I woke in Chase’s bed, thrashing helplessly among the Spiderman sheets, trying to remember how I had gotten there. He loomed over me with a mug of steamy, cinnamon-scented coffee.
“You’re psychic,” I muttered, making an ineffective grab. He sat down beside me, the better to ratchet me from horizontal to the vertical. As he did the goddam migraine swarmed through me. Out-of-body- hangover. But why? Putting my arms around his hard shoulders I reveled in his all-embracing aura of helpfulness. But why was I in his bed? Should I be happy? Sad? All I could I remember was that I didn’t remember.
“Feeling better?”I looked around. What do they call the opposite of déjà vu? Neva
vu? Because I should remember something. Nothing.Sipped the coffee thankfully. Restorative. He’d paid attention at Joe’s to the way I take it. Aaah.“My head hurts like we soared somewhere. What happened?”
“We were walking back from Howk’s place – do you recall that much? You were stricken by such a bad migraine you couldn’t walk. You moaned something about blue light cutting into your head. After that I wasn’t letting you go. I carried you back here.“ Accusingly. “Did you soar someplace without me?”
“So we didn’t discover Howk’s body?” I should have known I was OBE. That rhythmical walking…that magical running…it was so much like flying. But it had seemed so real. And Chase had been right beside with me!
“No. We didn’t. You thought it was around every corner but we never did find it. I say if she’s running scared she’s running smart. Did you find her body? You seem to be a cadaver magnet.”
“All I know for sure is she’s dead.” Every sip of caffeine was rebuilding courage. I threw the covers back to go pee, and there I was in my underwear.
“Where did you go without me?” I demanded. I mean, really!
Chase blushed! A pink spread of butterfly wings across his cheekbones. “I have a twin sister, so I’m not completely ignorant. I washed your face, gave you aspirin, put your clothes through the washer and dryer. They’re probably done.” Then, nodding, meeting my eyes, “You are so beautiful but…no sex, I swear.” Shook his head. “All that stuff has been ruined for me. ”
Meaning what? I lay there in my underwear, easily able to tell from the way that he looked at me that it was not ruined for him. Whatever bad thing that happened was like his Bex — BHMM – “before he met me”. I’ve learned to fight for what’s mine. I’ve got the best coach. “That’s not what you claimed back in dream lab.”
He rose up, restlessly. ““I’m a poser, God help me. I told you before, you can’t ever tell Corso the truth. If you tell him the truth you’re giving him a weapon. It’s scary he knows we’re together at all. I’m warning you, he’ll do anything he can to split us up.”
“Won’t happen,” I asserted confidently. Something about Chase made me so confident! “You’re not a poser, you’re a ringer,” I said smiling. Stroking his shoulders. It seemed to relax him. I wanted to talk more but he stood up restlessly, as if fearing he’d said too much.
“I’ll go get your clothes,” he said. “Bathroom is through there.”
I was kind of grateful for implied permission to look around. On the ceiling over the bed was a Jenna Jameson poster – How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. Untruths weren’t confined to Corso. But at our age, aren’t we guessing what we’ll be? We’re casting around, maybe sinking. We’ll grab anything – look at Bex. I can’t have any false pride about that. Take poor Miss Howk, for example.
She went directly from the role of Naughty Nurse to Missing Corpse. She couldn’t really be crushed in the autumn bulbs at Hadleigh, or Chase – who kept the news channel on his TV permanently crawling – would know all about it. I hadn’t really sleep- soared, but my experience in dream lab had somehow opened me to psychic visions. What it didn’t do was interpret them for me. That was up to me – and Chase.
Chase’s walls were cluttered with the stuck-on piles of paper that usually sift to a dorm room’s floor; lists, photos, cards, newsprint and bumper stickers applied in a jigsaw effect that told a careful researcher the identity of Corso’s “anonymous” correspondent. “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” was Chase’s wish; a mantra gathering power through repetition. Hard to see clearly with only lava-lamp lighting and dusty Venetian blinds in a permanent “down” position, so I slatted them to take a look at the day.
