by Martha Taylor, firstname.lastname@example.org
There was a little turkey left after all.
"Oh, hey, I can't eat all this," Marc protested politely when Ginny put the last of it on his sandwich. "What are you going to have?"
"It's only four o'clock," Ginny said. "I'm not really hungry yet."
It was a good enough answer for Marc. He devoured the sandwich in a few bites, then polished off the rest of the taboule and eggplant as well, leaving only the chestnut dressing. Ginny put the solitary bowl back in the refrigerator, and then reminded him, "You promised you'd go home after you ate."
Marc dumped his plate in the sink. "No, you said I'd go home."
"Marc, I'm serious. This isn't a game."
"Oh really? But it all seems like fun and games to me. One of my roommates asked me this morning what the matter was, and I tried to explain it--without going into the really weird stuff anyway--and he couldn't understand why I hadn't called the cops yet."
"Nobody's told you not to report this to the police," Ginny said levelly. "If you really think they can help, then be my guest, by all means."
"Oh knock it off, Ginny. You know what I mean."
"What I know is you're exhausted. Go home and get some sleep."
"You think I can sleep? You know what I see every time I close my eyes? Arthur, all sick and freaked out like he was when we found him after Patrick's wake. Or I see you. You remember what that was like? Your poor brother was practically hysterical, running around trying to find clean towels to mop up all the blood--"
"Who knows what kind of state Arthur will be in when he comes back this time? I've got to be here for him, Ginny. Please don't send me away."
"It's not safe."
"It's no safer for you."
"You don't understand."
"Then help me understand. Take me to the other side with you."
"I don't know if I could even if I wanted to."
"Then what have we got to lose by trying?"
"Everything in the world."
Marc's lower lip began to tremble. "I've already lost that."
Ginny turned around and stalked out of the kitchen straight back to her bedroom, where she threw herself face down on the bed. She didn't care if she was being childish. She hadn't asked for this responsibility. No one could force her to accept it. After a few minutes she heard Marc's footsteps come to the bedroom door and stop. "Ginny? Are you all right?"
She wrapped her arms around a pillow and turned her face away from him.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to piss you off. I'm just worried about Arthur."
She didn't say anything, and after a while she heard his footsteps retracing their way back down the hall. Good, she thought. Maybe he'll go home now.
The mattress felt as though it were moving ever so slightly. She buried her head in the pillow as the motion became more pronounced, the bed beginning to sway gently up and back, for all the world as though she were being rocked in a cradle. Her anger melted away, and she began to think about things with a relaxed, even comfortable detachment. How peculiar it all was, and yet how familiar. Troublesome infants could turn into pigs and go trotting away into the woods, and death itself was just a journey underground.
At last Ginny drifted off into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When she awoke the bedroom was dark. A telephone was ringing. She reached out blindly, and her hand fell on the phone on the bedside table.
"Hello. Is this Ginny?"
"Hi Ginny. It's Philip."
Her husband's roommate. Ginny sat up slowly in bed and fumbled for the lamp. "What is it? Is something wrong?"
"I've got some bad news. I thought you'd want to know."
"Leisa lost her baby. William called me from the hospital a little while ago."
"Oh my god." Ginny doubled over as the bile rose in her throat.
"Are you all right?"
It was a moment before she could answer him. "I'm sorry," she said at last, whispering. "What happened?"
"I don't know. I don't think the doctors know yet. Aren't most miscarriages genetic or something?"
"Or something." Ginny realized she was shivering violently. "How far along was she?"
"Nearly six months, I think."
"Oh my god," Ginny repeated, overwhelmed.
"Anyway, if you wanted to send them a card or something, I know it would really mean a lot."
"You've got the address here, don't you? I'll give you the room at the hospital if you want to send flowers, but William said they'd probably let Leisa go home tomorrow morning--"
"No, don't tell me where she is. I don't want to know," Ginny said quickly. "I have to go now." And she put the phone down without waiting to hear Philip say goodbye.
She looked at the clock. It was only eight in the evening. When she brushed her hair out of her eyes she was surprised to discover that her cheeks were wet with tears. She felt very calm. She went to the bathroom and washed her face, then walked out to the living room. The television was on, as were all the lights, and Marc was fast asleep on the sofa with Caesar curled up on his chest. The cat opened one eye as Ginny came into the room, lazily checking to see whether her entrance would disturb his resting place.
"I've got bad news for you, Caesar. Marc doesn't even like cats."
Marc awoke at the sound of her voice. He opened his eyes cautiously, then looked down, double-chinned, at the weight on his chest. "Help," he said mildly. "Get it off me."
Ginny scooped Caesar up in spite of his yowl of protest and deposited him on the floor. Marc sat up slowly, stretched and yawned. "What time is it?"
"A little after eight. I thought I told you to go home."
"You also told me to get some sleep, Mein Fuhrer. Don't I get credit for following at least one of your orders?"
Marc noticed her red eyes for the first time and was instantly serious. "Hey, you've been crying. What's happened?"
"I've made a decision."
He knew what she meant. "Then I'm coming with you."
"If that's really what you want. I don't have energy to waste telling you how stupid you're being."
Marc smiled in gloomy triumph. "Hurrah. Brute persistence carries the day."
"But there's some stuff you ought to know first." Ginny stifled a yawn. "I need a cup of coffee. You want one?"
"If you're making it, sure."
She wasn't sure what she hoped Marc's reaction would be. Maybe that he would decide she was completely insane and go storming off, leaving her to take care of this by herself. But he listened to everything she said very calmly. He asked no questions, and the expression on his face remained utterly neutral, leading Ginny to think that he probably did suspect her sanity, but was determined to do this anyway.
Then she told him the last thing.
"I got a phone call just now. Leisa miscarried her baby."
Marc frowned. "Man, I'm sorry. Who's Leisa? A friend of yours?"
"No, not exactly. I've never met her. She's my husband's girlfriend."
Marc abruptly turned around and carried his coffee cup into the kitchen. He made a half-hearted attempt to rinse it out in the sink, but when he left it on the counter there was still an inch of sludge on the bottom from all the sugar and milk he'd dumped in. When he finally turned back towards Ginny he must have thought he had his emotions under control, but Ginny could see the truth.
He was afraid of her now.
He began to say, "So you really think that you--"
He broke off and started again. "I was here when you first found out about the pregnancy, remember? I'd brought over the roll of quarters, and the flower from Arthur."
"I thought you took the news pretty well. I mean, you didn't become hysterical or start screaming and crying or anything like that. I wouldn't have blamed you if you had. I can't imagine what something like that must feel like."
Marc hesitated. Ginny said, "Go on, it's all right."
"But, man, I was scared, and I didn't have a clue why. You think it was because I knew that baby wasn't going to make it?"
"I suppose so," Ginny said softly.
"And it was because of you? Jesus. Even supposing for one moment that you do have the power to destroy a fetus in the womb--"
Ginny moaned under her breath.
"Even supposing it's all true, why would you do something like that? It would take some sort of monster."
Ginny looked down at her hands. "That's one way of describing me, I think."
"Well I don't think so. Jeez, Ginny. I know you--"
"You don't know the first thing about me, not really."
"I know enough. The important stuff, anyway. I know you're kind to strangers. You've always been decent to Arthur and me. If you honestly think you killed that woman's baby, I wish you would tell me why you did it. I just don't think you're capable of that kind of vindictive cruelty. That's almost harder for me to believe than anything else."
Ginny laughed unhappily. "That's what I've been trying to explain to you. It's not something I can control. If a stray thought crosses my mind, it's likely to come true."
"But you'll be able to control everything from the other side, right? That's why we're going."
She took a deep breath. "I have no idea. And even assuming we do make it to the other side, I don't think I'll remember any of this. Both times I was there I forgot everything about the real world. It's like dreaming. You might suspect way in the back of your mind that it's not real, but the internal logic of the dream is too powerful."
She paused. Marc seemed to feel that something was expected of him, so he said, "I understand."
"I doubt it," Ginny snapped. "And even if we both get through at the same time, I don't know if we'll be together on the other side, or if we'll even know what we're doing there. Time and space don't seem to work the same way there either--"
"OK, Gin, I understand this isn't a trip to Disneyland."
"You don't understand anything," she said, exasperated and frightened for him. "Does Lil know you're here?"
"Are you kidding? She's way more hardheaded than you. She'd never agree to something like this."
The alley was dark. Ginny tested the air for the scent of windfalls or brackish water, and smelled nothing but the cold breeze, stale with exhaust fumes. How ridiculous if she couldn't get through after all this.
"Where's the streetlight?" Marc asked suddenly.
"Last time I was here, I could see the streetlight at the far end of the alley from here. But it's totally black now."
"You're right. I'd forgotten." She looked at him. "Are you ready?"
He stepped up beside her. A moment later he reached out and took her hand, and they walked down the alley together.
Marc forgot everything when the snow began to fall.
Sean was sitting in the dark drinking cold black coffee laced with Jack Daniels when Lillian Arsenault arrived. He watched her as she crossed the courtyard under the yellow glow of the porch light and went up the stairs to Ginny's apartment.
