

"Oh god," Marc muttered, disgusted. He bent over the crumpled figure and touched his shoulder. "Hey, buddy, wake up. You can't sleep here."

There was no response.

Marc shook his shoulder more firmly. "Come on, wake up. You don't want us to get the police, do you?"

The man groaned and Marc jerked back as though he'd been slapped. Then he dropped awkwardly to his knees beside him. "Isn't there a light in this fucking staircase?" he demanded frantically.

"It's been burned out for weeks."

"Hurry up then, get your door open."

"Marc," she protested, "I don't want him in my apartment."

"But it's Arthur," he yelled, his voice breaking with fury. "For chrissakes, Ginny, open the door."

Chapter 16

Marc came out of the bathroom gingerly carrying a bundle of soiled clothes. "I'm going to run these down to the washing machine. Arthur's sitting in about six inches of water in the bathtub, and I don't think he could drown in that, but if you hear a splash, would you please check on him? I'll be right back."

"Is he doing better?" Ginny asked.

"Well, he's coherent now," Marc smiled weakly.

That was an improvement. When she and Marc had first pulled him in off the landing, Arthur had only curled up in a fetal position on her living room floor, whimpering and trying to shield his face from the overhead light. "He says he doesn't want to go to the hospital, and he doesn't seem to have a temperature, so as long as he doesn't get any worse--"

"Marc," Ginny said as gently as she could, simply wanting to spare him the embarrassment of continuing to cover for Arthur, "He's just drunk, isn't he?"

"You're kidding. Is that what you think? You think he's drunk?"

Actually, Ginny was thinking that it was no wonder Marc had been worried when Arthur disappeared from the party. This sort of thing probably happened all the time. Poor, stupid kid. Ginny felt a surge of pity for him. Surely he deserved better than this.

Marc went on, "Listen, I'm not denying that Arthur was drinking tonight, but this isn't booze, believe me. He doesn't drink like that."

"This must have been a difficult evening for him. Patrick was an old--uh, friend, wasn't he? Of course he was upset."

"No," Marc snapped at her, "That isn't it at all. You have no idea what you're talking about. If he was that drunk he'd be stinking of alcohol, wouldn't he? I don't smell anything but shit and vomit, do you?"

It was a ridiculous argument, Marc standing there in her bedroom holding the reeking bundle of clothes. All Ginny said was, "I've got Clorox and some detergent in the kitchen. I'll get it for you."

Marc's anger evaporated. "Thanks. But really, he isn't drunk. I wish you'd believe me."

"All right," Ginny agreed. "It doesn't matter, and anyway, it's none of my business."

"Well, he's sitting in your bathtub, so I guess that makes it your business as much as anybody's."

She went to the kitchen and brought out bleach and detergent. As Marc started down the stairs she asked him, "Do you have any quarters for the machine?"

He stopped and checked his pockets. "No, I guess not."

She dumped out the change jar she kept for laundry. "Here you go."

She lit a stick of incense after he had gone to mask the lingering smell, then went back to the bedroom so she could hear Arthur if he needed anything. Caesar was crouched on the corner of her bed, watching the bathroom door with eyes that were as big as saucers. "It's been a pretty strange evening, hasn't it?" she told him.

Caesar blinked at her and looked back at the bathroom door. There was no sound from the bathroom, no splash of water, nothing at all. Ginny started to worry. Marc was taking a long time with the laundry. Long enough for Arthur to very quietly drown in her bathtub. She went and rapped gently on the door. "Are you all right in there?"

"I'm all right." Arthur's voice was reasonably steady.

"Marc will be back in a minute. He just went down to throw your things in the wash."

"I know," he said quietly. "Thank you." He sounded well enough to be embarrassed by the whole sordid predicament. Ginny left him alone after that.

Marc came galloping back up the stairs a few minutes later. "How long's the wash cycle? Do you know?"

"Thirty-five minutes, I think," Ginny told him.

He checked his watch. "OK, so they should be ready to go in the dryer right at three." Then he looked at Ginny. "Oh, man, it's really getting late, isn't it? You probably want to go to bed."

"It doesn't matter. It's Saturday night."

"I'll pay you back for the quarters," he announced, reaching for his wallet. "Here, I've got a five. Just keep the change."

She pushed the bill away. "If you really want to pay me back, give me quarters when you have them. Paper money's useless to a coin laundry junkie like me."

"I'll shower you with quarters," he promised.

"My white robe's hanging on the bathroom door. It's probably big enough for Arthur. If you need anything else, just ask." Ginny settled down on the sofa and turned on the television with the remote.

"OK, thanks."

She found an old Barbara Stanwick movie playing on one of the local channels, but she could still hear Marc and Arthur's voices down the hall, Marc's coaxing and persistent, Arthur's just a dry whisper. She must have drifted off to sleep then, because when she looked up later and saw Marc walking in the front door, she had no idea what he was doing there.

"It's all right," he told her. "I was just putting Arthur's stuff in the dryer."

"Oh," she said.

She didn't know if she were dreaming or awake a while later when she heard Marc say, quite distinctly, "Well, Jesus, Arthur, all I know is I think I'd feel better if we could find a doctor who would give you a pregnancy test."

The next time Ginny woke up it was broad daylight, and it took her a moment to figure out why she'd spent the night on the couch. When she finally remembered, she got up and walked quietly back to her bedroom, wondering if Marc and Arthur were still here.

They were. She found them both asleep in her bed, curled up on top of the comforter as though it would have been abusing her hospitality to simply get underneath. Arthur was covered with the hand-crocheted orange afghan of Aunt Helen's that Ginny usually kept hidden in the chest at the foot of the bed, and Marc lay close beside him, still in his jeans and t-shirt, one arm draped protectively over Arthur's shoulder. He hadn't bothered to fold Arthur's clothes after getting them out of the dryer, and they were tossed in a heap next to Marc's sneakers on the floor. Caesar was crouched on top of the chest of drawers, staring down balefully at the interlopers. Ginny wondered if he had kept a vigil there all night.

She tiptoed to the bathroom. When she got out, Marc was awake and sitting on the edge of the bed. They both went into the kitchen before speaking. "I'm really sorry about this," Marc said. "But you and Arthur were both sound asleep by the time the clothes were dry. It seemed easiest just to let you sleep."

"I'm glad you stayed. I'm sure that was best for Arthur." Ginny started a pot of coffee.

"It was really great of you to take us in last night. It would have been a real hassle trying to get Arthur home, the state he was in."

"I noticed."

"I wanna explain what happened--"

"Marc, you don't have to explain anything to me. You and Arthur helped me out when I needed it. I'm glad I got to repay the favor."

"I don't want to argue with you," Marc said irritably. "But would you just listen for a minute?"

Ginny sat down. "Go ahead. I'm listening."

"It has to do with Arthur's ghosthunting. Sometimes when he's investigating a really violent haunting, something just clicks. It's like he connects with the very source of the disturbance, whatever it is. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it can make him pretty sick." Marc smiled. "His partner Lil calls it having a hot flash. It really shook me up the first time I saw it. Actually, it still shakes me up."

"I can see why," Ginny agreed mildly.

When the coffee was ready, she poured herself a cup and then one for Marc. "Is there any milk?" he asked.

