At exactly noon on a pleasant April day, Oliver Boon spilled a medium caramel mocha down the front of his best green shirt. He had a best blue shirt, too, and a jacket, but this was his best green one, and the fact was rather upsetting. He also owns a washing machine, but ensuing circumstances will sideline this particular consideration to a level of undeserved inconsequence.
Twenty minutes before, a silhouette leaves the shadow of a duplex in the downtown district, and disappears beneath the eaves of a bakery, 15 miles away . . .
"God above!" The brew is hot. Famously so. It is often remarked that the coffees at Tamela's Speedy Espresso Cafe must be brewed in some mystical dimension where water boils at four times its usual temperature. Tamela, being a woman of entrepreneurial wisdom, knows better than to contradict those rumors that excel at bringing her customers. The multiple is actually seven, and she pays a land tax for the service.
"Towel! Someone hand me a towel. Ergghhh . . ."
The old woman bustled over, an extremely efficient looking affair in white wool draped over her arm. She dabbed quietly at the stains, and peered through the steam at Oliver's face.
His sigh was deep, the sigh of a man who has been dipped in half a dozen hells and is now contemplating an emigration to the Arctic.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?" he managed. He didn't quite like the woman's gaze. It wasn't the sort of owlish look you see in books about wizened old grandmothers. If he absolutely had to choose an animal, he would have gone with a toad. Steady, blank, glazed at the edges as if it is living a life devoid of flies. Tamela cackled a little, and moved away in small bustling steps that could, from a certain angle, have looked like little hops. He stared, and muttered something about fresh air.
At least he had the jacket. Leaving behind the cafe and its . . . its . . . hm. There had been no people at all, come to think of it. Just coffee. Had there been a brew? He hadn't seen one. And just the one table. But that couldn't be right, because -
He looked back. In the space between Galamane's Antiques and the FastStop, there was nothing but an alcove of tired concrete rocks. A man with an unintelligible cardboard sign looked up from his daze, and returned Oliver's look of confused dismay.
Ten minutes ago, the bakery is a jewelry shop, four thousand dollars richer and one diamond necklace down.
The phone was ringing. Praising the miracle, Oliver fished it from the pocket of his jeans, wiping away a stray drop of mocha with only the slightest wince. Ignoring the sizzling hole in his sleeve, he swiped the green icon, and held the device to his ear.
"Hey, bro!" said an overly peppy voice.
"Hi. What's up?" It was Daniel. It was always Daniel. Long ago, it had been generally accepted by the entire Boon clan that Daniel was the official liaison between Oliver and the family proper.
"Oh. Nothing much, really, you know how it is."
"Hey," the response was cheerful, "we never see you anymore, and, you know"-
"What do you mean, I never see you anymore? Your lot told me straight, didn't you? What'd she say? 'Get that dog of a man out of my apartment, or I'll' "-
"Come on!" You could've made yogurt with that laugh. "Come on, bro. She didn't mean that. Come on. We're family, aren't we? Hank'll be there. You love Hank."
"What about Celia?"
"Well, yeah. Everyone's coming, dude. It's how this works, remember? You used to love these get-togethers."
"Sure." That had been before, he wanted to say. Before the rest of you got your jobs and your flashy cars and your wives that never seem to do anything much except smile about the wine or the beach or wasn't that a new carpet? Oh it was! How very charming! He wasn't a cynical man. But there was a line.
"I know that tone. Look, don't make a decision now, okay? Just . . . think it over. It's next Sunday, five o' clock."
"I have a decision, Dan. It's no. I'm not coming."
"Oh, come on, Oliver . . ."
Oliver. Always Oliver. When he'd been younger, he'd felt it more acutely, like a burn. Ollie no more. Daniel was still Dan, Hank was Hanko, or Hannah when everyone had had one or two, but he was Oliver.
He hung up. Why had he picked up? He didn't know anymore. But something in his chest was hurting. It wasn't the coffee.
