I slammed the transom shut against that voice, bumped along the ceiling, refusing to look down. I would never go back. My energy powered me up, and up, and up.
I’d escaped! As if rejecting such a dangerous thought the ceiling became the floor; spinning round to right me; crouching on the splintery wood. I was a little disappointed that my “free” spirit looked so much like me. Was I the constant with everything else in flux? I’d secretly hoped “out of body” meant “new identity”, a sort of spiritual witness protection program where none would recognize me. But I guess we’re always us; molded to some grand design. At least I felt lighter. And there was the challenge of the puzzle. I have always liked puzzles. Like: where was I?
I was feeling my way down a corridor in pitch-darkness. Was it some kind of a game? It sounded like a funhouse. I wasn’t alone. Temporarily blinded, I echolocated, like a bat. Bodies bumped against me, caroming off while distant voices shrieked and screamed hysterically.
Why blind? I touched fingers to my face. A blindfold. Take it off, I coached myself, take it all off — the way you talk to characters in movies, but my dream – self refused to access her eyes. What’s the sense in gaining one sense if you lose another? I pitied her. Maybe she felt safer this way, as in what you can’t see can’t hurt you. She crept along until I lost patience with her and gave her a shove. So some of me still floated outside. Was this an out of body experience? It had to be. But instead of freedom it just felt like a new game with a whole bunch of different rules I needed to master. Seems there’s no escape from trial and error.
Voices I failed to recognize shouted things like “Hey!” “Don’t touch me!” and “Look out!” I placed both her hands upon the railing. I knew Corso would jest at my timidity; Look at Jazz, needing something to cling to. I had to hope I was beyond his vision.
Steps — I felt them with my foot — going down. Down, down. Then a breath of cold air. To avoid the pounding crush of people I entered myself and flattened against the wall. Stay alive is the first rule. If I didn’t commit myself fully to her what would she become? Last-one-through-the- door in the slasher flick allows those careless others to line up as prey. By the time we came along the “thing” ‘s hunger might be slaked. These head chats give the socially shy our last laugh, even if we laugh alone. Even as we’re being eaten. But just as self congratulates self, someone with helicopter arms sweeps past and knocks me down. Heavy boots stomp against my upper leg. No one told me out of body experiences could hurt like hell.
Now I was rolling down the stairs, knocking others over, gathering speed like a runaway sled. Curse a propensity for relaxing too early; it’s a sure jinx, a presage of disaster. If you think you’ve played all the angles, says my inner Coach, you’re not playing hard enough.
When I hit bottom I was alone – the party had moved on without me. But I had a disgusting soft landing on what felt just like a corpse. Could tell from the way it squished beneath me. Breath goes out, and didn’t go back in.
Why do we scream when there’s no one to scream to? I felt superior but they escaped; the story of my life as cautionary tale! Here I am locked in embrace with a dead person and I’m too badly injured to stand up. Now that I’m in real trouble it’s an empty universe. There were no scenarios like these in Dr. Cadwallader’s book. Out-of-body experiences are supposed to be elevated. Freeing. My kiss to God’s ear. On the other hand, I’m nineteen years old; I have spent my whole life learning new stuff. I should be good at it by now. It’s all about asking the right questions. But what do you ask a dead person? The silence was deafening.
First question: who? Female. An older lady with a squashy middle and a furrowed face. The maid, supposedly on leave? She should have been a trampoline. Mea culpa, granny. She was nobody I knew, I felt sure, but I groped her just in case. Stiff, curly hair that came away in my hand. Wig. Wispy, dried-feeling stalks underneath, her real hair dying in darkness like plants wintering in a basement. The back of her head a revolting squishy mass. Shudder.
Someone touched my hand. The bitten nails, the too-tight leather cincture. Oh, I knew that hand! I grasped it willingly. Chase’s voice in my ear: “We’re getting out of here.”
I confessed, “But I’m afraid.”
He said, “Open your eyes.”
I argued, “But this lady is dead.” Isn’t it better not to know things for certain? Because then there’s no avoiding them.
“Well, we can’t help her then.” He hauled me to my feet. I felt the heat of his body so close and I was glad that, although maybe we had wandered away from our bodies, he’d brought the heat-seeking missile of his personhood along. I valued him as I could not value Self. Said,
“My legs don’t work. They’re probably broken. Maybe I am paralyzed.”
I felt his lips brush my face, kiss my blindfold eyes.
“You’re right to be scared,” he whispered in a get-real voice. Like, I might be pathetic, but that lady is dead.. “I’ve been here before. Let me help you. “
The blindfold loosened and I saw his face, light edging the cheekbones like a waxing moon. He kissed me hard; delicious kiss. My eyes flew open–the opposite of what usually happens. But this was opposite land. Never wanted it to end, but like all good things, it had to. Because we’re trapped in time, I guess. I didn’t want to leave without explanations. I clung to the railing and gestured with my free hand.