"It's in the fridge."

Marc helped himself to the milk carton and Ginny said cautiously, "So are you telling me that my apartment building is so badly haunted that it made Arthur physically ill?"

Marc hedged. "Oh, well, I don't know where Arthur was exactly when it happened. He says all he remembers is trying to find me afterwards. Do you have sugar anywhere?"

Ginny got an unopened box of Pure Cane brand down out of the cabinet and handed it to him. "He couldn't have gotten very far, could he? As badly off as he was last night? I'm amazed he made it up the stairs." She didn't know why she was pressing the point.

"Yeah, you're right, actually." Marc ripped the entire top off the sugar box and poured a quantity into his coffee cup. "Don't take this personally or anything, but I had a really bad feeling about this place from the start. I didn't even want to come back for Patrick's memorial."

"You said something like that last night."

"Did I?" Marc gave a little snort of laughter. "I guess you probably think Arthur and I are a couple of complete flakes."

Since Ginny couldn't entirely deny that, she shrugged and said, "I don't know what I think. You're very convincing, but really, I don't even believe in ghosts."

"And you've never seen anything around here? Never had--I don't know--just a funny feeling? Something you couldn't explain?"

Marc was beginning to get on her nerves. She wished he would go wake Arthur up and get out of her apartment. But to her amazement she heard herself saying, "I did see Patrick the night he died." She looked away, wondering why she was telling Marc this. "He was sitting on the foot of my bed, scratching Caesar's head. Caesar was purring, and I could swear I felt Patrick's weight on the mattress. He looked peaceful, contented. I think he was even smiling." Tears came to her eyes at the memory. "Then when I turned on the light, he was gone, and I knew he was dead."

"Did you tell Sean about it?"

"No. Of course not. I haven't told anyone till now."

"Because you don't believe in ghosts?" Marc asked, with a gentleness in his tone that surprised her.

"No. I don't really know why not."

"Good morning." Arthur stood in the kitchen door, looking disheveled in his wrinkled shirt, but otherwise well. "That coffee smells wonderful."

Marc beamed at him. "Hey, baby. How are you feeling?"

"I feel fine."

Ginny poured a cup of coffee and handed it to him. "Thank you," he said, taking a long drink. "I hope Marc's already apologized abjectly for all of this."

"He explained what happened. I'm just glad you're all right."

Arthur glanced at Marc. "He explained it? Then you must think you've been harboring a pair of lunatics."

"Fortunately, Ginny's the openminded sort," Marc said with a grin.

"Evidently so." Arthur smiled at her. "Thank you for everything. Marc told me what it was like when you found me last night. It's not everyone who would take in a total stranger like that."

"You're hardly strangers anymore," She got up quickly and went to the refrigerator. "Would either of you like some toast or something? I think I've got some eggs, too, but I'm not sure how fresh they are."

"No, but thank you," Arthur said. "I'm sure we've imposed on your hospitality quite enough. Maybe if we go now you can try to enjoy what's left of your weekend."

"Ginny was just telling me that she saw Patrick's ghost right about the time he died," Marc blurted out. "You think it could be Patrick that made you so sick?"

"No," Ginny protested, feeling a little betrayed. "It wasn't like that at all. I told you, Marc, he looked--I don't know, at peace. It was like he was saying goodbye. You're making it sound like a scene from The Exorcist."

Arthur smiled again. "We'll take it for granted that the Prince of Evil isn't involved here. But when you saw Patrick, where there any physical sensations at all? Sounds, smells, change in temperature?"

"It got cold," Ginny said slowly, remembering. "I've never been so cold in L.A."

"Where did you see him?"

"He was sitting on the foot of her bed," Marc said.

"Was the room dark?"

"Yes. Well, pretty much. The street light comes in through the blinds so it's never completely dark. I could see him very clearly. I thought he was real."

Marc broke in again, "You said you could feel his weight on the mattress, and that he was petting the cat--"

"Please, Marc," Arthur chided him.

Ginny said, "Caesar was even purring. He usually doesn't like strangers."

"Tell me about it," Marc said, holding his scratched hand out to Arthur. "Look what he did to me last night."

"I'm sorry, but I don't believe that Patrick's ghost is hanging around here. Whatever's wrong with this place, it's not Patrick--" Ginny broke off.

Arthur said gently, "So you do think there's something wrong?"

She looked away. "It's a rent-controlled building," she said, laughing a little. "It would be easier to tell you what isn't wrong with it. I've been asking the manager to replace the light in the stairwell for a month now. And I can just forget about getting any substantial repairs done."

Marc

made an abrupt sound of annoyance, but Arthur only drained his coffee cup and told Ginny, "We'll be on our way. Would you like Marc and I to see if we can replace that light bulb for you before we go?" Chapter 17

In Mary's dream, she and Carol had gone to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, just as they'd done so often their first summer together, taking the shuttle bus and then hiking up to the three-dollar seats lugging a picnic basket and a bottle of wine. In her dream she was trying to pay attention to the music, but every time she thought she could pick out a few familiar bars--oh, it was a Tchaikovsky program--or was it Beethoven?--the music would slip away from her and go trailing off into strange places where she was unable to follow.

It was a chilly night. She and Carol were huddled together under Carol's ragged wool blanket, the one with the big red and black checks and the unraveling fringe. How odd, Mary thought. I was sure that we'd thrown that blanket out years ago. She was grateful for its protection nevertheless. The wind was cold, and Carol was shivering beside her.

"Here, sweetie," Mary passed the wine bottle to Carol. "Drink up. We should have brought brandy tonight."

"Brandy?"

"Isn't brandy supposed to keep you warm?"

"I thought that's what you were here for." Carol tilted the bottle up, and Mary admired the beautiful line of her throat as she drank. A trickle of red wine was running from the corner of Carol's mouth when she put the bottle down. Mary pulled the blanket up over their heads for a moment so she could lick the wine from Carol's face. Carol laughed and pushed her away. "Control yourself, girl."

"Why should I?" Under the cover of the blanket, she snaked her arm around Carol's waist and up under her shirt.

Carol slapped at her arm. "Stop it. Your fingers are freezing." She handed the wine bottle back to Mary. "Wrap your hands around that till we get home."

The wine bottle was strangely warm. Mary looked down. It was growing in her hands, the glass becoming soft and yielding, and now it was nuzzling up against her like something alive. She backed away frantically, but she was caught by the blanket, and she couldn't move, couldn't escape--

"Hey, wake up, it's just us."

Mary opened her eyes and looked at Carol, sitting on the edge of the bed with Sarah Ann squirming and crying in her arms. "Oh. Dinner time again?"

"I'm afraid so."

Mary rolled over on her side, and tugged her pajama top open. "Ok. Hand 'er over."

Carol laid Sarah Ann down on the bed beside her, and Mary pulled her close. Sarah Ann's head butted against her, heavy and awkward. "Here you go, sweetheart. Haven't you got this figured out by now?" She rested her arm against Sarah Ann's back and supported her fragile, ungainly skull with her hand. Sarah Ann's mouth finally found her nipple and began pulling hard. "Hey, easy does it there. It's on the way."