The usual gelid pre-winter sky; the sun had not yet broken through. The bathroom was tiny, made tinier by a “bulky waste only” stolen landfill sign occupying the shower. Fearing I looked like melted makeup hell I peered shyly in the mirror only to see a little kid – my sister Annika maybe – looking back. So Chase had done a good job on my face and then – seeing what I really look like – hadn’t run away. But who could handle my unprotected mien on a daily basis? I feared I couldn’t.
When I came out Chase was holding out my – now impossibly teeny – black sweater in apology.
“Uh oh.” The twin sister hadn’t taught him everything, like don’t put sweaters in the drier. He offered instead a wrestling sweatshirt which I would have sacrificed twelve sweaters to get. Precious prize, in fact; a tender Chase substitute. A transitional object, like Annika’s teddy bear.
As Chase offered the shirt I noticed he had removed yesterday’s bandage. The sore on his wrist was healing beautifully. As I dressed he backed politely away from the bed to sit in a butterfly chair.
“I sure wish you remembered finding Howk’s body. You were right there.”
He shook his head. “You went without me. Remember how I asked you back to my place? I saw you pull away from me, right into your own space.”
True. I said defensively, “I didn’t want you seeing me like this.”
He gestured around him. “Now you’re seeing me like this.”
Guilty! I was judging people’s outsides by my insides again. It’s s hard making yourself vulnerable to someone, and the more you like – and love – and respect them, the harder it is. Chase seemed so confident, so combative; I forgot he might need self-protection too. Sharing can be fearsome. I’d so wanted him to see my polished organized self and never the real me. In fact I’d wanted to change so all the worst parts of myself would get left behind. Too late now. I collapsed on the bed like a ragdoll and he sat right down beside me.
“We’re powerful if we stay together,” he said. “Don’t you get that? We did something I would have sworn was impossible. Together.”
I clutched his hand, agreeing. Put my head on his shoulder while he stroked my hair. His voice throbbed with confidence. “Tell me what you saw. We’ll figure it out.”
“The “blue light” breaking my head turned out to be police cars. Miss Howk had jumped – or fallen – right through my eighth floor window – those windows don’t open — and gone splat. They asked us to identify her. What do you think it means?“
Silence as we both reflected. “I mean, it couldn’t have really happened. Could it? Did she fall off something else?”
We both looked at the talking heads on his TV, yelling about the Middle East. The crawl was all tornados, blizzards and freeway pileups. “Falling off her second floor balcony wouldn’t have killed her,” said Chase, offering, “I could look up unidentified bodies,” but making no move to pull out his phone.
I fell back on the bed, but refused to meet Jenna Jameson’s eyes.
“You’re going to have to get rid of your girlfriend,” I said pointing.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” he flushed, leaping to pull down the poster. “More of a timeshare.” I smiled as he balled it up and tossed it in general direction of his overflowing trashbin. Score.
Then he challenged me, “You’re the dreamer. Dreams can be garbage, like chewed-up thoughts. Can we be so sure it has a meaning?”
I was sure. Why? “Is there any more of that coffee?”He went to check. I called after him, “Dreams in general might be meaningless. This wasn’t.“
He appeared with glorious caffeine. Devil’s advocate. “Tell me why?”
I knew all about his optimism of the will. I had to do something about the pessimism of his intelligence. “When forced to choose between meaning and meaninglessness we have to choose meaning. We’re supposed to.”
“Because…?” He threw himself down crossways to me, lifting my legs across his.
I tapped his skull. “Because we were born with decoders. Duh.”
He shrugged, ceding me the mastery. “So decode.”
“I think it means if Howk is dead, we can find her body. It means it has something to do with us.” I rubbed his furry head. “That’s as far as I can get. Now we need your half or we’ll never figure it out.”
“I think we should stay away from Hadleigh,” said Chase. Self- interest? But I loved that he wanted me to stay with him. And with Bex rampaging through the world declaring war, I should give Hadleigh a wide berth. Bex couldn’t find me if he didn’t know who Chase was!
“Maybe the police in your vision mean they are involved.”
“Or they should be,” I pointed out.
Chase launched to his feet. “How about that breakfast that I promised you?”