After a few minutes she came back down again. She hesitated, then looked towards Sean's apartment. He didn't think she could see him through the kitchen window, but after a moment she walked up to his front door and knocked.
Sean didn't budge, except to take another drink. The whiskey burned the back of his throat, and the coffee tasted like charcoal.
Lil knocked again.
Sean heaved himself to his feet, groaning. "Oh all right, goddamnit. I'm coming."
He bumped into the door frame getting out of the kitchen, then tripped over a stack of Patrick's books in the living room, stumbling to his knees. He got up slowly, disgusted with himself. This was just great. Stumbling around drunk with all the lights out. What an inspiring way to cope. Patrick would have been proud.
Lil knocked for a third time and called out, "Sean? Are you there? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, just fine," he mumbled to himself. He managed to find the lamp in the corner and turned it on, flooding the living room with a harsh white light that made his eyes water. Then he unlocked the door for Lil.
"Hello Sean," she said, still brisk and formal in spite of all that had happened. "I apologize for stopping by so late."
"Don't worry about it." Sean turned away from the door. "Come in."
She walked in and sat down on the sofa. Sean took a chair on the far side of the room. He supposed he probably reeked like a distillery.
"I don't suppose you've heard anything from Arthur?" Lil asked, as though he were merely away on a business trip.
"No. Should I have?"
Lil smiled. It was a wan, humorless expression that for some reason gave Sean the creeps. "Probably not," she said. "But I thought Ginny might have."
"That's what I wanted to talk to her about. I stopped by her apartment, but she's not in. Do you know where she is? Or when she'll be back?"
"Sorry, no. She doesn't keep me apprised of her social calendar." Sean had a thought. "Oh, but Marc was around earlier. Maybe they went out together to look for Arthur or something."
Lil stared at him. "Marc's with Ginny? Are you sure?"
"No, I'm not sure. I don't sit at the kitchen window spying on my neighbors all the time. Sometimes I have to get up and go to the bathroom."
No answering smile came from Lil. "May I use your phone?"
Sean gestured towards the telephone on the side table. "Be my guest."
While she dialed, Sean got up and walked to the kitchen to give her privacy for the call. With the lights on, he could see what a wreck the place was. Three days worth of dishes were piled up in the sink. Cereal boxes and an empty milk carton sat out on the counter, along with Tupperware containers crusted with the remnants of Thanksgiving leftovers. On the table was the cold pot of coffee and the bottle of Jack Daniels, almost empty. No wonder he was stumbling around. He hadn't realized that he had practically finished the bottle.
He turned. Lil had followed him into the kitchen. "Sorry about the mess."
"Sean, I called one of Marc's roommates. Apparently he missed a lab this afternoon, and he hasn't been home all evening. I'm concerned about him, especially if he's with Ginny. Did you actually see them together?"
"I don't think so. What's up?"
"Have you talked to Ginny about what happened the night Arthur disappeared?"
"Not really. Just when we were all together, you know, looking around Friday night and then Saturday morning."
Lil's expression was tight-lipped and angry. "I had my doubts about that woman right from the start."
"Excuse me, but are you talking about Ginny?"
"Sean, she knows what happened to Arthur, and she didn't tell us."
"Of course she told us. I agree it didn't make a lot of sense, that whole business about the underworld and little gray monsters coming up out of the sewers--"
"There's more. Something she's not telling us."
"What on earth makes you think that?"
"I've been watching the videotape of the night Arthur disappeared, trying to figure it out."
Sean nodded. It had been late Saturday morning before Lil had thought to play back the videotape that had been running throughout the chaos of the previous night. They had gathered around Sean's VCR and watched in astonished silence. On the tape, while Lil stood on Sean's front steps and announced that she couldn't find Arthur anywhere, Arthur himself walked calmly past her, through the crowd gathered in the courtyard, and out to the street. There was some distortion of light around him that made him look as though he were surrounded by small, pale beings, tiny birds perhaps, all frantically beating their wings. Otherwise he was corporeal as everyone else on the tape.
"It's hard to believe," Sean agreed in a soft voice. "I don't think I would believe it if I hadn't been there myself. There was no way Arthur could have walked past us without any of us seeing him."
"One of us did see him. Ginny."
"What makes you think that? She didn't say anything."
"It's on the tape. It finally occurred to me to play it back and just watch her reactions. The rest of us are looking at each other and around the courtyard, but Ginny's eyes follow Arthur all the way down the walk. She even turns her head to watch him when he disappears under the arch."
Sean had to sit down. He pulled out a kitchen chair and dropped into it a little harder than he'd meant to. "Are you sure?" he asked at last.
"I've got the tape out in the car if you'd like to see it for yourself."
"No, thanks. I believe you." He rested his head in his hands for a moment. "I guess I just don't understand. Why didn't Ginny say anything? Why didn't she do something to help Arthur?"
"I don't know. But you can understand why I'm so worried about Marc."
Thinking about it made Sean feel a little sick. "Yeah," he said faintly. "I guess I see what you mean."
"You know Ginny. If you can think of anything that might help--"
Sean picked up the Jack Daniels bottle and splashed more whiskey into his cup. "I'm sorry, Lil. I'm just realizing that I don't know much about Ginny after all."
The snowflakes were so large, and they drifted down so slowly from the windless heavens that they might have been confetti swirling under a plastic snow dome. Snow was banked in drifts against the parked cars. It lay in stark white outline upon the bare, black branches of denuded oak and sweetgum trees, and was piled so heavily upon the broad fronds of a banana tree that the trunk was bent over double, a branch of stunted green fruit all but touching the ground. The spiky orange blossoms of an overgrown bird-of-paradise had turned black and were curling under with the cold.
Marc looked down at himself. He was wearing only a t-shirt and blue jeans, and though he was aware of the cold, he was curiously uninterested, as though the goosebumps were rising on someone else's arms.
He looked over at Ginny. Her cheeks were so white they had a faint silver-blue cast, and there were snowflakes resting on her lashes. She looked at home amongst the ice and snow. Even her hand, which was clasped tightly around his, was cold to the touch.
"Hey, look," Marc told her as gently as he could. He didn't want to hurt her feelings. "I'm gonna be going now. You'll be all right, won't you?"
She turned to look at him, and after a moment she smiled. There was a distant look in her eyes as though she were peering down the wrong end of a telescope, and wasn't entirely sure who was looking back at her.
"That's fine," she said at length, in a voice that was like the cold tinkling of silver bells. A sudden wind blew up when she spoke. The snow swirled around them more thickly.
"You sure you'll be OK?" he asked nervously.
Ginny laughed. "Go ahead. I'll catch up later."
He dropped her hand. "Sure, Ginny. Take care."
She didn't answer. Marc hurried away up the sidewalk. An inch of snow had collected on the fallen leaves, and his running shoes were soon soaked through. His shirt and jeans were wet with melting snow as well, and the cold felt like a blanket of ice hugging his chest. He looked back only once. Ginny was moving away down the street. The snow was so thick about her that he thought she was dressed in swirling robes instead of the rayon print dress she had worn home from work. Then the wind stopped for a moment, and he saw that she was still in her work clothes, but her feet were several inches above the ground. In Marc's current frame of mind it seemed like a sensible enough way for her to avoid getting her feet wet. Those plain leather pumps were even less suited to the weather than his running shoes.
Ducking his head against the snow, he turned back and continued up the street. He wasn't sure what time of day it was, but he was hoping some place would be open on Santa Monica Boulevard so that he could get in from the cold. By the time he reached the boulevard there were ice crystals in his hair. The wind was howling, and the snow was mixed with hail stones that stung his face and went skittering across the pavement. Nevertheless the bars were full, their doors flung open to the elements. Men were crowded around sidewalk tables, some of them drinking cocktails with speared fruit and paper umbrellas in cheerful defiance of the weather. Brawny shoulders were bared to the snow. Video monitors glowed from the inner darkness of the bars, showing pale dancers in black who writhed languorously to the music that seemed to be playing everywhere.
At first Marc was delighted, but he felt a strange nervousness about actually going in to any of the bars. The men who caught his eye from a distance smiled in friendly appraisal, but they all turned back to their companions as soon as Marc drew near enough to speak to them.
And then a hand fell on his shoulder. "Hey, kid."
Marc looked back. The man was much older, fifty-five or sixty at least, tough and lean with skin burnt almost black from decades of cruising Muscle Beach. He wore a leather motorcycle jacket with a shoulder patch that Marc couldn't quite make out, though he suspected, unkindly enough, that it probably read "Tom's Men" or something similar. He freed his arm and was composing a polite brush-off, when the man went on, "Listen, you shouldn't be out wandering around like this."
Marc was so relieved to hear someone else acknowledge that there was something a little odd going on that he stopped. "Yeah, you're right I think."
The man put a thin strip of folded cardboard into his hands. "There. That'll get you in for free."
Marc unfolded the piece of cardboard. On it was a picture of two beautiful boy children, their arms twined one about the other. Snowflakes drifted down onto the picture as Marc looked at it. As they melted, the ink started to run.
Marc turned it over in his hands. There was no writing on it anywhere. "Is this a club pass or something? What's the name of it? How am I supposed to find it?"
