Carolyn was a frustrated genius, and the worst part was knowing it. She was always providing colorful commentary on the world, and no one ever seemed to hear it. “Colorful commentary,” she thought. “Of course, no one values my genius because I failed to develop it properly. I’m smarter than everyone around me and I haven’t got a skill in the world because I was schooled to think math was too hard for girls.” Her greatest fear in life was being like the mother in Pride and Prejudice, and it was coming true. Carolyn read perhaps too many online feminist journals, but they were right, and she was brilliant, and she was very sad about it. Carolyn drowned her sorrows in Tumblr.
Emily scanned the horizon with a hand shielding her eyes from the sun. The land was flat and brown for just about forever as far as she could tell. She got back on her bike, revved the engine and left a cloud of dust to settle over the man she’d left behind. The vultures had been circling for a while already, and if he was lucky, he wouldn’t wake up.
She kept the sunset on her left until she hit the main road, then headed west. In her backpack, she carried her lifeline — a small brown package worth more money than she ever dreamed of. It was dark when she arrived in the tiny border town and walked into a bar, the type of place with two regulars who are both relatives of the bartender and all the other patrons are tumbleweeds. The man at the bar recognized her. Vick was good looking for a town this small, which made him the kind of guy Emily did not trust but enjoyed being around nonetheless.
Emily took a seat at a booth by herself to drink her beer. She sat facing the door and just watched, half expecting to have been followed here. Vick put a song on the jukebox. It didn’t suit her. He sashed past her table with mop in hand and danced lasciviously around it as he cleaned the floor. Emily wished she could laugh. “Fuck off, Vick,” she said with a grimace. “Today’s been shit.”
“Aw, it can’t be that bad,” he said.
“I left him out there,” she said nodding toward the door.
Vick dropped the act, looked at the door, then at Emily’s face. “Shit, really?”
Emily nodded. Vick set down his mop, poured himself a beer and returned to join Emily at her table. He sat across from her, put his elbows on the table, and stared into her face.
“He’s dead, huh?”
“Pretty sure,” she said.
“You need money?”
“Got a place to go?”
Vick nodded, sipped his beer, kept looking at her.
“I know I did the right thing,” she said.
“Not everybody’s gonna agree.”
She nodded. “Have you seen him in here lately?”
“Yeah. He got drunk as a skunk last night and left with some shady guy from out of town. Guy said he was giving him a ride home, but who knows what happened out there?”
Ceilidh knows a lot of things she doesn’t say. She sees the things others think they hide. She hears the secret motivations tucked between their words. It’s like a super power, except only she can see it. Any time she lets on that she knows these things, people act like she’s been reading their diary, or (more commonly) they vigorously deny her observations. Often, even they aren’t fully aware of the subtle reasons behind their words and deeds. Ceilidh has the advantage of interacting with a machine without being part of it. She sees the microscopic turns of the mind’s gears. She cannot see the future, but when conversing with a person, she can easily trace a line from his or her thoughts and feelings at the moment to their most likely circumstances and actions in the next five minutes or several years. The degree of accuracy diminishes at a relatively predictable rate with longer projections because she cannot know the factors that may interrupt a person’s progress, including her own.
In fact, predicting her own future is the hardest thing of all. She sees herself as a pinball in this extraordinary machine, bouncing from one buzzing, flashing, singing, zooming moment to the next. The pinball, opaque, singular, solid and silent except for the crash and clatter of its many meaningless collisions with the machine. The only thing she ever really wonders is who’s playing the game.
The man who knocked on my door last week asked me to turn down my music. I hadn’t seen him around before. This is not a big apartment building, nor is it the first time I’ve been asked to turn down my music, so I’ve seen the faces of everyone who lives here (I’m pretty damned sure). Furthermore, this building has one rickety old staircase up the center, which passes in front of every apartment door, meaning when someone hauls a couch up the stairs, we all know about it. Assuming we’re home, that is, and I was. I’m always home. (Thanks, Obama!)
I figured maybe he was visiting one of the neighbors, probably Molly upstairs. Molly dates a lot. She brings home different guys a lot. It’s not my cup of tea, but who am I to judge? Anyway, I assumed this guy was one of hers.
