by Martha Taylor, email@example.com
Marc came by that afternoon with a roll of quarters and a peach-colored amaryllis that was just opening into bloom.
"Oh Marc, you didn't have to do this," Ginny told him, trying to hand the roll back. "It was only a dollar fifty for the wash."
"Take the quarters already. I had to stand in line at BofA in Westwood for fifteen minutes on Thursday afternoon to get them. Imagine me surrounded by all those business types. I felt like the little boy in the bank at the end of Mary Poppins.
Ginny smiled. "Afraid they were going to come chasing after you for your tuppence?"
" The only thing that kept me from running away screaming was the calm certainty that I was doing this to repay me and Arthur's sweet angel of mercy."
"Stop already," Ginny said complained, but she took the quarters.
"The flower's from Arthur. He says to tell you that after the bloom dies, you're supposed to keep watering it until the green part dies back too, and then just put it away in a dark corner somewhere. Supposedly it will bloom again next year."
She set the amaryllis down on the coffee table and stood back to admire it. "Well, thank him for me. He really didn't have to do this."
"He would have stopped by himself, but he was afraid you might think he was just coming over to look for ghosts."
Ginny smiled uncomfortably. "I didn't mean to be rude last weekend."
"Please." Marc laughed at her. "You took in two complete strangers after one of them barfed all over your doorstep, you let them spend on the night on your bed, and then then you made them coffee the next morning. I really doubt that obligates you to let us mount a professional ghosthunt from your living room."
"So about this flower," Ginny said, changing the subject, "Do I cut the leaves back too after they die, or just leave them alone?"
"It's just a flower--it's not supposed to be some heavy new responsibility. For all I care, you can pitch it out the back door as soon as I leave." Marc ran his fingers along one of the brown, shriveled fronds of the Boston fern. "Don't get insulted, but somehow I get the feeling that horticulture isn't necessarily one of your strengths."
"Oh no," Ginny groaned. "Sean left that with me to take care of. I've killed it."
"It's not completely dead yet. Maybe you could just cut off the dead leaves and pay extra attention to it until he gets back."
Ginny tried to snap off one of the dead fronds, but the stem proved unexpectedly resilient, and it ended up hanging sideways out of the pot. "I don't think this is helping."
"I know what you can do. Go out and buy a new one just before Sean gets back."
"That seems like cheating."
"If you were Sean, would you rather have your original dead plant, or a brand new one that's absolutely indistinguishable from the old one, except for being alive?"
"I guess you're right. I still don't understand how I could have killed it so fast. I promise you that I was looking at this fern just last night and thinking that it looked so nice in here maybe I should get one of my own. Surely I would have noticed all the dead leaves then--"
Ginny broke off, thinking of her dream this morning. She had seemed to stand for hours and hours at this very window, watching the empty apartments across from her and feeling as though she were the only thing alive in the whole universe. Now that she thought about it, she recalled that in her strange waking dream she had been running her fingers through the fronds of the Boston fern.
"What's up?" Marc said.
"Where's Caesar?" She asked suddenly, remembering how she had held and stroked him during the dream as well.
"The man-eating beast? He's right there, eyeing me hungrily." Marc jerked his thumb in the direction of the sofa. Caesar was perched on the back, looking innocent. "Are you sure you're all right?" Marc persisted.
"What do you mean? I'm fine."
"OK, sorry. Don't mean to be a pest."
Ginny smiled. "You're never a pest."
"I find that hard to believe. In fact, I'll do you a favor and get out of your hair now." Marc paused at the door. "You know to call us if you ever need anything, right? Not even to investigate ghosts. If you ever want somebody just to watch that cat for a weekend, or whatever, we'll be glad to do it. Just give a yell."
"I will," Ginny said softly, touched.
Marc grinned and ran down the stairs. She shut the door behind him, leaned her head against the panel, and began to weep. A moment later Marc came pounding back up the stairs and knocked. "Sorry," he called through the door. "I forgot my car keys."
She stepped back hastily and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Marc knocked again. "Hey Ginny, are you there? It's me."
She found the keys before opening the door for him. "Here you go. They were on the side table."
Marc looked at her and didn't say a word. She tried to control the expression on her face, but she could feel her lower lip beginning to tremble.
"Ah, come on," Marc said at last. "Isn't there anything I can do?"
"No," Ginny whispered miserably. "I'm just scared."
"I don't know. It's ridiculous. I had a bad dream."
"Yes. It must have been last night."
"You don't sound too sure of that."
"I'm not sure of anything."
"Here, come and sit down." Marc guided her to the couch and sat down beside her. She was still sniffling and wiping away stray tears. "OK now," he said, "Everything's going to be all right."
"I hate it when people tell me that," She said in a shaky voice. "That's what my husband said just before telling me that he was dating a student in his English lit class. If you have to say 'everything's going to be all right,' it usually means that everything is already dreadful and probably well on its way to getting worse."
"If that's the case, then you probably need somebody to talk to, right? I'm here, and I'd be glad to listen." Marc shrugged and smiled at her. "Reasonable rates too."
Ginny drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around her legs. She really did want to talk about this morning. She just wasn't sure where to begin. "I saw Patrick again," she said at last.
"This was in your dream?"
"It didn't seem like a dream at the time. It was broad daylight, and he was sitting at the kitchen window, just like he always used to do. He called me over to talk to him, and I didn't want to go." She rested her head on his knees and stared across the room. "He was always so nice to me, but when I saw him there, I was afraid of him."
Marc started to say something, but he stopped himself, and waited for Ginny to go on.
"I finally went over and talked to him. He wasn't mean or anything like that, but he told me some awful things. You remember I told you when I saw Patrick the night he died, how peaceful he seemed? This time it was terrible."
"What did he say to you?"
"At first he didn't even seem to know that he was dead. And then he told me that he had died too soon, and that it was because of me."
"Ginny, that's ridiculous. It had nothing to do with you. You must know that, don't you?"
"I asked him what he meant, and he showed me--" But she couldn't bring herself to tell Marc what Patrick had shown her, the gaping disembowelment, the wound like a Caesarian, Ginny suddenly realized, and she felt sick thinking of the thing that might have been pulled from Patrick's belly. "It was just a joke at the office," she insisted, her voice rising to the edge of hysteria. "I swear it didn't mean anything."
"What are you talking about?"
"Does." Ginny said, forcing herself to calm down. "Like John Doe. An unnamed party in a legal action. I was telling a friend at work that I had always thought of the Does in the documents I typed as pasty little white creatures with bulbous heads and long fingers. The last time I talked to Patrick before he died, he told me he had seen something small and white rooting around in the bushes near the apartment, and I told him it must have been one of my Does. Then in my dream this morning, I think Patrick told me it was my Does that killed him."
"I saw them myself, running out in the street. Pale, stunted little things. I can't tell you how ugly they were. Monsters with human hands and eyes. It made me sick to look at them. I ran upstairs to get away and locked myself in my apartment."
"This is still in your dream, right? It was only a dream."
"Right," Ginny agreed a little uncertainly. "But I didn't wake up. Don't you usually wake up at the scariest part of your dreams? I always do. But I didn't wake up then. The dream went on and on until I couldn't remember things ever being any other way. And in my dream, I eventually realized that I was dead too, just like Patrick. But I wasn't scared anymore. Just bored because there was nothing to do."
Marc smiled faintly.
"I know," Ginny agreed. "It was very strange. I just hung around the house. The phone didn't work, and I could only get one channel on the TV. The same movie played all night long."
"I'm almost afraid to ask what it was."
"I don't know. I watched it for hours without ever getting any of the characters' names or figuring out what was going on. Then I got dressed and went to work just like always. It didn't matter that I was dead until I looked at the pages of typing I'd been working on all morning, and saw that they were all blank."
Marc shook his head. "Creepy. It reminds me of that old Talking Heads song about heaven."
"That's exactly what it was like. A place where nothing ever happens."
"Have you been out of the apartment at all this morning? Since you woke up, I mean? If you've been sitting around this place brooding all morning--"
"I wasn't in my apartment when I woke up. I was coming back from the diner where I had had breakfast."
"Oh. Oh, man. What happened? Are you all right?"
Ginny shrugged. "You tell me."
"I mean, you didn't fall and hit your head or anything like that, did you? Is it possible you had a seizure?"
"I never thought of that," Ginny said, strangely relieved. "That would explain everything, wouldn't it?"
"I've never seen anyone look so happy at the suggestion that they're having seizures. Have you ever blacked out before?"
"You're not diabetic? You don't have epilepsy?"
"No. Not as far as I know."
"Have you been getting headaches lately?"
"No, not really."
"Any sore muscles? If you fell somewhere or had a fit you'd probably start to feel it about now."
Ginny stretched. "No, I feel all right. What's with you anyway? You sound like a doctor."
"Not hardly," Marc smiled. "Pre-med. And I work ten hours a week at the university hospital." The smile disappeared. "I do know that if you actually blacked out, you ought to go see a real doctor. It could be something really serious."
Ginny rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. "Maybe you're right. Everything's been so strange lately. It would be a relief to find out that it's because of me, not because of the building or the neighborhood. Then things would start to make sense again. People get sick. Not places."
"I bet Arthur would argue there's a connection between the two."
"Wait a minute," Ginny said. "That's right. Where was Arthur when he got so sick? Was he right out in the courtyard there, or had he gone walking around the neighborhood?"
"He hasn't talked about it much, but I don't think he remembers. Why? Do you think it has something to do with your dream?"
"I don't know. But there's a place nearby where I've seen some funny things, an alley between a couple of main streets a block or so away from here. It's where I woke up from my dream. I just wonder if Arthur could have been there too." She smiled suddenly. "Listen to me. I can't believe I'm taking this seriously."
"Yeah, you sound as nutty as Arthur and me. You want to walk over there and take a look?"
It was the last thing she wanted to do. If she walked down that alley again, she might end up back in that silent, dead world. And this time she might not be able to find her way home. "I don't know," she told Marc softly.
"That's OK. Just give me directions and I'll run over and have a look."
"I don't know if it's safe."
"Afraid the John Does will carry me off?"
"That's not funny."
"I guess not. Sorry."
"All right, this is ridiculous," Ginny stood up. "I don't know what's gotten into me lately. Let's walk over there together. It won't take five minutes."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. If I don't clear this up now, I'm going to turn into one of those pathetic old women who get crazier and crazier the older they get."
Mark regarded her seriously. "Ooh, you're right. I can see the gray hairs and cataracts sprouting even as we speak."
But that was the way Ginny felt when she and Marc reached the alley. Marc was saying, "Oh, yeah, I remember this place. We walked around here looking for Arthur, didn't we?"
She didn't answer him. She was staring down the narrow back street. The pavement was cracked, and the trees and shrubbery overhanging the back walls were in need of vigorous pruning, but it was nothing like the overgrown wildness she remembered. And she could see straight down to the opposite end of the alley. This time there was no mistake. This was the alley she had walked down this morning. But it had changed.
She turned around and began walking away fast. Marc ran a couple of steps to catch up with her. "What is it? Did you remember something about this morning?"
"I have to get away from here," Ginny said, talking to herself as much as to him. "I don't think I can live in a place like this anymore."
She called Maddie and Chuck as soon as she walked in the door. Marc hovered uncomfortably in the background, look as though he were unwilling to leave Ginny alone, but not knowing whether she really wanted him to stay.
