By Steve Berman
16 July 2001
Part 2 of 2
This is the third time I've tried to write this letter. Why were the others so much easier? I think it's because I don't know how to begin it.
With Jess? Guess I have to, really. Otherwise, if I talk about myself and what's been happening, well, doesn't that really mean I'm not thinking about Jess as much anymore, that she's secondary? I remember when she was all I ever thought about. When I would call her three times during the day just so I could hear her voice.
Now we barely talk. I barely even see her! What to do? Damn, why can't I pick up one of these phones (they're everywhere in the office!) and just call you?
As for me, I'm crying now. Here, I'll wet this with a teardrop on my finger for you to see. Not good. Let's change the subject.
Been spending so much time at the shelter. Last night I even fell asleep there. I woke up later but the workers there wouldn't let me walk home at that hour, so I ended up lying on a cot until the Percocet I took kicked in.
Which brings me to what I almost started this letter with. Caleb. Oh, you would like this boy so much! Remember what you were like in college, the "asshole with a heart"? That's him too. I think he's as lonely as you were then.
Anyway, he's the one that always brings supplies to the shelter, and a few days ago he came in all bloody. Don't ask from what, it would only sound crazy. Like everything else here does. So I patched him up and, weirdly, we connected. Yesterday, while I was helping this little girl who had hair like spun glass (I swear! It chimed when she moved), he came into the shelter holding a shopping bag filled with things just for me. Including the painkillers.
He's Talented. I've talked with the others at the shelter and they tell wild stories about him, not all of them good. Even though he brings plenty of supplies, they think he should do more.
Aren't you bored with the film student yet?
"So how long have you been here?"
As he walked beside her, Caleb ran his hand along the brick walls of the buildings they passed. "Inside?" He thought for a moment. "Maybe since reality Fell away here. I don't even remember what it's like out there beyond the walls."
He sounded wistful to Marie, and she wondered if even the notorious get lonely.
Up ahead she saw the steps to her building. "Are you sure you don't want to come up for dinner?"
Caleb shook his head. "Thanks, but I have some rounds to make." He squeezed her arm good-bye.
Marie watched him walk off, then went inside. She shifted the bag of leftovers from that evening's meal at the shelter to her other hand and was about to open the door to their apartment when she heard the voices: a conversation, coming from behind the thin wood of the office door. The voices were not clear enough to understood the words, and she pressed her ear against the door, feeling immediately silly.
Who was inside? Jess home early from a lesson? Had she brought her teacher back with her? Marie inwardly groaned at the thought of that revolting man in their home. She opened the door, preparing herself for the sight of the anthvoke, but Jess was alone and cradling a moth-worn teddy bear. Marie stumbled a little and her mouth fell open. Which was worse, the fact that Jess wore rags that once were a little girl's sundress, or that the stuffed animal's mouth opened and closed rhythmically, miming every word Jess spoke in a child's falsetto?
Marie couldn't stop herself from shouting. Jess's name, maybe some curses, she wasn't sure exactly what she yelled. The leftovers fell with a soggy thump onto the floor. Jess didn't turn around, didn't drop the bear. She seemed lost in chatter about what kind of ice cream the sky was made out of.
Marie should have been frightened, but a perverse jealousy at seeing how Jess cradled the bear in her arms pushed her onward. A swift grab tore the toy from Jess. Marie was repulsed by the look of the thing, all ratty with one eye, like a corpse of a toy. It even smelled musty. Where had Jess gotten it? The dumpster?
Her lover began to shriek insanely, arms up and clawing at Marie, wanting the bear back. Marie went to the window, the same one all of Jess's new clothes had been tossed from; she opened it and let the bear go.
Jess let out one long wail, then collapsed, crying. Marie dared to go to her, to put her arms around her and try and rock whatever hurt her away. At first Jess fought against her, but soon the struggles quieted and with them most of the tears.
"Why can't you let me have this?"
"It's wrong, so wrong. Can't you see?"