Carol lay down behind Mary and pulled the blanket up, managing to get her arms around both of them. As the milk let down, Sarah Ann's nursing became gentler, and Mary was overwhelmed by a sudden, sweet feeling of warmth and security. Carol's cheek touched the back of her shoulder, and Mary drifted off to sleep again, back into her dream.

She was huddled under the old checkered blanket with Carol, holding Sarah Ann to her breast. The strange music was playing on the bandstand far, far away. Mary felt Carol's head resting on her shoulder. "I'm glad we came tonight, aren't you?"

Carol didn't answer her. Curious, Mary looked over at her. Carol's face was taut with worry. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"What are you holding?"

"What do you mean?" Mary could feel Sarah Ann's warm, tender weight in her arms. "It's our baby."

There was a rumbling all around them. Mary tried to see what was happening. They were no longer sitting on the poured-concrete benches at the Bowl, but on stainless steel bleachers. People on both sides were pounding their feet, making the benches roar. And something was happening below them. Mary looked down, past the steel risers to the shadowy places underneath, and she saw a flurry of movement on the ground far below. Pale, short-limbed creatures with oversized heads were crawling back and forth, over and around each other, like an infestation of unimaginable vermin.

"Oh my god," Mary groaned in horror. She stood up, trying to explain to Carol why they had to get away, but Sarah Ann began twisting in her arms. Mary couldn't hold on to her, and then she was slipping away, falling out of her arms, and tumbling down past the risers into the writhing mass far below.

Mary woke up. Someone was trying to pull Sarah Ann out of her arms. She cried out, and Carol whispered, "Hush, dear, you'll wake the baby. I was just going to put her back in her crib."

"I want her to stay," Mary said. "Please?"

"Whatever you want," Carol said, crawling back into bed beside her. "Bad dreams?"

"I guess so."

"Nervous about seeing Zack tomorrow?"

"Oh, tomorrow's the day, isn't it?" Mary agreed sleepily.

"I'll call him in the morning and put it off if you're not up to it."

Sarah Ann had been awakened by their conversation. Mary stroked the top of her tender head, scaly with cradle cap. "No, I'm fine. Maybe you're right, though. I was dreaming about Sarah Ann slipping out of my arms. Maybe I'm worried about Zack after all."

"I know. It's hard not to be, just a little bit."

Mary giggled suddenly. "Presumptuous of us, isn't it? To think that the minute he lays eyes on our little bundle of joy, he might suddenly decide that he wants to raise her himself."

Carol laughed too. "Well, who wouldn't want her? As beautiful and intelligent as she is."

"Can you imagine what a custody fight would be like? The court would go crazy. Is it better to award custody to a fag or to a couple of dykes?"

"They might just give her to Zack after all. Imagine the kind of perversions the poor girl might be subjected to, being raised by a pair like us."

"No, no, you don't understand the breeder mentality at all." Sarah Ann was wide awake now, infected by their hilarity, squirming and making purposeful little noises. "They'd never give custody to a gay man. Who knows what unimaginably perverse abuses he might perpetrate against a little girl? It's too horrible to think of."

"We shouldn't laugh, actually. What if, say, Zack's parents sued for custody?"

"Or your sister and brother-in-law, for that matter, or my senile Grandmother Lewis? Carol, we've already been through all this a million times."

"I know," Carol reached out and touched Mary's face. "Would you get mad at me if I told you how wonderful it is to have you back?"

"Why? Where have I been?" Mary asked severely.

"I shouldn't have put it that way."

"I'm kidding. I know exactly what you mean. I feel like I am back, actually, like I've finally woken up from a long, bad dream. You know, the first couple of weeks after I got home, Sarah Ann seemed like such a frightening imposition in my life. I loved her, but I was terrified. Now I can't imagine living without her."

"Still scared?" Carol asked gently.

"Hell yes. But it seems worth it now. Before, I wasn't sure."

"Still want to move?"

Mary took a deep breath. "You know we never really intended to raise her in the city like this. But no, I don't have to get out right this minute anymore. I can wait till the right opportunity comes along, maybe when Sarah Ann is a little older. Can you imagine what house hunting with her would be like?"

"It had occurred to me that she would be an interesting complication."

"And you were too sweet to say anything. Thank you."

"And you're not hearing noises anymore?" Carol asked more hesitantly.

Mary fell silent. It was true that she hadn't heard anything in a couple of days, not since her depression had begun to wear off. But she couldn't help thinking perversely that just because she heard things only when she was in low spirits, that didn't necessarily make them only a symptom of her depression.

All she told Carol was, "No, honey. I don't hear a thing anymore."

***

Lured by the flyers that had been scattered all over the office advertising a $4.95 luncheon buffet, on Wednesday Ginny and Kate tried the Indian place that had just opened up around the corner. It was turning out to be a depressing experience. The food was good, but she and Kate were the only customers in the entire restaurant. The waiters hovered around them anxiously even though there was nothing for them to do but fill their water glasses. The buffet table stretched the length of the little store-front restaurant, laden with great vats of curried vegetables fried in ghee with cardamon and whole cinnamon sticks, thick yellow dal, sweet rice with currants, stacks of tandoori chicken, and all kinds of chutneys beautifully arranged in cut glass serving bowls.

Kate and Ginny both piled their plates high, feeling an obscure sense of guilt that they couldn't eat even more to somehow justify such tremendous preparations of food. As one of the two waiters came over to top off their water glasses for the third time in five minutes, Kate mouthed to Ginny, "Never again."

"Not even for $4.95," Ginny whispered back. "It just seems so sad. I hate coming back from lunch depressed. It's usually the high point of my day."

"I bet lunch wasn't the best part of the day when you were at the museum," Kate said.

"It's not a valid comparison," Ginny said. "I wasn't working full days then. I usually had lunch at home with William." And then, just to change the subject, she asked abruptly, "Do you believe in ghosts, Kate?"

"All right, all right," Kate said. "I can take a hint."

"I'm serious. Do you believe in ghosts? I'd really like to know."

"What do you mean by 'ghost'? Are you talking about Jacob Marley wrapped in chains and frightening Scrooge, or Patrick Swayze giving Demi Moore an ectoplasmic kiss? You mean ghosts as proof of survival after death, or just wispy things in sheets hanging around English manor houses and scaring off the servants?"

"Shut up," Ginny said, laughing. "I don't know. Just garden variety ghosts. Did you see the article in the paper the Sunday before last, about a guy named Arthur Drake who's some kind of professional ghosthunter?"

"I must have missed that."

"Well, I talked to him at a party last Saturday night, and he told me that he thought my apartment building was haunted."

"Uh huh. Did he ask you for money? Or offer to perform a seance?"

"What? No, of course not. He wasn't a con artist like Reed's psychic spoonbender." Ginny smiled ruefully. "Although he and his boyfriend did end up spending the night."

"I see." Kate looked as though she were struggling to keep a straight face. "On the couch, I hope."

"Actually I was on the couch. They got the bed."

Kate laughed out loud. "Sounds like quite a party. What happened?"

"It's not nearly as exciting as it sounds. Arthur had a little too much to drink is all. But I would like to know what you think about ghosts."

"Well, I've never experienced anything that would lead me to believe that the personality can survive death. Does that answer your question?"