Maddie was sympathetic and regretful. "Oh Ginny, I'm so sorry! We went ahead and rented it to a friend of Chuck's just the other day. You never called--we just assumed that you didn't want it."
"I really need to move. Are you sure there's nothing you can do?"
"We've already promised Edward. I'm sorry. It wouldn't be fair to him."
"But you promised me first. What about being fair to me? And how about that stupid horoscope reading you did? I thought you said I was going to be the perfect tenant."
"You sound upset, Ginny."
"Oh no, nothing like that," Ginny snapped. "Give my love to Chuck."
She slammed the phone down, enjoying her moment of rage until she happened to glance up and see Marc watching her. Then she felt ashamed. "I'm sorry. You picked a bad day to bring me flowers. I guess I really woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning."
"What you were telling me wasn't just about waking up on the wrong side of the bed," Marc said soberly.
"Maybe not," Ginny admitted. She perched on the arm of the sofa, the phone on her lap.
After a moment of hesitation, she picked up the phone again and this time she dialed William's number.
Reed Wallace dropped the Baldwin file in the middle of Ginny's desk, obviously enjoying the dramatic effect. Ginny sighed, looked at the file, and then up at Reed, waiting. The file was one of the monsters of the office. It had been growing steadily for years before Ginny had begun working for Reed, for reasons that Ginny really couldn't understand. There was no question of liability, both parties had been amply insured at the time of the accident, and the injuries sustained by Reed's client (sprained ankle, herniated disc) were readily verifiable. Nevertheless, the case continued to wend its way through an interminable litigation process with settlement as elusive as ever.
In the process the file had grown to horrific proportions. Almost a foot thick, it bulged with deposition transcripts, medical reports, redundant copies of court documents, and more than three years of of correspondence and phone memos. An untidy fringe of Post-it notes and certified mail receipts trailed from the edges.
"I need a copy of this by one o'clock," Reed announced. Ginny could swear he was suppressing a grin. "I'm meeting an attorney who may be interested in taking over this file for me. It'd be a relief to get this thing out of the office, don't you think?"
"By one," Ginny repeated, flatly. Less than four hours from now. She didn't ask Reed why he hadn't given her the file last Friday afternoon instead of waiting until Monday morning. "I'll give Midnight Express a call and see if they can do a rush copy for us."
"I'd rather not," Reed said. "You know they'll charge an arm and a leg."
Damn your cheapskate soul straight to hell, Ginny thought. All she said was, "Are you sure you really want me to spend the whole morning in the xerox room? I've got a lot of typing to do, and you know how busy Monday mornings are."
"I wouldn't ask if it weren't important," Reed assured her serenely. "Maybe you could stay late this evening if you need extra time to get everything done."
Ginny blinked at him, a little awed. Then she picked up the file with both hands and trudged back to the copy room.
The worst thing about xeroxing, of course, was that it was just so unrelievedly dull. There was nothing to do but stare at the cream-colored walls and try to avoid thinking about the weekend. As Ginny pried yellowing pages off the twisted prong file fasteners and positioned them page by page on the glass plate of the copy machine--most of the papers were too crumpled to go through the feeder--she found herself thinking about her strange waking dream of Sunday morning all the same. Rather than becoming less distinct, as her dreams usually did, certain details seemed to become disturbingly clearer. She remembered the senile old man in the diner taking the shiny coin out from under his tongue, the sweetness of pomegranate seeds bursting between her teeth, and the clean, cold feel of autumn air.
Strangest of all was her memory of being in the office, laboring away in her dream to produce nothing but black pages, surrounded by colleagues as silent and unreal as ghosts. Standing alone in the relative quiet of the copy room this morning, she felt uncomfortably close to the dream. She suspected that maybe she wouldn't have to walk down the alley to get back to that dead mirror world. She might be able to step through with nothing but a simple effort of will. The thought chilled her. She left the file to get out of the copy room for a minute.
Celia was walking by, a cup of black coffee in one hand and a bright, plastic smile on her face. "Good morning Ginny," she said formally. "How was your weekend?"
"Fine, thanks," Ginny said, just as woodenly, and ducked back into the copy room, reassured that she was still in the real world, unpleasant as it was.
Yesterday afternoon, Marc had stuck around while she tried to call William. She had felt a little guilty taking advantage of his good nature and evident sense of obligation, but not guilty enough to tell him he could leave. She didn't want to be alone.
Marc stood tactfully off to one side looking out the window while Ginny talked to William's roommate, the elfin-faced Philip.
"Hey Ginny, how you doing?" he said, irrepressible as ever. "No, William isn't here right now. He's out with Leisa."
Ginny had never particularly appreciated Philip's cheerful frankness in discussing William's girlfriend with her, but this afternoon, when all she wanted to do was find William as quickly as possible, she was relieved not to have to wade through any polite efforts to spare her feelings.
"It's really important that I get in touch with him. Something's come up. Do you know if he's at Leisa's place now?"
"No, but lemme see, I think he told me where they were going. He was all excited because Leisa finally agreed to let him come to the baby shower with her."
Ginny's scalp prickled with heat. "What?"
"I know, it's a little weird to let the father come, but William's just like a kid about the whole thing--you should see him showing off the little baby clothes he picked out at the Gap--"
"Oh my god," Ginny said faintly.
"Fatherhood does that to guys sometimes. I remember now. I think they were all going to the Cheesecake Factory. Isn't there one in Marina del Rey? Or maybe they were going to the one in Beverly Hills. Geez, I'm sorry. I guess I'm not being much help. Would you like me to just leave a message for him?"
"Philip, I'm not sure I understand this. Are you really telling me that Leisa is pregnant with William's baby?"
Philip got it at last. There was a moment of silence, and then he finally said, in a very different tone of voice, "So you didn't know?"
"No, I didn't know." Ginny took a deep breath. "How far along is she?"
"I don't know. Ginny, I'm really sorry you had to find out like this."
"Couldn't he at least have waited for the divorce?" she burst out.
"I don't think this is something they planned."
Oh bullshit, Ginny thought. So it was the baby thing after all. If she'd gotten pregnant, William would still be with her. She'd still be safe. Her life wouldn't have cracked apart to expose the lush, green underworld. She was lucky to have escaped it once. The next time she might decide to stay.
"Oh Philip, I'm sorry. I'm just surprised," Ginny finally said, when she realized how long the silence had stretched on. "Look, never mind. Forget I called. Or tell him I called, but it was nothing important."
"Whatever you say. Take care now."
"Yeah, you too," Ginny said to the dial tone after Philip hung up.
"Bad news?" Marc asked her cautiously.
"It's been quite a day," Ginny said.
"Seems like it."
"I just found out that my husband's girlfriend is pregnant."
Ginny laughed a little at the expression on Marc's face. "What a soap opera." She buried her face in her hands. "Oh my god. What a day."
"Hey." Marc touched her shoulder. "You wanna go get a beer?"
Marc had ended up sticking around most of the rest of the afternoon, not leaving until Ginny finally assured him, after several beers at the neighborhood pub around the corner, that she really was feeling worlds better now, and wouldn't mind being alone.
Thinking about it now, she wondered what she had done to deserve so much time and kindness from a kid who certainly must have had better things to do on a Sunday afternoon. And she wondered, half-seriously, if Arthur really had sent him out to try to wear down her resistance. To what lengths would a thwarted professional ghosthunter go anyway?
The Xerox machine ran out of paper. Ginny reached down to get a new ream of paper from the shelves behind the trash can, and she noticed, as she was straightening up, a stray sheet of paper that had slipped out of the recycling trays.
She picked it up and saw that the underside was a flat, matte black.
Ginny closed her eyes for a moment, hoping that when she opened them, the paper would be gone. It wasn't. She was still clutching it, some of the ink coming off on her sweaty fingers.
"What are you doing Ginny?"
Ginny turned around fast. Kate stood in the door of the copy room, a few white pages in her hand.
"You scared me."
Kate smiled, but her eyes looked pained. "Trapped in the copy room with a predatory dyke. That's pretty damn scary, all right."
"Stop it. That's not funny."
"Of course it is."
"I'm really sorry about Saturday night."
"You've got nothing to apologize for, Ginny." Kate started making her own copies. "Want to grab lunch today?"
"Not at that Indian place?"
"No. I promise. And I promise no funny stuff under the table while we eat."
Terrie's voice came over the intercom. "Call for you, Ginny, on line 21."
Ginny picked up the extension in the copy room, remembering the dead buzz on the line in her dream.
"Reed Wallace's office. This is Ginny speaking. Can I help you?"
The voice on the other end of the line was scarcely more than a whisper, so harsh and low that she wasn't even sure if the caller were a man or a woman.
"I know where you live, you fucking bitch--"
Ginny slammed the phone down.
"What was it?" Kate asked.
Ginny turned back to her. "Crank call."
A worried frown creased Kate's brow. "I wonder how they got through to you? Usually they just shoot their dirty wad at Terrie."
"I don't know." The thought worried Ginny a little too. She picked up the extension again and dialed the front desk. "Terrie, it's Ginny."
"Hi Gin. Can you hold on just a sec?"
"Sure, Terrie, take your time." Ginny could hear the dull buzz of other lines ringing. Monday mornings were crazy. Ginny wondered sometimes how Terrie managed to always sound so cheerful. Maybe it had something to do with being only twenty years old. After a few moments Terrie got back to her. "Thanks for hanging on. What's up?"
"Did you get a name for that last call you paged me for?"
"Um, no, I don't think so. Let's see. Sometimes I jot down the name on a piece of scratch paper when I have to page someone so I won't forget it--" Other lines began ringing again. "Hold on Ginny. I'll be right back with you."
Ginny held the receiver and waited, smiling a little at Kate. "You know, as much as I complain about working for Reed, I wouldn't take Terrie's job for love or money. After one Monday morning like this I'd be ready for the asylum."
Terrie got back to her at length. "Ginny, you there?"
"Listen, I'm sorry, I don't seem to have a name. Is it important? Did you get cut off or something?"
"It was a crank call. I was just wondering, did they ask for Reed or for me specifically?"
"Gosh, I don't remember. Lemme see. I think he asked for Wallace's secretary. That's what they usually say, anyway."
"You don't know if he mentioned me by name?"
"I'm really not sure."
"That's OK. It doesn't matter. Thanks anyway."
"I'll be extra careful about your calls from now on, I promise."
"Thanks Terrie. It's nothing important. It just spooked me a little."
Ginny put down the phone and told Kate, "Well, Terrie didn't get a name, but my guess is it was just one of Reed's disgruntled ex-clients, or maybe someone he's suing."
"You're probably right," Kate agreed. "You OK?"
"I'm fine. But you know what, I'm really not going to have time for lunch. Reed's got me copying this whole file, and he wants me to get all the typing done today too. I don't know when I'll be able to get away."
"Another time then." Kate gathered up her copies and walked away.
An hour and a half later, Ginny was still working on the Baldwin file. Her feet hurt, half the secretaries in the office were annoyed with her for tying up one of the machines for so long on a busy Monday morning, and she still had the bound depositions in the file to copy. Ginny decided that it was time for a break. She surrendered her machine to Betty Kane, who had been waiting none-too-patiently with a stack of purchase orders, and walked around to the lunch room to get a cup of coffee. She was thinking optimistically that there might even be some doughnuts left.