The man took the square of cardboard back from Marc, folded it up again, and then reached around and stuffed it into the back pocket of Marc's jeans. Marc stepped hurriedly away from him. "Hey, hands to yourself."
The man smiled, his teeth gleaming white against his sunburned face. "It's right down that way." He pointed down the street. The snow was coming down so hard it seemed to Marc that a veil had fallen before his eyes.
"I can't see it. What's the name of it?"
"Just keep walking. You'll find it."
"Uh, yeah. Thanks," Marc said, thinking he wouldn't be caught dead in any place this guy recommended. He walked hurriedly down the sidewalk in the direction the man had pointed anyway, just to get away from him. He looked back once to be sure that he wasn't being followed, and saw that the man was still watching him, the same creepy smile on his face. He waved to Marc and turned away. Though Marc hadn't been able to see his shoulder patch when he'd been standing right next to the man, now from a dozen yards away with snow and ice raining down between them, he saw quite clearly that it depicted a long-stemmed white flower that reminded Marc of the Easter Lilies his mother always bought in the spring.
The streets were white. The few cars out crept past at a snail's pace, their headlights stabbing uselessly into the gauzy white curtain of falling snow. Marc had begun to shiver convulsively, and his teeth were chattering. He should just pick one of the bars and go in, he knew, but instead he kept walking. With their doors flung open they didn't look much warmer than the outside, but at least he'd be able to get something hot to drink. The very next place, he vowed. As he drew near, he saw that the guys sitting at the sidewalk tables didn't look much older than him, and the bar didn't seem too crowded.
But when he reached the entrance and looked in, he saw that the very same music video was playing here as in every other place he'd passed, some dreary, etherial ballad that depressed the hell out of him. Marc decided to just keep going.
And then right in front of him, as though it had suddenly materialized out of the wind and snow, was a black iron staircase. The stairs were coated with ice and the handrails were white with snow. Marc was about to walk past it, but for some reason he stopped and looked up. The stairs led to the second story of a huge wood and brick building, big as a warehouse. Over the double oak doors hung a painted sign. There were no words, just a picture of two boys in a fraternal embrace.
Marc patted his back pocket, feeling the square of cardboard still there. Oh well, what the hell. It couldn't be worse than any of the other places he'd passed.
He ascended carefully. The banister was too cold for him to hold onto, and one false step would send him tumbling to the cold sidewalk. He was a little surprised that in this litigious day and age the club ownership could get away with such a perilous front entrance. He thought belatedly that there was probably an elevator or something in back that most people used, but by this time he was practically at the top. A few more careful steps, and he had safely reached the upper landing.
It was warmer up here. The club must be heated. The floor was old-fashioned brick, the manufacturer's name visible in stamped letters on some of the bricks. Marc knelt briefly and tried to see what it said, but the letters were unrecognizable, Greek or Russian perhaps. He straightened up and walked to the doors. They were set with stained glass that Marc couldn't see through. He tried one of the doors and found it locked. How annoying if the place wasn't even open after all this.
He knocked, and after a moment, the doors swung open for him.
When Sean woke at three a.m. the wind was howling through the palm trees. Rain spattered noisily in the courtyard. A window was open somewhere in the apartment. He could hear blinds rattling, and there was a cold draft on his face.
After a moment he threw back the covers and clambered out of bed, furious with himself. How could he have been so careless? Letting a goddamned gale force wind go whistling through the apartment while Patrick was tucked in bed with a fever.
He had actually taken a step towards the door before he remembered.
He stopped cold in the middle of his bedroom. A fresh gust of wind rattled the blinds in the living room. He ought to shut the window anyway, but he didn't want to go walking through his apartment in the dead of night.
He tried to laugh at himself. Forty years old and still afraid of the dark.
On the other hand, remembering his conversation with Lillian Arceneaux earlier this evening, he thought there were some things in the dark worth being afraid of.
A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. In two long bounds, Sean crossed the bedroom and switched on the overhead light.
Sean's bladder let go.
He had to brace himself against the wall to keep from falling. The warm stream coursed down one leg and pooled under the arch of his foot. He heard himself moaning, and with an effort willed himself to be silent. He would not say anything. He would not look over his shoulder.
"And it's good to see you too," Patrick's voice chided him.
Every beat of Sean's heart felt like a hammer smashing at his ribs. A sharp, hot pain seared up his left arm. Oh no, he thought, despairing. His knees buckled and he slid to the floor. Oh please god, not like this.
He managed to whisper, "Stop it, please." He was huddled on the floor, his knees on the wet carpet, his head turned away and flaming hot from the blood rushing to his face. "My heart--"
"My heart's broken too, lover, but you don't see me pissing myself over it."
That wasn't Patrick. That couldn't really be Patrick. Sean rolled over on his side, and the pressure on his chest was so fierce that tears welled up in his eyes. He blinked them away, groaning.
Patrick looked like he had when Sean had first met him. He sat on Sean's bed, long red hair blowing in a breeze that Sean couldn't feel, his full lips curved into a wicked smile.
"Who are you?" Sean gasped.
The smile broadened. "How quickly they forget."
Sean pushed himself up to a kneeling position and fell back against the wall. His heart felt as though it were wrapped with barbed wire. "I loved Patrick," he groaned. "But you're not him."
"Loved me, did you? Past tense?" The thing that looked so much like Patrick got up from the bed and crossed the room to him, standing so close that Sean caught the faint scent of the balsa shampoo he had always teased Patrick for using.
He turned his face away and whimpered, "Leave me alone, for god's sake."
Patrick knelt beside him. "But I'm tired of being alone. I want you to come with me."
Sean looked back. There was a red veil before his eyes, and he wasn't sure if it was his own blood, or Patrick's soft red hair. He tried to reach his hand out to touch Patrick's face, but his fingers fell short. "Is that really what you want, baby? You want me dead?"
A change came over Patrick. The smile left his lips. He backed away.
There was a long silence. Sean still lay braced against the wall. The crushing pressure over his breastbone had begun to subside, but the room seemed to be growing colder, and he wondered if he were dying. There were sounds out in the hallway, the whisper of little bare feet scuffling along the carpet. He could hear water dripping on the tile floor in the bathroom down the hall.
"You always told me the truth," Patrick finally said. "Even when I didn't want to hear it."
"Patrick--" Sean whispered. It was so cold in the room now that he could see his breath before his face.
"My daddy must have been right after all. I died and went to hell for being a faggot, just like he always said I would."
Sean began to weep out loud.
Patrick said, "I didn't mean to frighten you. It's just that it's so lonely here, and I missed you so much. But I won't bother you anymore."
Something white was swirling through the room, collecting on the tops of the bookshelves and chest of drawers. Patrick leaned forward as though intending to kiss his lips. Sean felt a searing cold. Then Patrick stood up and said, "Goodbye."
Sean shouted "No!" but Patrick turned and walked into the very heart of the snowstorm.
"Please don't leave me again," Sean pleaded in despair. "Patrick, I love you."
He didn't even look back. A last few snowflakes landed on Sean's burning cheeks, and then he was alone.
Marc hesitated at the threshold, blinded by snow glare and feeling a little nervous at the prospect of entering the darkness beyond the open doors. The thumping rhythms of technopop that came drifting back from somewhere up ahead were reassuring though. At least this place wasn't playing the same dreary tune as every other bar on the boulevard.
A voice spoke in Marc's ear. "Do you have an invitation?"
Marc started back. It was very cold on the outside landing now, and the snow was falling harder than ever. "Um, yeah, I think so." He squinted, trying to see the doorman. After his eyes adjusted to the dim interior he could just make out a long, pale face, eyes that looked pink against the white skin, bloodless lips and front teeth that protruded in a ferocious overbite.
Marc was momentarily tempted to giggle, but restrained himself. He pulled the pasteboard square out of his back pocket and handed it to the doorman, who unfolded it with blunt white fingers. Marc saw that the picture had smeared and run until it simply looked like a Rorschach blot, and he began to worry that he wouldn't be able to get in after all.
Then he heard something going on in the street, a noisy, high-pitched whining and rattling that reminded him of a nest of angry hornets. A snow blower, perhaps? He glanced over his shoulder. Through the driving snow and ice he could see something moving along the sidewalk far below. "What the hell is that?"
The doorman wrinkled his nose and didn't answer the question. Marc was cold and frightened and in no mood to put up with shit from anybody, least of all this guy. "Look, I know the pass got a little smeared. If you can't accept it, just tell me how much it costs to get in and I'll pay. I'm freezing my ass off out here."
"By invitation only," the doorman told him impassively, and held up the strip of cardboard for Marc to see.
The inky blur danced before Marc's eyes. He felt a giddy sense of vertigo and for a moment thought he would slip down the icy steps. Then the inkblot swam into focus. Marc groaned in surprise, and the doorman said, "Please sir, come in."
Marc was still gazing stupefied at the bit of cardboard. "I don't understand," he whispered. "I don't remember anything about this."
"They're waiting for you," the doorman murmured.
And Marc could hardly disagree. His name was right there on the invitation, rendered in calligraphic script that requested the honor of his presence at the christening of the first born son of Leisa Banks and William Childress.