The lights on the street change colors in a blur. As the silhouette crosses under the shade of a streetlamp, its light turns from red to violent purple, then back to red again. It takes less than a microsecond, and the only thing to see it is a sparrow, who is confused to find that he has grown an extra wing, and crashes into the path of a barreling Ford Cruise.
It was the old iron deficiency, playing him up again. Spindles of pain darted through the nerves in Oliver's legs, and he stepped in an alley to rest awhile, away from the surging crowds. A woman who looked as if she'd been paid in food stamps instead of bills peered at him from the front of a cigarette poster, urging him to try the sweet release of pure Indiahead tobacco. He tore the thing away, feeling an indescribable shade of disgust.
Something bumped his arms.
His nerves jumped a building.
"Sorry!" he yelped. "Sorry, sorry, here, I'll put it back . . ."
A figure brushed his arm, making rapidly for the sidewalk. He watched it go with lingering caution, noticing only the bright blue heels before it disappeared into the crowds.
"Huh," he said, and his eyes slipped again to the damage done to his best yellow shirt. The coffee, now dried and thicker at the edges, ruined the whole look of the stripes. Now, if only he'd brought a jacket . . .
A storm of misfired realities sailed into the void and returned, shaking their heads and looking terribly confused.
Thirty seconds ago, something bumps Oliver Boon's right hand, and he shoots out his left to grab the silhouette by its elbow, swinging it around. As he does so, he catches a glimpse of his arm, pale in the shadows of the alley. The shirt is green. It has always been green.
"Oh. Oh, I'm so sorry, I . . . don't know why I did that." His embarrassment plays a falsetto, which reaches window-shattering pitch when he peers through the gloom (what gloom? It's a bright spring day . . .) and realizes he's addressing a girl. He let's go. His hand burns with frost that he does not see.
"Do not touch me again," she said, and the voice was like the hoarfrost on the dead wind. "What befalls you will not be pleasant." The accent is harsh. Foreign. Russian? He felt a blush fast rising to his cheeks, interrupting his train of panicked thought. He remembered the last time he'd touched a girl's arm. When was that? Prom. That was it. And of course it was Celia, beautiful Celia, who he'd loved since freshman year . . .
("You fucking FREAK!")
To his humiliated bafflement, he found himself fighting tears. The girl had been silent since her warning. He blinked away the moisture in his eyes, and peered sideways at her. The face was young. The eyes were older than death.
No doubt Hank would know what to say. Hank was never taken off guard. When Celia shook him off and stalked coldly to the main floor, he'd been there. When his parents flatly told him that they would not be paying for a cent of his schooling, he'd been in the corner, with that half-apologetic grimace which Oliver had seen him practice in a mirror . . . surely, Hank would know what to do. Oliver, on the other hand, settled for a loud sniffle, and a stare that made passerby shudder, though they did not rightly know why.
And the girl did not move. He was not, of course, watching her eyes. To do so would be akin to plunging into the Mediterranean with an anchor tied to your wrist, so he settled on her nose. Her hard, pointed nose. Which, for some reason, reminded him of a mountain that had momentarily lost its way.
"Where are you trying to go, I wonder," he muttered, then realized he'd said it aloud.
The question was considered, in exactly the same fashion as a succulent mouse may seem to the circling eagle. Finally, she said, "I am looking for a . . . cafe. I have been searching. All day."
He felt a rush of something, some arbitrary excitement that sent his heart racing. Calm calm calm . . . you have to stay calm, dammit, or you'll blow it . . .
But . . . blow "What?" he asked, a little too loudly. "That is, er . . . cafe? Like a diner?"
"It is like unto a diner, yes." Her gaze shot downwards, scaling his scrawny chest. The jacket hung open. The stain stood dramatically exposed. "That," she said.
Oliver scrambled for the zipper which, rather conveniently, proceeded to fall off and bounce into a filthy gutter. He blushed again. "Oh, that's nothing, sorry," he fumbled. "I just . . . coffee, you know. Clumsy of me," he added lamely.