But the pink and white doughnut boxes were empty save for a few sheets of crumpled wax paper and some flakes of toasted coconut. She poured herself a cup of coffee and sipped cautiously. It was syrupy and thick, with a flat, burned taste from cooking on the hot plate all morning. She dumped the remains of the coffee down the sink and started a new pot. While she waited for it to brew, she sat down and began reading the front page of the newspaper that someone had brought in and left crumpled on the lunch room table.
Reed stuck his head around the door. "There you are, Ginny."
"You were looking for me?"
"You know I need that file by one o'clock, right?"
"I'll have it for you."
"Well, all right. As long as you have it done by one," Reed repeated. He came into the lunch room and pretended to read the notices posted on the bulletin board, fidgeting with his watch all the while. His ploy was so transparent that Ginny felt a flicker of amusement. Did Reed really intend to stand there reading the stern notices that the refrigerator would be cleaned out every Friday afternoon and the advertisements for aerobics classes and upcoming garage sales until she got back to work?
Humming quietly to herself, Ginny turned the page of the newspaper and settled down to wait him out.
But then Terrie paged her, ending the standoff. Ginny was a little disappointed. She had been looking forward to seeing who would give in first.
She picked up the lunch room phone extension. "Hi Terrie. What is it?"
"Call on line 22. The name is William, and he asked for you by name."
"Uh oh, is it trouble? Do you think it's your crank caller again?" Terrie asked.
"No, just someone I don't really feel like talking to. Thanks anyway. I've got it."
Reed hovered in the background, waiting until she had picked up the line and said, "Hi William, it's me," before coming up beside her and demanding, "Is that for me? Who is it?"
Ginny put her hand over the mouthpiece and shook her head at him. "No, it's not for you."
"Well, don't chat all morning. There's a lot of typing that needs to go out today as well," Reed admonished her before finally leaving.
"How are you?" William asked. "Am I catching you at a bad time?"
"No, it's fine. I'm fine."
"I was just wondering if you'd like to go out to dinner tonight."
She laughed. "No. I don't think so."
"Philip told me you called yesterday afternoon."
Ginny looked at the white wall the phone was mounted on. She'd never noticed before how badly the wall was marked with pen streaks and dirty fingerprints. A big law firm like this, you'd think they could afford to repaint occasionally. She told William, "It was nothing important. You didn't need to call back."
"I'm sorry you had to find out about Leisa's baby that way. I'd been meaning to talk to you. I just hadn't found the right time."
"That's OK. I think Emily Post is conspicuously silent on the etiquette of making a birth announcement to your own wife."
"Please, Ginny. Are you sure you can't have dinner tonight? I really think we ought to talk."
"You can't be serious. What could we possibly have to talk about?"
"I'm worried about you."
Ginny closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again and looked at the smudged white wall. "It's a little late for that, isn't it?"
"You know I didn't plan any of this. Things just happened. I never wanted to hurt you."
Oh Jesus. Ginny thought longingly of the verdant green alleyway and the silent autumn world on the other side. Suddenly, her memory of that place didn't seem frightening at all.
William was saying, "You know, you're still covered by my health insurance, and I was thinking if you liked, you could arrange to start seeing one of the counselors here on campus--"
"Look, I'll come by around seven tonight, all right? We can talk about it then."
"I've got to go. I've got a ton of work to do." And she gently laid the receiver back in the cradle so she wouldn't hear whatever else William might have to say.
She was surprised to discover, after the initial burst of anger wore off, that the encounter had left her feeling exhausted but somehow cleansed as well. She was glad to know about Leisa's pregnancy. It was actually something of a relief to discover that William had needed a breeder instead of a wife all along.
Ginny poured herself a cup of the freshly brewed coffee and headed back to the copy room.
Marc was hungry and tired by the time he got to Arthur's place. Monday afternoon physics labs always took it out of him.
"Hey, baby," he called as soon as he let himself in the front door. "You got anything to eat in this place?"
Arthur called back unhelpfully from his office, "You know where the kitchen is."
"Thanks a lot," Marc grumbled to himself. He dropped his backpack in the middle of the living room floor and stalked back to the kitchen. To his surprise and annoyance, though, the refrigerator was practically empty. Arthur enjoyed cooking, and he usually kept the kitchen stocked for Marc in any case, but all Marc could find today were several boxes of leftover Chinese take-out on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. He pried open the little boxes one by one, finding some sweet-and-sour something swimming in an iridescent red glaze in the first, steamed rice in the next, and finally a vegetable dish with green beans and slivered almonds.
He got a plate out, dumped the contents of all three boxes onto it, and put it in the microwave. Then he carried the steaming leftovers back to the office to find Arthur, eating as he went. "When are you going to go do some shopping? Your refrigerator looks like a morgue."
Arthur looked up. "Is that the Chinese food? I'm not sure it's still good. I ordered it last Thursday."
"What's a growing boy to do if you won't get off your butt and go to the supermarket every once in a while? Is this chicken or pork anyway?"
"If you can't tell you probably shouldn't be eating it."
"Hey, what's this?" Marc had just noticed that Arthur had pushed aside the keyboard of his Mac and set up in its place a small, antique-looking portable typewriter. "You decided to turn your back on modern technology?"
"It's a nice thought, but no, I just dug out the old Underwood to fill out these information request forms to the Department of Transportation." Arthur patted the metal casing on the typewriter affectionately. "Did you know I actually began writing my dissertation on this thing?"
"No wonder you dropped out of school." Marc sat down on the edge of the desk. "What's your sudden interest in the Department of Transportation?"
"Just a thought I had. It'll probably turn out to be nothing at all. Do you remember Sean and Patrick both mentioning street repair going on in the middle of the night?"
"Sure. Ghost sewer workers setting up phantom traffic cones. You can't be serious, Arthur. Sean and Patrick weren't even serious."
"I know. I just thought it might be interesting to find out what kind of street repair really was going on in their neighborhood during October. Every once in a while Lil and I do come across cases where new construction stirs something up."
"The old Indian Burial Ground school of ghosthunting, huh?"
"Right," Arthur smiled.
Marc's expression turned serious. "So are you really going to check out that apartment building?
"You know I haven't been invited to do a formal investigation. This is just some casual fact finding to satisfy my own curiosity. Did you get a chance to take the amaryllis to Ginny yet?"
"Uh huh. Sunday afternoon. She said to tell you thank you, but I got the idea that she was a little worried at having something new to take care of. I think a bunch of roses would have been a better bet."
"Thank you for going over."
"It was no problem. I ended up spending most of the afternoon with Ginny. We went out for a couple of beers."
"Really? It was nice of her to put up with you for so long. I'd think she'd be sick and tired of us by now."
"Well, she seemed like she could use the company. She'd had a bad dream that morning, and she was still a little upset."
"Did she tell you about it?"
"Yeah. It was pretty bizarre. She said she dreamed she was a ghost. But the really strange thing is that she wasn't asleep in bed when she had the dream. She told me she out taking a walk, going out for breakfast or something like that, and she just kind of stepped into this dream world."
Arthur didn't say anything. Marc went on, "So I was thinking maybe you could give her a call. She was asking me about what happened to you last Saturday night. Where you were when you got sick, stuff like that."
"I've told you I don't remember."
"Yeah, I know, but I still think you ought to give Ginny a call to talk about it."
"Your opinion is duly noted," Arthur said drily.
"So are you going to do it?"
"Why not?" Marc had finished the plate of leftovers. He set it aside on top of a stack of typed forms.
"Do you mind?" Arthur remonstrated mildly, picking up the plate again. Some of the sweet-and-sour sauce had spilled over the edge and stained the top form. Arthur blotted it up with a handful of kleenex. "I spent all afternoon typing these."
"I'm not going to call Ginny and try to convince her that the phenomena she's experienced are indicative of a haunting. Besides being unethical, I simply don't know if it's true or not."
"So what was it that made you puke your guts out on her doorstep? The clam dip at Sean's party?"
Arthur got up and walked to the kitchen, carrying Marc's plate. Marc trailed after him. "All right, all right, I know it's not your style to go around bullying people into letting you look for ghosts. But I'm starting to think there could be something really dangerous going on."
Arthur rinsed the plate and put it on the bottom rack of the dishwasher. "I'm not denying that there's something very off-kilter about that building, but I've seen no evidence that it poses a threat to anyone."
"Except maybe to you and your tender stomach."
"Ginny knows she can call if she wants me to look into it. Otherwise, the polite thing to do is just to leave her alone."
"I'm not sure Ginny really wants to be left alone. You know, she found out yesterday that her ex-husband's girlfriend is pregnant, and it really knocked her for a loop," Marc smiled a little ruefully. "It kind of shook me up too, I don't know why. Anyway, that's why I invited her out for a beer. I just wanted to get her and me both out that place for a little while."
"Did you tell Ginny what you were feeling?"
"No. Of course not."
"I see. You want me to do it.'
Marc grinned. "Well, yeah. You're the ghosthunter. I'm merely the youthful sidekick."
Marc spent the evening working on a paper for his poli-sci class on Arthur's computer, and by eleven o'clock he was sick to death of Prisoner's Dilemma and the problem of admitting Eastern European countries into NATO. He emailed what he had written back to himself, then wandered into the living room to see what Arthur was doing.
He found him sitting on the sofa with the television on and a hard-cover novel open on his lap. Marc sat down heavily beside him and helped himself to a drink from Arthur's glass of vodka.
He shuddered. "I'll never get used to that stuff."
"I'll pick up some beer for you next time I go out. How's your paper going? Did you finish?"
"Not quite. It's OK, though--it's not due till Friday." For the first time, Marc looked at what was on the television screen. "What are you watching?"
"One of the preachers on channel 40. "
"I can see that. Why are you watching it?"
"I was raised on this stuff," Arthur shrugged. "It makes me nostalgic for my childhood, I think."
Marc snorted. "You had the weirdest childhood of anybody I've ever known."
"You've missed the best part of his sermon. It turns out we're living in the End Times, and Jesus is due back any day now."
"Oh really? Does that mean I don't have to worry about finishing my paper?"
"It might be a good idea to get right with God first."
"What's he doing now? Viewer mail?"
Arthur reached for the remote and turned up the volume for Marc. "'Dear Pastor Bedford,'" the preacher read from the sheet of paper in his hand, "'I am in bondage to the sin of wearing women's clothing. I cannot help myself.'"
"Oh no!" Marc shouted in delight.
The preacher looked up, peering meaningfully straight into the camera. "No, brother, you can't help yourself, but Jesus can! Jesus can set you free from the bondage of unnatural lusts. You know it's not right! It's that homosexual-lesbian demon dwelling inside you."
Marc grabbed playfully at Arthur's crotch. "Uh oh. I think there's a demon on the loose."
"I know that there are at least one thousand homosexuals and lesbians watching this broadcast right now," Pastor Bedford announced authoritatively.
"One thousand and two," Marc said.
"If you want to be free, then that demon inside you must be cast out. Do you want to throw off the bondage of a lifestyle that's killing your body and destroying your immortal soul in the sight of God? Then put your hand on your belly now--is your hand on your belly? I command you, you demon of homosexuality, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, come out now! Be cleansed! Be healed!"
Pastor Bedford spread his hands across his own ample stomach and then thrust down and out, evidently miming demon's exodus, and Marc suddenly remembered his dream of a twisted, pale infant ripping its way out of Arthur's belly.
The camera pulled back to show the reaction of the congregation. People were on their feet, clapping and raising their hands above their heads, wailing and shouting aloud. Marc abruptly reached across Arthur for the remote control and turned off the television.