"I don't even know these people," Marc asserted, even though there was something familiar about the names. "Oh, wait a minute. Are these relatives of Ginny or something?"
"I understand there is a relation by marriage," the doorman observed.
"So Ginny must have sent me an invitation?" Marc asked, still bewildered.
"I couldn't say, sir." The doorman's grave air was somewhat spoiled by his protruding buck teeth, which made him lisp when he talked. Marc could have sworn those teeth had lengthened since the beginning of their conversation. "Now if you would please come inside. It's very cold out here."
"No shit, Sherlock," Marc snapped ungraciously, and tucked the invitation out of sight into his back pocket. "What finally tipped you off? The icicles hanging from the end of my nose?"
The doorman clicked his teeth together and twitched his whiskers. Marc pushed past him in exasperation and hurried down the long, poorly lit corridor without looking back. He had no desire to confirm his fleeting impression that the doorman had completed his transformation when the doors swung shut. Marc had only seen him hunch up and slap his palms flat on the floors, his knees crooking forward like the hind legs of an animal. He fled at the suggestion of a certain velvety length and fullness to the doorman's ears.
He tried to banish the doorman from his thoughts as he followed the music down the corridor. Ginny's relatives were either very hip or very weird, that's all there was to it. Probably a little of both. At least the music sounded promising. Marc found himself impelled forward by the cheerfully driving rhythms that floated down the hall. The rubber soles of his running shoes squelched along the floor, and it was so warm that the droplets from the melting snow hissed and sizzled upon the bricks. The music grew louder and louder, the glow of distant light at the far end ever brighter. He finally rounded the corner, and then stood transfixed at the threshold of the ballroom.
The orchestra was playing a waltz. The stately dance in triple time certainly wasn't what Marc had followed down the hall, but he was becoming more accustomed to strange transformations by now. What concerned him more was realizing he wasn't dressed for the occasion. The couples who glided together under the flickering white light of the chandelier were all in tuxedos and evening gowns, though Marc soon noticed that not everyone wearing a tuxedo was a man, nor every white-shouldered beauty in evening gown a woman. He remained huddled in the doorway trying not to draw attention to himself in his weather-soaked shirt and jeans. Besides, he didn't know how to waltz.
At least it was warm and dry, far removed from the howling snowstorm outside. He thought he would stay just long enough to dry out, and maybe see if there was a chance to score any refreshments from the candelabra-lit buffet table on the far side of the vast room. Ginny would understand if he skipped out early. She knew he had exams coming up.
And at the thought of something as mundane as schoolwork, Marc was overcome with a sudden, sick panic. What was going on around here anyway? He had been aware all along of the nagging sensation that something wasn't quite right. Still, he was unprepared for the abrupt realization that everything around him was entirely wrong. He turned to flee, but the corridor had vanished. Behind him was an unbroken wall paneled in dark wood.
He turned slowly back towards the dance floor. None of the couples seemed to have even noticed his presence yet. Two men stepped lightly past him, both in tuxedos, their arms around each other, keeping perfect time. The expressions on their faces were so serene that Marc was able to conquer the panic that had threatened to overwhelm him. He took a few deep breaths. There had to be a way out of the ballroom. It was just a matter of staying calm enough to find it.
He began to work his way carefully around the perimeter of the dance floor, keeping close to the wall. The couples danced tirelessly, and Marc found himself wondering who was looking after the baby who was supposed to be christened here today.
Along the far wall was a line of chairs, spindly creations of gilt and plush set out for the convenience of the dancers. All the chairs were empty, save for one a little distance from the rest. A slender man sat there calmly watching the dancers, his arms folded and his legs crossed. His face was turned away, but Marc would have known him anywhere.
"Oh thank god. Arthur!"
At the first crack of thunder Sean awoke and looked around, confused and desperately tired. Rain was pouring down across the window, and the dull light of the rain-soaked morning washed the bedroom in gray. He was lying on the carpet, shivering uncontrollably, but too weak to get up and do anything about it. Lightning flashed. For an instant everything in the room glowed stark and white. Then a peal of thunder boomed in Sean's ears, and the jolt of adrenaline made his heart begin to ache all over again. He couldn't draw a breath deep enough to fill his lungs, and he could hear himself panting like a dog on a hot summer day.
The thunder rolled away into the distance. He didn't remember the last time they'd had a real thunderstorm like this in Los Angeles. Too bad he was in no shape to enjoy it. Lightning cracked. The following thunderclap seemed to be booming inside Sean's own head. He wrapped his arms around himself, and thought about the amount of energy it would take for him to get up and get into bed. Far more than he could be expected to muster in the present circumstances.
Well, the floor wasn't so bad. He would lie right here and gaze up at the ceiling and listen to the thunder which rumbled on and on and wouldn't let him sleep.
Except that wasn't thunder, he realized belatedly. It was someone knocking on his door. He couldn't imagine who would be stopping by on a morning like this, but that didn't matter. Whoever it was could help him get into bed, where he could listen to the thunder and watch the lightning with the covers pulled up to his chin. The prospect seemed like heaven. "Come in," he croaked.
The storm was so close by now that the thunder and lighting came almost simultaneously, a crescendo of noise and light that made Sean flinch and cover his head with his arms. Just like the air raid drills of his boyhood he thought, when the immediate shock had passed. Maybe this wasn't a thunderstorm at all. Maybe Yeltsin had decided to drop the bomb.
God, how he wanted to be in bed. He tried to sit up, but his heart began to race and he was immediately soaked with sweat. Frightened, he lay still again.
The knocking at the door had stopped momentarily, but now it started up again. Why didn't they just come in? Sean wondered irritably. "Come in!" He shouted as loud as he could. The effort exhausted him, and now he remembered how he had locked the door after Lil had gone last night, and carefully fastened the chain.
"Help, help," he cried in a voice hardly above a whisper.
The knocking at the door stopped. Damn it to hell. He tried to muster the strength for another yell. Thunder and lightning roared and flashed, and he gave up. No one would hear him even if he were screaming at the top of his lungs.
A sudden crash came. Sean wondered if lightning had felled one of the palm trees out front.
There were voices in his living room. "Sean? Where are you?"
He closed his eyes in sheer relief, and didn't trouble himself to answer.
At the sound of Marc's voice, Arthur looked around, astonished, then slowly got to his feet.
Marc ran across the ballroom floor, dancers parting before him without ever breaking their stride, and flung himself into Arthur's arms. Arthur held him and stroked the back of his head, murmuring something in his ear. Marc had no idea what he was actually saying. It hardly mattered. He pressed his face to the warm solidity of Arthur's chest and let his tears soak into his dress shirt. Finally Arthur had to unpry him so he could hold Marc at arm's length and look at him. "Are you all right?"
Marc didn't know whether he wanted to kiss Arthur or smack him. "All right? Are you out of your mind? I've been scared to death. Where the hell have you been all this time? And what's going on around here? Jesus, Arthur, do you know that it's fucking snowing outside?"
Arthur hugged him close, more to shut him up, Marc suspected, than as a gesture of affection, but he didn't care. It was enough just to be in his arms again.
His voice muffled a little in Marc's hair, Arthur asked, "What are you doing here?"
"What do you think I'm doing here? Looking for you of course. Now can we please get out of this crazy place?"
Arthur tipped Marc's face up. "Listen to me carefully. This isn't a game."
"Fuck that." Marc wrenched his head free. "I hate it when you treat me like kid."
"Then stop acting like one," Arthur said coldly.
His tone was like a slap in the face. Marc bit his lip and didn't give vent to any of the angry retorts that sprang immediately to mind. "I'm sorry," he finally said. "It's just that I've been so scared--" He was mortified to hear his voice crack with emotion. "Please, baby, can't we please, please go home now?"
Arthur smoothed Marc's hair back. "It isn't that easy. I'm sorry. Do you remember how you got here?"
"I don't know. Until I saw you, it was like I'd always been here. I had an invitation--" Marc swallowed. "I had an invitation from Ginny. That's how I got here. We walked down the alley together. Oh my god, Arthur. Oh my god." He felt as though his legs had turned to water. He clung to Arthur for support. "Then it's all true. Everything Ginny said. Oh man. And all this time I thought it was that apartment building that gave me the creeps. Ginny's the one I should have been scared of all along."
He wanted to sit down. He tried to pull up one of the little gilt chairs, but there were none to be seen. Instead, he and Arthur were standing behind rows of wooden pews that stretched the entire length of the dance floor. The orchestra was gone. In its place was a solemn oak lectern, communion table and baptismal font. The dancers were all seated in the pews, hands folded neatly in their laps, as respectfully silent as if this were Sunday morning at church.
A worshipper in the last row turned and smiled, a beautiful young man with long red hair. Though Marc didn't recognize him, he evidently knew them, and his smile grew broader. "Arthur. Marc. Glad you could make it."
Arthur didn't say anything, but he gripped Marc's hand so tightly that the bones in Marc's hand began to ache. The red haired man suddenly frowned. "No, actually, I'm not. I had a little talk with Sean and he straightened me out on that point."
