This is Chapter 6 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
The inhaler launched me from Alice’s rabbit hole, feet first and spinning. I was swept with two nauseas, one of vertigo and one of a sorrowful déjà vu. I would have barfed, except I’ve got a phobia about that.
Everything was completely stationary, which meant the spinning was inside my head. I squeezed my eyes shut like if I opened them I would see Nixon, naked. The spinning got faster until my companion tightened her grip on me and I felt a soothing breeze on my temples. I opened my eyes and the spinning ceased.
The flashlights were gone, the cops were gone, the fence was gone. The distant traffic noise was gone, replaced with faint faraway jingles and rattles. Down past the end of the block, too far to see detail, there was a sense of motion in the shadows. Something surprisingly large passed by on the cross street. We were in a place that looked like Watts, but it was not the world that I knew.
Anya squeezed my hand before releasing it. Anwyl used a gentle tug to remove the inhaler from the death grip of my teeth. He slid the lever back to where it had been initially, showed me the configuration, and tutored me, “This setting will take you home. Always be prepared to return to your home Frame.” He returned the inhaler to me. “Keep this at the ready.”
He smiled, but Endorphin City was not nearby. I was distracted by my thoughts. I had begun to make a mental correction that took me some time to complete. We weren’t in another world. We were in another Frame. A place that looked superficially the same as my home, but had a thousand small differences that added up to surroundings that were all the more alien because of the superficial similarities.
Small and not-so-small differences. One glaring distinction was right behind him. The tallest of the Watts Towers was missing, the one with the sharp-angled struts. I had several astute questions about my experience so far, but forgot them when I noticed the missing Tower, and instead demanded petulantly, “What is going on? Where are we?”
I felt a chuckle from high above and all around. “You brought us a smart one, she digs that she’s in a new scene.” The tall Tower with the circular girders was speaking to us. Its voice rasped like sandpaper on granite.
What is going on was brain damage, apparently. I had turned the Watts Towers into beings. Maybe the cops had shot me and I was lying in a coma having wild and crazy visions. In which case I would eventually recover or expire. Meantime, I could work with what I’d envisioned. If this was a dream sequence, I would enjoy every second of it. How often do you get to meet the Watts Towers?
“Anya and Anwyl, welcome,” an even deeper voice called, a voice with an after-rumble like bass cranked to nine. My companions turned and hailed the missing, tallest Tower, the one with the angular girders, as it approached along the street. It didn’t walk and it didn’t float. It – translated itself.
My companions had good manners. As soon as Angular Girders arrived, they introduced me to it and the other tall Tower. The Tower names were at least seventeen syllables and all consonants. I had no hope of saying the names correctly but I tried anyway. Both names started with M. I got that part right. And that only. Based on their reactions, my pronunciation got worse with repeated attempts.
“Man, I love the way this bird keeps trying to say my name,” Circular Girders said.
“She has the tenacity for which her Frame is rightly known,” Anya informed us. It was news to me that she knew anything about me.
“She was recommended by Henrietta,” Anwyl informed the two Towers.
“So this is the one Henrietta sent us,” Angular Girders said.
I don’t know anyone named Henrietta. I didn’t tell them this because whoever Henrietta was, her recommendation increased their regard for me and it felt good to have the Watts Towers respect me. Wait. I do currently live – albeit illegally – in an office building that was called the Henrietta, back when buildings had names like that. Okay. So I was conversing with an animate folk art structure, on the recommendation of my building. I might not write this in my case notes.
I tried the Towers’ names one more time and I could feel Angular Girders smile at me, although his structure appeared unchanged.
“Nica, there is a thing called a nickname,” advised Angular Girders, with what seemed to be seriousness. “You may give us nicknames and use those rather than our names,” he continued.
“A thing called a nickname? What a brilliant innovation! I will give you nicknames and they will be names I can pronounce! You know, I think my own name qualifies as a nickname, come to think of it.”
“Nica is an example of a nickname,” Angular Girders agreed, taking no offense at my snark. His sarcasm detectors must be set to a frequency outside my broadcast range. That was probably good news. Maybe at last I could go an hour without pissing somebody off.
Everyone seemed grateful that he had given me permission to make something up – and never attempt to pronounce the real names again. Within seconds I was thinking of him as Monk and Circular Girders as Miles. Sometimes I still try their real names on for size, but only when I’m alone.
“What news?” Anwyl asked. He bared his teeth with the question – he expected bad or worse news. The mood would have turned dark, had I not, at the same moment, asked to be introduced to the other Towers. There were, after all, more than a dozen shorter structures that had not yet joined our conversation. My request pulled laughter from the Towers and an affectionate smile from Anya.