Jess pushed away from Marie and wouldn't look at her. "What's wrong with being different?"
"I don't want you to be different. I love the old Jess."
"I didn't. I hate her." As if to prove it, she made a fist and struck her own thigh.
"Would you rather have the new Jess over me?" Marie asked.
"Do I need to choose?" Jess wiped at the tears on her face.
Marie could not answer her. There seemed nothing left for her to say, so she got up and picked up the leftovers and took them towards the little cubicle in the office that had the refrigerator and the microwave and warmed her dinner. She barely had an appetite.
Jess is asleep in the other room. I think it's after midnight. Even though she's just lying a few feet away she's truly gone. Today I found her . . . damn, how can I say this? I don't know if she's fucked up her lessons or if all anthvokes are lost in the past, but somehow she's not "here" anymore. Before she collapsed into a deep sleep, I think she called me Holly. Probably a friend from kindergarten.
I don't know what to do. I feel torn up with guilt for letting her do this to herself.
I can't compete, especially if this is her heart's desire. There was a time I thought I was.
Though she had been awake ever since the sunlight found its way through the blinds to shine on her face, Marie stayed next to Jess in the sleeping bag. If she kept her eyes closed and her right arm draped over Jess's chest, then it felt like they still lived together in Philly, off of Lombard Street, and by twelve they'd be heading off to Sisters for that awesome Sunday brunch. But the illusion was not perfect. She could feel the hard floor beneath the sleeping bag, not the pillow top of their mattress. And her fingers were slightly stroking not the soft cotton sleepwear Jess had once favored, but the filmy rags from last night. The two girls that had fallen asleep together nearly every night with one last kiss were long gone.
She knew there was no real point in lying there next to Jess except to torture herself. With a groan, she sat up. She walked down the dimly lit hall to the bathrooms. The electricity didn't work inside -- she was never sure where it would work, in the Fallen. Just as well, though. She didn't really want to see her swollen eyes in the mirror. She splashed cold water on her face and then turned the hot faucet. She washed up as best as she could; they had a working shower at the shelter she'd use later on.
Her face still seemed wet after she dried off, and when a salty trickle met her mouth, she realized she had been silently crying without thinking.
She wandered about the office to decide what to take with, but nothing was really hers. All of it belonged to Jess or had been bought for Jess. Except for the letters she had written to Clay, kept on a desk by the dead fax machine. When had she let her life become subsumed in another's? She wiped at her eyes.
She could leave a note, but Jess probably wouldn't even notice it.
On the quiet walk to the shelter she barely looked up from the street. At the glass door, she stopped only because someone stepped in front of her.
"I've been waiting for you."
She blinked and saw Caleb standing there. He wore a smirk along with a tight red-ribbed T-shirt and what had to be the same black jeans as the other day.
"Are you okay?"
He nodded and lightly touched his shoulder. "Better than you, I think." He looked down the street. "Let's take a walk."
Marie followed him.
"I owe you for fixing me up the other day."
She was about to speak, but he held up a hand to quiet her. "No, listen first, then you can tell me what you think." He stopped and looked around some more, acting secretive.
He even whispered, though no one else was around. "Would you like me to get you out of here?"
"Shhh. I can get you past the walls. It won't be easy, but you seem miserable here because of Jess. So I'm offering you an out."
She stepped back, felt the hard brick wall against her. Lots of the people who came to the shelter griped about being trapped in the Fallen Area. Most truly were. The ones changed by the Fall, the Afflicted and those that had developed their Talents, couldn't survive long Outside. The rest -- well, once you decided to enter through the barbed wire and immense walls surrounding the city, the guards at the gate would prevent your return. Still, the thought of returning home was intoxicating.
But she found herself saying "No."
Caleb looked at her, but his reaction was unreadable.
"I can't leave her." She looked back in the direction of the office they shared. How could she have thought about deserting Jess? She felt on fire, angry with herself, terribly ashamed. "I need to go back."