"I don't know. It's just that when Arthur asked me if I'd ever thought there was something wrong with the apartment building, suddenly a lot of things that I'd been trying to ignore, I just couldn't anymore."

"What kind of things, Ginny? Are you feeling threatened by something?"

"Threatened? I don't know if I'd put it like that. It seems kind of strong for something that I don't even know is real. You know what? Never mind. It was a strange weekend. The good thing about coming back to work is that it always manages to drag my feet back down to the ground."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure my feet are firmly on the ground."

Kate looked at her skeptically. "In that case, you want to come see a movie with me Saturday night? Zombies of the Stratosphere is playing in a double feature with The Man with the X-Ray Eyes at the Beverly."

Ginny smiled. "Sounds like just what I need."

Chapter 18

Zack knocked on the door at eight on the dot. Glancing at the clock, Mary said softly, "He's still the prompt one, isn't he?"

Carol was laughing when she opened the door. Zack took a step back from the threshold, looking at the two of them suspiciously. "Why do I have the feeling this is about me?"

Carol took the pizza box from him and kissed him on the cheek. "Only because you have a nasty, suspicious mind. This smells wonderful, thank you."

"It's from Vincente's. Best veggie pizzas in town," he said, glancing surreptitiously around the room.

Carol carried the pizza into the kitchen, and Mary watched him for a moment before asking, amusedly, "Are you looking for something?"

He gave up and sat down on the sofa next to her. "So you're tired of motherhood already, are you? What did you do? Trade the baby in for tickets to a k.d. lang concert?"

"Shows what you know," Carol called from the kitchen. "Mary is actully more the Guns 'n Roses type. The pizza looks fantastic, Zack. What's on here? Eggplant? Artichoke hearts?"

"Yes and yes, I think. Plus the olives and mushrooms and red peppers."

"Those I recognized. Here we go." Carol came out balancing a stack of napkins and three plates in her arms, each overflowing with a fat slice of pizza. "What would you like to drink? We've got some Trader Joe's red wine and iced herb tea. I think it's Lemon Zinger, isn't it, Mary?"

"I finished the Lemon Zinger last night. I didn't make any more, so unless you did--"

Zack stood up and helped Carol set the plates down on the coffee table. "Oops, scratch the ice tea then. We've got water."

"The wine sounds good. Can I help with anything?"

"You brought the pizza. Just sit tight."

"Oh, come on you two," Zack finally burst out. "Can I please see Sarah Ann?"

"And let the pizza get cold?" Mary asked severely.

Carol came out of the kitchen again, this time with two glasses of wine and one of water. "I'm sorry, Zack. I know we're incorrigible. Of course you can come back and see the baby. She's sleeping right now, miraculously enough."

She led the way down the hall. "We're keeping the crib in our bedroom," Carol whispered. "It works out easiest for those midnight feedings."

"Every four hours, just like clockwork," Mary groaned.

Zack squeezed her hand sympathetically, but couldn't help saying, "You know, it's not like anybody held a gun to your head."

"Afraid I'm going to start blaming you?" Mary said.

"The thought crossed my mind."

"Well, here she is," Carol said. "What do you think?"

Zack stepped cautiously up to the crib. Sarah Ann was asleep on her stomach, her head turned to the side, one hand clenched into a fist beside her soft, pug-nosed face.

"Oh," Zack said softly.

"Yes, it really is a baby," Mary said.

Zack held on to the top rung of the crib and stared down at her, transfixed. Sarah Ann stirred in her sleep, kicking one foot, and then suddenly opened her eyes wide.

"She has brown eyes," Zack whispered. "She got my eyes."

Mary was on the verge of remarking that a dominant eye-color gene was no reason for him to get cocky, but the look on his face stopped her. "Can I touch her?" Zack asked.

"Sure, she's awake now." Carol lowered the side of the crib and picked her up. Sarah Ann looked around groggily, then stuck most of her fist in her mouth.

Zack reached out and gently stroked her back. "Do you want to hold her?" Carol asked.

He drew his hand back. "Do you think it would be all right?"

"As long as you don't drop her on her head," Mary said.

He held out his arms like someone getting ready to carry a load of firewood, and Carol gently shifted Sarah Ann over to him. "Oh my goodness," he whispered, gathering her close. Sarah Ann's head bumped against his chest, and she looked up at him with surprised, reproachful eyes.

"I think she's used to a little more padding," Carol said.

"Sorry about that," he told Sarah Ann. He jogged her gently in his arms. "And what do you think of the world so far, little friend?

Mary crossed her arms over her chest and said to Carol, "What did I tell you? The pizza's going to be stone cold."

***

When Ginny's phone rang that night, she couldn't think of anyone she wanted to talk to, so she didn't get up from the couch. After two more rings, her answering machine picked up.

"Hello Ginny, it's William. How are you doing? Listen, the reason I'm calling is, Maddie rang me up today and said that she and Chuck hadn't heard back from you about the apartment yet. They don't want to pester you, but if you've decided that you don't want the place, you should give them a call and let them know so they can find someone else."

There was a pause. Ginny sat still, hoping he would hang up. He didn't. "But I hope you're going to take it, Ginny. It would be so great for you, it really would. All right--I know you're not interested in my advice. But I wish you would think about it. OK, that's all, I guess. Have a good night, Gin. Talk to you another time. Do let Chuck and Maddie know--it's a great place, and they wouldn't have any trouble finding another tenant."

"Fuck you," Ginny said unreasonably. She wasn't really angry at William, not for the message, anyway, but she knew she had been putting off the phone call to Chuck and Maddie, even though she could come up with no good reason for not moving out of this building.

And she wasn't the only one. Mary had told her the other day that she and Carol would be leaving as soon as Sarah Ann was a little older. And Sean had left the Sunday after Patrick's memorial party to go stay with his parents in Lancaster. He'd carried up a big Boston fern for Ginny to water while he was away, and told her that he expected to be back in a couple of weeks--a month at the very most. Ginny couldn't help but suspect, though, that he too would probably be leaving for good before long. The sight of his dark, empty apartment windows depressed her every evening when she got home from work. If she didn't move out now, she'd be left with no friends at all here, reduced to trading sneers with the nameless man who lived in the apartment across the way. She didn't know why she didn't simply call Chuck and Maddie and tell them that she would be moving in on the first of December.

But by Saturday evening, Ginny still hadn't made the call. She'd even turned down the volume on her answering machine so she wouldn't hear William's message should he call again. She had spent most of the day cleaning house in honor of Kate's dropping by, even though she suspected that Kate would know that this wasn't the way she usually lived. At seven-thirty Ginny heard light footsteps running up her stairs, and she got to the door before Kate knocked, feeling nervous and pleased at getting to play hostess, if only for a few minutes.

"Did you have any trouble finding it?"

"Not a bit." Kate stepped into the apartment and looked around appraisingly. "I like it, Ginny. It's got character."

"Uh-oh. That usually means it could use a fresh coat of paint."

"Even if it could, that doesn't mean it's not a nice place."

"Thank you. I like it."

"In spite of the ghosts?"

Ginny smiled ruefully. "I told you last weekend was very strange. I think I must have been in a highly suggestionable frame of mind."