Marc whimpered when he realized who this was. Arthur sounded calm, but he still had Marc's hand in a death grip when he said evenly, "Hello Patrick. Do you know what we're all here for?"
Patrick shrugged and looked back at the gathered worshippers. "No idea. I'd guess a funeral, but not much point in that now, is there? You guys want to sit down?" He indicated the empty space in the pew beside him. "There's plenty of room."
"Thank you. I think we'll stand."
Patrick shrugged and turned back. "Whatever."
"Arthur," Marc whispered in his ear when he was calm enough to trust his voice, "I know what this is. I told you, I got an invitation."
He reached in his back pocket and fished out the crumpled piece of cardboard. "Look at this."
Arthur unfolded it. "I don't understand."
"Just look at it," Marc insisted. He took the invitation back from Arthur and found that he was holding the empty, flattened cardboard packaging from a three-pack of Trojans.
He dropped it with a yelp of frustration. Reality had turned to quicksilver. Nothing held its shape long enough for him to tell what was going on. He kicked the invitation under the pew in front of them and told Arthur, "It was different before, I'm telling you."
"I believe you. What did it say?"
Marc struggled to remember. "It was an invitation to a christening. I didn't actually know the parents, but I recognized the names for some reason. I knew they were relatives of Ginny's."
"What's the baby's name?"
"I--I don't know. I don't think it said."
And then Marc figured it out. "It didn't say because the baby hasn't been named yet. Arthur, just before we came here Ginny told me that her husband's girlfriend had miscarried her baby. That's what this christening is about."
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, then said, "Stay here. I'm going to stop this."
Marc grabbed his arm. "Nothing doing. You're taking me with you, whatever you do."
To his surprise, Arthur didn't argue with him. "You're right." He smiled faintly. "It's not as though you'd be any safer staying behind."
"Oh, thanks. I can always count on you to put the cheeriest possible outlook on any--"
"Listen to me, Marc. Whatever you see here, whatever happens, you have to remember that even though it's not real, and even though I don't believe Ginny would ever consciously hurt you or anyone, I'm not sure that she's in control anymore."
"That's what Ginny told me. But how is she doing it? How did it get started in the first place? What is this place anyway?"
"I'm not sure. And there's no time to try to explain now."
"Wouldn't I be safer if I knew what was going on?" Marc pleaded.
The organ began to play before Arthur could answer him. Marc giggled a little hysterically and went on, "Like, can we expect Captain Nemo to put in an appearance now?"
Arthur put his hand over Marc's lips for a moment, silencing him, and said quickly and softly, his voice barely audible over the booming chords of the organ, "When Ginny thinks of something, it becomes real. Usually people like her don't know what they're doing, and the most they accomplish are unexplained rock falls and mysteriously slamming doors. Ginny's much better than that. She imagined the afterlife, and here we are."
"Arthur--" Marc's voice faltered. "Are we--dead?"
"No. And neither is anyone else here."
"The thing sitting in the pew in front of us is Ginny's creation too. Once she created hell, she needed ghosts to populate it."
"Then what are we doing here?"
"You're here because you're a stubborn brat who doesn't know when to leave well enough alone." Arthur bent forward and kissed him. "I'm here because Ginny has to be convinced to shut this place down. It's been bleeding into the real world for too long now. If it isn't stopped I don't know what will happen. Anything could, I suppose. It really might begin to trap the living as well as what Ginny imagines the dead to be."
Marc swallowed. "What are you going to do?"
"Stop the christening."
Arthur led the way down the center aisle. It seemed to Marc that the room wasn't as large as it had been before. He was about to draw Arthur's attention to this, when he realized something else. There were sounds on the other side of the wall, the same whirring and humming that he had heard outside on the sidewalk, loud enough to carry over the roar of the organ.
And then the usher reared up before them and blocked their path, and for all Arthur's assurances that the things they saw here weren't real, Marc couldn't stand to look at him.
Death had not been kind to Kevin Bender. The tuxedo fit badly over his crushed and mangled body, and his hands and face were black with blood that flowed like syrup. His arms were full of folded paper programs, all splotched and stained with his own blood. He tried to present one to Arthur and Marc, but his broken fingers didn't work, and they kept slipping away from him and littering the aisle at his feet.
"Please," he begged them as courteously as his shattered jaw and half-severed tongue would allow. "Won't you have a seat? The service is about to begin."
Marc kept his eyes closed as long as he could. The mumbling and whining of the terrible usher faded away at long last, and everything was silent, hushed and waiting. Marc reached out blindly for Arthur's hand. A cold wind began to blow and he felt dizzy, as though he were riding a carousel and hanging his head out to feel the breeze. Eventually he began to think that it was the room spinning around, not just him, and he cautiously opened his eyes.
He was standing at the front of the church now, the pews that stretched before him filled with silent worshippers. He looked down at himself, and found he was dressed in a little boy's tuxedo, a clip-on bow tie at his neck, the pants cuffed too high, his shoes shiny black patent leather that hurt his feet. It all seemed very familiar to him, comforting in a way, and he wondered why. He could count the number of times he'd been inside a church on one hand. There was his grandmother's funeral, a couple of memorial services with Arthur. Oh, right. And his best friend Pete Eddinger's confirmation service. Peter had lured him there with promises of refreshments that had turned out to be only fruit punch and stale Danish butter cookies. Still, it had been worth it to see Pete stand at the front of the church in a blue polyester suit while he recited his carefully memorized vows and took his first communion, stuttering a little in the way he always did when he was nervous.
Not six months later Pete chased a soccer ball into the street and was creamed by a passing BMW. Just like a stupid kid, Marc had thought bitterly at the time. His funeral had been held in the same church where he'd been confirmed. Marc remembered sitting very close to his mother throughout the service, wondering why he couldn't cry.
But the tears stung in his eyes now at the memory. "Arthur," he said, and turned to look at the person who was still holding his hand.
Pete smiled back at him. Then he glanced down at their clasped hands and gave a grunt of laughter. "What a fag," he said cheerfully, pulling away and then feinting a punch at Marc's midsection.
Marc flung his arms up over his face to shut out the sight of Pete's smiling, dead eyes.
Sean pulled the covers up to his chin. Outside, lightning still spat and crackled through the lowering clouds. Rain drove in torrents across the windowpanes. He wanted to go to sleep, but his bedroom was full of people, bustling around talking to each other and making plans. He let his head sink deeper back into the pillows to muffle their voices. Nothing could shut out the thunder. A spectacular crack rent the air, and for a moment all conversation stopped. As the thunder went rolling and booming into the distance, someone sat down on the side of the bed and touched his shoulder.
Sean opened his eyes. Mary smiled down at him. "How are you feeling?"
He smiled a little and shrugged.
"Are you sure you can wait until the rain stops before getting to a doctor? It's still coming down cats and dogs out there."
Sean worked his arm out from under the comforter and patted Mary's hand. "I'm better off in my own bed."
Zack came to the bedside. "He's probably right, Mary. He'd get soaked on the way to the car, and then we might sit around the waiting room at Kaiser for hours before seeing a doctor. With any luck he'd end up with pneumonia."
Mary scowled at him. "I've got an idea, Zack. Why don't you keep your cheery scenarios to yourself?"
"It's OK, Mary," Sean said. "He's probably right."
"Well, I guess you can stay put for the time being." She smiled again. "But if you have another heart attack before you get to the hospital, I'm warning you, I'm going to be very, very pissed."
"I'll bear it in mind," Sean said gravely. "But I'm not so sure it really was a heart attack." He struggled to sit up in bed. "That's how Patrick died, you know. Maybe experiencing what he must have felt in his last moments was just another aspect of the apparition."
Mary put her hands on his shoulders, and gently but firmly pushed him back down. "So now you're a parapsychologist as well as your own doctor?" A crash of thunder drowned out her voice. She waited until it rolled away before telling him, "You have to lie here quietly, Sean, or I'm going to call an ambulance, and they'll drag you off to Cedars Sinai with the red lights on and the sirens blaring the whole way."
"Oh no, anything but that. You know how I hate making a scene."
Zack grinned down at him. "It's a little late to start worrying about that, isn't it?"
"You should talk." Sean defended himself. "You're the one who broke down my front door."
"I did not break down the door," Zack said. "It didn't take a psychic to find the key under the doormat."
"And that puny little door chain wouldn't stop a determined Girl Scout selling cookies. You should really be more careful, Sean. You're not living in Mayberry, you know."
"No, more like Willoughby."
Zack frowned, puzzled.
"Oh you know, 'Next stop, Willoughby,'" Sean said, doing a fair impersonation of the train conductor from the Twilight Zone episode.
Mary didn't smile. "That's not very funny,"
"I wasn't trying to be funny. Is Lil still here?"
"She's in the front room. She seemed to think that between me and Zack you had plenty of people at your bedside."
"Is she the one who told you to break down my front door?"
"Your door is fine, Sean, believe me," Zack said. "We got here to pick up some of the baby's things from Carol and Mary's apartment just as Lil arrived, and we were all worried when you didn't answer the door. Given the things that have been happening around this place lately, I don't know if that was psychic insight or just good sense."
"And everyone knows the two are mutually exclusive," Lil said dryly.