"Let me come with you, then. I may be able to help with Jess."
"How do you know her?" Suspicion suddenly ran through her. They all said Caleb was Talented. Was he a friend of the anthvoke's?
"Relax. I only found out about her through you."
Marie rubbed at her face. "I told you?" She began to remember that moment at the shelter with Caleb when she had mumbled things to him.
He nodded. "Sort of. Anyway, maybe together we can reach her." He took hold of her hand and squeezed. "I think she'd come around if she realized what she's losing."
Together they headed back, stopping at the shelter door. Through the glass she saw the usual crowd of misfits, refugees, and normals within.
"It's this way." Marie pointed down the block.
"My way is quicker." He took hold of the door handle. When he opened it, she saw not the shelter's interior but the office. Across the room, Jess still lay sleeping.
"How?" She leaned on the doorjamb, feeling lost.
Caleb grinned. "Not everyone in the Fallen will hurt you, Marie."
She remembered that he was Talented. But all her hesitation began to fall away -- if there was any chance Jess could be returned to her. . . . She followed Caleb in.
"There are two things I can do. I can open her eyes to your feelings and make her more aware of them. Hopefully she'll realize she's hurting you and come back to you."
"And the second choice?"
Caleb looked away from her. "It's cruel. I open her heart to you. Metaphysically. Forces her to fall in love with you, to ache for you." He shook his head slowly. "But I doubt it's really true love."
The thought horrified Marie. "No, not that way." If opening Jess's eyes failed, it might well mean that she never had really loved Marie, at least not enough to matter.
"Wake her up."
Marie knelt down beside the slumbering figure and lightly kissed her ear. The faint scents of sweat and body odor drifted from Jess, and Marie wondered when she'd last taken a shower. Jess had once seemed to Marie an "incorruptible," always giving off a sweet smell.
"Jess." She gently shook her by the arm.
The sleeper began to stir, first moving her lips a little, and then opening her delicate eyelashes.
"Marie?" Jess looked surprised to see her there. Had her dreams somehow picked up on Marie's decision to abandon her only an hour or so ago?
"Hey, sweetheart." Marie pointed at Caleb, who had sat down next to them. "This is a friend. He's going to help us."
"Help us what? Are we missing something?" Jess yawned, a single strand of silvery saliva breaking apart on her lips.
"Yes. We are." And it all became so clear and yet more complicated. They both were missing each other, had gone astray. Not just Jess. When had Marie stopped understanding, stopped knowing what Jess was thinking? Maybe months ago, before they even set foot inside the Fallen Area.
Marie turned to Caleb. "You have to do us both."
"Open my eyes, too." She took Jess's hand in her own, weaving together their fingers in a welcome and familiar pattern. "I need to know why she wanted to come here. I need to know her again, as much as I want her to see me."
Caleb's brow creased, and for a moment it made him look years older. Marie had to wonder what his real age was.
Jess seemed to notice him for the first time, her eyes narrowing. "Wait a sec, you're Talen--"
Caleb made a hushing sound and lifted both his hands, fingers spread wide apart. He waved his hands once before their faces, and that was all it took. Marie felt her head jerk slightly, her neck stiffen, as if unseen hands held her rigid. Her eyes widened to the verge of pain, but she saw nothing but blackness. For a moment . . .
. . . their old apartment. Not cozy anymore, but stifling, with walls that were taller than she had ever noticed. Each one seemed so close. And everything seemed dull; the colors long since faded, with no shine whatsoever.
She looked at the wall clock, which had a face so distorted she had to stare to read it. The twelve and the six were swollen out of proportion, leaving the other numbers almost unseen.
Where was she? Her hand lifted the television remote and she noticed that her lavender nail polish had started to chip. Once that would have sent her scurrying to the bedroom and to that drawer filled with bottles of every shade imaginable. But now she could only stare at the flawed edge and wonder if it even mattered how she looked. Her finger tapped the button on the remote and the television came to life. But she didn't bother to watch, could not hear anything. Why bother? Her gaze went back to the clock, waiting for the hands to reach six o'clock, when Marie would come back to her.