“I didn’t kill her. She was dead when I landed on her.”
“I know that,” said Chase. I looked down at her body and wasn’t destroyed by the sight. She was nothing but a collapsed heap of clothes.
“Shouldn’t we get help?” To my own ears my voice sounded weak and undeserving. My words echoed through the darkness, mangled forever into “Hell…hell…hell.”
“It’s too late,” said Chase. “Come with me. Follow the light.” A tiny pinhole at the corridor’s end.
We stepped over the dead body. I wanted to prove I was a good person by replacing her wig; or at the very least apologizing for feeling her up like a predatory frat boy, but Chase’s arms were there to give me strength. He lifted me right over the uncomplaining corpse.
“What about the others?” I panted. I could see now we were in a basement; earth floor, clanking pipes overhead, wooden steps twisting away upward. Metal railing.
“There’s a door over there,” said Chase. “Don’t you know the legend of the starfish?”
I didn’t know the legend of the starfish.“Just because you can’t save all the starfish doesn’t mean you
shouldn’t save any starfish.”
I pondered this immensity as we stepped into a brick stairwell open to a starry sky. I recognized those planets. A few stone steps upward and we were free. If anyone can be free when there’s corpses littering the beach like starfish. I grabbed Chase’s sleeve.
“I think I know who that lady was,” I insisted.
“The dead lady. The corpse we stepped over. It was Emily Fortunatus-Falcones.”
“That’s impossible! She died years ago – like, before we were born. That wasn’t a body. What would a body be doing in the basement of the psychology building? That was nothing but a pile of clothes.”
So Chase didn’t know everything. I had landed on her; I knew what she was… and wasn’t. Here I’d been thinking Chase so brave when he didn’t see what I saw. My face must have appeared mistrustful because Chase said,
“Want to go back and check?”
“No, no, no.” Maybe we were each a single orb on a pair of binoculars; without cooperating action we would both be blind.
In the quad, night had fallen. I tried reckoning up my missing hours but all was the emptiness of the blackout drunk. We stood at the back of the psychology building. A few figures paused in streetlamp pools of light; turning to stare at us as tentatively we emerged. I allowed myself to melt into Chase as he hurried me down the alley.
“Where are we going?” I hissed.
“We’re breaking into Corso’s apartment,” said Chase. “It’s the only time we can be certain he’s not there.”
Here’s a different kind of date!
“I heard he lived way out of town on a – like – farm,” I objected. I knew this because Aleksa made it her business to collect facts about the powerful.
“He and his wife are getting divorced,” said Chase. “He took an apartment in town.”
“You’ve met her?” My curiosity got the better of me as I raced to keep up with him.
“I’ve only met her twice. The first time she seemed like an ordinary nice lady. The second time she acted crazy. Backed me up against a wall yelling about how Teflon is killing songbirds. They had to pull her off me.”
“Sounds like heavy Corso poisoning to me.” We were getting into each other’s rhythm.
Outside the massive iron gates of the college a series of deep- porched, crenellated, ginger-breaded, turreted houses paraded down Main Street, looking like a movie set since not one of those houses is still the single-family home of yesteryear. Once showplace residences of the well to do, now they are used by the college for offices and to house visitors; human flotsam and jetsam to lubricate the system and keep it flush. In early evening, the streets were deserted.
“Do they know something we don’t?” I asked Chase as I clung to his arm, trying to express a strange emotion of feeling like we were headed back into a burning building.
“This is a street people get away from the first minute they can,” said Chase.
I said, “But it’s the real world, right? Are we in a dream?”
“Not a dream,” said Chase. “But every possibility creates a parallel universe.”
I noticed we wore our old clothes; without jackets; not Corso’s silly starship spacesuits. But when had we dressed? I had no recollection.
Realizing we must be cold made me shiver; Chase put a shielding arm around me, saying, “Don’t look down.”
We are flying; we are disembodied, so which one of us is keeping us earthbound? Chase wants to invade Corso’s privacy and I want to identify that dead woman. Why should I trust this man? Because we walked so perfectly in step, a feat Bex and I had never equaled? In my gut I knew if the game had changed then Corso could change too; how could we be so sure he’d not turn up? “Courage”, my brave voice told the frightened one. There are no substitutes for courage or trust. Even in the upside down world they are still our only weapons. I put a hand over Chase’s hand along my arm – so familiar now – and he locked it in place with his other hand.
We wheeled up the steps of Number 137. Chase opened the etched glass door with all the confidence of a tenant, and ushered me inside.