“Sure,” I said, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Here it comes. “Maybe a little sleuthing first.”
“A little sleuthing?”
“Call it fact gathering. Care to help me gather some facts?”
I couldn’t help smiling. Chase really was like a bulldog. Once he got a taste– “Sleuthing Corso, I imagine?”
“In his absence. I’m eighty percent certain he won’t be there; a hundred percent if he pays attention to the restraining order. Are you in? You get to meet Mrs. Corso,” he tantalized.
Now that was just plain irresistible. “I’m in,” I said.
His front door had six locks and a police lock so I had plenty of time to read aloud the quote pasted to the door.
“What if you slept and what if in your sleep you dreamed And what if in your dream You went to heavenAnd there plucked a strangeAnd beautiful flowerAnd what if when you awoke You had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“What then?” he echoed. “I put it up at the lab but Corso made me take it down. Maybe Miss Howk’s the flower we brought back.”
“I’d rather have a flower than a cadaver,” I shuddered. People always assume the hidden world is lilies and roses. That’s not what Hieronymus Bosch assumed.
As Chase relocked the locks on the outside, I saw more reading matter. The slogan painted above his shabby wooden door was a crossed- out “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” with a superimposed “Know Your Enemy Better Than You Know Yourself.”
“Green Day?” I asked. “Sun Tzu.”
Should I warn Chase about leaning too far over to look into the abyss?
I always say anyone can get psychic if they get rid of blocks. It’s simply using all our senses. Maybe Chase’s private war with Corso was itself a block. Think of all the locks each assembled just to keep the other out! It was funny in a way. But it stopped being funny when I found myself wondering if Chase could ever belong to me while Corso wielded power.
You don’t grow up without encountering at least one monster. Chase stood bravely up to mine. My turn.
We hiked to a shabby wooden garage halfway out of town. More locks. The car inside was sheathed in plastic, warmed by trouble-lights, a baby in an incubator. Chase unwrapped it to my audible gasp. Gorgeous acid-green and poison-black Shelby Cobra.
“My baby,” he patted it fondly. “Isn’t she beautiful? Step aside; I’ll back her out.”
“You could feed Namibia for a year on the price of this thing,” I said. Stupidly. We poor people are touchy.
“Poor Namibia,” he agreed. “But aren’t there different kinds of hunger? And if someone gave you blood money, wouldn’t you need to spend it on something absolutely beautiful?”
More clues! Wake up, Jazz. “Blood money?” I questioned. “Who died?”
“I did. Behold my animated corpse.” He opened the passenger door for me. “You have to be nice to her.”
“If this car’s a girl, she’s a bodybuilder,” I said. Jealousy is a plague! But how could I help myself when he loved her too obviously and too much?
“Shelby’s very feminine,” he argued. “She even has an English accent.”
Turns out he meant the GPS, which commenced ordering us about in snooty tones.
“Shut her off,” I demanded, classic Bossy Girlfriend. “She’s interrupting our conversation.”
“We’re not talking,” he defended.
“Because she’s preventing.”
“Jea-lous,” he taunted. “But your conversation is more important to me. Besides, I know where I’m going. I even know a shortcut.” He whispered conspiratorially as he turned her off, “Night, night, Shelby.” “See you later.”
Shelby’s insides were cockpit-like. Easy to imagine that once again, we flew. Together. If I owned a little jet, I’d love her too. I began to relax. Bex couldn’t catch us and Corso was busy elsewhere, kicking down a line of helpless dummies. I could play the passive passenger; all I had to do was think up things to say to keep the driver entertained. Outside our rounded, tinted windows the faux crenellations of the university town gave way to miles and miles of sad necropolis. Shelby turned in between the floodlit obelisks and the shrouded angels. Was the re-animated corpse widow-shopping?
“Shortcut,” said Chase.
I really wasn’t in a graveyard mood so we rode in silence for a while.
“So where are all the wonderful things you wanted to say?” He teased. Like Shelby was such a scintillating conversationalist!
He wants backchat; I’ll give him deep-diving backchat. “Do you believe in parallel universes?” See what I produce when challenged?