"Sorry about your TV show, baby," he told Arthur softly, putting one arm around his shoulder and kissing his face, "I guess I just don't wanna take a chance on losing my demons."
There were two messages waiting for Ginny on her answering machine when she got home Monday night. The first was from William, telling her, with cloying kindness, that if she had changed her mind about having dinner tonight she could give him a call. The second was from Arthur Drake.
Ginny didn't return either call. She had no desire to see William, of course, and the silent world at the end of the alley was private. She never should have told Marc about it. She certainly wasn't going to discuss it with Arthur.
She didn't talk to Kate about it either. It was several days later that Kate came stalking up to her desk while Ginny was working on the computer and hissed furiously at her, "What the hell are you up to?"
"What?" Ginny asked, startled.
Kate swung Ginny's chair around and gripped her shoulders tightly, then cupped her face with both hands. Celia walked by and stared at them, wide-eyed, and Kate released Ginny and shook her head.
"Kate, what's the matter?"
Kate laughed softly, sounding a little hysterical. "Shit, Ginny, you nearly scared me to death."
"What are you talking about?"
"Is it just your way of getting even with me because I told you I don't believe in ghosts?"
"Stop it, Kate. You're starting to scare me."
"I'm scaring you? Sweet, innocent Ginny, pure as the driven snow--acting so surprised by my little magic tricks--" Kate made an abrupt, exasperated gesture. "I saw you, Ginny, just now. You nearly gave me a heart attack."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Around the corner from the copy room. You looked like you were trying to say something to me. And then you just weren't there anymore."
"You must have been imagining things," Ginny said, and she could hear how her voice shook. "I've been sitting here all morning trying to get these labels to print out."
Kate looked at her closely. "Are you telling me you really don't know what I'm talking about?"
Ginny did know, of course. Kate had been the only living person to see her in the mirror world.
"No," she said, "I honestly don't know what you're talking about." But then she added, "It was just a dream I had."
Kate caught her elbow and told her, softly and quickly, "Whatever you're up to, Ginny, would you please promise to be careful?"
Ginny laughed unconvincingly and tried to free her arm. Kate didn't let go until Ginny finally said, "I'm not up to anything, but yes, I promise to be careful."
Reed came blustering out of his office just then in a cloud of cigarette smoke and demanded, "Got that mailing ready to go out Ginny?"
"I'm working on it," she assured him, and turned back to the computer.
The next morning Terrie flagged Ginny down just as she was getting into the office.
"Can you hold on a sec?"
It was almost nine, but Ginny found that she wasn't particularly concerned by the possibility of Reed complaining if she wasn't sitting at her desk right on the hour.
"Sure, Terrie. What's up?"
"I think your crank caller called back this morning."
"Oh no. What did he say?"
"Not much. He called right at--let's see, I wrote it down here--at eight-twenty and asked to speak to you by name. I asked him what his name was, and he called me a nosy bitch and hung up."
"Then he called right back half a dozen times and hung up as soon as I answered the phone."
"I'm sorry. That's just what you need first thing in the morning, isn't it?"
"It's not your fault, and anyway, I'm used to it. When all else fails, people know they can always abuse the receptionist."
Ginny laughed in sympathy. She pushed open the door to the inner offices and almost flattened Celia, who was on her way out.
"Oh, Celia, I'm sorry." Ginny took her arm to steady her. "Are you all right?"
Celia jerked herself away from Ginny and said loudly, "Keep your hands off me."
Heads turned. Ginny stared at her, astonished, and Celia went on in a loud, theatrical whisper, "I can't believe I set Kevin up with a bulldyke like you. The poor guy's half out of his mind. Lost his job, kicked out of his apartment--"
Ginny felt herself blushing with rage, but she managed to keep her voice down. "Have you lost your mind, Celia? Kevin gave me a black eye. He's lucky I didn't call the police on him. Anything that's happened to him since then is his own fault."
Celia whirled and stalked away.
Ginny felt weak at the knees, and she didn't think she could stand to meet the long row of faces she would have to pass on the way to her own desk. She turned indecisively, thinking she would go take a walk around the block to calm down. If Reed didn't like her being late, then he could just fire her and be done with it.
But Terrie stopped her on the way out and asked quietly, "You OK, Ginny?"
She smiled at the kindness in Terrie's voice. "Yes, I'm fine."
"Don't let that tight-assed bitch upset you. Most people don't think like that at all."
"Most people?" Ginny asked faintly.
"I really kind of envy you. When I think of all the big, dumb jerks I've gone out with, it's almost enough to make me think about trying women myself for a change."
When Ginny got home that evening she found that all the mail in her mail box had been shredded into confetti.
She stood there running her fingers through the little heap of paper bits lying two inches deep in the bottom of the mailbox and wondered what to do. Caesar had heard her arrive, and he sat in the upstairs window, meowing pitifully down at her. Ginny scooped out a handful of paper and sifted through it, trying to determine if any bills had been destroyed. But what was left of her mail seemed to be mostly colored newsprint and slick catalogue paper. Evidently nothing vital had been lost. It was annoying and rather frightening nonetheless. She would leave a note for the manager. These were the 1990's after all; it was past time the management installed locked mailboxes.
A few bits of paper slipped through her fingers and went blowing across the courtyard.
"Well, that's certainly a novel way of dealing with junk mail."
Ginny turned. "Sean! You're back! It's so good to see you."
Sean set down his suitcase and hugged her. "You too, Ginny. Have you been holding down the fort all right?"
She thought of his dead Boston fern and felt a pang. "I wasn't expecting you back so soon."
"You try spending two weeks with my parents and see how you like it. No, that's not fair. They were really very sweet. I think the problem was just that forty-year-olds simply aren't meant to live with their folks."
"I guess not."
Sean picked up his bag. "Would you like to come over for dinner some night? It's going to take me a little while to get into the habit of cooking for one."
"Of course," Ginny said softly. "I'd love to."
"Great. What about tomorrow night?"
She glanced over at the dark, blank windows of Sean's apartment. She wouldn't have wanted to be alone there either. "Tomorrow night it is. Why don't you let me get dinner for you this evening? I'm sure you haven't had time to go grocery shopping yet, and I've got a freezer full of frozen dinners."
"Thanks, but I feel like I need to face this first night by myself."
Wishing she could do more she said, "Well, if you change your mind, or just feel like coming over and watching videos or something later on, please just knock on my door. You know me. I never have plans on weeknights. Or weekends either, come to think of it."
Ginny dashed upstairs, fed Caesar, and changed into jeans. She hoped the big flower shop up on Santa Monica Boulevard was open till six. If it was, then she could buy a replacement for Sean's Boston fern, sneak it up the back steps and have it ready to give to him in case he came over this evening.
Caesar swatted vengefully at Ginny's ankles when he realized she was leaving again so soon after getting home, and tried to dash past her out the door when she opened it. She blocked him with her foot and shut the door quickly behind herself.
When she got down to the courtyard, she saw Sean sitting on the steps of his front porch with his head in his hands. She hesitated before going over to him, unwilling to intrude on his grief. Then she decided that if he really wanted privacy, he wouldn't be sitting on the front porch. "Sean?" she asked cautiously, "Is there anything I can do?"
He raised a tear-stained face and said, "Do you know any good carpet cleaning services?"
She sat down on the stairs beside him. "I'm sorry--what?"
Sean wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "Sorry. I'm a little emotional this evening." He took a deep breath and said in a steadier voice, "It looks like the toilet backed up. There's dried mud and shit all down the hall carpet."
"Oh no. Oh, I'm so sorry. What a thing to come home to."
He fished a handkerchief out of his back pocket and blew his nose. "I've had nicer homecomings."
"Have you called the manager yet?"
"No. I just came out here and had hysterics."
"Would you like me to do it?"
Sean stood up. "No. I'm all right. You should come in and see the mess, though. It'll make you glad your place is on the second floor."
The entire apartment smelled cold and rank. "Look at this," Sean said. "Can someone please tell me what I've done to deserve this?"
A trail of thick, black sludge spilled out of the bathroom and down the hall, ending just outside Patrick's bedroom. Ginny felt her stomach turning as she looked at it. "My god."
Sean picked up the phone and began dialing. "You're not kidding. But I hope God didn't have anything to do with it."
Ginny moved cautiously down the hall to see. Mercifully, it didn't smell so much of raw sewage as of mildew and decay. She thought of fallen leaves rotting on the forest floor in late November, just before the first snowfall, or the wet, heavy smell of a stagnant pond.
Behind her, Sean said into the phone, "Bernie? It's me, Sean, in number 2A. Yeah, I just got back this afternoon. Listen, I've got a problem."
A final splash of muck lay just inside Patrick's bedroom door. Ginny stared down at it, and Sean said, "It looks to me like the carpet's going to have to be replaced."
Ginny put her foot down on the bit of mud and deliberately ground it into the carpet with the heel of her shoe as Sean said with resignation, "Oh well, I can go stay with my sister tonight, but you've got to get someone in first thing tomorrow." Then she turned, her heart pounding in her chest, and walked back to the living room. She didn't tell Sean what she had seen in Patrick's doorway.
Pressed into the weave of the carpet had been the muddy imprint of a very small, five-fingered hand.
Thursday afternoon Ginny stopped at the florist's shop on the way home from work and bought a large Boston fern. Sean was still at his sister's house, so she was able to carry it up the front way. She was standing at the top of her staircase, holding the fern by its wire hanger with one hand, and awkwardly trying to turn the key in the lock with her left, when she heard someone coming up the stairs behind her. As she looked to see who was there, Kevin rounded the corner of the landing and sank his fist into her stomach.
Ginny doubled over with a grunt. The fern went rolling down the stairs, breaking fronds and spilling dirt. She felt no pain, just an agonizing inability to draw a breath. Her knees buckled and she would have fallen, but Kevin caught a handful of hair at the nape of her neck and jerked her up again. She broke a heel trying to brace herself against him.
"I don't want to hurt you," Kevin muttered heavily, turning her and shoving her forward until her head hit the front door with a crack. "I just want you to stop calling me."
Ginny finally managed to take a shuddering gasp of air. Oh god, it hurt. Nothing had ever hurt like this. She tried to scream, but at her first, wavering cry, Kevin pulled her head back and slammed it into the door again. She slumped to her knees, and Kevin managed to get the front door open with the hand that wasn't tangled in her hair. As he dragged her in over the threshold, Ginny wrapped her arms around his knees and tried to trip him. But he yanked her to her feet, digging his fingers into the flesh of her upper arms. For a moment they were eye to eye, and Ginny saw, through a haze of pain, that Kevin did not look so much angry as bewildered and frightened. He said, "I told you to stop it," then flung her back against the wall. She was sliding to her knees again when Kevin wrapped his hands around her throat and started knocking her head against the wall. Ginny clawed at his eyes, and Kevin wrenched her violently to the side. The back of her head hit the window and broke through.
Everything stopped for just an instant. Ginny was staring upwards at the violet sky of early evening. The long shards of glass in the frame were like a circle of knives at her throat.