. . . the round table too small to seat three. A fat candle burned. On her right sat her lover. Marie seemed distracted, reading the autographs on the black and white photographs on the restaurant wall.
The other woman next to them shuffled a deck of cards. The backs of the tarot cards were decorated with Egyptian pyramids and a scraggly-looking camel. The first cards were laid down and though the woman's mouth moved, she couldn't hear a single word. No matter. The cards held her interest, not what was said. The urge to reach out and feel them, to touch the woman who struggled with an armful of swords, was nearly overwhelming. She glanced back at Marie, who smiled at her -- a patient smile, she knew, but it had the same effect as all her different smiles: a sense of calm, of reassurance, came over her. Even though Marie did not believe in tarot or crystals or psychic hotlines, she believed in her. Soon cards covered the tabletop, arranged in an odd pattern that she wished she understood. They teased her with their pictures and exotic names. When was the last time anyone used the word Hierophant? Why didn't she know what it meant?
. . . the chamber was cramped, every space filled with things. So many wonderful old things. She wanted to explore the shop and all its treasures inch by inch but it was time for her lesson to begin.
She carefully made her way through to the back, which had been cleared for her studies. Darkness. That had been the first test, a few days ago, to evoke light. Now reaching out, not with her hands -- that wouldn't have worked, as most of the lamps were broken -- but with something within her. To find the lava lamps spaced around the room and bring them back to life was simple, and yet felt just as thrilling as the first time she had set them aglow. The light revealed a new challenge on the floor.
An old telephone, black Bakelite handle, cloth-covered cord broken and frayed at the end. She knelt down in front of it, hesitated, and gave herself a moment to breathe deeply. A broken fingernail tapped the metal rotary dial. With her other hand she lifted the receiver. It felt heavy to her touch, different from all the cheap plastic phones she had held in the past. Different but somehow right. She brought it to her face and mouthed the word "Hello" again and again. She closed her eyes and envisioned a spread of warmth flowing from her chest, up her throat, past her lips into the receiver. Her teeth began to ache, but then came the reward of a dial tone. Her eyes flew open and she gasped in pleasure. Who to call? Who to share this joy, this sense of magic with? Her first thought, as it often was, was Marie. The dial began to move, turning of its own accord, and she heard the line ring. An automatic voice answered, the name of some realty company. The office. The empty office. She slowly put the phone down. Marie wasn't there, not there to share with her. . . .
Her eyes suddenly felt raw and dry, and she blinked with relief at finally being able to close her heavy lids. When she could see clearly again, her first sight was Jess crying, soft sobs that lightly shook her. Caleb let out a breath and collapsed backwards to the floor, his lips parted as he gasped for small breaths.
There was a tug on her hand, and she remembered that Jess and she were still holding onto each other. Jess brought their hands to her face and rubbed them over her wet eyes then down to her mouth and lips. She whispered words, and Marie moved closer to hear them. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
Then they were kissing, and, for a moment, breathless.
She found Caleb standing by the front door. He looked tired. She wanted to speak, to offer the perfect "thank you" and let him know how much it meant to have her love back. But even calm, she would never be able to express everything in words, and so she just wrapped her arms around him and put her head on his lean chest. She felt him return the hug with a squeeze.
"I'll tell the shelter that you won't be coming in today."
She let him go and watched as he opened the door. Beyond she saw the street three floors below them. He nodded good-bye and left them alone.
We're together! We're together! Part of me wants to sing and another part to cry. Happy tears, though. I can't tell you know how it happened, I need to think, let it all sink in. All I know is that months ago Jess and I had been growing apart. She was miserable, feeling lost, alone, and worthless. She needed to feel special, not from me but from within. That's why she came to the Fallen, to be something. Not to leave me behind.
I know now she has always thought of me, loved me.