The entry way was a wood-paneled atrium lit by a stained glass skylight; beneath this architectural heaven the ranks of shabby, closed, wooden doors appeared rejecting and cold. An old-fashioned slotted postal desk gave a list of tenants, one name per slot. Chase grinned at me as he grabbed a fistful of papers from the slot designated “Corso” in a familiar calligraphy.
“See? We’re just taking him his mail,” he said. Patting my hand. “Courage.”
I trusted him because he spoke my mantra.
“Up, up, up,” directed Chase. “He calls it the penthouse, you’ll call it the nosebleed section.”
As we climbed the stairs one by one, one by one the house’s nasty little secrets were revealed. All the money had been spent on the outside and on the entrance hall; the higher we went, the more the fabric split. Compound future problems oozed through gaps and holes. Chase cautioned me not to trip; good call, because I refused to watch my stiletto heels. I’ve never wanted to miss the world coming at me; I’d rather trip.
A sour smell emanated from the stair carpet. Peeling wallpaper fluttered finger-like to catch us passing by. A plant on a dusty windowsill was so dead you couldn’t even tell what it used to be. And still we climbed. “Facilis descensus averno,” said Chase. He crossed himself.
So Chase had a mantra too. Hasn’t everyone? I whispered, “What’s that mean?”
“Easy enough going down. Very hard going up. It’s Virgil.”It could have meant, “No spitting on the sidewalks” for all I knew.
Latin had always been closed to me. I had been authoritatively informed that it was not for the likes of I, and because I was so eager to escape from the fake world of high school into a world I assumed was realer, I hadn’t argued. “You studied Latin?” I wanted to know him past and forward, inside and out.
“When I was a kid, I attended a prestigious choir school. Big emphasis on languages. You know, so we could sing the universal songbook.”
The universal songbook! I want to read the universal everything. But I was unsuccessful at picturing him as a sweet little choirboy. “So you performed? On stage?” Stage fright!
“All around the world. The heathen wept at my angelic soprano.”
I laughed. “You’ll have to sing for me sometime.”
“Too late,” he shook his head. “My voice changed and then everyone hated me. Here we are. The dark at the top of the stairs.” Chase rapped sharply.
“Dr. Corso!” he crooned. “Allez, allez in free! Come out, come out wherever you are!” Winked at me.
Like abracadabra, a magic charm. Sensing we needed all the magic we could get I felt emboldened. “We’ve brought your ma-il!” I sang. Our voices – his raw with cigarettes and the disappointed heathen, mine throaty, shy, unused – joined, echoed tantalizingly and died away.
We elbowed each other to go first through a shabby door mystically outfitted with set after set of gleaming new locks. No cakewalk here. At least we were unobserved. There’s a school of thought that says, if nobody saw it, it didn’t happen.
“Here’s my lock pick set,” said Chase, pulling out his wallet. “Yet another problem solved by access to credit. Which would you suggest, Watson? Diner’s Club? I bet you have a good instinct for this sort of thing.”
Instead I turned the knob and pushed open the door. I surprised myself.
“Wow,” said Chase. “That’s the first time that’s happened. You have the magic touch. After you.”
Had I unlocked it with the power of determination? A mineshaft canary, I stepped first over the sill.
“Professor!” shouted Chase, while whispering conspiratorially out of the side of his mouth, “Our story is we found it open.”
How convenient that our story happened to be true. You know how rarely that happens.
“So you break in here often?” I asked, looking around.
“I helped him move in,” said Chase.
As the quiet room swelled out to draw me in I felt something that might have been an addictive thrill of malfeasance, or might have been just a “getting even” satisfaction. So far Corso had always been ahead of us, up top, psyching out the competition and racing to the finish line. How pleasant to exist outside his boundary of control.
“So why are we here?” I asked. “Remind me?”Chase went straight to a messy roll-top desk, put the mail on the. chair and began pawing through the papers.
“Do you believe that crap about the research experiment he’s been feeding us? He’s making it up. Trust me, there’s no official record of it. So what’s he really up to?”
A disturbance fragmented our previously perfect understanding. I was alone again. Chase was mired in private obsessions I did not know and could not share.
“Wouldn’t things like that be in his office?” I suggested.
“I looked there already,” said Chase. How could he have? I thought of the bicycle locks. Diner’s Club wouldn’t cut it.
Might as well take in my surroundings and memorize the icons distinguishing this corner of multiverse into which I’d been thrown. We were in the turret at the top of the house. The rejected husband’s temporary living quarters were two big rooms of equal size. A central chamber, where a wicker screen failed to conceal a bed pushed into the tower’s bay window, and an ornately tiled bath big enough for hosing down several mad people at once.