"Happens to the best of us," Kate said. "And who is this?"

Caesar had come strolling in from the kitchen to investigate Kate's presence. His tail was held up high, the very end crooked into a question mark. "That's Caesar," Ginny said, as he sniffed cautiously at Kate's ankles.

Kate watched him without moving, and pronounced, when he at length lost interest and jumped up onto the arm of the sofa, "He seems to be a very sensible cat. We'd better be going if we want to get there on time." ***

Ginny hadn't seen either of the two old sci-fi flicks before, but Kate had, and when they went out afterwards for beer and a plate of chili fries, she told Ginny that one of the helmeted aliens in Zombies had been played by a very young Leonard Nimoy, and that everything Ray Milland had done after X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes had been forgotten. Ginny agreed solemnly that it was better to be remembered as "X" than as nothing at all. It was after midnight by the time they got back to her apartment. Ginny was driving, and as she pulled up to the curb she asked Kate, "Would you like to come up? I've got some Tecate in the fridge, I think."

Kate looked over at her from the passenger's seat. There were strange shadows on her face from the street light, and Ginny couldn't decipher the expression on her face. "Sure," she said rather softly, "I'd love to." Then she said, after Ginny had already gotten out of the car, "What is this?"

Ginny stuck her head back in the car. "What is what?"

"This thing under the seat." Kate kicked at something with her heel, dislodging it. A white shape rolled out onto the floorboards on the passenger side. It took Ginny a moment to recognize it in the bad light.

"Oh. It's a hard hat."

"I can see that. Where did it come from?"

"I'm not sure, exactly. Mr. Tabibzadeh said he found it in my back seat when he was replacing my car window. That was about the same time those guys were working in the sewers outside my apartment all night, remember? I just assumed that one of them pitched it in my open car window."

"And you've treasured it ever since?"

"I just forgot it was there."

Kate reached down to pick it up, then cried out and dropped it.

"Kate? What is it? Are you all right?"

She scrambled out of the car without answering Ginny, holding her right hand protectively to her chest.

"What's the matter?" Ginny came around quickly to her side of the car. "Are you hurt?"

Kate was leaning against the side of the car, breathing hard, still holding her hand. "I'm OK," She looked at her fingertips. "I think it's just a little burn."

"What?"

She held out her hand to Ginny. Even under the light of the street lamp Ginny could see the livid white marks on the pads of her thumb and on her first two fingers. "Oh my god, Kate. How did that happen?"

"I think you should get that hat out of your car," Kate said, with a shaky laugh. "Have you got a rag or something?"

"I keep one in the trunk for checking the oil, but you don't really think that hat burned you, do you? It's just plastic. It couldn't possibly get that hot." Ginny reached in and picked it up off the floorboards. The hard plastic was cool to the touch. "There must be something down here overheating." She set the hat aside and felt around cautiously, careful not to touch any of the exposed metal surfaces under the seat. "I can't tell what it is, but this can't be good. I better take it back to the shop on Monday and see if he can find what's wrong. I'm so sorry, Kate. Let's go in and put some ice on that."

Kate nodded. "OK. But get rid of that hat first."

Ginny held it up. "What should I do with it?"

Kate made an exasperated sound. She rolled one of the cuffs of her oversized shirt down over her hand, then snatched the hat away from Ginny and flung it hard and low out into the street, right in front of a line of traffic. The driver of a pickup truck honked at them, and then the hat was smashed under the wheels of his truck. After the traffic had gone by, there was nothing left but white plastic fragments scattered across two lanes of traffic.

Ginny turned and looked at Kate. She didn't know what to say. Kate smiled at her. "Sorry about that. Does your invitation still hold?"

"Oh. Uh, sure. Come on in."

"Thanks Gin. I promise not to throw any more of your property into the street. At least not without warning you first."

Little white blisters were already rising on Kate's fingertips by the time they got inside the apartment. Kate stood at the kitchen sink running cold water over her hand while Ginny fidgeted, bewildered and a little frightened. "Would you like me to wrap up some ice cubes for you to hold?" she finally ventured to ask.

"The running water feels better. As long as you're not worried about your water bill, I mean."

"Of course not."

Kate stood in silence for a few moments, letting the water run down over her hand, then said, "Hey, Gin, did you ever find out who those men were who were working in the sewers?"

"No, you know, I never did. I called a few agencies, West Hollywood City Hall and downtown, but nobody seemed to know anything about them. Then the work stopped the very next night, so I didn't bother to call around anymore."

Kate shut off the water faucet and dabbed her fingers dry with a paper towel. "Maybe you ought to get on the phone again and see if you can track them down after all. It might be nice to know what they were doing."

"Because of the hard hat?"

Kate nodded.

"You really think that's what burned you?"

"Well, I wouldn't bother to take your car into the shop. I don't think Mr. Tabibzadeh would find anything wrong. Now didn't you say something about some beer in the fridge? I think it would make my fingers feel better if I wrapped them around a nice cold beer can."

***

They were sitting in Ginny's living room when everything changed. She didn't ask Kate anything more about the hard hat or the men in the sewers. She had decided she really didn't want to know. It had started out as such a pleasant, uncomplicated evening. Ginny was trying to convince herself that if she just ignored the strangeness that seemed to be lurking all about her, it would just go away.

And then Kate leaned over and kissed her.

Ginny sat rigid, too surprised to move. She was dimly aware of the unfamiliar feel of a perfectly smooth cheek against her own, and the strange pressure of another woman's breasts.

Kate sat back and smiled sadly at her. "Ouch. Burned twice in one evening."

"Kate, I'm sorry--" Ginny said, flustered and miserable.

"I guess it has to be Lancelot or nothing for our Guinevere?"

"No. It's not that."

"Of course it is. It's all right. Tell you what. Maybe I better go now."

"You don't have to go."

"Yeah, I think I probably do."

"Oh damnit, Kate, you're acting like the guys I went out with in high school." Ginny was astonished to hear the words that were coming out of her mouth, but she said them anyway. "I would think we were getting along great and having fun together, but as soon as I'd say I didn't want to sleep with them, boom, they'd be out of my life for good."

"You really know how to hurt a girl, don't you?"

"I don't mean it that way. I like you so much, Kate. And who else do I have to talk to at that dreadful office?" Ginny tried to smile. "I'm just scared. Please don't go."

She leaned across the couch and awkwardly put her arms around Kate and tried to kiss her. But Kate turned her face away, and only hugged Ginny back. "Give me more credit than that." She gently pushed Ginny away. "I'm gonna go now because I'm a little bit drunk and a little embarrassed because I misread the signals. That's all."

Ginny felt herself trembling on the edge of tears. "Please, Kate--"

"I really do think it's best if I go home now, Gin, but I'll make it up to you." She stood up. "I'll take you back to that Indian place on Monday."

Ginny stood up too. "Oh god. Any place but there." Her voice shook, but she didn't cry.

Kate hugged her quickly, and then she was gone.

Chapter 19

Sunday morning Ginny was awake before dawn. She tossed and turned for a while, trying to find a comfortable position, but every time she closed her eyes she saw Kate's face. When she finally realized that she wasn't going to be able to get back to sleep, she got up and got dressed, fed Caesar, and went out. The one thing that would make her feel better would be a big bacon and avocado omelet, heavy on the jack cheese, washed down with a plenty of black coffee. Then she could come back home and collapse into a carbohydrate and caffeine-laden haze for the rest of the day.