Most people, though, when they ask you to turn down your music, they make some kind of face. Maybe they look apologetic like, “I’m sorry my ears are so sensitive that I have to inconvenience you.” Or sometimes they look angry like they think I’m playing music just to piss them off. This guy, though! He said, “Would you turn down your music, please?” the same way you’d say, “I’d like a soy latte with an extra shot.” His tone was authoritative, gentlemanly even, and made me feel like some kind of gross creature who should be accustomed to taking orders.
“Nah,” I said, puffing my chest. I let my chin rise in feigned thoughtfulness and shook my head as though considering seriously whether turning down the music would be a possibility. “No, sorry, I can’t.”
And could you believe the fucker smiled at me? I don’t know what I thought he was going to do, but he smiled and walked away, and that pissed me off so much I had to turn my music up even more, and Mrs. Norton came knocking a few minutes later. I had to apologize to her. I didn’t know her baby was sleeping.
That afternoon, I went across the street to eat lunch and watch people. I was hoping to come up with a new story idea, but I got distracted thinking of ways to start a conversation with the barista. My attention had been wandering all day ever since that bastard knocked on my door. The music hadn’t even been that loud. And it was good. It was sunny outside, and I’d been sitting at my desk with just the perfect light streaming down on my page, and I was starting to get somewhere with this story when this gentlemanly fucker comes knocking like he’s got no taste. He had the face of a guy who humble-brags about how his marathon training is going. But if I knew anything about Molly, she’d be bored with him in a minute, and I’d never have to see him again.
I was gazing at the door when it opened and in he walked. His eyes, I swear, went directly to mine, and before proceeding to the counter, he smiled and tipped his imaginary hat at me. I watched him order something I couldn’t hear, receive it, and exit. As he passed the front window, his head turned sharply to shoot a grin straight at me.
I tried to refocus on my story, I tried people watching, I even tried to spin the guy into a character for a new story, but I was stymied. I called it quits for the day, hopped on my bike and rode to the park.
The next day, I got up, made coffee, turned on my music (a little quieter than the day before) and started writing. With my mind fresh from sleep, I had no trouble getting started. I wrote straight through till 2 p.m. before getting distracted by hunger. I locked my door and headed down the stairs, and I saw Molly coming in to the lobby as the new guy was walking out. He stood aside as she straight-armed her way through the door, then swiftly shimmied past her to exit the building without touching the door. Molly was absorbed in her phone and did not glance up at us.
At the sandwich shop, I took a seat by the window. I sat and pretended to write for a long time, occasionally jotting down notes about the people I observed but glancing up every time I sensed movement in the corners of my vision. It paid off. He returned an hour later, empty handed.
I snapped up my notebook and the remainders of my sandwich and jogged across the street in a way that probably did not quite pass as casual. I entered the door 15 feet behind him, and paused to check my mail in the lobby letting him get ahead of me on the stairs. I could hear his footsteps several flights ahead as I mounted the bottom step. He was still walking when I reached my door on the 3rd floor. I didn’t put the key in the lock until I heard him reach the top. A door opened, there were footsteps, and the door closed again. I went into my apartment and resumed work.
The next morning, I walked out into the stairwell and peeked over the edge, up and down the jagged leg of space with the skylight at the top. Feeling confident that no one was lounging outside their doors at 8 a.m., I began to walk up. It was a stupid thing to do. I didn’t think I was going to find anything. But at the very top of the stairs was a dusty landing, which was rarely used because there was no apartment door at the top. The path ended in drywall, and pinned to that was a piece of notebook paper with symbols scrawled across it. It was like a language a little kid would make up — all dots and squiggles. Some symbols were bigger than others, carved boldly into the paper with a ballpoint pen.
The next day and the next, I saw the man coming and going from the apartment building, nodding at people he passed on the way to this or that errand. When I passed him on the stairwell, I could feel his eyes boring into me, his smile growing wider, his cheeks more insistently jubilant. The harder he stared, the more I wanted to avoid his gaze.