He chuckled softy to himself. “I guess we have to, don’t we? I mean, if the universe is infinite it must be multi.”
“So everything still happens, but with slightly different modifications, in each one.”
“And some things don’t happen at all,” agreed Chase. “That’s where I get my comfort.”
If he was ever going to reveal his secrets wouldn’t it be in darkened car where we sat comfortably side by side, staring straight ahead. Closeness without challenge. I could see it relaxed him to drive. Was there any way to get him started? While I was feeling stupid, necropolis gave way to farmland. Shelby bumped along the rutted roads.
I said, ‘Gee, this place sure is far out.”
Chase said, “That’s the perfect description.”
Turning left on Mad Bear Road. I made a special note of the name. You never know when you might have to prove that you weren’t locked in dreamland…or passing through a parallel universe. We flew down a lengthy avenue of strangely charmless trees.
“Something attacked these trees,” I commented. “They’re stunted.”
He laughed. “Called pollarding. Arborists do it on purpose.”
But they were ugly. Why mangle something living, altering its freewheeling, unique growth pattern to rigid uniformity? Just because you can? The tickle of dread down my back was like a cat stepping over my grave.
At the end of the drive was a farmhouse. Or maybe it was a barn that went to rehab. Getting closer I saw evidence of two warring tastes; somebody fussy about historical preservation and somebody with a mania for the new; either harboring a fondness for the stark and the contemporary or a determination to be oppositional. I thought I could guess who was who.
One big structure and several outbuildings provided lots of room for disagreement. Someone had attempted to create lawn sculptures out of huge pieces of wrecked-looking farm equipment, or maybe they ran a part- time demolition derby. The bear had gone mad indeed! A vision exploded in my mind; Corso on a tractor deliberately chasing an elderly woman in heels across the furrows …She falls down, stands up, kicks off her shoes…No, he wouldn’t. Would he? There was the restraining order Chase had mentioned; you need a reason to get those things.
No visible automobiles made me hope no one was home. So much for standing up to anybody! Maybe I wasn’t even up to meeting Mrs. Corso if she was in Teflon-songbird mode. Would she cling to us for help? Do the drowning save the drowned? If there were enough of us we could form a human chain. This compound was deserted. But I was determined not to let Chase down, or at the very least never let him know how lily-livered I really was.
“Wow,” I said, stepping bravely out of our safe car. “I know what this estate should be named. Grounds for divorce.”
“Har, har,” said Chase. Hands in pockets looking up at the tall black windows. “Looks like no one’s home.”
The stone terrace fronting the house was covered with fallen leaves; maybe that’s what gave the place its abandoned appearance. Did I hope Mrs. Corso was long gone? Or did I fear it?
Chase opened the storm door to knock and a bunch of notes thrust beneath the knocker fluttered away, forcing me to secure them and attempt to place them back in order. Sleuthing, Chase called it; but I do like reading other people’s letters, if they force themselves beneath my eyes. Sleuthing’s a more dignified term than snooping but it comes to the same thing. I love anything personal not intended for my eyes. But the childish scrawl was difficult to make out.
“Judging from the sentence construction I don’t think English is this lady’s first language,” I said.
Chase peered over my shoulder. “How do you even know it’s a lady?”
“Because they are all signed Borea.”
He studied the scraps. “Maybe English is not even her second language.”
We puzzled over the messages. I arranged the notes on a bench between gaudy majolica jardinières that showcased the corpses of long dead chrysanthemums. Since Borea did not date or time her messages, the only way to put them in order was to follow the arc of increasing distress.
Borea’s basic plaint seemed to be, why she was no longer needed to clean and why was she not being paid? Whom had she displeased and how? It was difficult for her to come all the way out here because she needed a ride and she needed a job in order to get a ride.
I empathized with her written woe, feeling vulnerable and exposed just standing here while the house stared me down with it terrible dark eyes. Was I comforted that we’d see anybody approach a mile away, or was it like being trapped at the bottom of a well watching help – or hurt – coming at you oh so slowly?
Made me wish we’d parked around the back. Chase rested from his assault on door and bell. We both listened as the echoes of hammering and ringing slowly died away.