She had started to cross the street to her car when she noticed the shards of white plastic against the curb and along the center median, reminding her of Kate's burned fingers the night before. It had to be something wrong with her car. She probably shouldn't be driving until Mr. Tabibzadeh had a chance to check it out. She'd walk to the coffee shop instead.

The sun was just breaking through the early morning haze when Ginny reached the alley where she had seen the gray rabbit. She stopped for a moment, remembering how surprised she had been when the alley had seemed so short last weekend, while she and Marc had been here looking for Arthur.

The luxuriant overgrowth pressed heavily against the crumbling walls on both sides of the narrow lane. Tree branches met overhead to form a long, green tunnel. She couldn't see the other end. A breeze stirred the leaves, and there was a dry, rustling sound, like fall leaves crunching underfoot. Ginny was reminded suddenly and powerfully of autumn in Massachusetts. How she missed the real change of seasons. The only way you could tell the change of seasons in Los Angeles was by noticing what flowers the gardeners were putting out in the city parks. Pansies in the spring and fall, poppies in winter, petunias in the summer.

She turned up the alley. There was a sweet, overripe smell in the air from all the windfalls rotting on the ground, avocadoes, limes and olives, and further along, small round tangerines and then green-skinned grapefruit fallen too early from the tree. She wondered if she would see the gray rabbit again, and she tried to walk quietly so that she wouldn't startle it if it were anywhere near.

A sudden, harsh cry rang out from overhead. Ginny looked up and saw that it was only a crow sitting on the bare dead branch of an elm tree. While she watched, two more came wheeling down out the sky and perched nearby, fussing noisily at Ginny and at each other. Their racket made her feel self-conscious, and she walked on more quickly.

The smell of bacon wafted from one of the houses that backed the alley, reminding Ginny of the reason she was out at this hour of the morning in the first place. She was hungry, and the end of the alley was nowhere in sight. She glanced over her shoulder. Nothing but chainlink fences sagging with passion fruit vines, and a cinderblock wall in front of a towering row of cypress trees. She couldn't see the street she had come from.

She stopped. The crows were still fussing behind her. She must have lost her way walking with Marc last weekend, gotten turned around somehow and mistaken where she was. The short, utilitarian alley they had walked down looking for Arthur bore no resemblance at all to this winding path between backyards. And this morning, even though she was hungry and getting a headache from not having had any coffee yet, she enjoyed the feeling that she was treading along secret boundaries.

The brightness through the trees grew more steady, and then, at last, she reached the end.

La Cienega was busy as ever, but a certain stillness and peace seemed to linger from the alley. A number of young men were out walking, some hand in hand. Even though it was broad daylight by now, the cars on the street went by slowly with their headlights on, as though they were driving through a foggy night. The sky was an intense, clear blue. There was a nip in the air, and the faint smell of wood smoke, and Ginny realized that she was wrong to think there was no change of seasons in Los Angeles. This certainly felt like fall. The Hollywood Hills on the near horizon were dotted with elms and maples changing color and losing their leaves. What a beautiful morning, she realized. How good it felt to be alive.

***

The coffee shop was crowded, and Ginny was lucky to find a tiny, two-person booth in a corner. She asked for a cup of coffee, and then looked around at the other diners out this early on a Sunday morning. Many were elderly, eating in couples or by themselves, and Ginny wondered if her own increasing sleeplessness were a symptom of aging. She thought she had read somewhere that you needed less sleep the older you got. Most of the other patrons were young men, some her age, some younger, eating in noisy, friendly groups. She had no idea what they were doing up so early. She smiled to herself. No doubt they had worked up big appetites the night before.

The waiter brought Ginny her coffee in a thick-rimmed, brown plastic mug. "You ready to order?"

"Yes, please." Ginny ordered her omelet.

"Potatoes or fruit with that?"

"Well, fruit, I think. What do you have this morning?"

"It's a nice fresh fruit salad. Melon, strawberries."

"That sounds great. Thank you."

The elderly man eating by himself at the table across from Ginny pushed a bite of buttered toast across his plate to soak up the final runny bit of his eggs. She wasn't really watching, but she noticed him out of the corner of her eye as he carefully cleaned his hands and face with the napkin, and then, to her astonishment, took a shiny silver half-dollar piece out of his mouth, wiped it dry with his napkin as well, and left it sitting beside his plate. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Poor, senile old man. She didn't envy the waiter his tip.

The waiter set a bowl of fruit salad down in front of Ginny. She tore her eyes from the old man who was making his way serenely out of the coffee shop, apparently without stopping at the register to pay, and looked at her salad. Heaped in a plastic bowl were little square chunks of cantaloupe and honeydew, scattered with translucent red seeds. She had no idea what they were. Definitely not the promised strawberries. She picked one up and bit at it experimentally. A sweet, unidentifiable flavor touched her tongue. The next time the waiter passed by her table she asked, "Pardon me--what are these things?"

He smiled at her. "Pomegranate seeds. A little something special today."

"Really?"

"They're good, aren't they?"

"Yes, I guess they are." Ginny smiled back at him, pleased that he had just solved a minor mystery of her childhood. One of her favorite storybooks as a little girl had been a tremendous old volume of Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales. She had always been fascinated by the story of the unfortunate Persephone, held captive by the dark god of the underworld for so long that she finally grew hungry and foolishly ate six pomegranate seeds. A child of the East Coast, Ginny had imagined pomegranate seeds to be something like apple or orange seeds, and she'd never been able to fathom why the poor kidnapped Persephone would eat something like that, no matter how hungry she got.

She picked a couple more seeds off her salad. They were so small it was hard to tell what they really tasted like. Just a brief sweetness on her tongue before they were gone.

A commotion began up in the front of the coffee shop. Ginny looked over. A group of workmen were coming in all together, cheerful and boisterous after a long night shift. They wore plain white coveralls, and glancing around out the window, Ginny could see their two unmarked white vans in the parking lot. Although the restaurant had been full to capacity only minutes before, a long row of tables seemed to clear miraculously for them and they sat down, cheerfully demanding coffee in a racket of chair legs scraping on the floor.

She slunk back in her booth. There was no reason in the world for her to think that they were the same men who'd been working in the sewers outside her apartment last month, but she was convinced that they were, and she was terrified that they would see her.

Her waiter set the omelet down in front of her. "Here we go."

Ginny stood up. "I'm sorry. I'm not hungry anymore." She tried to hand the man a ten dollar bill. "I have to go. This will cover it, won't it?"

"Wait a minute." The waiter blocked her path. "Is there something wrong with the food?"

"The food's fine. I just can't eat it now."

"Shall I wrap it up to go for you?"

"No," Ginny hissed at him, furious. "I don't want it. Please excuse me."

The waiter handed the ten back to her. "There's no charge," he said, and then, with a smile that frightened her he said, "Why, you hardly ate a bite."