"Coffee." She sampled the word. "Yes. A diner for coffee."
Oliver's grin was monstrous. "Yeah - Yeah! I know a few of those. Actually, no, I know a lot of those. Yeah. You know, I live in the area, so - oh. Right. Well, there's a Starbucks not far from here, and of course"- His eyes, which had been tracing the girl's form, paused in two places. The first was at a pricey looking necklace that clung prettily to her slender neck. He was not certain that it had been there before, but it was certainly very beautiful.
The second place his gaze fell, was on the knife.
It had been stuck in the girl's abdomen, between two of the upper ribs. Her cardigan was composed of black silk that flowed to cover the wound, but Oliver got the feeling that it would be horrible to behold. The blade extended at least four inches from the wound, and was translucent to a disturbing degree.
Now, there are no shortage of knives in the world, which makes this comparison a good deal easier. In terms of sheer shock value, very few knives can match the snik snik snapping of an expertly wielded switchblade, glinting in the entrance of a dead end alley. What made this particular blade so terrifying was not because it could cause Oliver any sort of physical harm, nor (though this was shameful to admit) because it was stuck in a girl he'd found rather pretty. Imagine our friend with the switchblade once more. Except now, the knife is as large as a morbidly obese mammoth, and its arc shears the banisters off the nearby buildings. It's ridiculous, no? You could laugh, if it wasn't painfully obvious that the blade could probably peel the skin off of an unwary idiom. It so palpably does not belong, that the terror only really begins when you quit focusing on the blade, and start thinking about the kind of person who could use it.
Oliver shivered. The girl looked at him.
"Wrong," she said. He nodded. Nothing had ever seemed more accurate.
"Wrong," he agreed, but this earned a critical stare.
"I refer to your coffee shop," she said. "It is not the right one. I am looking," she pointed at his shirt again. "For that coffee shop."
"But you've got a knife in your stomach!"
"No. It has severed my upper intestinal tract. My stomach is some distance to the right."
"It's a knife!" He paused, then added, "you need a hospital." He fumbled for his phone. It wasn't there.
"Coffee," said the girl. Seeing his hand, she said, "and do not touch the blade. I would not live to feel the pain of it."
He stopped, and felt like a coward. Hank. He had to be more like Hank. Things always went right for that bastard. He cleared his throat in what he felt would be a manly tone of voice. "You, ma'am, need a hospital. Now. "
"What shop were you in this morning? You will cease to waste my time, or I will ensure you are never born."
Oliver opened his mouth. He closed it. There are some statements you don't argue with. She wasn't crazy, either - he knew what crazy people were like. He'd spent a week at an asylum when he was seventeen. Besides, there were those eyes . . .
"Tamela's," he said. "I was at Tamela's. I'll take you, if you really want, but you can't go like that, okay? People will notice."
This drew a grimace, but the girl extended her hand. He handed her his jacket, noiselessly.
"Alright," he mumbled. "It's not far. Fact, it's just over"-
". . ." he said. The girl peered over his shoulder.
"You are quite the guide," she said dryly. The door jangled merrily as someone opened it from the inside. Tamela squinted into the shadows of the alley, a wet mop clutched in her elderly hands.
"Boy," she smiled, nodding in Oliver's direction. Then she turned to the girl, and pronounced a syllable that sounded like a heavy blow to the back of Oliver's head, set in a melody for wind chimes. They looked at each other for a while: the girl, whose red blood was now trickling onto the bricked path of the alley, and the woman, whose shop was assuredly two blocks south . . . "
"Well," and the gummy smile came again. The toad was well-fed. "Come inside, Ahmaider. You know where you are welcome."
She nodded. "I wish to return home," she said.
"As do we all."
There was another long pause, filled with the sound of the whistling breeze, and the shuffling of Oliver's feet. Finally:
"And where does it go, exactly?"