Then Kevin yanked her head back through the broken glass. Ginny heard him screaming. She felt a rush of heat and closed her eyes tight. When she opened them again, she was sitting in her car looking ruefully at the passenger side window, which was broken again. The seat beside her was covered with tiny, glittering pebbles of smashed glass. A cold wind blew in through the open window, and she began to shiver. It was too cold to go driving around with a window out. She got out of the car, slamming the door vigorously shut behind herself, and a few last shards of glass were shaken out of the window on the other side. They shattered on the sidewalk with a tinkling sound, like sleet falling on frozen earth. It certainly felt cold enough to begin sleeting. The trees were bare, and the sky was lead gray. Maybe they'd even get some snow later on. She wrapped her scarf close around her neck and decided to take a stroll through the late autumn landscape.
Mary went to answer the door, wondering who would be stopping by at this time of day.
"Zack! What a nice surprise."
He was holding a plastic bag from B. Dalton's in his hands, smiling sheepishly at her. "I hope this isn't a bad time."
"No, not at all. Sarah Ann's asleep, and Carol's out."
"Then I'm disturbing a rare moment of peace and quiet, aren't I?"
Mary smiled. "The truth is I don't much like peace and quiet. I sit around imagining that I hear rats crawling in the walls."
Zack was looking more and more uncomfortable, and Mary finally took pity on him. "Come on inside." She pointed at the bag. "Is that something for us?"
Zack held it out. "For Sarah Ann. I promise not to make a habit of just dropping by, but I was in the bookstore this afternoon and happened to see this."
Mary pulled the book out. "Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat. Oh Zack, how nice of you." She kissed him. "I loved this when I was a kid."
"I did too. I had no idea it was still in print."
Mary flipped through the oversized book, smiling at the pictures. "This takes me straight back to Mrs. Buckshorne's second grade class. After lunch every day she'd read to us for half an hour. It was always the best part of the day."
"I was reading it in the store before I bought it," Zack said. "When I was a kid I never realized how imperialistic the story really is. Look at this. The Man with the Yellow Hat kidnaps George out of the jungle, brings him to England in a cage, for heaven's sake--"
"Shut up, I don't want to hear it."
"I know. I looked at some more PC books on the rainforest, but they just weren't Curious George."
"Well, thank you. It was very nice of you. Can you stay for a cup of tea or something?"
"I'd better get going. It's my night to cook dinner."
"My sympathy to your roommates."
"Hey, thanks a lot. I'll have you know I'm a very respectable cook."
"I'm sure you're a wonderful cook. You just never should have told me about the time you burned a pot of macaroni and cheese."
"That was three years ago. Besides, I'm sure there are lots of people who forget to turn off the burner when they're stirring in the cheese powder."
They both heard the crack of shattering glass.
"What on earth?" Mary said.
"Sounds like somebody broke a window."
They stepped out onto the front porch. Mary looked around, and then, glancing up, saw Ginny's living room window. The reflection of the setting sun shone red on the last few shards remaining of the windowpane.
"Oh no. What a mess," Zack said. "There's glass all over the courtyard."
"How the hell did Ginny manage to do something like that?" Mary asked, amused and exasperated.
"Maybe you ought to check on her. She might have cut herself."
"You're right," Mary said more soberly. "Will you wait here in case Sarah Ann starts yelling? I'll just run up and make sure she's OK."
She stepped carefully across the courtyard walk, the broken glass grinding and snapping underfoot. Just then a man came bursting out of the stairwell from Ginny's apartment. His eyes were rolling in his head, and he was gasping and muttering incoherently. Mary froze. For a horrified moment, it seemed to her that both his arms ended at the wrist. Then she realized that his hands were so soaked with blood that they looked black in the uncertain light of early dusk.
He pushed his way past Mary and ran towards the street. "Hey!" Mary yelled, starting after him. "Wait a minute--"
He glanced over his shoulder and shouted, "It's no use! She's already gone!" Then he dashed out into the midst of rush hour traffic on San Ysidro.
The driver of a yellow Saab braked frantically, blasting his horn over and over again. Brakes squealed, and with a dull crump a gray Mercedes plowed into the Saab from behind. Mary tried to look away, but she couldn't help seeing the man tossed up over the hood of the Saab, arms and legs twisting like a rag doll, and she heard the smack when his head hit the windshield. A spiderweb of cracks spread across the glass. The driver of the Saab covered his face with his hands. The man rolled off the hood into the next lane of traffic, and the driver of the little green Vega never had a chance to stop. Mary saw the car jerk up and down as though it was going over a speed bump.
She turned away and vomited into the hibiscus bush.
Zack was beside her. He was trembling and ashen-faced, but he put his arm around her shoulder and helped her straighten up. "Here, come away. You don't have to see this."
Mary wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Oh my god. Oh my god."
"I know. You go sit with Sarah Ann. I'll call the police."
"Oh no," Mary whispered, horrified. "Ginny. What's happened to Ginny? He came out of her apartment."
Zack blanched, but he said, "I'll go upstairs and check. Sarah Ann's alone. You should get inside."
Zack ran up taking the stairs three at a time. A potted plant had spilled down the steps, and there were broken leaves and dirt everywhere. "Ginny! It's Zack. Are you all right?"
Her front door was standing partially open. Zack felt something cold twisting in his gut, and a nervous sweat sprang out on his forehead. A woman's purse had been dropped on the landing, and beside it was one black pump, the heel partially broken off. The center of the door was marked with a dirty red smudge.
A cat dashed out past Zack's feet and down the stairs, and Zack bit back a scream. He pushed the door the rest of the way open with his fingertips. "Ginny?" he called, very softly now. "Are you in here?"
After a moment of silence, he stepped into her living room.
The early evening breeze blew in through the broken window, rustling the pages of the newspaper scattered across the coffee table.
He walked through the small apartment, his pulse thundering in his ears, and checked all the closets and then, on a morbid impulse, the shower stall and the kitchen pantry as well. Then he had to sit down on the couch because there was no strength left in his legs. He was still sitting there when the heavy footsteps came up the outside stairs. A muscular brunette woman in the uniform of the West Hollywood Sheriff's Department came in. Zack didn't trust himself to try to stand yet. The woman said, "You're Zachary Young?"
He nodded. "Ginny's not here. I looked everywhere. She just isn't here."
Ginny wasn't sure what day of the week it was, but it felt like one of those endless Sunday afternoons. She had nothing to do, nowhere in particular she had to be. It was a shame the weather wasn't nicer, or she could have enjoyed this walk through the neighborhood. The sky was the color of tarnished silver, and the wind was cold and smelled of far-away rain. She wondered if she might have been caught in the rain earlier. Some of her clothes seemed damp, especially her scarf, but the day was so dreary and cold that she left it wrapped tightly around her neck anyway.
The sidewalks were blanketed with fallen leaves. She shuffled through them until she noticed how damp and slick the underside were, and worse, that kicking through them uncovered pale, fat-bodied insects. Ginny shuddered and touched her damp scarf again. She needed to get in from the cold, but she didn't feel like going back to her apartment. Maybe she'd find some place to have a late lunch instead.
A few acorns that the squirrels hadn't found lay half-hidden among the leaves on the sidewalk, capless and shriveled, sending out tentative white roots in a futile quest for the earth beneath the sidewalk. Long slabs of yellow fungus grew from the lower trunks of the maple trees, and speckled gray mushrooms formed sprawling fairy rings across the front lawns of the homes Ginny passed. She was depressed by the smell of damp and decay, and by this irrevocable slide into winter. She longed for the first freeze of the season. At least when it got cold enough, the rot and decay would stop, frozen in abeyance until the spring thaw.
She heard the sound of running water somewhere nearby and looked around curiously. After a moment, she realized it was coming from the storm drain under the sidewalk. She'd been right, then. It must have rained earlier in the day. She stopped at the curb and tried to see down into the drain. The grate was choked with leaves, but a single shaft of light illuminated dark steel rungs leading down into the sewer. Ginny wondered what it would be like to climb into that unimaginable darkness.
She straightened up and continued on her way, cheered a little by the noise of rushing water. It was so rare to hear water in Los Angeles.
She stopped. Of course, she was in L.A. There would be no winter freeze here -- what on earth had she been thinking of? She turned around slowly, taking everything in, from the sere, brown lawns to the black and leafless branches overhead. She was reminded of her own neighborhood, but only in a distant and dream-like way. This cold, autumnal landscape couldn't possibly be West Hollywood.
Then she heard a distant whirring in the air, like cicadas buzzing on a summer night, and suddenly she remembered. She had come to this place once before, and the last time she had been here, Patrick had warned her to stay off the streets. She looked around wildly, but saw no place to take shelter, so she fled down the sidewalk as the whirring grew louder and closer.
The leaves underfoot were slippery and she stumbled repeatedly, finally falling to her knees. She was too consumed by fear and by anger at her own clumsiness to feel any pain. She got up and kept running, concentrating on placing her feet carefully and pushing off again with all the strength in her legs.
It seemed to be working. She didn't fall again, and she realized, as she ran, that she could cover longer and longer distances with each step. Her feet hardly touched the ground, and she felt a rush of exhilaration. By now she was leaping more than running, the sidewalk rushing away below her with every bound. Finally her strides were so long and so high that she wondered whether she needed to touch the ground at all, and the next time the ball of her foot hit the sidewalk, she pushed herself upwards as hard as she could.
The ground dropped away. She was flying.
She hugged her arms to her sides and navigated carefully around the trees, ascending in slow spirals. Her best hope lay in getting as high above the earth as she could, but it was difficult, requiring more care than simply running. Once a downdraft caught her and spun her back towards the ground. Her cheek brushed the prickly ends of the brown, dead grass, and the whirring sounds were so loud and so close that she almost despaired.
But she closed her eyes for a moment, stretched her arms out before her and drew them back to her sides again, fingers pressed tight together, palms cupped, swimming in the air. Once again she was circling upwards, but she couldn't continue indefinitely. One moment of lapsed concentration, and she might very well fall. When she was level with the rooftops she drew her legs up and perched carefully on the curved red roof tiles of the nearest house, wrapping one arm around the chimney to steady herself. Crouched forward and panting with exhaustion, she watched the street intently until they came into view.
When she saw them, she hissed in terror and tried to press herself into the shadow of the chimney. They were coming up out of the storm drains, buzzing like insects. They were huge, white and pudgy, grubs grown to monstrous proportions. They were Ginny's John Does, and they were worse than she had ever imagined. Oversized heads bobbed on weak necks. Their torsos were long and curved like shrimp tails, held up by arms and legs that seemed too atrophied to support any such weight. Ginny looked away, praying that they would not see her up here.
She realized at length the noise they made was changing. It was still high pitched and shrill, a constant, dreary whine, but it was no longer utterly inhuman. She cautiously turned her head and looked back down to the street. Now the droning racket reminded her, strangely, of the shrill noise of young children at play.
And sure enough, Ginny saw to her astonishment that the sidewalk was crowded not with huge, anthropomorphic insects, but merely a noisy group of children. They were on bicycles, and they moved fast, but didn't seem to go anywhere, wheeling up driveways and then out into the street again, doubling back on their tracks and skidding on the leaf-covered sidewalks. Ginny thought they would laugh to see her crouched here on the roof like one of the chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins, and she was so relieved and happy that she almost called out to them, but something held her back.