Ginny had to walk right past the tables of workmen to get out of the restaurant, but she kept her face turned away from them, as though that would be enough to keep them from recognizing her. By the time she was safely out on the sidewalk she was soaked with nervous sweat. She started for home, almost running in her anxiety to get away.

It was still a beautiful morning. The sky was clearer and bluer than ever. Every tree seemed to be changing color, all their leaves tipped with shades of red and orange and yellow. She saw no date palms or banana trees to spoil the illusion of a real autumn. The sidewalks were covered with fallen leaves. As Ginny's panic wore off, she began to enjoy shuffling through the brown leaves. The dry, dusty smell reminded her of her childhood, and by the time she reached the courtyard of her apartment building, she was a little sorry to have walked out on her breakfast. But she couldn't have enjoyed it with those men sitting so near. She would just fix herself a pot of coffee and have a bowl of cereal. She shouldn't be eating those fat-laden breakfasts anyway.

Then she heard the sound of a knuckle tapping on glass. The hair on the back of her neck rose. She slowly raised her eyes and looked across the courtyard, and there was Patrick sitting on the other side of his kitchen window, smiling and waving her over.

She quickly looked away. Mary and Carol's windows were empty and blank. She saw Caesar sitting in her own upstairs window, staring down at her.

She looked back towards Sean's apartment. Patrick was still there, shrugging his shoulders as if to ask, "So what's the matter with you?"

She walked very slowly over to the open window.

"Helluva way to say good morning," he chided her. "What are you trying to do, ignore me?"

"Patrick," she said softly, "What are doing here?"

"I was under the impression that I lived here. Wanna come in for a few minutes?"

"No. I can't."

"Suit yourself. Where've you been so early in the morning?"

"I went out to breakfast."

"Yum. I hope you had something greasy and disgusting."

"Actually, I lost my appetite."

"Ginny, Ginny," Patrick shook his head. "You're sounding like me."

She took a deep breath. "Patrick, Sean misses you so much. We all miss you. Where have you been?"

"I've been meaning to ask you about that asshole. He's acting awfully damn coy around me these days."

Ginny was trembling violently. She wrapped her arms around herself and asked Patrick faintly, "What do you mean?"

"He's just being weird. I never know whether he's really in the apartment or not. He's always disappearing around the corner into the next room, or something like that. Won't answer a straight question anymore."

"He went up to stay with his parents in Lancaster," Ginny said. "Maybe that's why you haven't seen him lately."

"That jerk. He didn't even tell me he was going."

"You didn't tell us you were going," Ginny said gently.

"Well it's not like I had any choice, is it?" Patrick demanded. "Could you have stuck around after something like this?" He stood up and unbuttoned his jeans, then pushed down the band of his underwear to reveal an open wound wide as a grin stretching from hip to hip. Ginny heard herself whimpering. Patrick's abdominal cavity was quite empty. The lips of the wound looked fresh, seeping blood and fluids, and she could see straight through him to the segmented length of his backbone. His hipbones were curved and white like moth wings.

Ginny had to look away. "Please stop."

Patrick buttoned up his jeans.

"What happened to you?" Ginny whispered.

"Don't you know?" Patrick seemed genuinely puzzled. "You named them."

"I don't understand."

"Listen, you can hear them. They go on all the time, day and night. It's enough to drive you batty."

Ginny listened. She was on the verge of telling Patrick that she couldn't hear anything, but then she heard it. She'd thought at first it was the sound of traffic, but it was too high-pitched for that. It reminded her of the whine of june bugs on summer evenings in the country. "What is it? Where is it coming from?"

"Look over there."

She turned and saw that the stretch of sidewalk visible beyond the bougainvillea-covered trellis was alive with movement.

"Oh my god, Patrick, what is it?"

"Maybe you better get upstairs, Ginny."

She ran.

She couldn't find her keys when she reached the top of the stairs. She fumbled frantically through her purse and tried the doorknob repeatedly, on the off-chance that perhaps she had left without locking up. But of course the door was locked. She heard Caesar meowing in puzzlement on the other side of the door. Outside on the street, the whining noise like a million june bugs swelled up, and Ginny simply dumped her purse upside down on the landing. Her keys fell out on top. She snatched them up, opened her door with desperate haste, and slammed it shut behind herself.

She locked the door and threw the deadbolt and stood there, trying to get her breathing under control.

Caesar came strolling up and wrapped himself around her ankles, purring unconcernedly. Ginny sat down on the floor and gathered Caesar into her lap and held him tightly until the terrible noise on the street faded into silence.

Chapter 20

Ginny knew that she had to find someone to talk to. Who could she call? Not Kate. Arthur perhaps. She hated the idea of telling such personal nightmares to a stranger, but he had seemed reasonable and kind, and maybe he could explain what was happening to her. She remembered that he had given her his card--what had she done with it?

She'd stuck it in her wallet, which was now outside her front door on the landing. And she wasn't about to open the door to get it.

There was William. He would probably be home this time of the morning, or at his girlfriend's. He acted so damn concerned about Ginny's welfare, maybe he could come over here and help.

She picked up the phone. There was no dial tone, just a long, constant hiss. She tried to dial William's number anyway, with no luck. Then she tried the operator, even though she suspected it was hopeless. Nothing. She held the receiver to her ear until she began to think she could hear voices speaking through the static on the line, then she put the phone down and walked to the window. She had never seen the sky look so blue. She could see the top branches of a sweetgum tree growing on the far side of the apartment. Its leaves were orange and red, brilliant against the intense blue of the sky.

She opened the window a crack to see if she could hear the whine of the pale creatures she had seen swarming on the street outside. She thought there was probably something still alive in the air, but the immediate threat, whatever it might have been, was past.

Nevertheless, she did not go outside again that day. She lingered near the windows and watched the other apartments, eager for some sign of life. But Mary and Carol were evidently gone--she didn't see either of them, and she never once heard the tell-tale squeak of their front door hinges. She began to wonder if they could have moved already, slipping away like thieves in the night to avoid having to say goodbye to anyone in this silent, haunted building. Even the nameless man across the courtyard was away. His blinds were uncharacteristically open, and she could see all the way through his cluttered living room to the kitchen.

She wondered if Patrick were still keeping vigil at his own kitchen window.

She tried to read the Sunday paper, but none of the articles made sense to her. She turned on the television and discovered that the cable was out. Hardly surprising, the way things were going today. She left the television on anyway for the bleak company it offered. Staticky figures moved through flat gray landscapes, lit by occasional flashes of blue. She kept the volume turned down, but she occasionally heard voices murmuring from the speakers nevertheless. She thought that if she concentrated hard enough she might be able to understand what they were saying.

When darkness fell she realized she hadn't had anything to eat all day except for the pomegranate seeds scattered on her fruit salad. She wandered into the kitchen, thinking she would put a frozen dinner into the microwave, but then she decided she really wasn't hungry after all. When she came back out into the living room she found that the television had finally begun to work. An old black and white movie was on. The men were all square-jawed and elegant in their tuxedos, the women serene and lovely in evening gowns that left their pale shoulders bare. Ginny sat and watched their inexplicable machinations for hours, in a state that was not quite boredom and not quite contentment, but some comfortable place in between.

In the middle of the night the work began in the sewers again. She felt a dull, distant thrill of fear, but all she did was turn up the television so that she could hear the movie over the noise outside.