Sean craned his head around to see her standing in his bedroom door. He waved. "Hey Lil. Thanks again for saving my butt."
She shook her head, looking severe. "How are you feeling?"
"Then lie still and stop chattering like a magpie. I could hear you all the way into the living room."
Sean folded his hands over his chest contritely.
"Zack, Mary, can I talk to you a minute outside?"
"Wait a minute," Sean's contrition vanished. "Is this about me? I want to hear it."
"We'll be right back," Mary said with maddening sweetness. She bent forward and kissed his forehead, then followed Zack and Lil out of the bedroom.
"I wanted you to see this," Lil said. She turned on the hall light and pointed to the carpet.
It was crisscrossed with muddy prints leading to and from the bathroom.
"Oh my god," Mary said, disgusted and horrified. "Did some sort of animal get into the apartment?"
Zack knelt and looked more closely at the muddy carpet. "This is very weird. They almost look like hand prints."
"A raccoon, maybe. Or rats? Shit. I always suspected there were rats in this place." Mary looked nervously over her shoulder towards the bathroom. Lightning flashed. There was a moment of breathless silence, waiting for the thunder. The crash came an instant later and rattled the window panes.
"I don't think it's rats," Lil said as the thunder went rolling away. She crouched beside Zack and held her palms a few inches above the muddy prints, fingers spread, as though warming her hands before a fire.
"Then what is it?"
Lil looked up at Mary, her expression controlled. "I think Ginny could tell you."
"Well she's not here now," Mary pointed out unnecessarily. "So could you do us the favor of hazarding a guess?"
Zack glanced back toward Sean's bedroom and lowered his voice. "It's what Sean told us about, isn't it? He said when the ghost appeared to him last night he heard something out in the hall. Water splashing. Things moving around." Zack indicated the muddy carpet. "But ghosts don't leave dirty hand prints, do they? Whatever kind of vermin got in here, they were flesh and blood."
He followed the tracks back to the bathroom, reached in and turned on the light. He gave a yelp of nervous laughter. "OK, Lil, you win. Maybe it's not rats after all."
Mary moved him aside to see.
The toilet had been torn from the floor and lay upended against the side of the bathtub. Half the linoleum tiles had been pulled up with it, exposing water-stained wooden boards. The bowl was cracked across. The broken pipes gleamed naked and copper bright, and the bathroom floor was two inches deep in muddy water. A rank, dead smell hung in the air.
No one spoke. Lightning flashed behind the pebbled-glass window above the showerhead, and cast the image of driving rain across the water standing on the bathroom floor. In the instant before the thunder crashed it seemed as though pale shapes were gliding under the surface.
With a stifled exclamation, Mary slammed the bathroom door shut.
Sean called from his bedroom, "What are you people up to out there?"
The three of them exchanged a glance. Then Mary strode purposefully down to Sean's bedroom and told him, "I'm sorry, Sean, but it looks like you're going to have to get up off your backside after all. Zack will help you get some things together. I'm going to pull the car around to the front. Come out as soon as you're ready."
"Oh god, what's happened now?"
"Don't worry your pretty head about it," Zack said. He pulled open Sean's closet door. "You want jeans or khakis?"
"Don't treat me like a fucking invalid, goddamnit. I want to know what's going on."
Mary smiled thinly. "It seems, dearheart, that you've got quite a vermin problem."
Someone rapped violently on the front door.
"I'll get it," Mary said, after getting over the startled shock that had gripped all of them for a moment. "Who'd be out on a morning like this anyway?"
Sean smiled hopefully. "Maybe it's Ginny. Or Arthur."
The broken door stood open on its hinges. Richard was there, his thinning hair plastered to his forehead. The stitches gleamed like an ebony stud in his left earlobe. "Hey, sorry," he said, "It just swung open when I knocked."
"I know," Mary said. "What's up?"
"Have you seen what's going on out in the street?"
Mary wondered how many more revelations she could take. "No. What is it?"
"It's flooded, totally flooded. I've never seen anything like it, not in all the time I've been here."
"Flooded? Are you serious?" Mary grabbed up the umbrella she'd left on Sean's front porch and splashed through the courtyard and under the sagging bougainvillea vine to the sidewalk.
Though it was ten in the morning, all the street lights were on. Their stark white light gleamed on the rivulets and froth on the surface of the brown waters surging down the street.
"Mother of god."
"I know," Richard agreed, shouting a little to make himself understood over the roar of the water. "Awesome, isn't it? They interrupted the local TV shows a few minutes ago to announce that parking garages were flooding all over Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. I came out and found--this."
The water rushing down the street was level with the curb, and choked with all manner of debris, floating garbage cans, palm fronds, newspapers, and plastic grocery bags. The only traffic was a single oversized pickup truck creeping against the flood, sending a spray of water up from under its tires. Lightning flashed, and for an instant Mary saw the Hollywood Hills outlined against the fierce gray thunderclouds. Thunder roared in her ears, and the rain began to fall harder than ever. White plumes of water frothed up from the drain under the sidewalk.
Something cold touched Mary's ankles. She yelped and stepped back. The water had overflowed the curb and was spreading over the grassy verge and onto the sidewalk. Mary and Richard were suddenly standing ankle-deep in swirling cold water.
"Holy shit," Richard sounded more pleased than disturbed. "I've never seen anything like this."
In spite of the umbrella she was holding, Mary felt cold drops of water on her head. She looked up and felt a steady mist upon her cheeks and face. "The rain's coming right through my umbrella," she said.
"Awesome. Mine too. I’m getting out of this."
Mary turned back as well. The rain had overflowed the roof gutters, and Sean's front porch was surrounded by a curtain of water pouring off the tiles. As Mary ducked through it, the force of the water ripped through her over-taxed umbrella, and tore the flimsy nylon from the thin steel ribs.
She threw it aside with an angry exclamation. A gust of wind sent the umbrella cartwheeling out into the darkness of the courtyard.
Lil was waiting just inside the door, holding a bath towel. She gave it to Mary without a word.
"Thanks." Mary kicked off her shoes, so waterlogged that they fell against the porch with muffled splats, and wrapped the towel around her head. "Richard's right," she said. "The streets are flooded."
"I know," Lil agreed mildly. "Come in so we can shut the door."
Lil or Zack had turned on the television set in Sean's living room. On it one of the local news anchors, smiling and concerned, was reading a list of business and school closings. Her backdrop was a live picture of water pouring across Santa Monica Boulevard.
Mary laughed with sudden, giddy relief. This wasn't the end of the world after all. Just a hell of a thunder storm. She pointed to the screen. "That's a couple of blocks from here."
Zack came down the hall. "I take it we're not going anywhere after all?"
"You should see it, Zack. It's like a river coming down."
Zack smiled a little. "Well, you're looking a bit like a drowned river rat."
"It's raining so hard my umbrella disintegrated. There's no way we can take Sean out in weather like this."
"We could still call an ambulance," Lil said.
"I don't know," Zack said. "Sean doesn't want us to, and whatever came up through the bathroom--that was just because of the flooding, right? Rats or something being washed up from the sewers, I guess."
Lil tightened her lips and seemed about to say something, but at that instant lightning flashed again, so close that the air itself crackled with energy. It was followed by a thunderclap like the crack of doom.
The perky, reassuring face of the local news anchor flashed white and then vanished.
"Power's out," said Zack.
"Would you like to say grace?"
It was Ginny's voice.
He would not uncover his face. He would not look.
"All right, all right,” Ginny said. “Sorry I asked. Would someone else like to do the honors?"
Marc realized he could smell food in the room, wherever he was now. Hot, good smells of sage and yeast-risen bread, cinnamon and roasted meat. Other smells too. Wood smoke and the sharp, green scent of cedar branches. He could hear the crackle of logs burning in a fireplace. Ice clinked against crystal. Music played, Bing Crosby dreaming of a white Christmas. The old record popped and hissed.
Marc refused to be seduced. It was just another cruel illusion. He would not open his eyes to be assaulted by horrors.
"What a bunch of pagans!" Ginny complained good-naturedly. "Somebody must know how to say grace over a Christmas dinner. Arthur? Please?"
Even at that, Marc didn't open his eyes. It might still be a trick.
But then Arthur answered her.
"Well, all right. I'd be glad to."
That tone of polite resignation had always infuriated Marc. But hearing it now made his heart ache. He opened his eyes.
He found himself seated at a table laden with food. Sweet potato casserole, a standing rib roast, consommé in a silver tureen, custard in glazed ceramic cups, sweetmeats, stilton cheese, walnuts and whole red apples. Candles flickered in a centerpiece made of twined holly branches. There were a dozen people seated at the table with Marc, and though he wasn't sure he knew all of them, he had no doubt they were his friends. A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the room that he recognized as Ginny's living room, changed as it was. The tree was strung with garlands of cranberries and popcorn, and was so tall that its starry tip touched the ceiling. Where Marc remembered a blank living room wall and stereo equipment heaped on top of a television set, there now blazed a yule log in a vast stone fireplace.
Then he finally spied Arthur, sitting at the far end of the table. He smiled faintly at Marc, and Marc felt a sense of tremendous relief. So it really was OK now. Somehow Arthur had found a way to set things right.