Anwyl looked at me tolerantly but impatiently. “Those are structures, Nica, not beings. They have no need for names or introductions.”
Silly me. “O-kay. These two are beings, all the rest are structures. Got it. You were getting to the news,” I reminded them – and it was as though the moon got a cancer diagnosis.
“The collapse of Maelstrom’s Frame weakens and I can feel the change many Frames away,” Monk informed Anya and Anwyl.
“Who is involved? Who seeks his Frame?” Anwyl demanded. He was pissed. He wanted to put a fist through a door. I knew that feeling but couldn’t dream of denting the kind of thick oak plank he would splinter.
“None will seek it – none will expose themselves in that way. Look instead for those who do not flee the change as it expands,” Anya pronounced.
Anwyl considered this, nodded, gave a slight bow. “As always, your wisdom lights our way,” he replied, ritualistically but with conviction.
Hand to heart, I thought all three of them were gonna prostrate themselves before her.
She gave a light nod to acknowledge their fealty, then asked the Towers, “Have any come to you?”
Miles said a name that sounded like CharcoalStringCheese.
Anwyl scoffed. “Can such a being be trusted?”
It was hard for me to focus on the conversation. Their discussion left me as clueless as a celebrity journalist on Judgment Day; and in addition, I had thoroughly distracted myself trying to figure out what part of each Tower produced Miles’ and Monk’s voices. They had no mouths, no skin, no corporeality. When they spoke, their words filled the space around us like water floods a cave. The effect was the same whether I listened to the top of each Tower or his base.
I really wanted to see them move again and got lucky when I alerted, “Cloud at 11 o’clock.” I remembered from Anya’s first visit to my office that we should stop talking when clouds go by.
“It’s CharcoalStringCheese,” Miles acknowledged, and translated rapidly to intercept the cloud. I will never grow tired of watching Miles or Monk move. The Tower moves all of a piece, without the bobs, rolls, or wiggles of a human gait. Yet there is nothing stiff about the motion. The Tower sweeps across a landscape, absorbing elevation changes with gradual tilts that begin in advance of the slope. It moves over obstacles like curbs or boulders with no visible alteration save an increase in the fuzzy indistinctness that marks where the Tower structure meets the ground, and that looks like the storm of the century as seen on the farthest horizon. After the Tower passes, there is amazingly no sign of disruption where it has been. The Tower’s rapid movement gives off a subtle Doppler whistle like the car window when it isn’t completely closed and you’re on the freeway.
While Miles and the cloud talked, the cloud’s movement stalled. The cloud had some kind of spatial ADD. It couldn’t hold still and as it talked, tendrils of cloud stuff wafted and oozed, then wisped toward us. Monk issued a brief, sharp command and the tendrils snapped back to the cloud body like the hands of a cashier caught stealing your change. Anya turned her attention to the cloud and pointed to the north, just as a wind came up to sweep the cloud in that direction. The cloud moved away with gathering speed, tendrils retracted, shape now streamlined and definite.
The grownups resumed their conference. I could hear one word in ten, not that I understood when I caught ten for ten. I noticed that the streetlights in the distance changed colors as per normal – yellow red green yellow red green – but also shifted position. Beyond the streetlights and even more distantly, there was a subliminal sense of massive shapes translating. I really wanted to see what moved out there.
“Nica.” Anwyl was good with the one-word commands.
I had started to wander toward the shapes. Now, as ordered, I got my ass back to stand with the group. The conversation must be wrapped up because Anya and Anwyl had their inhalers out. Damn. Wait. I just got here.
“Could we walk around a little before we go?”
“Another time,” Anwyl refused me, but the others shot him down.
“Feed the bold, starve the fear,” Monk recited, as though it were a folk remedy like feed a cold starve a fever.
The air around my head charged with static electricity. “Curious is a big step toward brave. You want her useful, you got to let her make some of the decisions.” When Miles said this to Anwyl, I felt approval and realized he’d just done his version of affectionately tousling my hair. “When this dude gives you grief you lob it right back, Nica.” Miles thought this was funny but Anwyl’s glare said he did not.
Anya stepped into place beside me and hooked her elbow with mine. “Which direction do you choose to walk?” She cut off Anwyl’s protest with, “We will go no more than three hundred paces.”
“Keep the way clear,” Anwyl ordered the Towers, who fell in behind us.