Then she saw that there was someone in the midst of them, a grown man, she thought, but it was difficult to say for sure, the children moved around him in such swift, ever-changing patterns. Whoever he was, he was on foot, and his head and hands seemed to be draped in soft, black cloth. The children were driving him along before them like a flock of sparrows worrying a hawk. He stumbled down the sidewalk where Ginny had been only minutes before, and the children shrieked with laughter, riding their bikes around and around, up and back, cruel and relentless. Once he broke away from them and ran out into the street, but there was no escaping the children. They followed him effortlessly, riding around him in tightening concentric circles. Their hapless victim threw his hands up over his covered head and allowed them to herd him the rest of the way down the street.
At length the dead, gray branches of the intervening trees hid his further progress from Ginny's eyes. She scooted carefully along the rooftop, her slick leather soles slipping on the tiles, and managed to catch one last glimpse of the cruel children as they disappeared down the street.
They weren't riding bicycles anymore. And though they were still children, they had become inexpressibly terrible. Their flesh was pale, naked and white, and they bore a shining oblong box in their midst. She scrambled back across the roof, afraid that even now they might look back and see her. Her foot slipped, and she began sliding down the roof on her back. She flung out her arms, groping desperately for purchase, but her feet kicked in empty space, and then she was falling. She managed somehow to turn in midair and push off against the side of the house, and once again she could fly.
She skirted the tops of the bushes near the house and began to work her way upwards, circling the silvery branches of a eucalyptus tree until she had gained enough altitude to fly towards home. She was scarcely higher than the rooftops, and she had to go carefully around the street lights and satellite dishes. When a warm updraft from a chimney swept her unexpectedly upwards, she felt a clutch of fear around her heart as the rooftops receded too quickly beneath her.
And then she was above her own apartment building, looking down into the quiet courtyard. She circled down slowly, feeling strangely nervous about returning here even though it was surely safer than being out on the street. She hovered outside her living room window, rising and falling on the wind, and trying to see in. The last vestiges of the sunset glowed red on the television screen, and she could just make out the pale shape of the couch.
Something moved in the darkness. A dark figure walked across her living room, and she knew, with a stab of sickening panic, that it was the man she had seen out on the street. She tried to fly away then, but something was weighing her down. Her sodden scarf, heavy and prickling around her neck. She unwound it, and only then discovered that it was soaked through with her own blood.
Kevin walked to the window and smiled at her.
The sudden clatter out in the courtyard made Mary's heart skip a beat. She instinctively looked around to see that Sarah Ann was all right before going to the window to find out what was going on.
But it was only the workmen carrying long, awkwardly rolled strips of carpet out of Sean's apartment. One of them had dropped his tool belt on the concrete walkway, and the noise echoed loudly in the confined space of the courtyard.
Carol came hurriedly in from the kitchen, trying to look calm, but Mary suspected she'd been startled too. "Don't worry," Mary said. "It's not the boogeyman. Just the guys replacing the carpet in Sean's place."
Carol smiled and relaxed. "Whatever happened to those brave young dykes of yesteryear?"
"They had a baby and joined the trembling Establishment."
Carol put her arm around Mary's waist and looked out the window with her. "Sean looks absolutely miserable, doesn't he?"
He was standing on his front porch, trying to keep out of the workmen's way, and obviously unhappy at the necessity of having strangers tromping through his apartment.
"Yes he does, poor thing. In no mood to appreciate all those hairy-chested workmen in his living room."
"I wonder if he's heard anything about Ginny?"
"I don't know," Mary said, suddenly serious. "He probably would have told us if he had. Maybe I'll go talk to him for a minute."
"Go ahead. I'll keep an eye on Sarah Ann."
Mary turned at the door. "How long is this likely to last, do you think?"
"You know what I mean. Can't most normal parents stand to leave their baby alone for a few minutes from time to time?"
Carol smiled. "You accusing us of being normal parents?"
Sean's face brightened when he saw Mary coming out of her apartment.
"So what color's the new carpet going to be?"
He smiled ruefully. "More industrial gray, I'm afraid. And the best part is, it doesn't quite match the industrial gray in the living room and bedrooms."
"They couldn't even get the same color?"
"You know what the management company is like."
"I talked to Becky and then Mike this afternoon, and they both assured me this was the best they could do if I wanted the new carpet in today."
"Let me guess. And they told you it would take three weeks if you actually wanted the right shade."
"Close," Sean smiled. "They estimated five weeks. What could I do? I told them to put the carpet in."
"I called the other day about getting an exterminator out here. Carol and I both think we're hearing rats under the floor, and Mike told me that it would take a month to get an exterminator. A month! I mean, this is Los Angeles, right? There must be ten pages of exterminators in the phone book. Most of them could probably be here within an hour."
"Well, you know the real reason it's taking so long, don't you? They have to find someone who'll drive up from Tijuana. It's such a shame you can't get DDT on this side of the border anymore."
Mary laughed. Sean stepped aside as two men came by carrying a long roll of carpet and said, "I've been pestering them about getting new glass put in Ginny's window too. It could rain any day now."
"You haven't heard anything new about Ginny have you?"
Sean looked down. "No."
"It seems so crazy. She doesn't have her wallet or her car--Zack said she left one shoe on the staircase, for Chrissake. Where could she have gone?"
"I don't know. I wish I did. I feel so guilty. Did you know the guy had attacked her once before?"
Mary blanched. "No. No, I didn't. Ginny never said anything about it."
"I was coming home one night with Patrick and some friends, and we saw it happening. She was right in front of the window, and the guy just hauled off and hit her. We all ran up there, of course, but then Ginny wouldn't let us call the cops."
"Why on earth not?"
"None of her excuses really made any sense. I think she was just embarrassed. Of course, now I keep thinking that if we'd called the police then, it might not have ended up like this." Sean gestured vaguely in the direction of the broken window.
Knowing it was inadequate, Mary still ventured to say, "It was Ginny's decision, not yours."
"That's what I thought at the time. That I didn't have any business badgering her into doing something she didn't want to do. But look at the way things turned out. A man's dead. I'm not shedding crocodile tears for the guy--oh Christ, I don't even know his name--"
"Bender. Kevin Bender, I think."
"But nobody deserves to die like that."
"No." Mary agreed softly.
"And Ginny's out there somewhere by herself, probably thinking that lunatic's still after her. And that's supposing she didn't just crawl under a bush somewhere and quietly bleed to death--"
"Oh Jesus, Sean."
Mary turned. She'd been dimly aware of someone coming up beside her and assumed that it was one of the workmen.
It wasn't. The man apologetically interrupting their conversation was carefully dressed in a button-down shirt, pennyloafers and pressed blue jeans. His light brown hair was cut straight and a little too long. "My name's Dan Malone," he said. "I was wondering if either of you know my sister Ginny."
"Forgive the mess," Sean said, leading the way through his living room. One of the hall bookshelves had been moved in and double-stacked against the living room shelves. "As you can tell, they're putting in new carpet."
Dan smiled at all the books. "I take it you're a serious reader?"
"Not really," Sean snapped. But then he said more kindly, "I remember Ginny mentioning her brother a couple of times, but I don't remember the name Dan. Are there other brothers?"
"No," Dan sighed. "Just me. Mom and Dad and Ginny are the only people who call me by my first name."
"Well, now you have to tell us what it is," Mary said.
"Wait, I think I remember," Sean said. "Percy? Is that it?"
"I'm afraid so. Percival Daniel Malone. It's like a family curse. I bet Ginny's never told you her real name either."
"No, I don't know that she has," Mary said.
"No," Sean said, in mock horror.
Mary asked, smiling, "Did your parents have a Camelot complex or something?"
"Or something. I've long since given up trying to understand them."
"Here, we can sit in the kitchen," Sean said. "Can I get you something to drink? I've got beer."
"A beer would be great," Dan said. "It's been a heck of a morning. A heck of a week, actually."
"I'm sure it has been," Mary sympathized.
"Anything for you, Mary? I guess nursing moms aren't supposed to have beer."
"You're right, unfortunately. It's enough to make me seriously consider switching Sarah Ann to formula."
"Here you go." Sean got a can out of the refrigerator and handed it to Dan. "Would you like a glass?"
"Yes, thank you."
Sean handed him a pilsner glass from the cabinet. Dan poured slowly, holding the glass at an angle to keep the beer from foaming, then took a long, grateful swallow. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and smiled apologetically at them. "Thanks a lot. I needed that." He shook his head. "My folks don't even understand what I'm doing out here. They're both academics, you know, and they have this touching faith that nothing so irrational as tragedy could really strike our family. They honestly seem to think Ginny just ran off to be the heroine of her own Bildungsroman."
"Her own what?" Sean asked.
Dan looked embarrassed. "Never mind. I'm a lot like them, I know, no matter how much I try to pretend I'm not."
Mary touched his shoulder. "Is there anything we can do?"
"I don't know. It's just that I've already tried almost everything else I could think of. I went to the Sheriff's station, and then down to the management company to get the keys to her apartment--you know, they worried me a little down there--"
"I'm not surprised," Sean murmured.
"--I wasn't sure if they'd even give me the keys. I had a copy of the police report and proof that I was her brother, but as it turned out, the secretary at the front desk just handed the keys right over to me without asking to see anything."
"Nice to know the management takes our security so seriously," Mary told Sean.
"I went through her address book this afternoon and called everybody, but most people hadn't even seen her since she and William separated."
"William?" Mary asked.
"Her husband. I called him too. I thought they had stayed in pretty close contact, but he didn't even know anything had happened to her. When I explained why I was calling, he got all defensive and angry, telling me how he'd been trying to convince her to move to a safer building--" Dan made a dismissive gesture. "That's not a whole lot of help now, is it? Anyway, I was wondering if you could suggest anyone else I might talk to--maybe she's made new friends since the separation?" he asked hopefully.
Mary and Sean traded a glance, then Mary said, "I'm sorry. We would talk in the courtyard, but as far as her life outside this apartment building--I really don't know. Now that I think about it, I don't even know where she works."
"It's a law office in Westwood," Dan said. "I've already called. They don't know anything."
Sean said, "I'm afraid I can't really help you either. She didn't talk very much about her personal life."
Dan nodded and looked down at his hands. He asked quietly, "Were either of you here when it happened?"
"I was," Mary said, after a pause. "But I don't know if I can tell you anything very useful. I heard the window break and went outside to see what had happened. That man came running down the stairs and ran right out into traffic--" Mary swallowed and went on more quietly. "A friend was visiting me at the time. Zack. He went upstairs to see if Ginny was all right, but she was already gone. The cops thought she must have run down the back stairs, that she was hurt, maybe, or in shock."
Dan's pale face had gone even whiter.
"I'm sorry," Mary said.
"It's all right. I've already heard it all from the police."
"I rode around in a squad car for more than an hour looking for her. No one thought she could have gotten far. I've been out walking around the neighborhood a couple of times since then, too, thinking--I don't know--that somebody might have seen her or something." Mary shrugged unhappily. "Nothing."
"I'm sure you did everything you could. Thank you for that." Dan stood up. "I don't want to impose on your time anymore, but if you think of anything, or hear anything--"
"Of course we'll let you know right away," Sean said. "Are you going to be staying in Ginny's apartment?"
Dan nodded, then said, "There was one other thing. Ginny has a cat, doesn't she? Caesar?"
"Yes, I've been leaving food out for him," Mary said. "I see him from time to time slinking around the apartment building, but I haven't tried to catch him. I was afraid it would just scare him off."
"Thanks for looking out for him. Maybe if I start putting food out on the landing he'll decide to come home." Dan managed a thin smile. "Maybe if I set out a pepperoni pizza and a six pack, Ginny will decide to come home too."