"This is the blessing my father said over every meal until the day I went away to college," Arthur explained. "Brevity is its greatest virtue, I think."
He bowed his head over his hands. The other dinner guests followed his example, all except for Marc, who looked around at the circle of bowed heads and felt a pang of nostalgic longing for a childhood that had never been like this. His parents had always seemed faintly embarrassed by holidays and, indeed, by any sort of family ritual. Marc had never seen anyone praying for any reason other than a funeral.
The prayer Arthur had learned from his father was, as promised, simple and brief. "Bless this food to our use, and us to thy service," Arthur said. "In Jesus' name. Amen."
The others around the table echoed the final amen, and Marc was moved almost to tears. His head was full of all sorts of sentimental fancies. Carolers and sleigh rides, presents under the tree, prayers to a loving God, Christmas dinner with a family of his own.
Someone passed him the dish of sweet potato casserole. Marc dug the serving spoon in through the sticky topping of brown sugar and raisins and upended a generous helping onto his plate. More servings of vegetables came around, winter squash, green beans in sauce with almonds and pearl onions. Then bread and fruit, relish, roast beef and gravy. Marc took cheerfully huge helpings of everything.
He felt happy but very emotional, as though he might start to cry if anyone spoke kindly to him. The conversations going on around the table were spirited and loud. He didn't seem to be included in them, but it didn't matter. He felt loved and welcome all the same. He speared a bit of roast beef on his fork and splashed it in the pool of gravy on the edge of his plate. He happened to glance in Arthur's direction again just before he put the bite in his mouth, and saw him sitting alone in the midst of the dinner guests. His plate was empty, the china gleaming white.
Marc laid his fork down, suddenly feeling guilty and confused. His fantasy of a sweet, ordinary family life hadn't included Arthur.
The room felt chilly in spite of the roaring fire. A scratchy recording of "Silver Bells" spun on the turntable. He looked down at his plate of food, then pushed it aside.
"Mary and Carol are on their way up here with the baby," Ginny announced suddenly.
The lights twinkling on the Christmas tree were cold and white. Snow drifted past the windows into the courtyard and collected in drifts on the outside window sill. "Marc," Ginny said. "Would you mind getting the door for them?"
He stood, rather glad of a chance to get away. The revellers around the table were boisterous as ever, but he was aware now of a certain brittle tension in the air. It was no wonder, perhaps, with Arthur sitting there so silent and glum. Marc allowed himself to feel a stab of annoyance. Why didn't Arthur loosen up? He was going to spoil Christmas for everyone.
He crossed the living room to the front door. His hand was on the doorknob when Arthur spoke.
Marc drew his hand back. "What? What is it?"
Ginny laughed. "What's the matter with you, Arthur?"
"That isn't Mary and Carol out on the stairs."
Marc wondered if maybe Arthur was losing it. "What are you talking about? I can hear them."
Light footsteps pattered up the wooden steps. A baby's petulant, wavering cry echoed in the enclosed stairwell.
Ginny laughed again, but she didn't sound amused. "Marc, I think Arthur's had a little too much of the Christmas punch. Now would you please open the door? Don't leave Sarah Ann out in the cold."
Marc didn't know what to do. Arthur's inexplicable behavior was embarrassing, but there was something positively frightening about Ginny. Her pale gray eyes seemed to darken with anger. "Marc? Please?"
Arthur was still sitting with his hands folded quietly before his empty dinner plate. "That's not Sarah Ann."
The corner of Ginny's mouth twitched.
The baby in the stairwell was wailing lustily now. The other dinner guests sat motionless over their dinners. It sounded as though there were dozens of people running up and down the stairs beyond the closed door.
"I don't understand," Marc said. "What's out there?"
"Arthur, you're ruining Christmas," Ginny complained.
The baby on the other side of the door coughed, a sad, quiet little sound that tore at Marc's heart. The snow swirled thickly on the other side of the frost-glazed window panes. He couldn't bear to think of a child out on the cold staircase. But there were other sounds too, a whining and thrumming like a swarm of locusts. It was a sound Marc had heard before, when he himself had been wandering out on the snowy streets. "Arthur, help me. I don't know what to do."
"All right, so it's not Sarah Ann," Ginny confessed. "I was afraid you wouldn't let it in if I told you the truth."
The baby gasped twice, then began to wail anew. Marc's scalp prickled with heat. "Oh, Ginny no. Not that."
"You interrupted the christening," she explained. "I had to make it up somehow." She waved her arm expansively, taking in the silent diners at her Christmas party. Her guests all sat perfectly still, their desiccated skin stretched tight over fragile bones. Ginny smiled horribly. "It wouldn't be Christmas without children, would it?"
"What else is out there?" Marc asked, hearing the tremor in this voice.
"I don't know," Ginny insisted. Even Marc knew she wasn't telling the truth.
"It's the part you can't control, isn't it?" Arthur said gently.
Ginny's head jerked as though she'd been slapped.
"They're the couriers between the real world and--this place," Arthur went on. "But Ginny, they're monsters. You know that. You have to stop them, and all the rest of it."
There was a deadly pallor to Ginny's face. Her mousy brown hair had turned jet black, and tendrils like vines floated up around her head. Her eyes were inhuman. She didn't blink, and the surface of her eyeballs was entirely flat, and covered with a dull white film.
"You don't understand," she whispered. "You have no idea what you're asking me to do. I'd be stranded here." She turned to Marc. "What right does he have to tell me I have to stay here forever?"
"I'm sorry," Marc said faintly. "I don't know."
"I know you never meant to hurt anyone," Arthur said gently. "But your world is dangerous, and you can't let it continue like this."
Ginny looked around at the bright living room, the fire blazing on the hearth, the presents under the tree. Her face was both pathetic and terrifying.
Arthur suddenly flung his hand out and struck the silent dinner guest closest to him. The figure toppled sideways, taking other celebrants with him. They fell with a sound like the rustling of autumn leaves. Gray ashes drifted up, and when they finally cleared, Arthur was the only one still seated there. All around him were overturned chairs and dry white bones.
It suddenly seemed much darker in the room. With an effort, Marc turned his head and looked out. Instead of the snowy courtyard he saw a vast, dark network of rusted gratings and pipes. Dim light filtered down from far overhead, and there was a persistent sound of dripping water echoing in the vast, shadowy spaces.
"Why are you doing this?" Ginny asked Arthur in a still, quiet voice. "Why do you want to ruin everything?"
Arthur said, "Haven't you realized that your friends are the ones who will suffer if you let this go on?"
"I don't believe you."
"Was it really Patrick's time to die? Or did something from this world get to him first?"
If Marc hadn't known better, he would have thought tears were beginning to brim in Ginny's filmy gray eyes.
"What frightened Mary so badly the night Sarah Ann was born?" Arthur pressed on, gentle but relentless. "Sean's being haunted by an apparition that looks like Patrick. Did you know he told Lil and me that he was afraid his heart might stop if he saw it again?"
"No," Ginny whispered, but she sounded less certain.
The lights on the Christmas tree were shimmering blue now. Marc was glad that he hadn't eaten any of the Christmas dinner. Flies buzzed thick around the putrefying remains of the roast, and the casseroles had sprouted brilliantly colored fungi. A drop fell on his face. He looked up. Water was oozing through the roof of Ginny's apartment, seeping slowing through spreading cracks. The plaster bubbled and peeled away.
"You have unimaginable power here," Arthur told Ginny. "But even you can't bring your husband's child back to life."
"No." A palpable darkness had begun to coalesce around Ginny. Her face was a pale oval in the gloom, her hands like a pair of fluttering white doves. Water was seeping in under the door now. When it reached the electrical outlets, the lights on the Christmas tree went up in a series of tiny, bright explosions.
"Will Sean be next? Or Sarah Ann? Your world has already taken me. Is Marc going to be next?"
The darkness grew thicker. Caesar prowled restlessly across the mantlepiece. "No," Ginny said suddenly. "No one else. I promise."
Arthur pushed back his chair and got up from the table.
"Where are you going?" Ginny asked.
"Marc and I are going to try to get home."
"Let Marc go by himself."
Arthur looked faintly surprised. "I can't stay here."
"I've done so much damage already," Ginny said. "You have to let me make it up somehow." Her voice was wistful, pleading with Arthur, but her eyes were still dead.
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked warily.
"You don't have to get sick. If you stay here, I won't let you die."
Arthur's eyes widened in shock, and it took him a moment to find his voice. "I can't do that," he said softly.
"But why not?" Her voice became wheedling. "What do you have to go back to?"
Arthur looked across the room to where Marc stood motionless beside the window.
Anger flared in Ginny's dead eyes. "Do you really think he'll stick around once the lesions appear? Can you imagine him wiping your nose and cleaning up your shit? You think he'll spoon baby food into your mouth when you're too weak to do it for yourself?"
Marc wanted to scream a denial of all of Ginny's accusations. But he only stood there, agonized and silent, and some of the life went out of Arthur's eyes.
He looked away from Marc and braced both hands on the table. Then his legs gave way beneath him, and he fell heavily back into the chair. His face twisted in pain. In a violent gesture he reached up and tore open his shirt with one hand.
