This is Chapter 12 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
Miles and Monk took us most but not all the way home. Anwyl stopped the Towers and had us dismount a few blocks from the Henrietta, at the outskirts of Skid Row. We walked the remaining distance and throughout the walk, Anwyl was distracted. He studied the ground like the sidewalk held directions; all I saw was trash, a filthy bikini bottom, and feces that didn’t look canine. Suddenly, he bent to sniff a discarded food wrapper. This part of town and this time of night, his behavior didn’t strike passersby as odd. Anwyl dropped the wrapper and sprinted around the corner, barking at us to wait for him where we stood.
Hernandez gave me a look and I returned him a shrug. We jogged after Anwyl and found him with a young man and woman in pricey business suits. Anwyl had them smashed against the concrete wall of a garbage bin enclosure, one of his hands to each of their throats. They didn’t try to pull his hands away and instead stood frozen as though standing at attention. Watching them made me nauseous, thanks to Anya’s lanyard.
I thought I heard Anwyl growl to them, “There is no hunting in this Frame. Move on and do not return.” He released them and they gave nods like salutes, then departed at race-walking speed but without the goofy arm pumps. I figured out what was odd about them. They were in business attire but carried no briefcase no laptop no purse.
Anwyl didn’t react to finding us behind him, although I had expected him to be pissed that we followed him. He remained distracted while he escorted us to the Henrietta. In the elevator, he seemed to be listening.
When we exited on my floor, he turned to Hernandez and spoke even more formally than usual. “Henrietta speaks well of you. I see you to be a true warrior and your aid is welcome to our cause.”
We stood at the custodial cart outside the elevator where Hernandez had left it. Hernandez reorganized custodial equipment as he considered responses. He was holding an upside down mop when he spoke, yet still looked solemn, strong, and dangerous – every bit the warrior Anwyl had recognized in him. “I must serve my daughters before all others, but whenever I can, I will strive to assist.”
As they clapped arms, I realized that Hernandez was now talking like Anwyl. I further realized that Hernandez took on the speech patterns of whoever he spoke with – a vocal chameleon. I wondered what the real Hernandez sounded like.
“Until tomorrow, then,” Anwyl said to both of us. “I will return at the second meal after you break fast.”
“You mean, at lunchtime?”
“Yes, as I said.”
I let him have that one. Break fast. He was better with my computer than I was, but he talked like Lancelot was a homie. “What is your Frame like, Anwyl?”
“I hail from all Frames. In a better time I will show you those I favor,” and he left us with his most endorphinating smile. It was a few moments before I realized he was gone.
I was in afterglow, but Hernandez was trying to get my attention. He got it when he said, “Jay.”
“What about Jay?”
He looked up and down the hall. I led him into my outer waiting room, then shut the door to the hall.
“I saw something. I thought it was impossible. But now.” He stared through my wall, no doubt remembering tonight’s events.
“What did you see? What happened to Jay?”
He began to shake and took himself over to sit down. Usually he sat perfectly erect, but now he filled the chair like warm wax.
“It was a vine.” His puzzlement morphed to controlled terror as he allowed the memory to overtake him. “The vine jumped out of the dirt and twisted around his ankles and he should have fallen but the vine held him at an angle nobody can stand at. The blood.” With each syllable, his voice lost a decibel and I knelt to catch the words he breathed next. “The blood came from his -”
He tapped his arm to remind himself of the word, then pressed a nail into his skin to break the memory’s hold. “His pores. First blood flowed from his pores. Then thorns stabbed out from his pores. Then he was gone.”
“Dead, you mean?”
“Gone. Puff. Disappeared.”
Maybe he was injured but alive somewhere, maybe he had just shifted Frames, maybe he needs rescue, maybe he would – The existence of Frames elevated my denial of death to a whole new level.