She was still watching the same, endless movie when dawn came, and the workmen packed up and went home.

It's Monday morning, she thought. I have to go to work.

She made herself a pot of coffee but never got around to drinking any of it. She put on more makeup than usual because the reflection of her face in the bathroom mirror seemed so wan and listless. She picked out a bright red dress, but after she had been wearing it for a few minutes she decided that the color hurt her eyes, and she switched to a dull gray one instead.

She hesitated for a moment at her front door before going out. When she opened the door at last, she found the contents of her purse lying right where she had left them. She scooped everything back into her pocketbook and went out to the car.

The street was shiny and slick, as though from a hard rain, but Ginny didn't remember hearing a storm the night before. She had already started the engine and pulled out into traffic before she noticed the strange brightness in the passenger side window. She was so startled she swerved into the next lane and might have caused an accident had traffic not been moving so sedately. Her passenger side window was glittering and shining along a thousand tiny fault lines. At the first stop light, Ginny reached out to touch the fractured glass, but she hesitated, afraid the faintest pressure of her fingers might be enough to send pebbles of glass flying out into the street. She thought, somewhere in the back of her mind, that it was rather annoying to have to replace the same window twice in a month.

She was parking in her usual spot in the garage at work when she realized that she had no memory at all of most of the drive. She had noticed the broken window, and then the next thing she knew, she was here. Walking through the lobby to the bank of elevators, she was a little surprised to see that the uniformed security guard who always sat at the front desk wasn't there, and that the lobby seemed very empty and quiet for a Monday morning. Perhaps she was late, or much too early. She couldn't remember having looked at a clock once all morning.

She got in the elevator and punched the button for her floor. She turned as the doors were closing, and saw that she had been wrong about the lobby. It was full of its usual Monday morning crowd of business people with briefcases, young receptionists in their spike heels, and executive secretaries and office managers in their severely-cut suits. The security guard was behind his desk as always. The brushed steel door closed in front of Ginny's eyes.

The elevator made no stops on the way to the fifteenth floor. Terrie was busy on the phone as Ginny went by the front desk, so Ginny wasn't surprised that she couldn't spare a moment to say hello. Reed stayed in his office, and she was able to work undisturbed most of the morning. The phones were quiet, and everyone else in the firm seemed to be working with the same hushed concentration. Every once in a while Ginny looked up with a start of nervousness, imagining that she was somehow the only person there. But no, of course, everyone else was there and working. They were busy. That was the reason no one spoke to her and no one met her eye.

At length she printed up her work and carried it to the xerox room. Miraculously, no one else was using the machines. She loaded her pages and began running off her copies. Celia came in and Ginny said hello rather cautiously--Celia had been noticeably cool towards her ever since Ginny had refused to give Kevin her phone number--and this morning was no different. Celia turned her head away and mumbled something that could have been "hello" or "good morning" or even "get lost," for all Ginny could tell. After that Ginny didn't attempt to pursue a conversation.

Finally, Celia gathered up her copies and left, and it occurred to Ginny that her own copies were taking an awfully long time. For the first time she looked at the pages coming out of the machine and lining up in stacks in the collator.

Every single page was completely black.

She hit the "cancel" button on the machine. Goddamn it. Monday mornings were always the same. She picked up all the ruined copies and threw them into the recycling tray. There were so many that they overflowed the tray and spilled onto the floor in a cascade of shiny black pages. She tried to gather them up and stack them more neatly in the tray, but they kept slipping out of her hands, and she finally just stuffed them all in the big plastic trash bin, ecology be damned.

She picked up her originals and fed them into the other machine, since the first one was obviously broken. But when she started to punch in the copy codes she found herself stymied. What client should these copies be charged to, anyway? For the life of her, she couldn't remember. Well, the name would be somewhere on the original. She picked up the first page, and discovered that her originals were all completely black as well.

She stood there for a long time. At first she supposed that the fault must lie with the laser printer on her desk, but when she thought back further than that, and tried to remember what it was she had been doing all morning, she drew a complete blank. She had sat there at her desk and worked steadily for hours, and now that she thought about it, she began to wonder seriously whether she had even turned her computer on. On sudden impulse, she picked up the phone in the copy room and put the receiver to her ear. There was no dial tone, only a long, dry hiss of static.

She ran out of the copy room. "Kate! Are you here? You've got to help me."

For an instant, she thought that she was alone again. But she squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, and when she opened them again, everyone was back at their desks where they were supposed to be, decorously ignoring Ginny's outburst.

Kate walked out of Lloyd Dado's office, a puzzled expression on her face. "Ginny?"

"Oh, Kate, I'm so glad to see you. I've been so frightened--" She broke off. Kate was staring straight at her, and she realized that Kate was the first person to meet her eyes since she had talked to Patrick yesterday morning. Kate was substantial and real, but all the others around her in the office were flimsy as ghosts. Ginny began to suspect that it took an effort of her own will to people the law firm with employees at all. When her attention wandered, they all faded away.

"Oh my god, Ginny," Kate said softly. "What's happened to you?"

And then Ginny figured it out. It wasn't the others who were the ghosts.

"But I'm not dead," she pleaded with Kate. "I didn't die. I don't remember anything. Don't you think I'd remember dying?"

No, she thought then, she hadn't died. But she had walked the length of the green alley, and come out in the middle of an autumn day. That was when everything had changed.

She left Kate standing in the corridor beside her desk and fled back home. She seemed to be driving part of the way, but the journey was like a dream, a trip she had made so many times that she didn't need to pay attention to where she was going. Her greatest fear was that the alley wouldn't be there anymore, or that it would be the straight, simple path she had walked down with Marc.

But when she heard the crows calling, she knew that it was going to be all right. The alley was as lush and overgrown as she remembered, and though it had been broad daylight when she started down it, by the time she reached the curve that hid both ends, the sky was dark with lowering clouds. She hesitated at the half-way point, uncertain as to whether she should continue down to the opposite end or not, but finally she remembered what she had done the first time, the morning after Patrick's death. She scrambled awkwardly over a sagging chainlink fence, thinking ruefully that this would ruin her gray dress. But when she was on the other side, she realized that she was wearing blue jeans, not her office clothes at all. She cut through someone's backyard and up the driveway, and made it back to the street. She was only half a block from her apartment. She walked there as fast as she could. The sun broke through the clouds in the eastern sky. It's morning, she thought happily. The pansy beds were in full bloom.

Carol and Mary were just coming out of their apartment when Ginny got home. Mary was carrying Sarah Ann in her arms.

"Hi Ginny," Carol said.

"Wish us luck," Mary said. "We're taking Sarah Ann to see her aunt and uncle for the first time."

"That sounds fun," Ginny said cautiously.

"Yeah, right," Mary grumbled. "This is a couple who firmly believe that every social development since 1956 has been a giant step backwards."

"Oh. Well, good luck, then."

Ginny turned away and almost tripped over the newspaper. The Sunday Times was as big as a footstool. She bent down and hefted it in her arms, and the sudden rush of vertigo nearly toppled her. She had to sit down on the steps to keep from falling.

None of it had been real.

It was still only Sunday morning.

continued

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