They would keep me safe, so I could ignore the implied menace behind Anwyl’s concern and gape around me. What a walk. Everything was slightly the same as the Watts I knew – not that I knew Watts well. I should say, the Frame I knew, because it was obvious we were somewhere else. The sidewalks looked like concrete but felt soft underfoot, like hard-packed sand. Anya guided me to jump and sidestep cracks in the pavement, which were dense black gashes that might stretch miles deep rather than inches. An acrid wind stung my hand when it swung over one crack and I kept my arms close to my sides thereafter. I had intended to check out the relocating streetlights, but with each step they seemed that much farther away. It was like trying to catch up to a cat that knows you are chasing him.
The street was lined with modest, family homes with mostly fenced front yards. In the yards were cars, scooters, bikes, and an occasional trailer. At one window, a flat-screen TV peeked out from behind a curtain and swiveled to keep facing us as we passed. In that yard, a rust-pocked Harley motorcycle leaned into a fence and revved a growl at us. In another yard, a trio of bicycles chased a skateboard, which did a 540 backflip off one bike’s handlebar. A pair of sedans lounged low as though with flat tires against a minivan, but when the minivan slid to the other end of the driveway, the sedans rose, rolled to follow, then lounged low again. And what was that Kia doing in those bushes? It almost looked like –
“Hey, darlin’,” Miles called to a push mower as it did graceful pirouettes around the edges of a flowerbed. “Those are smooth moves! I bet you never need oiling.” And the lawn mower’s blades scritched with a sound very much like a giggle.
Crap, Anya must have meant 300 paces round trip, because we had circled around and now approached the other Towers. Anwyl stood like a lighthouse watching our return. I waved my inhaler at him to show I was ready to obey; he flashed some teeth.
“When in an unfamiliar Frame, never set out on your own,” he advised me.
Anya agreed. “That is a most important rule for the beginning Traveler. Also know that, except when pursued, you should arrive and depart from the same position.” She brandished her inhaler.
“But remember you can always find a path even if no path exists.” Monk advised.
I repeated this to myself to see if I could get it to parse differently. Anya and Anwyl exchanged a laugh, and the air filled with friendly static charge, which made me bold enough to talk like myself.
“Did anybody else get that? I mean, on a scale of one to ten, ten being clear and one being what Monk said, how would you rate that?”
“My brother’s a one’s and two’s guy.” The air brightened with the energy of Miles’ laugh.
“His words are easier to comprehend without speech,” Anwyl agreed, to which I had no snappy reply.
“Accept my words as objects, don’t construct abstract structures with them,” Monk advised.
“Dude, put a cork in it,” Miles replied. “Nica, you got the picture already. This cat won’t make sense no matter how you twist his words, so leave ’em be.” Affectionate static charge warmed my shoulders as I marveled at his ability to jumble slang.
Monk ignored Miles. It made sense that they were brothers. Their disagreements had the familiarity of sibling rivalry. “Safe Travels.” He vibrated the –vels.
“Catch you later, Nica,” Miles bid me goodbye. “Take care and we will meet again.”
Before you could ask Are we there yet?, we were back in my Watts, where the Towers are silent, immobile and fenced.
At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to say that I had just completed Travel to a new Frame, using a Travel novice’s Guide, the inhaler that Anya and Anwyl had specially created to make my Travels smoother.
On the return trip I felt little of the disorienting sideways plummet. It turns out the return trips are always easier. Something about home turf having extra pull on us. It also turns out that elapsed time differs from Frame to Frame. It felt like we’d been with Monk and Miles for an hour. But we returned to my Watts only minutes after we left. In fact, the last of the cop cars had just departed and turned a distant corner about the time I removed the Guide from my clenched teeth.
Anwyl and Anya jumped atop the fence and reached arms down for me. With their strength to propel me up and over, I nearly flew to the other side and trotted to match their long strides, away from the Towers. Dim light slivered the window of the nearest house, as the occupants parted blinds to observe the conclusion of our illegal break-in.
Given that we departed the enclosure of our own accord, did that erase our crimes of breaking and entering, trespassing, and so forth? Not sure I wanted to test that as a legal defense but feared I could have a chance to do so, as high beams approached us at three times the speed limit. Crap! Had the cops only pretended to leave? No, it was our cabbie, returning as bribed.
And here we were in the mundane back seat of the cab.
I was exhilified and terrirated by my evening. And above all I was stoked. My companions said nothing on the return to downtown Los Angeles, giving me an opportunity to relive and reflect. I had just Traveled to some other dimension; or my mind had jumped the thin gray line into stark raving territory. Either way I was having a blast, despite or because of the danger that surrounded us like picnickers in a minefield.