This room was crowded by overstuffed armchairs, a plank table loaded with books and propped up on chests of drawers, a standing rack of hanging clothes, a Bowflex machine, a computer desk, the antique roll-top desk and a big flat screen TV . Atop the towers of books carelessly lit candles had once dripped wax; this seemed the main attempt at ambiance. Scattered clothes and half-empty coffee mugs created an air of déshabille and disrepute. A musky male smell quivered through the dust motes.
The room might be messy but photos posted on the walls offered Dr. Corso at his best; shining, well groomed, well dressed. No pictures of wifey. I recalled his statement at the college fair – didn’t he say he stopped being a priest because he fell in love? If so, where was any emblem of the hard- fought triumph of the wedding day? Had it been erased by the bitterness of divorce? I’ve heard that can happen.
Instead we were treated to outdated pinnacles sporting and academic. I gave him an A Plus for costume design. He seemed to covet every robe and hat, cape and beanie. Our Corso lettered in the shot-put, and the javelin. A hero of Extreme Academe.
I shared my discoveries, to bring us back together. “Look at this,” I crowed, “His first Mass. 1978! I can’t believe it’s really him. His nose seems so big and he has lots of extra teeth. I think he’s had work done.”
“I’ll say,” said Chase. “He sold his soul to the Devil,”
Corso is one of those men who looks better bald. The toothy lad with the buzz cut and the black-rimmed glasses hardly recalled the man I knew, but something about his shoulders…chest … the way he held himself – was unmistakable.
“And here he is with Emily Fortunatus-Falcones.” She was quite an old lady at the time of the photograph; I wouldn’t have recognized her from her portrait except that the framed page of newsprint identified them both.
But he said he’d known her, right? So this is what a “chair endowment” looks like: a ladies’ tea where all the men wear black.
“There isn’t a single picture of his wife,” I complained, my curiosity unslaked. “He said he left the priesthood just to marry her.”
“Well that’s a lie for a start,” Chase snorted. “That’s not why they kicked him out at all. You know there is a picture of you, though.” Slyly. Distancing us further. I could see the one he meant. Bettie Page and Bex were both stalking me.
“Don’t you start. I don’t even own a leopard skin bra,” I said all above and aloof. But I didn’t plan to stop picking Chase’s brain. I have a lock pick set of my own.
“So they don’t have any kids?”
“She was a nice old lady when he married her. They’ve only been married a few years.” Chase gave up on the desk and began looting dresser drawers.
So Corso had a “thing” for old ladies. Because that’s where the money is? Decidedly odd, what with the heat he threw off at young girls. What had he said…polymorphous? Polyamorous? Didn’t that mean into everything? I wanted to find out exactly why the priest business “kicked him out” but my guilty eyes met a webcam perched atop the computer.
Hadn’t Corso said we’re always being filmed? As I tossed a shirt over it I must have jiggled the television because the picture came back on. Corso and Howk. Doing the nasty. Pretty much what I’d figured.
“Ugh,” I said, but when I reached to turn it off I saw my hands were covered with blood. Chase stopped pawing through the papers to gaze balefully at the TV . “I wonder if that’s enough to get him fired.”
“Look at me!” I cried hysterically, “That body in the basement was covered with blood!”
Chase touched the shirt I’d thrown. Showed me the stains. “No,” he said, “It was this shirt. The blood was on this shirt.”
I didn’t care where it was from; I wanted it off me. The white-tiled bath accused me with a wall of mirrors that dismembered me to body parts. But I had to risk it to scrub up at the sink. Behind me Chase’s questing gaze and my white face were thrown together into a fly’s eye hologram of fearful
repetition. Chase enveloped me with a heavy hot towel from the heated towel rail and kissed me, wiping away the memory of blood. The roomdarkened as if raging against our nerve: what god had we pissed off? We fell against each other like free-falling parachutists, as if clinging tight delayed the inevitable dizzying plunge. Blood rushed to my head; were we upside down again? Or were Chase’s kisses turning us inside out?
“What’s happening?” I cried. Must resist the force yanking us apart.
“Too late,” sighed Chase, and how could I argue? It’s the time of year – and maybe of my life — when the universe darkens early without warning. Can’t we don masks and bang on drums to summon back the light?
“Don’t go,” I gasped, as we fell locked together in a sickening spin. Refusing to part only made the thing angrier; I could tell it wanted more than bodies, it craved souls. I thought I got a glimpse of the monster as we flushed through a wind tunnel and out into the stars, spiraling closely embraced through a gantlet of shocks. It was the thing that escaped from the manhole cover … That thing I saw when Corso hypnotized me, that thing I ran away from. Did that mean I was responsible for this? Had I released this force somehow? Second thoughts and doubt must have weakened me; because it smashed my face with one stroke of its clawed paw. That woke me up. In the dream lab.