Last night she went with me to the shelter and helped out. It was amazing. They have this old coffeepot in the back, and thanks to Jess it works now. Unlimited free java! She basked in their thanks. I think she finally realizes that to feel special she had to start from within. We came home and made love for hours, and fell asleep entwined.
We're going to take a morning walk, but I wanted to write you that everything's turned around. I'd forgotten what hope felt like. I would put this letter with the others, 'cept I don't know where they disappeared to. Maybe this office is haunted. If so, well, the ghosts got an eyeful last night!
Love. . . yes, I'm in love.
Marie stepped outside into the warm sunlight and found Caleb sitting on the sidewalk outside the office building. He smiled up at her and held up a chocolate bar. "I brought gifts."
Marie practically purred and sat down beside him. "Jess and I were hoping to see you tonight." She took the offered candy and quickly tore away the foil wrapping. She could resist the smell for only a few seconds, but she held back to just a nibble. Like a drug, the seductive taste of rich chocolate evoked emotions: happiness at having something sweet melting in her mouth, followed quickly by a little guilt -- she didn't really need all the calories. She looked at the candy and sighed. Why did she always become so attached to things that were bad for her?
"That's supposed to make you happy."
"It does." But she couldn't sound enthusiastic. "Maybe you could make me see how wrong it is to eat this."
He laughed. "Maybe."
She took another bite, bringing a sweet shrouded almond into her mouth and sucking away the chocolate surrounding it. "By the way, I've been curious."
"Remember plan B, opening the heart? Have you ever done that? Made someone love you?"
Caleb softly muttered, "A few times." He looked down at his worn sneakers and slumped his body forward a little.
She instantly felt bad that she'd brought the subject up. "You said gifts. What else did you bring?"
"Yeah." Caleb reached into the pocket of his jeans and brought out a piece of folded stationery.
Marie opened it along the first crease, careful not to smudge it with melted chocolate, and saw the familiar blue ink and Clay's unmistakable long cursive script.
"You took the letters!"
He nodded. "I think he was surprised that you bothered to write them."
Her heart skipped in her chest. This boy had returned everything to her -- the love of her friend, the love of her partner -- he truly could do anything. She gave him a kiss on the cheek, leaving behind a little sugary imprint on the pale skin.
"We've been thinking about you." Both looked up to see Jess standing just outside the lobby door. She smoothed out the waist of the brown velveteen dress she wore, and then slowly walked down the steps. She leaned down and kissed the top of Marie's head. "We've been thinking of a way to reward you." Marie nodded. "Wasn't easy deciding what to get."
"Wait a sec, you don't have to--"
"Shhh, too late." Jess reached into the small purse at her side and pulled out something small with curving metal lines. Marie took hold of Caleb's hands, cupping them together so that Jess could set the antique spectacles on his palms. The metal ends of the frames curled up like the legs of some spindly insect, and the glass lenses caught the warm reflection of the afternoon sun.
"Since you opened our eyes," Marie said, "we thought this was sort of fitting."
Jess moved closer against Marie, slipping her arm around her shoulder. "They're British. From 1910." Almost as if it were a side thought, she added, "Clay likes men in glasses."
What to say? Here I have been thinking you were lost forever, and these letters show up through my mail slot.
I read every word you wrote. The words reached deep within me, and after each letter I found myself wishing I could be there by your side. Of course, this whole Fallen business sounds dreadful, so perhaps it is best that I was a comfort in spirit.
I am left with, what to say? I am relieved and thrilled that Jess is yours once more. If only my dalliance with the film student had lasted as long your time of trial. I envy the love you two share, and will hold it in mind on my next romantic encounter.
Fate willing (or should I make that Fallen willing?), I will hear from you again. I trust that the same agent that brought me your letters will convey mine to you.
Your dearest friend indeed,
Copyright © 2001 Steve Berman
Steve Berman appears much younger than his real age, which makes sense considering his tendency to tell stories and lies. His collection of gay dark fantasy and weird fiction, Trysts, will be available this autumn.