“Walking around back is a good idea,” he said as if I’d spoken my thought. “You can follow me or you can wait here and I’ll let you in.”
I grabbed him in a panic. He enfolded me in his arms.
“There’s obviously no one here,” He murmured. “Don’t be so jumpy.”
“This place is Bad Vibe Manor,” I told him. “Like it was built on a slaughtered baby burial ground.”
“We’re not finished sleuthing yet,” said Chase. “Once again I guarantee you: no breaking in.” Kissing my neck with those soft lips. “What can I do to help you feel more safe?”
This was working. Also making me dizzy. “Here we go,” I agreed. The back of the house was a sea of mud. The building lacked its whole back wall. In its place, plastic fluttered.
“See?” Chase grinned. “They could never agree on windows or doors.”
“Poor Borea could have come right on in!” I argued.
“Maybe for her it was more about the paycheck.”
The inside of the house was dark. All curtains and blinds were drawn and closed. How could anybody stand to live like this, especially someone in need of restraining orders? My trickle of dread widened to a rushing stream. Something terrible had happened here. Unwilling to touch
anything or even let Chase go, I waited for our eyes to adjust to the dim light.
“Looks like it’s already been ransacked,” said Chase, and called, “Mrs. Corso!”
“Looks more like packing to me,” I suggested. Several U-Haul boxes stood around half-filled. But Chase had a point. Several pieces of furniture were overturned and the rug was disarranged.
We both shouted together, “Mrs. Corso!” Even an echo would have reassured. But there was nothing. This house absorbed distress, giving nothing back.
I prodded a box loaded with wrapped china labeled “Butler’s pantry.”
“Maybe the butler did it,” I suggested. Humorlessly. Chase didn’t laugh. Instead, he seemed visibly discouraged. “Any evidence Mrs. Corso had is long gone.”
“Maybe Mrs. Corso herself is the evidence,” I said, thinking of the lady trying to outrun the tractor. I almost jumped out of my skin at an animalistic scrabbling noise. A ball of gray fur shot across the floor.
“Cat,” I said relieved, and Chase admitted, “I do recall they had a bunch of cats. Pollarded cats.”
I stared uncomprehendingly and he explained, “Clawless. Because of the songbirds.”
Clawless and clueless and therefore defenseless…At least someone had left an enormous bag of cat chow open and spewing across the kitchen floor.
“Thoughtful for the kitties,” I said. “Not so thoughtful for Borea.”
He asked me, “Should I check upstairs?”
I grabbed him. “No. New rule, no sleuthing without me. I have a really bad feeling about this.”
He alerted. “And I have good feelings about your bad feelings. Be more specific.”
I pointed to the basement door, invitingly open a crack. Whatever waited below was calling to me. “We should look down there.”
As he pushed the creaky door aside I heard the water dripping, smelled the dank earthen disinterment smell of an open crypt. It was like coming to a point in a movie you suddenly recognize. You tell yourself, “This is where I came in” and you know what’s going to happen because you’ve seen it all before. Mrs. Corso was the corpse at the bottom of the stairs.
“This is what we saw in the dream lab,” I said. “Don’t you remember? Where you took my hand at the bottom of the stairs? We stepped out into the quad like we’d been in the psychology building but really we’d been here. ” I pointed. “She’s down there with her head bashed in. She’s dressed in a skirt and wearing a wig.”
“I sort of remember.” Chase scratched his head. “I recall thinking it was a mannequin, wanting to get you out of there.” He stepped past me; I clenched my teeth as his feet pounded down the stairs. Braced for the inevitable gasp, “Oh, my God!”
Back upstairs; he feverishly washed his hands at the sink. We crowded together for warmth and comfort.
“Could she possibly have fallen?” I asked, answering my own question by shaking my head hopelessly.
“That might be what it’s supposed to look like, but people don’t hit the top of their heads falling down the stairs.” He shook in his excitement. “This could be it. We could have him with this one. But we have to get the police here before any more time goes by. She’s been dead for days.”
Would Officer Blofil answer our distress call? Would our parallel universes crash together?
“We can’t stay,” said Chase. “So get ready to run.”