"I do not know. I have never learned."
The girl straightened. "Then it seems I shall need a guide." The eyes swung around.
Oliver gawped. "But . . . Hold on, no! You don't want me. I'm Oliver, you see? I'm not even Ollie, I'm Oliver."
"I have not the slightest idea what you are prattling about." The irises were a bright and burning green. "Oliver." he flinched. "There are places in the Arch where Time does not behave. I will require your presence."
She sighed. "I do not grovel for anyone. Less, for such as you. Come. Or do not. I am gone." And she stepped fully into the shop, turning into the back rooms. He stared. Tamela stared back. She did not say anything. She only blinked. Once. Twice. A flutter.
"When I was nine," he said, "and, you know, this was quite a while back . . . well, I wanted to be a painter."
He waited. There was another blink. He sighed.
"I tried so hard, you know? And when I was eleven, I worked for . . . God, must've been a whole month on this one painting. Of a barn. And I showed it to my father, and he . . . he tried to be nice. He said it was so good. That was good. I felt good." He paused, his shoulders tense and still. "Then, next day, I was supposed to be in my room. Homework, you know. And he was in the kitchen, and he told my mom - told her I'd never amount to anything, as an artist. I didn't come out of my room for a day."
Blink. Inside the shop, something clattered. A sound like drunken thunder looped around the walls. On the streets, the people went by, none of them so much as pausing at the deafening noise.
Tamela didn't notice. Or if she did, she didn't let on. She just stared. And blinked, of course. The mop waved like a cobra in a snakecharmer's pot.
Oliver was thinking. It had always been like this, he thought, and the idea was rueful and sad. There was the painting, which was scorned. There were the stamps, which were laughed at. There was Celia . . .
He closed his eyes.
Always, such hope. And what followed filled every corner of his mind and bounced around for all eternity, skipping across the tired surface of his ears.
There had been Celia, and Hank had spirited her away, far away, to a life of fine wines and exotic locales and children that were impossible to hate which, of course, was why he hated them. So much.
And now . . . and now there was a door.
"I just want to believe," he said, for no reason that he could fathom. And then he said it again, a plaintive expression commanding the scrunched features of his pockmarked face.
This, of course, was where Tamela should have said something. She should have said, "Then do so," or perhaps the never-failing, "but I believe in you," or else hugged him and whispered all the platitudes that would have inspired the hidden courage in his heart. . .
She turned, and walked back into the shop. The sound came again, but now the thunder was louder. Clearer. No longer drunk, but instead fast moving past the hangover. The door closed behind the old woman, but only halfway. The last booming notes faded into the afternoon.
He closed his eyes and fought the helpless tears. One rolled down his cheek, passing the flesh and touching his soul. He was listening for the laughter. The conversation in the distance whispering that it was all a lie, the boy had been delusional after all. He was listening for the scream, that haunted more dreams than even he cared to admit.
None of them came. What did come was a memory. A promise. Made in the cellar while above the confetti ran down in cheerful showers, and Hank kissed his wife with a passion that was applauded and cheered by all assembled, and his heart was aching in a way he was not enough a poet to describe.
He would be something. He would do something, and the laughter and the screams and the scorn would mean nothing any longer. But no . . . not "would."
His eyes reopened. For a while more he sat, unbelieving, wondering if there really was such a thing as Fate, wondering if somewhere the gods really were playing dice with the lives of men, and above all wondering if, after all these lonely years, a six was finally showing.
It is five minutes later. The sound is no longer thunder. The Norse spoke of a massive wolf, who would aspire to devour the gods. It is, in fact, a tiger. And it is certainly roaring now. The door swings closed on Tamela's Speedy Espresso Cafe, and it is unknown where again it will open.
The last flutter of a passing cloth disappears through the doorway, gone and, soon enough, gone again. Who knows what has transpired? Who knows where the path will lead?
There is one certainty.
The shirt is yellow. It has always been yellow. And the alley is empty once more.