Marc had planned his evening carefully. Home from the library by six-thirty. Half an hour to eat dinner, and then back to his room to work like hell, straight on till morning if that's what it took to get caught up. He had been falling further and further behind lately. Too many nights with Arthur, too much time worrying about med school. Thanksgiving vacation was coming up before long, and he needed the four-day weekend to begin studying for his finals, not just to play catch-up with the work he should have been doing all quarter.
But when he walked in the front door, he discovered to his dismay that one of his roommates was apparently hosting a study group for an American history class. The living room was crowded with people sitting on all the available furniture and sprawled across the floor, arguing about Williams Jennings Bryan and the gold standard. Aggravating as it was, Marc was still never one to pass up a ready-made audience. Drawing on a distant high school memory, he placed his fist over his heart and declaimed, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!"
His roommate Robert looked up. "It's a cross of silver, you moron."
"No it isn't," said the girl sitting next to Robert on the floor. "That was the whole point of his speech--that it would be better for the working people if Congress would switch to a silver standard."
"Wrong, wrong, wrong," someone else said. "Bryan was afraid that switching to a silver standard would ruin the economy."
"Study groups are really great, aren't they?" Marc remarked to no one in particular. "Knowledge by committee. I'm sure you'll all get A's."
"When we want your opinion, we'll ask for it," Robert growled. "Now shut up and go away."
"Last time I checked, I was paying rent on this living room too."
"Come on, you guys, this is serious," pleaded the leggy brunette girl sitting on the couch. She sounded as though she were on the verge of tears. "I'm getting really confused. Was it silver or gold?"
Marc raised his hands in mute surrender and made his way across the living room to the hall, stepping carefully over bookbags and around the people on the floor. He dropped his own backpack in his bedroom, then went to the kitchen to start dinner.
He flipped on the black and white portable on the breakfast table, meaning to watch the evening news. But the last person to use the television had left it on channel 58, and as the set warmed up, the rousing strains of the Bonanza theme filled the kitchen. The map of the Ponderosa burned away to reveal Pa Cartwright and his three boys riding straight up to the camera on their snorting, head-tossing steeds. Marc grinned with nostalgia. He'd loved this show as a kid.
He measured two cups of water into a pan and set it on the burner, then retrieved a package of Top Ramen from the pantry and smashed up the noodles with the heel of his hand before tearing open the wrapper. While he waited for the water to boil, he checked the refrigerator for anything that might perk up plain Ramen. All he could find were two hard boiled eggs and a bundle of green onions still tied together with the blue rubber band from the supermarket.
He was peeling an egg in the sink when someone came into the kitchen behind him.
"Marc, my man, what the hell are you up to these days?"
Marc turned. "Hey Jason. I didn't know you were here. Are you part of that mob out in the living room?"
"Yeah. I'm taking the class to knock off the last of my GE's. It's turning out to be a real drag, though." Jason opened the refrigerator and browsed through it. "Can I have one of these Buds?"
"They're Robert's. You'll have to ask him."
"Aw, he won't mind." Jason popped one open and sat down at the breakfast table. "Whatcha doing? Cooking dinner?"
"Top Ramen? How can you eat that shit? It's just starch and salt, that's all it is."
"Thanks for the nutritional advice."
"And what the hell are you watching?"
"What does it look like?"
"Bonanza? Oh no. Don't tell me this is another one of those gay things."
"Right. Queers across the city are tuning in even as we speak." Marc set the peeled egg down on the chopping block and sliced it into neat circles, as thin as he could make them.
"You're kidding," Jason looked closely at him, trying to decide whether Marc was being serious or not. "Oh man. Do you mean it? I had no idea. So how does it work? Do you have a favorite or something?"
Marc grinned. "Pernell Roberts. Hands down."
"Who--Adam? I would have thought you'd like Little Joe."
"No way. Too young and baby-faced for me."
"Pernell Roberts?" Jason asked again, as if he were having trouble getting his mind around the idea. "You can't be serious."
"Well, look at him," Marc gestured towards the television set with the carving knife. "Wearing chaps and those tight black jeans, his gun belt slung low on his hips like that."
"Oh man, I do not want to hear this."
"And look at the way he's standing with all his weight resting on one foot. See how it shows off his hard little ass cheeks?"
Jason put his hands over his ears. "Oh, gross. I told you I don't want to know."
"So I'll spare you my further thoughts on Adam's butt."
"Thank you. Geez. Don't take this personally or anything, but you fags can be so weird."
"Uh-huh, right." Marc washed off a handful of green onions under the faucet. The stems were bruised and dark where the rubber band had pinched them. "This from a guy who wanted to call the FBI when he thought someone had stolen the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated out of his mailbox."
"That was not funny, man. Tampering with the U.S. Mail is a federal offense." Jason finished his beer and tossed it in the general direction of the trash can. Marc caught it in mid-air, rinsed out the can in the sink and threw it back to Jason.
"We've got a bin for recycling cans on the back porch. Pitch it out there, would you?"
"Oh geez, an eco-freak on top of everything else," Jason complained, but he got up and leaned out the screen door to drop the can in the bin. "I better be getting back to the living room. Maybe they've got the gold standard figured out by now."
Marc turned the channel to Jeopardy and finished his dinner in relative peace, but he was feeling grumpy and tense, in no mood to study. Even though Jason was one of his oldest friends--they had known each other practically since kindergarten--sometimes he really got on Marc's nerves. And he wished Robert had at least asked him before inviting half the survey class over to use their apartment as a private study hall.
He stalked back to his bedroom, shut the door, and put on a CD of Beethoven's Ninth. It blocked out the noise from the living room, but it didn't change the fact that he knew there were a dozen people in his apartment. He turned on the computer and began pulling books out of his backpack, but he didn't know if he'd be able to get any work done. Maybe he should just go back to campus. It was still early. Chances were pretty good he'd be able to snag one of the lab computers for the evening.
Or maybe he should go over to Arthur's place. It was sure to be quiet as a tomb over there. Arthur's idea of an exciting evening usually consisted of curling up with the latest parapsychology journals and reading late into the night, or at least until Marc pounced on him and dragged him off to bed. And that was assuming he hadn't found a haunted house to sit up in all night.
He thought of Ginny and that apartment building she lived in, and felt even more annoyed. There was no question in Marc's mind that the place was a site of bonafide weirdness, but he couldn't get Arthur off his butt to do anything about it. He knew that both Ginny and Arthur had had strange experiences there, and he was convinced that if he could get the two of them to sit down and talk about it face to face, they might be able to figure out what was going on. But Ginny never returned Arthur's last telephone call, and he hadn't called her again, unswayed by Marc's arguments that Arthur might have left the message on the wrong answering machine, or her machine might have malfunctioned and erased the message before she heard it, or any of a dozen other reasons for her not having called back yet. "Last but not least," Arthur had finally said, ending the discussion, "the distinct possibility that she simply doesn't want to talk to me."
Well, Arthur might not want to call again, but he couldn't stop Marc from calling. Maybe he'd try her before he started his homework, just to see how she was doing. He got her number from Information and called.
A male voice answered the phone, asking eagerly, "Yes, hello?"
"Sorry," Marc said. "I think I've got the wrong phone number."
"No wait. Are you trying to reach Ginny?"
"Yeah--is she there?"
"What's your name, please?"
"Uh, Marc. Marc James." Something about this conversation and the tone of the other man's voice was giving Marc a funny feeling. "It was nothing important. If this is a bad time, I could just call back."
"No, it's not that. Are you a friend of Ginny's?"
"Well yeah, I guess so. Who is this, anyway?"
"Dan Malone. I'm Ginny's brother. I came out here to look for her."
"What are you talking about? Where is she?"
"Nobody knows. It's been six days now." Dan's voice had the unnatural calm of someone who was getting used to the unbearable. "You don't know anything about it?"
"No, I don't know anything about it," Marc snapped. "What are you talking about?"
Dan went on in the same disturbingly calm tone of voice, "The police think she was being stalked by a man she'd gone out with a time or two, and that last Thursday afternoon he attacked her in her apartment. Apparently she got away from him. The man ran out into the street and was hit by a car, but no one's seen Ginny since then."
"Oh, fuck," Marc said softly. He closed his eyes for a moment. He should have dragged that creep who hit Ginny straight to the Sheriff's Station. He should have insisted that Ginny go see a doctor about her blackout Sunday morning. He should have made Arthur figure out what the hell was going on around that apartment building.
Dan finally asked, "I guess you haven't seen her?"
"No, I'm sorry. Not in a couple of weeks. I had no idea anything had happened."
"Can you think of any place she might have gone? Did she ever tell you about having--I don't know--some sort of private getaway? Maybe a friend with a house out of town? A bed and breakfast somewhere?"
"No, nothing like that. But listen," Marc went on, "the last time I saw Ginny, she told me about having some kind of a blackout while she was just out walking around her neighborhood. She said it had never happened before, but maybe with the sudden stress--"
"Oh god, it might have happened again," Dan said. "Do you know if she was seeing a doctor? I looked through her things, but I didn't find any appointment slips or anything like that."
"I just don't know. I'm sorry. She said she might, but I have no idea if she did or not."
"I'll call her office. If she had health insurance I could probably trace her doctor through that."
"Right," Marc agreed, without much enthusiasm. He was privately convinced that Ginny hadn't been to see any doctors.
"Thank you for the information. This is more than I knew before. Could I get your number, please, in case something else comes up?"
"Of course. I'm sorry I can't be more help. It's just so hard to believe. I feel like I'm in shock or something."
"I know," Dan agreed quietly. "I have trouble believing it myself. Will you call if you think of anything else?"
"Jesus, of course I will." Marc fell silent for a moment. "Wait a minute. Wait a minute, there was something else. That alleyway near her place."
"I don't understand. What alley?"
"I don't know if it means anything, but Ginny thought it was a very a strange place. I went there a couple of times with her, and I didn't really see what she meant, but she seemed to have some kind of fixation about it. I think it's where she blacked out, too."
"Where was this exactly? Can you tell me how to get there?"
"It was a block, or maybe two blocks down San Ysidro. And then you turn up one of those little residential streets going east--"
"Do you know the name of the street?"
"No, I really don't. Look, why don't I just drive out there and show you? When would be a good time for you?"
"Could you come now?"
Marc thought of all the work he'd planned to do tonight.
"Please," Dan said. "It's been six days."
"Yeah, of course," Marc said brusquely, ashamed of his hesitation. "I'll be there in twenty minutes."
"Don't tell me you've been staying here with the window broken out like that."
Dan shrugged and tried to smile. "Well, the weather's been pretty mild, until tonight, anyway. It's nothing like Boston."
He was tall and too thin for his height, and everything about him reminded Marc of snow and ice and Pilgrim forefathers shivering on the cold, dark granite of Plymouth Rock. His face was pale, his thin lips colorless, and he wore his oxford cloth shirt buttoned up to his chin. Even his eyes were a stony, flat gray. Ginny had lived on the West Coast long enough to camouflage her origins, but meeting her brother now, and seeing the reflection of her face in his, Marc realized that Ginny was just as much a creature of those New England winters as he was.
Dan said, "I've been calling the management company every day since I got out here. They swore they'd get a glazier out here today, tomorrow at the very latest." He smiled again, resigned. "It looks like it'll be tomorrow."
"I would have gone straight down there and raised never-ending hell until they replaced the goddamn window."