Hernandez was shaking. He had witnessed a horrible thing happen to Jay. He had protected his psyche by convincing himself he had imagined it. Now, the evening’s events had stripped him of that protection. Meanwhile, his story shared the horror with me. It was tempting to run and hide, drool and whimper in a corner, but we had a job to do. He revived first; I spoke first.
“We must tell Anwyl about what you saw. Until then, we are better off not thinking about it. Look at the time! Your shift ends in ten minutes. Can I help you finish up?”
“No, I’ll skip doing this floor. Just need to store my cart and change my clothes. I can be back at one tomorrow. Will that be too late?”
“You don’t need to stay involved with this – Anwyl — the Frames. I can tell you how it turns out.” I watched his face, saw my determination and curiosity matched there, plus an anger that was all his own.
“I want involved. I joined the Service to protect the good and stop the enemy. That’s what I do best. This time I’ll be able to tell them apart.”
“In that case, yes, one o’clock seems like a good guess about Anwyl’s return time. If he gets here earlier, we won’t leave without you.” As we walked into the hall, we looked both ways and I sort of joked, “Have you wondered if maybe we’re both crazy?”
“No. I’ve always known we don’t know jackshit about what’s really out there.”
“Yeah. Okay. Maybe I’ve always believed that too.”
I walked him to the corner, from which I could see my office door and his elevator door. He looked in the elevator corners before he pushed the cart inside.
Back home, I locked the hall door behind me and checked the file cabinet. Yeah, I had plenty of snacks to last me until morning. Going out to eat tonight had as much appeal as sightseeing the Gaza Strip. I was spooked, to put it politely.
My growing unease made it hard for me to focus on my snacks. Put it all out of your mind. Don’t think about it. I had given Hernandez great advice, which I couldn’t follow. What Hernandez witnessed meshed with my vision on the roof, when I sat in Jay’s lawn chair and heard felt smelled something terrible happen to him. I cycled through Hernandez’ story and my memory, confirming the fit. Then the other penny hit me or however that saying goes.
When I sat in the chair. Which was still on the roof. Damn.
With enormous reluctance, I unlocked my door and dragged myself to the penthouse stairwell. The door wouldn’t open. Pushing on the door, I announced to the walls, “Henrietta, there is a chair stuck on the roof that I need to rescue. It is sentient and it should not be left up there. Is it safe for me to go up and get it? You know I’ll hurry.”
I gave the door a shove and it opened. I hoped that was Henrietta’s doing! I sprinted the stairs, smashed out the top door, stumbled, righted, dashed to the garden, grabbed the chair, dragged it through blighted dirt – which released a stench best not described. I was back in my waiting room with the hall door locked before I had finished my thought about how dangerous it could be to go on the roof.
It was a cheap aluminum beach chair with frayed interwoven strips of plastic webbing. Was my guess right? Could the chair be sentient? Were all such chairs sentient? I had recently sent a similar chair to the landfill. Maybe if I sat in the chair I could confirm my hunch, but I didn’t think I could handle what it might reveal. For once, curiosity did not dominate my decision. With gentle respect, I folded the chair and slipped it behind the defunct radiator. I kept my hand on the chair as I thought about Jay and went back to the morning we discovered the first shoots from our seeds, tiny green fingers as bright as hope. I heard my voice shout the discovery to Jay, heard his calm acknowledgement that this was just the beginning, heard the squeak of the faucet and the distant-traffic rush of water through the hose to our green new lives. The dense odor of wet, healthy soil and the invigorating warmth of solid friendship enveloped me.
That was a memory to cherish. I thanked the chair and welcomed it to my office, then grabbed more snacks from the file cabinet and headed for bed.
I opened the door to my inner office and jumped to Jupiter, dropping the box of crackers and converting the bag of dried fruit to a projectile. Dizzy was curled atop papers spread over the futon.
She opened her eyes, as though from a nice nap, and did a long slow cute stretch, exposing the soft fur on her belly. It was like a hundred other times I’d walked in on her, except it wasn’t. Tonight she had gotten past two closed doors. And I hadn’t left the papers like that. Maybe the cat had been reading them. After she returned from antagonizing Anwyl in another Frame.