His chest was dead white, mottled with smooth, blue-black dots. As Marc watched in silent horror, more of the sinister dark spots bloomed across his chest and spread down his arms and up his throat.
Marc couldn't help it. He turned his face away.
"You see?" Ginny said softly. "He can't even stand to look at you."
Marc felt as though his brain was on fire. There was a ball of pressure concentrated in his solar plexus, and his hands were knotted into fists. He had to do something or explode, but he was lost in a world where stray thoughts and unguarded words could have unspeakable consequences.
Then he remembered the dream he had had the night he first met Ginny, and suddenly he found his voice.
"Arthur's not sick, Ginny. He's pregnant."
A thump came from behind him. Marc turned around. Arthur was stretched on his back on the dining room table, surrounded by the remains of the Christmas dinner. His shirt hung open, and the white paunch of his stomach could have been from a heavy dinner. Marc knew better. Arthur hadn't eaten a full meal in weeks.
"Your world breeds monsters, Ginny," Marc cried in desperation, not knowing what she would do if he told her the truth. "You breed monsters."
Ginny stared back at him. Then she covered her face with her hands. Water was hip deep in the room by now. Christmas presents and bleached white skulls went floating by. When she finally looked up, she almost seemed like her old self again. Her pale eyes were sad, but there was a timid smile on her face. "You know, I always thought it was Guinevere's infertility that destroyed Camelot," she said at last, conversationally. "But it turns out there are worse fates than being barren."
She bent forward over Arthur and laid her hand on his forehead, looking down into his wide, pained eyes. "I'm sorry, Arthur. I didn't understand what was happening."
Arthur's lips moved, but if he spoke, Marc couldn't hear.
Ginny asked him, smiling a little, "So how do you feel about late term abortions?"
Marc had begun to fight his way through the water and floating debris, belatedly trying to get to Arthur's side, when the water pressure in the stairwell blew the front door open, and a swarm of half-drowned insects came pouring in. Marc felt their bloated white bodies brush up against him, and he pushed them away in disgust. Their skin was soft as velvet, gossamer thin, and their faces were human. When he touched them they collapsed like deflating balloons.
Marc heard Arthur cry out once, then Ginny was holding something by its heels over him. It was bloody and malformed, twitching with the last remnants of unwholesome life.
Water rushed over the surface of the dining room table, sweeping Arthur along with the flood. Marc dove forward and managed to get his arms around him. The force of the water dashed the two of them up against the windowpanes. Glass splintered and broke, and when Marc opened his mouth to scream, his lungs filled with rank, warm water. His head bumped against pipes and cement as he was carried along, and he didn't know if he and Arthur were drowning or already dead.
Through the roar of the driving rain Mary heard the distant clank of iron on asphalt. A few seconds later she heard it again, closer this time. "Good lord, what now?" she asked, and stepped out onto the front porch. The rain was coming down too hard to see what was happening out on the street, but the noise continued at regular intervals, and it seemed to be getting closer.
Zack stepped out on the porch beside her. "Can you tell what that is?"
"I have no idea."
The sharp metallic sound came again. Zack cocked his head. "Almost like manhole covers coming up, isn't it?"
"Is that even possible?" Without waiting for Zack to answer, Mary ran out to the sidewalk to see, heedless of the rain. She was already soaked to the skin.
The water pouring down the street was muddy brown, but as she watched, a sudden geyser of foaming white erupted in the intersection half a block to the north. Zack was right. Water pressure in the overtaxed sewers was popping open manhole covers. The next one blew right in front of the apartment building. Mary turned her face away and backed up almost to the bougainvillea arch.
Zack was picking his way more gingerly through the ankle-deep water in the courtyard. He joined Mary under the arch. "Unbelievable. They taught us in seminary that the world would end in fire, not in flood."
"Fat lot of good seminary ever did you."
"Kept me off the streets for a couple of years." Zack wiped the rain out of his eyes. "I'm just glad we took your car this morning instead of mine."
Mary shook her head. "I'll be lucky if it ever starts again." Her little green Volkswagen was parked next to the curb, and the water was high as the bumpers.
"What are all those white things?"
Flotsam swirled around in back eddies, and got caught between the wheels of parked cars. Mary saw a pulpy, white shape wash up against the curb near her. The water was thick with them, she realized, but they were so fragile they tore apart and vanished again under the surface almost as soon as they appeared.
"I have no idea what they are. Where are they coming from?"
Zack looked at her. "Up from the sewers?"
She knew they were both thinking of the destruction in Sean's bathroom.
"They're dead now, whatever they were," Zack said with a nervous laugh as another of the flimsy white skins swept past them. Another manhole cover blew with a crash. Water spewed up, and lightning flashed so close that Mary flinched. Thunder roared, deafening her. Another few seconds passed before she realized that Zack was talking to her.
"My god, I think there's someone out there."
He waded out into the street. The current was stronger than he had expected, and for an instant Mary thought he would be swept off his feet. But he braced himself against the flood, and after a moment was able to move slowly across. Water plumed against his legs.
"Zack!" Mary screamed to him over the pouring rain and the roar of the flood. "What are you doing?"
He only pointed by way of answer. A hunched shape flailed on the far side of the median, but it didn't look like anything human to Mary.
"Zack! Don't be an idiot. Get out of there."
He raised his hand and kept going. Furious at him, Mary followed him out into the street, determined to bring him back by sheer force if necessary. She felt things brushing against her legs under the surface of the water, and the current was so strong it was all she could do to remain upright.
A warm, heavy weight smashed against Mary's legs, and she toppled, scraping her hands and knees on the asphalt and swallowing mouthfuls of muddy water. The force of the current turned her over and over, and there was something in the water with her. A hand touched her face, and then Mary brought up hard against an immovable object. She braced herself against it and got her head out of the water, coughing and gagging. She looked up. She was in the middle of the street, propped against the traffic sign that forbade left turns.
There was a dead weight over her legs, pressing against her midsection just under the muddy brown water. Groaning with exhaustion, Mary reached down and tried to push it away.
A boy's face broke the surface of the water.
Mary grabbed at his shirt, trying to heave him up out of the water. "Marc! Can you hear me? Marc!"
His head lolled. He drew a shuddering gasp of air, then vomited up slime.
Simultaneously laughing and weeping with relief, Mary held him in her arms until Zack made it to her side. They pulled him to his feet and half-carried him through the flooded street to the sidewalk. Marc dropped to his hands and knees, still gagging and spitting up water, but trying to speak. Arthur was huddled up on the sidewalk a short distance away, his head between his knees.
"Shut up," Mary told Marc gently. "Calm down. Everything's going to be all right."
Marc shook his head and managed to whisper, "But Arthur--"
"He's all right. You're both all right."
Now that the immediate crisis was past, Zack was starting to look a little hysterical. "We've got to get them out of the rain. What were they doing out there anyway?"
Mary's scraped hands stung. She looked down at her palms and saw little droplets of blood oozing up through the raw white skin. She shuddered to think what sort of filth was in the floodwater, and wondered in a distant, rather vague way if she should get a tetanus shot. Was that safe while she was nursing?
"Oh my god," Zack groaned suddenly. "Oh god, there's blood all over him."
He knelt beside Arthur on the flooded sidewalk. "Where are you hurt? Do you know how bad it is?"
Arthur looked up dazedly. Mary didn't think he even knew who they were. His shirt and jeans were soaked almost black.
"Can you understand me?" Zack asked again, pleading with him. Arthur's shirt was already unbuttoned, and Zack pulled it off his shoulders, looking for a wound. His hands came away stained pink, and there was a pool of red spreading around Arthur as the rain washed the blood from his clothes.
"What's wrong with him?" Marc had recovered enough to make his way over to them.
"I don't know," Mary snapped, scared and angry. "What happened to you out there?"
Marc looked at her, rainwater dripping down his face. His expression was blank with confusion. "I don't know," he said softly, sounding like a lost little boy. "How did we end up in the water? What's wrong with Arthur?"
"I'm all right," Arthur said suddenly. He put his hand over his flat stomach and then looked around at them, smiling faintly. "It's all over. I'm OK."
"But the blood--" Zack protested.
Arthur climbed slowly to his feet with Zack's help. "I'm not hurt."
Most of the blood had indeed washed away, save for dark stains in his jeans that would probably never come out. Mary noticed a faint pink line on his abdomen, just above the waistline of his jeans. It looked like an old appendectomy scar.
"Can someone tell me what's going on around here?" Zack said, the hysteria creeping back into his voice.
Determined to take care of practical matters first, Mary said, "Let's just get out of the rain."
"It's stopped," Marc observed quietly.
Mary was astonished. She had more than half believed that Zack was right, and that the world was about to end in flood. A cold wind swept through the courtyard, dispersing the rank, heavy smell of the receding floodwater. Mary looked up. A lone seagull, blown inland by the storm, wheeled in a lazy arc up towards the crack of blue sky visible beyond the heavy gray clouds.
A sash clanked going up, and Richard leaned out his window and called down to them, "Hey, hell of a storm, wasn't it? Does anyone know when we're gonna get the power back on?"