If they were not figments of an inexplicably fevered imagination, then Anya and Anwyl had chosen the right Earth Framer to join their adventures. I don’t spook easily. It’s one of my best qualities.
The way Miles and Monk had talked, my visit wasn’t a one-night stand and already I was eager to see them again, but when the taxi deposited us back at the Henrietta, Anya and Anwyl said nothing about next time. I could feel their haste to be gone, but couldn’t bear to say goodbye. Anwyl stuck out his hand for an odd horizontal handshake or crap he wanted the Guide.
If I were Lincoln Rhyme, I would already have sent it back to the lab for testing. Of course, I had no lab – but I still wanted to keep the Guide. I fished it out of my pocket in slo’ mo’, letting my reluctance show.
“It is not safe for you to Travel alone,” Anya said gently.
“So long as I get to keep Traveling,” I said, almost as cooperative as a fifteen year old.
“We are pleased that is your view,” Anwyl said. He gave my Guide a tug to free it from my fingers and I watched it disappear into a fold of his tunic.
Obviously farewell was next. I said the only thing that might snare their interest and keep them with me. “Something bad may have happened on the roof here. What would make dirt smell like blood?”
It worked. They wanted to see for themselves.
As I led them to the roof garden, I explained about Jay and his disappearance. Anwyl looked bored, Anya noncommittal, until we reached the second stairwell, the one that only goes to the penthouse and roof. They spent a peculiar length of time examining its connection to the building.
In the garden, the blighted patch was more extensive than it had been earlier in the day. Withered tomatoes flopped and swayed, where just a few hours before they were upright and firm. Anya stared at the tomatoes while she stooped to gently rub a stalk. She touched the leaves like an examining doctor would.
“There’s something else,” I surprised myself by saying. I don’t know why I thought to tell them about my bizarre waking nightmare, in which I couldn’t see, but my other senses experienced a terrible attack on a shadowy form that whistled and gardened like Jay. At first, I felt sheepish talking about it, but they treated me like a witness, not a kook. “Was that a dream or did it really happen?” I concluded.
“Yes,” Anwyl replied, and they resumed their inspection of the blight.
While Anya explored each leaf and stalk, Anwyl interrogated the soil. He rubbed the dirt like he was absorbing the particles; he dropped to his knees and sniffed like an ill-tempered police dog. When at last he stood, he looked at Anya for a long moment then said something I couldn’t understand. Anya sagged like a velvet curtain.
Now I was extra worried. “What happened here? Is there blood in this soil? Is it Jay’s blood? Is there any way he can be okay?”
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” Anya became a bureaucrat, making it clear that my questions would remain unanswered. I threw out several more. Who did this? What was this? What did they do? Where was Jay?
“There are too many answers. We must eliminate questions before we can discuss this.” Anwyl almost sounded sympathetic, for once.
Back in the hall outside my office, I again tried to stall them from leaving. “Come in and tell me more about your case. I can help you.”
“You will help. That is the reason we came to you.”
“Why me? Why did you seek me out?”
“You are a Traveler, not a Neutral,” Anwyl replied, and the words gave me shivers of recognition and anticipation, even though I didn’t understand.
Anya watched me and added gently, “But it is not yet your time.”
“When will that time come? How long until you come back?” They looked at each other. Did they not understand me? Why didn’t they answer? “Uh, how many moons?”
They reacted this time: I had stumped them. They repeated the question to themselves and one another. Eventually, Anwyl flashed an endorphinating smile and Anya giggled. At last, they understood me.
“Within 24 hours we will return,” Anya said.
“And perhaps as early as oh nine hundred hours – approximately one sixtieth of one moon from now,” Anwyl mocked me.
“Stay inside this night.” Still smiling, Anya swept open my door and ushered me inside. From out in the hall, she slid her hand along the door frame in a ritualized way and then the door was locked between us. I didn’t hear their long strides down the hall, but I knew they were gone. I stared at the inside of the door, watching gravity make the glass flow.
I obeyed Anya and stayed inside until sunrise, so I cannot say why – so often that night – I heard the refined ding that announced the elevator opening on my floor, and I heard faint distant dings on the floor below, although that floor is unoccupied; nor can I explain the noises outside my door, which sounded like someone was wheeling barrels of metal chickens down the hall.
I spent the night restless, uneasy, and left out.
Next 3 chapters will be on-line next Sunday…