My stomach tightened and I was filled with regret for the lost innocence of our relationship. Again, the intense feeling seemed to emanate from Anya’s hidden lanyard. I would have appreciated something more conclusive from the lanyard as I tried to figure out where Dizzy fit and what her allegiances might be.
Something else I had been wondering. “Did you hold the Frame open so that Hernandez would join us?” Dizzy blinked slowly like an all-knowing or sleepy cat. “That’s what I thought.” I was surprised Anwyl hadn’t picked up on that. I didn’t point it out at the time, because I didn’t want Hernandez to be tainted by Anwyl’s mistrust of the cat – a mistrust I now considered, but could not bring myself to share. I gave Dizzy a few chin scratches then went to my desk.
When I’m feeling stressed or threatened, lying in bed is like living The Pit and the Pendulum – so I sleep outside or sitting up. Previously, I had slept in the roof garden, but I have no plans to ever go to the roof again. That night, I thunked my legs up onto my desk, which tilted my chair at a perfect angle for shut-eye. Dizzy could keep the futon.
I went under fast but couldn’t get much real damn sleep, thanks to a miserable dream which revisited the last days of my fourth husband’s life.
Near the end of our three years together, it was Twilight Zone, how happy we were. This got my superstitions worried, but Karmin Ickovic would scoff at my concerns. “This one’s the forever one,” he’d whisper, and with forever he’d send a tickle of air into my ear. Ick made me laugh, he enthused me to deal with all the pointless trivial crap that could fill a day – because he was out there plowing through similar crap and when we finished we would be together again. Together. Within fifteen feet of him, I got consumed in such a state of arousal it was like a never-ending trip on the very purest LSD, um, as it has been described to me.
The dream started during our last shower together, that Thursday after our last run together. Soaping his ankles, I noticed wide odd bruises pooling blood on both his legs. One bruise was on a calf, the other on a shin, which made it unlikely that the bruises came from a forgotten bump or fall. Ick never went to a doctor so he didn’t call one now. The next day, Friday, he fell as he got out of bed, so we went to my doctor; by Friday afternoon, he was in a special hospital swarmed by experts in accelerated-onset leukemia. Or whatever the fuck they called it. He wasn’t conscious much over the weekend, when they did tons of stuff to him and I held his hand.
By Monday, they had to induce a coma so they could perform treatments too aggressive to be tolerated while conscious. As they prepared him, for the first time since his fall, he came fully alert and insisted I lie beside him in the narrow bed. It was hard to hold hands with all the tubes. As they started pumping more poison or salvation into him, he touched his lips to my ear and said “my forever” and that was the last anybody heard from him, because he disappeared into their fucking coma and by Tuesday he was forever fucking dead.
After the dream’s fifth or fiftieth run-through, I switched on a light and thought maybe I’d read – but I wasn’t sure which books I should trust; and I thought maybe I would call Jenn – but I wanted to honor her isolation. When her M.S. finished doing its most recent number on her, she went away to a retreat. Some kind of ashram thing, she is into that spiritual stuff and I never have been, so I can’t tell you for sure. A month of pure sheer withdrawal away from the world and into her essence is my understanding of it. I could phone her if necessary, but a night of rotten dreams hardly counts as an emergency. And anyway, I need to practice being without her. Not that I need more practice. If you matter to me your time will be brief.
Ooof. This is the kind of attitude that I usually manage to avoid. I plugged my phone into my speakers and blasted my most life-affirming playlist. Right now I needed Mary J., the Carter Family, Aoife, and Br-u-u-u-ce. Over on the futon, Dizzy’s ears twitched and she opened one eye. I needed to take the cat at face value, so I knelt beside the futon and set aside the urge to see what would happen if I spoke Klingon to her. Instead, I rested cheek to fur and let the rumble of her purring fill my head.
Go to next chapter.