"Yes, well, I'm afraid I'm just like Ginny. We both have a horror of creating a scene."
"Sometimes it's the only way to get anything accomplished."
"You may be right. Thank you again for coming straight out here. I'm sure you have other things to do this evening."
Marc walked over to look at the empty window frame. Most of the glass had been broken out, but there were still a few jagged shards around the edges of the frame.
"Oh man." Marc saw the brown splashes on the sill. "Is this blood?"
"Yes," Dan said softly. "They told me at the Sheriff's Station that it was both of theirs--Ginny's and the other man's. Bender."
"Oh man," Marc said again.
Dan went on, sounding as though he were apologizing for something, "I've been meaning to clean it up, but I thought I'd wait till they got new glass in."
Marc turned away from the window. "I don't know what to say. You seem so calm. How are you standing this?"
Dan smiled bleakly. "I'm really not. When Ginny turns up, I plan on having a nervous breakdown on the spot."
"Well," Marc said a little uncomfortably, "Why don't I show you the place I was talking about?"
"Should we drive there?"
"Nah, it's practically around the corner. We can walk there in five minutes. It might be good if we take a flashlight, though."
"A flashlight?" Dan glanced around helplessly. "I wonder where Ginny would have kept it? I wonder if she even had one?"
"All the earthquake safety tips tell you to keep it near your bed, so you can find it in case the Big One hits in the middle of the night."
"Let me check. I'll just be a minute." Dan walked down the little hall to the bedroom.
A cold wind was blowing through the living room. Marc moved away from the open window. It hadn't seemed like such a chilly evening when he'd left this evening. He hadn't even worn a coat. It was certainly cold now, and it gave him a funny feeling to be standing around in Ginny's apartment while she was away. The wind in the apartment rustled papers and moved the skirt at the base of the sofa.
When the wind stopped momentarily, Marc caught a faint whiff of decay that reminded him of the time he and his roommates had called a plumber about the slow drain in their shower. The plumber had fished out the problem in no time--a reeking, half-rotted mass of hair, dirt and soap as big as a rat. Looking around for the source of the smell now, he finally noticed the plant on Ginny's coffee table, the amaryllis he had brought her three weeks ago. The thick flower stalk drooped heavily over the side of the pot, and the once peach-colored blossoms had turned pulpy and brown, and lay flat on the surface of the table. "Oh god, Ginny," he muttered. "Let's get that thing out of here, at least." As he picked up the flower pot, the central stalk broke off entirely. He tried to catch it with his other hand, but the stem was completely rotted, so slimy and yielding that Marc dropped it with a shudder of disgust. He carried the flower pot into the kitchen and tossed it into the garbage can under the sink. Then he tore off a long sheet of paper towels so he could dispose of the stalk on the coffee table without having to touch it.
Dan came back as Marc was trying to wipe up the stains the rotting stem had left on the white pine. "Thank you for taking care of that horrible plant. I'd held off on just throwing it away. I was afraid it might have sentimental associations."
"Don't worry. It was from me."
"Don't look so scared. It's not like I'm potential brother-in-law material or anything like that. She did a favor for me and a friend of mine, and the plant was just to say thank you." It occurred to Marc for the first time that perhaps he should have called Arthur to let him know what was happening.
"Well," Dan said, "If Ginny does own a flashlight, she's done a good job of hiding it. I couldn't find it."
"We don't absolutely have to have one." Marc straightened up. "There are street lights. And you can always go back in the morning, I guess."
Without warning, something black and shapeless blew up against the window, flapping wildly in the wind. Dan gave a sharp cry of alarm, and Marc stepped quickly back, nearly tripping over the coffee table. By the time he regained his balance, the thing in the window was gone.
"What the fuck was that?" he demanded in a shaky voice.
Dan shook his head, speechless. His pale face had gone even whiter. Marc stalked over to the window and looked out. After a moment Dan joined him.
"There." Marc pointed down into the courtyard. Lying across the cement walk was a tremendous palm frond, just visible in the yellow illumination of the porch lights. "It must have blown down out of that tree in front."
Marc hesitated at the entrance to the alley. "I think this must be the place."
"This is Ginny's special place?" Dan sounded disappointed. He walked down the alley a few paces and then turned back to Marc. "I was expecting something a little more remote, like a fire road or something."
"Through the middle of West Hollywood?"
"I guess I was just grasping at straws to keep my hopes up. She certainly hasn't been hiding here for a week."
Marc wondered how Dan could be so sure. The alley stretched darkly before them, winding past sagging, overgrown fences and looming cypress trees. Marc couldn't see the far end, and he thought the shadows might hide any number of secrets, even Ginny herself. House lights flickered through the dense shrubbery and past the glossy black leaves of an eight-foot tall hedge, and there was a slightly sickly smell in the cold night air that reminded Marc of the rotting amaryllis in Ginny's apartment.
Then he saw something small and dark moving along the base of the hedge.
"Look," he whispered, taking Dan's elbow and pointing. "Do you see that? What is it?"
The thing disappeared into the shadows, and Marc thought he had lost it. But then it crossed a patch of moonlight, and he saw that it was a small gray rabbit.
"There it is. It must be somebody's escaped pet. I wonder if it's tame enough for us to catch it?"
"What are you talking about?"
Marc followed the rabbit at a cautious distance. It hopped down the alley into the shadow of a clump of shaggy ficus trees, the white of its tail and the undersides of its long back legs flashing in the moonlight.
"Marc--" Dan's voice floated behind him. "What are you doing? Where are you going?"
Marc ignored him. Once again the rabbit disappeared into the shadows, and Marc stopped, holding his breath and straining to see in the darkness. A flash of movement came from much further down the alley, and he hurried to follow it. In his haste he ran into a low-hanging branch that slapped him full across the face. He staggered back, shaking his head, and touched his stinging cheek to see if he'd been scratched. When he looked up again, he was no longer following a lop-eared rabbit.
Trotting down the middle of the alley was a suckling pig, its tiny cloven hoofs rattling on the cracked asphalt.
Marc groaned, torn between laughter and stark horror. He glanced over his shoulder, and somehow wasn't surprised to find that Dan was no longer behind him.
The shadows faded away. Banks of gray clouds replaced the usual orange haze of L.A.'s night sky, their undersides tinted red with the light of dawn. The morning light made the dense vegetation around Marc glow with lambent warmth. It was autumn, and he stood in a thicket of red and yellow leaves. They crackled underfoot, and the air was heavy with smells that reminded Marc of the dumpster behind the produce market. He bit his lip to keep from weeping, and closed his eyes tightly.
The sound of the pig's hooves stopped, and then started again at an irregular pace. Marc opened his eyes. Someone stood at the end of the alley, the pig gamboling at his feet.
Arthur, wearing a plain black tuxedo, a sad little half-smile on his lips.
"You're right, baby," Marc breathed, hardly knowing whether he was speaking aloud or not. "You look like the Grim Reaper in that outfit."
Arthur knelt, and the pig jumped into his arms. When he straightened up again, he held the animal cuddled to his chest as though it were an infant. It was so ridiculous and horrible that Marc could hardly keep from screaming at him, but when Arthur looked up and seemed to see him, he only smiled bemusedly, as though the circumstances were a little embarrassing, but hardly anything more than that.
And then Marc saw that the pig was using its snout to nuzzle open the plain silver buttons of Arthur's dress shirt.
A hand fell on his shoulder and pulled him sharply around. "Marc. Are you all right? Can you hear me?"
Marc blinked, and looked into Dan's face. His gray eyes were black in the moonlight, his skin whiter than ever. "I'm all right," he said, trying to convince himself. "I'm all right. But we have to help Arthur. I think he's lost his mind."
"Arthur? Who's Arthur?"
"Down there--" Marc gestured down the alley.
"There's no one there. Marc, are you sure you're all right?"
Marc turned his head slowly, feeling the hairs prickle on the back of his neck. Dan was right, of course. There was no one at the end of the alley. Just the streetlight shining on the main road.
"What happened just now?" Marc asked slowly. "What happened to me?"
"I don't know. You said that you saw something down the alley, and then you blanked out for a second."
"What, while I was just standing here?"
"You didn't go anywhere. What did you think happened?"
"I'm not sure." Marc remembered the gray rabbit, but very little else, just a faint recollection of gaudy autumn leaves.
"Marc, please. I'm worried sick about Ginny. Why won't you tell me what's going on?"
Marc shook his head. "I don't know what's going on."
Dan's lips tightened. He turned away from Marc and began walking fast. Marc had to run a little to catch up with him. "Dan--"
He didn't even look at Marc, never breaking his stride. "Ever since I got here, I've had the feeling that something's going on that no one will tell me about. I just can't understand it. I don't know if Ginny's friends feel like they're protecting her by not telling me, but I'm her brother and I love her. Nothing could ever change that."
"There's no conspiracy to keep you in the dark, Dan. I honestly don't know what's happening. And if I could tell you anything that would help us find Ginny, I would do it in a second."
Dan just kept walking.
"Damnit, wait up a minute." Marc grabbed Dan's elbow and held on, forcing him to stop. "No one's hiding anything from you."
"Who's Arthur?" Dan demanded.
"You said you were afraid he'd lost his mind."
"Oh, that was--nothing. I don't know. Just something I thought I saw."
"Is he Ginny's boyfriend?"
Marc laughed shortly. "No, mine."
Dan wrenched his elbow free.
"Oh, don't worry," Marc said lightly. "I'm not contagious. Besides, you're really not my type."
Dan winced. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything."
"I know what you didn't mean."
"No, I am sorry," Dan said. "You dropped everything to come over here and help me look for Ginny, and I--"
"I'm half out of my mind," Dan said miserably. "I can't sleep at night, I'm so worried and angry, and the only person I have to be mad at is already six feet under." He took a deep breath and let it out again, managing a shaky little laugh. "If I knew where they'd buried the son of a bitch who did this to Ginny, I'd go dig him up again just for the pleasure of running over him a few more times."
Marc smiled. "That's the Pilgrim spirit."
Marc stopped when he reached his car parked on the street just outside the apartment building. He didn't want to go into Ginny's apartment again. He just wanted to be alone, to try and figure out what had happened back there in the alley. The experience was already as distant and indistinct as a dream remembered from childhood.
"I guess I'll be on my way," he told Dan. "I'm sorry I couldn't be more help. I'll call if I think of anything."
A big orange cat darted out from under Marc's car, streaked across the sidewalk and into the courtyard.
"Isn't that Ginny's cat?" Marc asked.
"I'm not sure. I think so." Dan followed the animal under the bougainvillea arch, and after a moment of hesitation, Marc did too. The cat was nowhere to be seen.
"Maybe he went up the stairwell," Dan suggested, taking a step in that direction.
From overhead came the crack of shattering glass.
Dan instinctively covered his head and Marc jumped back out of range, but no glass fell. Dan looked up at Ginny's empty living room window, and then ran up the staircase, Marc on his heels. Caesar was at the head of the stairs, stalking back and forth and meowing purposefully. Dan fumbled for the key and finally got the door open.
Ginny sat in the middle of the living room floor, both her hands wrapped around her neck. She was dressed as though she'd just gotten home from work, in a blue wool skirt and starched white blouse. The blood oozed from between her clenched fingers, matted her bangs to her forehead, washed across her cheeks, spattered her white bib collar.
She looked up at them and then smiled. "Hey, Percy," she whispered. "When did you get into town?"