Yesterday, I watched out the front window for him to come back, and when I knew he was coming up the stairs, I listened. His steps were slow, deliberate and loud. At each landing, he stepped firmly with one foot, then the other, and turned slowly. I counted the flights he must have risen, and only after I heard a door open and shut, I opened my door and counted. He’d risen 6 flights total, so he should’ve been at the top floor. Obviously, he’d faked the last flight because he must have known I was listening. He probably saw me sitting by the window when he came up the street. I went up to the 6th floor. Each floor had two doors (one on each side of the landing). Apartment 6A was the landlord’s, and apartment 6B had been empty I thought, but perhaps the creepy bastard had moved in without any furniture. Maybe he was some kind of sicko dope fiend. I’d be doing the whole building a favor if I could get him kicked out. I knocked on the sicko’s door. I knocked and knocked and knocked. It was starting to hurt my knuckles. I was going to keep on knocking all day if I had to, but a door opened behind me, and I heard the landlord’s voice.
“Smithson? You doing OK?”
I froze. How to explain this?
“Uhh,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets as though to hide the evidence of my insanity. “Sorry to be so loud, Mrs. Davis, I just, um. I been trying to talk to this guy who moved in here. He doesn’t really seem right to me, you know?”
Mrs. Davis furrowed her eyebrows at me. “There’s no new tenant.”
“Well then! How embarrassing,” I said. “Maybe one of Molly’s guys, then. Maybe I should mind my own business.”
When Mrs. Davis finally disappeared behind her own door again, I tiptoed up the last flight of stairs. There was a new note on the wall.
Scott hadn’t had so much as a drink last night. He woke up in his own home, the same place he’d gone to sleep, and when he’d shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee, he’d found the pot already brewing and the angel sitting at his table.
Ethereal wasn’t the word. Because one does not expect to find an angel in the kitchen, one does not have expectations about what this angel should look like, but if you had asked him the night before what he thought an angel in his kitchen would look like, it wouldn’t have been this. She was sitting to avoid startling him, but she was staring intently at the doorway when he entered as though she knew the exact moment he would appear and was afraid he’d manage to dodge her gaze like an inattentive waiter. Her face was urgent yet placid, the look of someone who lacked the capacity to be ignored.
“Good morning,” she said in a voice so oddly soothing he felt not the least bit alarmed. When the angel spoke, although her mouth moved, the sound seemed to come from somewhere inside him, like his spine. Like the nerves themselves were humming with a brighter electricity than usual. “Please sit. I have something for you.”
“Let me get you some coffee,” she said as she rose and began to make her way around his kitchen in the familiar way of a house guest. “I do hate to have startled you, but I have a lot to do today, including, well, I won’t trouble you with that. I took the liberty of making coffee. You don’t mind, do you?”
He shrugged. On a normal day, a normal person with a normal stranger in their kitchen would have minded quite a bit, but given the circumstances (some of which he was quite unaware of at the moment though they affected him anyway) he didn’t mind.
While he drank his coffee, she chattered warmly, telling little meaningless yet charming bits about the universe. Her pace was lilting like a small bird’s, and her voice was as sweet as sleeping in on a Sunday morning, which she informed him God didn’t actually mind at all.
“Well, that’s good,” Scott said thoughtfully, becoming gradually more certain that he was actually awake. “So, you said you had something for me?”
“Yes. You should listen to this,” she said, handing him a burned CD that looked no different than the indy band mix CDs his friends would loan each other in the late 90s.
“Um, OK,” he said. She continued to hold the CD out expectantly, and he realized he’d waited a beat too long to take it from her. Her eyes, which had softened during their conversation regained that look of intensity. Her arm seemed to grow longer toward him. “So … now, then?” Her face was impassive. He took the CD from her hand, stood up from his place at the table, and crossed the room to get it playing. When he turned back around, she was gone.
The CD continued to play as he went about his morning. He was glad to find it soothing music with a resonance similar to the angel’s voice, and in fact, similar to her face as well. The notes themselves seemed to form the image of her face in his mind, a sound portrait replaying the most subtle notes of her voice. Though he did ponder for some time the full purpose of her visit, he never once felt anxious or uneasy when recalling it. If nothing else, this one fact would remain true for the entirety of his future.